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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published November 10 2012

Eriksmoen: Founder of Grand Forks Herald wielded political influence in North Dakota

From 1882 to 1906, Republican kingpin Alexander McKenzie and his lieutenants controlled most of the political decisions made in northern Dakota Territory, and later in North Dakota.

There was a lot of pushback from opposing parties, but the biggest obstacle for some of McKenzie’s most ambitious plans came from fellow Republican George Winship, founder and editor of the Grand Forks Herald.

He is the person most historians point to for the defeat of McKenzie’s push for the Louisiana Lottery in 1889 and for the victory of Democrat John Burke for governor in 1906. Burke’s election over Elmore Sarles, McKenzie’s hand-picked candidate, marked the end of the kingpin’s absolute control in North Dakota.

In 1878, Winship’s old friend Billy Budge moved to Grand Forks and notified Winship it was the ideal location to start a newspaper. When Winship arrived in Grand Forks in spring 1879, the town’s population was less than 1,000, and it already had a newspaper, the Grand Forks Plaindealer.

The Plaindealer was founded by George Walsh, a prominent attorney and politician who served five terms in the Dakota Territorial Legislature and two more in the North Dakota assembly.

On June 26, 1879, Winship printed the first edition of the Grand Forks Herald. Before the Herald, he edited the Caledonia Courier, a paper he established in southeastern Minnesota.

Winship wrote, “Within a few weeks after getting the Herald in good running order I filed on homestead and tree claims (320 acres) situated about 17 miles west of Grand Forks.” Winship sold his land at a great profit in 1882.

In 1881, Winship started publishing editorials denouncing the “gang” headed by McKenzie and Walsh, along with the abuses of railroads, elevators and other financial interests. When he started the Herald, it was published weekly. In July 1881, Winship began to publish his paper on a semi-weekly basis. Two months later, the paper became the first daily in Grand Forks.

By 1882, Walsh was plotting with McKenzie to get the capital moved from Yankton to a location in northern Dakota Territory. That year, he convinced William Murphy to purchase the Plaindealer, and on May 15 the paper became a daily. At first, acrimony existed between the two publishers, but that would soon change. In June, a third daily newspaper was published in Grand Forks, the Daily News. Winship and Murphy agreed that by working together they could drive out the new competitor.

Henry Hansbrough was hired as editor of the Daily News. Like Winship and Murphy, he relied on Minneapolis newspapers coming to Grand Forks by train to supply national and international news. The plan hatched by Winship and Murphy was to board the train further east and buy up all the papers so none were available for Hansbrough, who became frustrated. Winship and Murphy seized the opportunity by offering to help Hansbrough finance a newspaper in Devils Lake, which Hansbrough accepted.

With the competition eliminated, Winship and Murphy were again rivals and resumed calling each other “liars” and “thieves” in their editorials. Readers assumed they hated each other, which was not true. This was shown in 1884 when a fire destroyed the Plaindealer building. Winship “made his own press and equipment available to print Murphy’s paper.”

The year 1889 was significant for Winship. Early in the year, he was awarded the publishing contract for Dakota Territory, which he sold to the Bismarck Tribune. With this windfall, Winship ordered the construction of a four-story building on the corner of Kittson Avenue and South Third Street. He became the leading voice within the newly created North Dakota Farmers Alliance, an organization opposed to the practices of railroads, large elevators and grain traders that attempted to suppress the profits earned by farmers. Winship successfully ran for a seat in the North Dakota legislature.

During the first legislative session from Nov. 19, 1889, to March 18, 1890, McKenzie’s main objective was passage of a bill making North Dakota the base for the Louisiana Lottery in 1893. Most of the legislators were in favor, but those opposed included Gov. John Miller and Winship. McKenzie was furious when the proposal died in the Legislature. After the 1890 census, Winship’s 7th District was redrawn, and he lost in that year’s election to John Bjorgo, a Democrat.

What McKenzie did not realize was that Winship had more influence as a newspaper publisher. Not only did he decry McKenzie and other political bosses, he fought for the causes of farmers, a direct primary and civil service reform. Winship also opposed Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan.

The direct primary was one of the biggest issues Winship supported. He believed state residents should be able to choose candidates, not a handful of political hacks. He was frustrated that McKenzie continued to select Republican candidates. When Sarles was selected to run for re-election in 1906, Winship, a lifelong Republican, deserted the party and actively supported Burke. Burke was victorious.

In 1911, Winship sold the Herald to Jeremiah Bacon and moved to California, where he died on Nov. 3, 1931. The next year, the North Dakota Press Association established its “Hall of Fame,” and Winship was one of the three initial inductees. He is also remembered because the Winship Elementary School in Grand Forks, built in 1903, was named in his honor.

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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.