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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published March 23 2013

Eriksmoen: Man who rescued Jews loved prairie, people of North Dakota

A man born in Germany was possibly the greatest promoter of North Dakota during the 20th century. Herman Stern loved “the openness of the prairie and the warmth of the people” in North Dakota. He spared little time or expense to let the country, even the world, know what a great state he resided in. Stern had a deep abiding love of humanity, and his ethic of hard work allowed him to accomplish more than almost anyone. He was clearly defined as “a man that took on many projects that were close to his heart, and he used that passion to make them a reality.” He was also very humble and modest, and one of his greatest accomplishments, which was the rescuing of more than 100 Jews from Nazi Germany, was not readily known until nearly 40 years later.

Following World War I, Stern had turned the Straus clothing stores in Casselton and Valley City into very successful businesses. However, as a workaholic, his interaction with other local business people suffered. Through a push by his wife, Adeline, he strived to become more outgoing. Stern came to believe that much more could be accomplished by getting businesses to work together rather than in competition. In 1920, he formed the Valley City Town Criers Club with an objective was “to develop a general good fellowship between competitors in business.” The next year, Stern helped establish the Rotary Club of Valley City and was named one of its directors.

In order to secure the best merchandise for his stores, Stern frequently made buying trips to New York and Chicago. On one trip, while reading a New York newspaper, he became fixated on an article that described atrocious winter conditions that were prevalent in his home state. He knew this to be untrue and realized that kind of publicity would discourage tourists and possible settlers from coming to North Dakota. Stern resolved to do something about it.

When he returned to Valley City, he laid out a plan “to put North Dakota back on the map.” Stern called together other businessmen from around the state and formed the Greater North Dakota Association (GNDA). On May 15, 1924, he called a meeting in Valley City that was attended by 75 delegates. The delegates were made up of leaders of chambers of commerce and other civic leaders, along with railroad officials. The initial objective of the GNDA was to purchase advertising in Europe and the rest of the United States “to refute the unfavorable publicity being spread across the country that North Dakota had been receiving the past five years.” The goal was to raise $50,000 to “begin the campaign.” Stern was elected president during this strategic planning phase. He coined the fundraising slogan “Determination on the part of the people of the state to help themselves” and wrote most of the advertisements. In the North Dakota ads, his motto was “One million inhabitants by 1930.” In Stern’s out-of-state ads, he stressed North Dakota’s “good climate, productivity, and low farm prices.”

By the time GNDA was officially launched on Sept. 1, 1925, the organization had far surpassed its monetary goal by raising $750,000 in donations and pledges. At its initial meeting, the GNDA was merged with the North Dakota Automobile Association. The ultimate goals were to attract tourists and settlers, improve the state’s highways, promote agriculture, and to help establish and expand North Dakota’s business enterprises. The immediate goal was to raise an additional $150,000 in each of the next four years. The headquarters were moved from Valley City to Fargo. J. E. Carley, president of the First National Bank of Grand Forks, was named president, and Stern was named as vice president.

Stern remained vice president of the GNDA for the next 12 years, working to improve economic conditions of the state’s residents, especially the farmers, who suffered from bad droughts and the Great Depression. He was also busy in other matters. In the mid-1920s, Stern opened new stores in LaMoure and Carrington and, in 1928, was elected president of the Minnesota and North Dakota Retail Clothiers and Furnishers Association. In 1930, Stern was named head of publicity for the Red River Valley Council (RRVC) of Boy Scouts and, in 1931, became chairman of the Barnes County Red Cross Drive.

The drought and Depression hit rural North Dakota extremely hard, and as farmers were unable to pay their bank loans, the banks foreclosed on their farms. In 1933, Stern was forced to close his stores in Lamoure and Carrington. When economic conditions started to improve in the state, Stern purchased a store in Fargo and named his son Ed as manager.

The summer of 1936 was the hottest on record for North Dakota, and crop failures were abundant throughout the state. When a heavy grasshopper infestation ravaged the crops in 1937, the GNDA elected Stern as president in mid-July. In hopes of relief, he petitioned Washington, D.C., for assistance to help fight the grasshopper problem in the future.

Bert E. Groom, chairman of the agricultural committee of GNDA, proposed initiating an annual Winter Fair to attract exhibitors and visitors from other states to Valley City. Stern supported the concept, and in 1937, the North Dakota Winter Show was established. It is “the oldest and longest running agriculture show in the state.”

In 1938, the GNDA was able to get directors for all 52 North Dakota counties. Stern worked to get the salaries restored at North Dakota colleges, to seek better cooperation in state tree-planting projects, and to secure better prices in purchasing livestock. In 1939, he worked with Groom in obtaining increased acreage allotments for hard spring wheat grown in North Dakota. Stern also worked with Congress and the state legislature “to completely hard surface 1,500 miles of primary state roads.”

Stern served as president of GNDA until 1941. On Dec. 7, the U.S. became directly involved in World War II. Ed Stern, the manager of the Fargo store, entered the service the day after Christmas, and Herman found himself commuting weekly between Valley City and Fargo to supervise the running of both stores. In 1942, he accepted the position of Barnes County chair for the War Bond drive, “raising more bond subscriptions that any other county.” He also took a leading role in raising money in the county for USO activities. In 1944, Stern became the North Dakota chair for the National War Chest. In addition, he did most of the advertising for GNDA and was actively involved with the Winter Show.

When the war ended, his son Ed returned to run the Fargo store, and Stern was named to the executive board of the RRVC. He immediately took on the task of raising money to establish a council camp. He soon raised $77,000, and work began on a Boy Scout camp of 2,400 acres, called Camp Wilderness, located in Minnesota. He served as president of the RRVC from 1949 to 1951.

In 1950, Stern persuaded singer Peggy Lee to return to North Dakota and sing at the Winter Show in Valley City. In 1955, Stern opened a store in Grand Forks. By the late 1950s, Stern had turned over much of the operation of his business to his son Ed. Many people were aware of the important organizations and businesses he supervised and in which he was actively involved. What they did not know about was the time-consuming and stressful work he did in obtaining the releases of Jews from Nazi Germany up until the start of the U.S. involvement in World War II. We will conclude our story about Herman Stern next week as we concentrate on that important endeavor.


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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.