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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published September 29 2012

Eriksmoen: Man from North Dakota became famous for miniature writing

The man who created what the United Press International called “the finest piece of fine art” was born and raised in North Dakota.

The 1976 UPI report referred to a finely printed copy of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that James Zaharee transcribed on a 3-inch long strand of blond hair.

Zaharee was first recognized as “the world’s champion miniature writer” in 1936 and his fame continued to grow. He was best known for writing on grains of rice and the grain that contained a complete copy of the Declaration of Independence has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.

Zaharee was born Nov. 6, 1905, on a farm near Max in McLean County. His family had recently emigrated from Russia and established a homestead.

The Zaharees raised cattle, and one of James’ duties was to take his pony and “round up the herd.” He purchased a motorcycle, and in 1926 used it to speed up the round-up. One of the bulls in the herd found the noise annoying and charged the speeding motorcycle, flipping both it and Zaharee into the air. The bull also gored the injured young man.

Zaharee was rushed to the hospital in Minot. Although the initial prognosis was good for a full recovery, it would be a long process. Zaharee decided to use his superb eyesight and obsession for detail in pursuit of a new hobby – miniature writing.

This was a time when small-writing contests began to appear, and Zaharee entered all of them. In one year, he “won six automobiles” and thousands of dollars. With his winnings, Zaharee enrolled at the University of Michigan, majoring in engineering and design.

Zaharee continually refined his small-writing techniques. He purchased crow-quill pens and then ground the points down to 1/24th the width of a human hair. Using a small magnifying glass and ordinary black ink, he continued to make his letters even smaller.

Zaharee first won fame in 1929 when he wrote 20,000 letters on the back of a postage stamp. On it he wrote the Gettysburg Address 18 times, the complete alphabet 30 times, and his own name 30 times. He decided to move to smaller writing surfaces and began to focus on rice. “Rice writing began in India about 400 years ago,” and as an artist, it became his canvas of choice.

One of the most popular newspaper features in the 1930s was Robert Ripley’s “Believe It or Not.” In 1935, Zaharee sent Ripley a single grain of rice containing more than 9,000 letters. Ripley was amazed to find that the letters were “perfectly legible under a high powered microscope.” He contacted Zaharee and asked him to come immediately to his “Odditorium” at the California-Pacific Exposition in San Diego to demonstrate his art. On June 14, Ripley wrote about Zaharee’s talent in his column and noted, “Zaharee himself is appearing daily.” Movie and sports celebrities flocked to Zaharee’s exhibit to get a personalized note written on a grain of rice.

While at the exposition, Zaharee got a new idea: to write something of significance on a strand of human hair. He said, “It took me three months to find a natural blond.” Once he had the strand he wanted, he headed back to rural North Dakota to work on his masterpiece. It was here that he wrote out the complete Gettysburg Address in one line on the strand of hair. The process took three and a half weeks of working four hours each evening. In 1936, Zaharee exhibited his latest work at the Odditorium, a part of the Texas Centennial Central Exposition in Dallas.

In spring 1937, Max Goodman, a former showman, organized a railroad carnival called the Wonder Show, and Zaharee decided to become one of Goodman’s showcases. The tour began in Raleigh, N.C., in April. In late May, one of the people who asked for one of Zaharee’s rice notes was Amelia Earhart, who was planning to fly around the world. In early July, the Wonder Show arrived in North Dakota and broke attendance records in Grand Forks, Minot, and Bismarck.

At the conclusion of the Wonder Show season, Zaharee returned to Max to take on a larger project – writing the Declaration of Independence on one side of a grain of rice. This took eight months and when it was done he took it with him to exhibit at the Wonder Show as the carnival traveled from state to state. Each summer, Zaharee went on the road with Goodman’s entourage until the U.S. became involved in World War II. Zaharee entered the U.S. Navy in Dallas on June 16, 1942, and was sent to the Naval Reserve Aviation Base there. The U.S. Marines were part of the Navy, and he was assigned to the 5th Medical Battalion of the 5th Marine Division and sent to pharmacy school at Camp Elliott in San Diego. Zaharee graduated in January 1944 and was sent to Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., as a pharmacist. After Japan surrendered, he was deployed to Kyushu until his discharge on Nov. 4, 1945.

Zaharee rejoined the Wonder Show. When Goodman disbanded the Wonder Show after the 1946 season, Zaharee toured on his own at state fairs and other public events. His career received boosts when he was featured in the Feb. 22, 1947 edition of the Saturday Evening Post and on the ABC television show “You Asked For It” on Jan. 10, 1955.

By the 1950s, Zaharee was living in Portland, Texas, where he became a good friend of Lincoln Borglum, who completed the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. This was ironic because one man was known for his work on the largest piece of art in this country and the other on the smallest work of art. Zaharee later moved to Arkansas, where he died on March 24, 1981.

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“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.