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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published March 16 2013

Eriksmoen: Valley City man instrumental in creating greater ND chamber

A Valley City businessman was instrumental in the creation of the Greater North Dakota Association (now the Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce) and the Valley City Winter Show.

For more than two decades, Herman Stern was also the driving financial support for the Boy Scouts of the Red River Valley. What was not made public until well after World War II was that more than 100 people owed their life to Stern because he was the person most responsible for helping them, all Jews, escape from Nazi Germany.

Hermann Stern was born Aug. 9, 1887, in Oberbrechen, Germany, the youngest of eight children, to Samuel and Minna (Straus) Stern. Samuel owned a small farm on which he raised vegetables, cows, and chickens. He also assisted neighboring farmers when it came time for butchering, and he would sell the waste to a local paste factory.

Stern began helping the family at a very young age. He would gather spilled grain along the road, pick wild berries, work in the garden and tend to the cattle. He loved to listen to stories that Minna would tell about her brother who had moved to America. The thought of living in a country where opportunities were abundant stirred his imagination. After completing eight years of education in Oberbrechen, he needed to leave home and learn a trade as an apprentice.

In 1901, a tailor in the city of Mainz agreed to teach Stern his trade under a two-year obligation as his apprentice. This meant that Stern would receive free room and board but would not be paid any money. He quickly learned about different qualities of material and proper cuts and stitching but was unhappy with his master’s temperament and the quality of food he received. Late in 1902, Stern was summoned home to meet with an older cousin who was visiting Minna from America.

Morris G. Straus was a dealer in the clothing industry and had established a store in Casselton, N.D., in 1897. His business was growing, and he needed someone who was young, reliable, intelligent, trustworthy and knowledgeable about clothing to help out. To Straus, Stern was the perfect fit, and he asked the young apprentice, “How would you like to go to America with me?”

The answer was obvious, but Stern had one major problem – he still owed his master in Mainz one more year of service. Since the cost of purchasing the release of his obligation was too high, Straus suggested that Stern remain until his service time was over and then come to America.

Conditions at the tailor shop in Mainz worsened for Stern, and he sent a letter to Straus asking $75 for the cost of a boat trip. When he received the check, “he ran away from his job,” and, on Oct. 1, 1903, sailed for New York.

Waiting for Herman Stern at the docking yard was David Roth, a brother-in-law of Straus.

“After showing him some of the sights of New York,” Roth paid the $16 for a ticket and put him on the train to Casselton.

When he arrived, Straus put the youngster to work, teaching him the strengths and drawbacks of different fabrics. Stern also learned how to manage the inventory, make displays, select proper accessories for different suits, and keep accounts. In time, Stern learned about the desires of each customer and began taking on more responsibilities. To become more American, he dropped an “n” from his first name.

In 1904, the parents of Mrs. Straus, Morris and Bertha Roth, moved to Casselton and brought their daughter Adeline, who was the same age as Stern, with them. However, Adeline soon left to attend high school in Valley City, staying with her aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Adolf Sternberg. Adolf also owned a clothing store, and when he died in 1907, Morris Straus moved to Valley City to purchase and run the store. Straus put Stern in charge of his store in Casselton.

Needing additional help in the Casselton store, Stern hired Morris Katz as a salesman. The two worked well together, and the store continued to grow. However, Straus was having difficulty in Valley City because of economic conditions at the time. By 1910, the pressure was affecting his health, and he asked Stern if he would take over the Valley City store. One factor that may have caused Stern to readily agree was that Adeline Roth lived there while attending classes at Valley City Teachers College. He turned the Casselton store over to Katz and moved to Valley City.

In 1912, Adeline became Mrs. Herman Stern, and her influence on the hard-working manager was apparent. Prior to the marriage, he would put in long hours at the store before going home. Now, he was more outgoing, getting involved with other merchants and with civic issues.

In 1913, Straus named Stern vice president of both stores.

Stern was very careful about how he was observed by actual and potential customers. He rarely talked politics, and as one of very few Jewish families in Valley City, he rarely displayed his religious affiliation. He and Adeline often spoke German at home, but when America became involved in World War I, they became cautious of doing that. In fact, he bought war bonds to support the American troops even though his brothers were fighting for Germany.

Because business had been brisk during the war, Stern was able to purchase half interest in both the Casselton and Valley City stores. He also provided considerable money to organizations that were assisting in rebuilding Europe after the war. Stern opened new stores in LaMoure and Carrington during the 1920s. Confident that the business was now in good hands under the leadership of Herman Stern, Morris Straus retired and moved to California.

(We will continue the story of Herman Stern next week.)

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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.