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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published February 11 2012

Eriksmoen: North Dakota political activist, celebrated poet also narrated movies

A noted North Dakota political activist and celebrated poet also made a name for himself in the movie industry.

Henry Martinson was instrumental in promoting the Socialist Party and the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota. He and Lydia Jackson were given the title of poets laureate by the legislative assembly in 1979. Between 1976 and 1980, Martinson was either the subject of, or narrator for, several movies and/or documentaries.

Martinson was born March 6, 1883, in Minneapolis to Gilbert C. and Catherine Martinson. Later that year, Gilbert moved to a farm near Sacred Heart in southwestern Minnesota. When Gilbert was not involved in field work, he painted, decorated and hung wallpaper, a trade he passed on to his son. After graduating from high school, Henry Martinson attended the School of Agriculture at the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1905.

Martinson and two companions from Sacred Heart set out to northwestern North Dakota to establish homesteads in 1906. They traveled as far as Flaxton on the Soo Railroad and then hitched a ride on a load of lumber. In a snowstorm, the three young men arrived at their homestead site, 18 miles southwest of Crosby. Discouraged, Henry’s two companions returned to Sacred Heart, but Martinson stuck it out. He traveled to Williston and purchased lumber for his shack and then built a 10-by-12 structure. When he couldn’t get a loan to purchase farm equipment, Martinson abandoned his homestead and moved to Minot.

In Minot, Martinson became a painter, earning 35 cents an hour. He was raised in a staunch Republican family, but frustrated when he couldn’t get the loan and felt exploited for his low wages. In 1908, he met a Norwegian immigrant who told him about Socialism. To him, the idea that profits should be shared by all made sense. In 1910, Martinson ran for a House seat in District 29 out of Minot. He finished last among eight candidates for the district’s four seats.

Martinson was made editor of the state’s Socialist Party newspaper, the Iconoclast, in 1915. In 1916, he ran for secretary of state, but was soundly trounced by Republican incumbent Thomas Hall. With the demise of the state’s Socialist Party, many of its members gravitated to a new movement, the Nonpartisan League.

With the death of Martinson’s party, the Iconoclast ceased publication. He went to see Henry Teigan, the man who had made him editor. Teigan was now secretary of the NPL and was looking for good men to go out on the road and expand the political organization into southern Minnesota. The NPL was growing rapidly, and it pleased Martinson that it embraced many of the Socialist ideals that he had championed a few years earlier. Between 1916 and 1920, a large number of the reforms called for by the NPL were passed and put into law.

By 1920, however, according to North Dakota historian Elwyn Robinson, “the farmers were not willing to turn the state over to a group of Socialists.” In 1920, Martinson went to Crookston, Minn., and took a job as instructor at the Northwest School of Agriculture, now the University of Minnesota-Crookston.

In 1921, Martinson moved to Fargo and resumed work as a painter and decorator and became an active member of the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of America. With the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, Martinson became an adult education instructor for the Works Progress Administration. From 1933 to 1934, he was a WPA administrator. In the mid-1930s, Martinson worked with the Teamsters Union in Fargo and helped them organize a strike.

In 1936, Martinson once again ran for a seat in the Legislature, as a Democrat from District 9 in Fargo. He lost. One of the successful candidates for a statewide office was a friend, John Hagen from Deering. Hagen was elected commissioner of agriculture and labor. He asked Martinson to be his deputy commissioner and Martinson agreed. In 1938, Math Dahl was elected commissioner and was re-elected 12 more times. Dahl retained Martinson as deputy commissioner for all 26 years he was in office.

In 1965, Martinson moved back to Fargo. Besides politics, he was involved in writing. For a number of years, Martinson was business manager of the North Dakota poetry magazine Prairie Wings. He also contributed a number of poems for the magazine. Martinson wrote three articles for the quarterly North Dakota History and published two books of poetry, “Old Trails” and “New and Funny Stories in Verse.” In 1967, he was named Fargo’s honorary poet laureate and in 1975 was named co-poet laureate of North Dakota.

In 1972, Martinson ran for a House seat in Fargo’s District 21. Sixty-two years after his first attempt to get elected, he lost again, finishing 16th among 20 candidates. To most people, Martinson will be remembered for films and documentaries. He narrated the 1976 documentary “Prairie Fire” and the 1979 full-length motion picture “Northern Lights.” Two documentaries were made in 1980 about his life, “Survivor” and “Rebel Earth.” Martinson died on Nov. 20, 1981.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.