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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published October 06 2012

Small ND town of Sarles has ties to two state leaders

Only one organized town in North Dakota was named for a state governor. That town was also the birthplace of a future state executive.

When the town of Sarles was founded in 1905, Elmore Sarles was governor. Thirty-three years later, Gov. Allen Olson was born in Sarles.

When Sarles was elected in 1904, he was a wealthy Hillsboro banker who was hand-picked by the machine of Alexander McKenzie, the political boss of North Dakota. By 1906, when Sarles ran for re-election, both he and McKenzie had lost popularity and reform-minded John Burke, a Democrat, was elected governor.

Sarles was born on Jan. 15, 1859, in Wonewoc, Wis., to the Rev. Jesse and Margaret Thompson Sarles. Jesse was a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church in northern Wisconsin, and Elmore attended public schools in Prescott. He then spent a year at Galesburg University, a parochial school affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, before completing high school at Sparta, Wis., in 1877. “He was one of five members of his high school graduating class to later become a state governor.”

In the 1870s, Jesse was named superintendent of missions for the Methodist Episcopal Church at Deadwood in southern Dakota Territory. Elmore remained in northern Wisconsin with his older brother Orlin to work for their uncles, S.B. and John Hallock Sarles.

In 1880, James J. Hill had tracks laid between Fargo and Grand Forks for his Great Northern Railroad. In May 1881, Elmore’s uncles established the Trail County Bank at Hillsboro with a branch bank at Caledonia, 10 miles northeast of Hillsboro. They also built a lumber yard in Hillsboro.

In 1883, S.B. Sarles retired from the bank, his brother John became president, Orlin was named vice president, and Elmore worked as a cashier. In 1885, the bank was “nationalized as the First National Bank of Hillsboro,” with Elmore as president. In the later 1880s, the Sarleses acquired additional banks at Grandin, Blanchard and Northwood. During the last decade of the 19th century, Elmore engaged in real estate and investment businesses and began purchasing “huge tracts of farm lands in Traill County.”

McKenzie controlled politics and much of the economy of North Dakota at the turn of the century. In 1900, McKenzie’s man Frank White was elected governor and re-elected in 1902. McKenzie and his cronies decided a high priority was extensive irrigation in the western part of North Dakota. The chief proponent was Erastus A. Williams, a longtime politician and U.S. surveyor general of North Dakota.

To expedite the irrigation movement, the North Dakota Irrigation Association was established with Williams as president, McKenzie as the primary member of the executive committee and Elmore Sarles as treasurer. Williams approached White with the association’s recommendation that a state engineer be hired, but the governor failed to act. The state’s banking fraternity, led by Sarles, stated it would put up the necessary funds to pay for a state engineer until the next legislative session.

Sarles had served one term as Hillsboro’s mayor (1900-02). The McKenzie machine chose him as the Republican candidate for governor in 1904. He ran on the motto, “More business in government,” and “he was chosen for office by the largest majority any governor of North Dakota ever received before.”

While in office, Sarles was successful in pushing for regulations regarding life insurance agents, bankers, automobile operators and dairy product manufacturers. He supported pure food and drug laws and established the office of inspector of weights and measures.

In 1905, the Great Northern extended a branch line north of Munich in North Dakota, reaching a terminus south of the Canadian border. This is where the town of Sarles was established. It became the first and only incorporated town to be named for a North Dakota political chief executive.

At the end of his first term, the state had a $200,000 budget surplus. By most accounts, Sarles’ first term was a success. Because he was closely identified with McKenzie, whose reputation was ruined for swindling money from Alaska gold miners, Sarles was tarnished with the broad brush of the McKenzie scandal. Sarles was also denounced by the Prohibitionists “for serving liquor in the executive mansion.”

At the Republican Convention, a growing number of Progressives opposed Sarles as the party’s candidate for re-election, but the McKenzie machine successfully pushed through his nomination. John Burke was the candidate endorsed by the Democrats, and many Progressive Republicans supported him. Burke defeated Sarles by 25,000 votes.

Sarles returned to his business enterprises in Hillsboro. In 1919, he turned over his banking and lumber interests to his oldest son Earle. On Sept. 2, 1928, Sarles became ill and never fully recovered. He died on Valentine’s Day in 1929.


“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