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Dave Kolpack, Associated Press, Published August 09 2012

Fargo officials show painting of city’s 4th mayor

FARGO – A flamboyant 1880s Fargo mayor whose portrait had been missing from a display of city leaders found his rightful spot Thursday on the wall of fame.

A portrait of Jasper B. Chapin, the so-called Father of Fargo who reportedly threw parties for residents with his own money and bought Christmas presents for children, was unveiled 20 years after the illustrations of former mayors were first hung in City Hall.

“He was kind of a rascal,” artist Burdette Calkins said, looking at his oil painting of Chapin sporting a white beard and bushy eyebrows, a la Santa Claus. “I spruced him up a bit.”

The mystery of the missing mayor began several months ago when three women who regularly walk by the exhibition noticed the oversight, after they had observed Chapin’s buffalo robe on display in a downtown Fargo western collectibles shop. One of them, Ann Zavoral, is the wife of Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral.

“The wall always had this void. It just looked like something belonged there,” Ann Zavoral said Thursday. “We thought, ‘Where is it and who is it?’ ”

City officials eventually located an engraved image of Chapin and put out calls for artists to paint a portrait. Calkins, a North Dakota native who designed the state’s centennial logo and one of its current license plates, was selected among three people who applied for the job.

But there were a lot of unanswered questions about Fargo’s fourth mayor, who served between 1880 and 1882.

“Everybody said he’s a mystery,” Calkins said.

The photocopy of the engraving that Calkins used for his template was found in the North Dakota State University archives, along with an article about Chapin in the Fargo Argus newspaper and his obituary in the Fargo Forum newspaper.

Calkins, 73, who splits time between Bismarck and a studio in New Mexico, said he’s done about 50 portraits, but this was an unusual assignment.

“The engraver was good. But he took some liberties and made some mistakes,” Calkins said, noting that one of Chapin’s eyes was bigger than the other. “I had to do an extrapolation. If I did exactly what he did, it wouldn’t have looked quite right.”

Calkins, with help from friends, looked into the Chapin name and decided that he likely had hazel eyes because of his English heritage. The artist first depicted Chapin as a “silver fox,” but later added color to his hair and beard to make him look younger.

Chapin is dressed in a dark tweed sport coat, white shirt and plumb bow tie. He’s wearing a gold and ruby pin on his lapel.

Ann Zavoral said the portrait depicts Chapin as a man of his time.

“I think it’s remarkable that something came of it when so little was left behind,” she said.

Research led to the discovery of a colorful character who liked to gamble as much as he liked to give. Before moving to the Red River Valley, where he first lived in a tent, the New York native bounced from Kansas to Colorado to Utah to Montana.

He rose to become one of the richest men in Fargo and bought up prime farmland in Cass County. He invested much of his money into the city, building the Continental Hotel and Opera House. The latter was once known as Chapin Hall.

His wealth was short-lived, however. He lost everything in the depression of 1883. His wife died soon after. He lapsed into depression and poor health and killed himself on Jan. 26, 1896, at age 74.

While the mystery of Chapin is solved, city officials have learned that other mayors were left off the wall. Photographs of two of them, John Johnson and Seth Newman, were unveiled Thursday alongside Chapin’s portrait. Johnson served as the city’s seventh, 14th and 17th mayor, taking plenty of time off between terms.

“He probably needed to refresh himself,” said current mayor Dennis Walaker, who led the ceremony. “That’s probably a good idea.”

There are still five mayors who are missing from the wall. Karena Carlson, the city’s communications director who spearheaded the effort on Chapin, is looking for information on former mayors Woodford Yerxa, Charles Scott, Wilbur F. Ball, William D. Sweet and William D. Smith.

“I guess we’re back at it,” Carlson said.


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