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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published December 01 2013

Did You Know That: ND man served shortest tenure as US senator

A man who served only 56 days in the U.S. Senate statistically holds more North Dakota senatorial records than most U.S. senators who served several terms.

As a senator from North Dakota, Fountain L. Thompson was the first person appointed to that office and was the first to resign. He also served the shortest tenure and, before his death in 1942, was the oldest former senator in the U.S.

He was the first of two men from Cando to serve in Congress. The other person was Dick Armey, who represented the 26th District of Texas from 1985 to 2003.

Fountain Land Thompson was born Nov. 18, 1854, in Scottville, Ill., to Joshua and Phoebe (Land) Thompson. At the time of his birth, his father was a carpenter who, in 1865, opened a dry goods store in nearby Girard. After completing his public school education, Fountain Thompson apprenticed at a bank in Girard and then worked in a railroad office.

At the age of 16, Thompson married Fannie Walker, the daughter of Richard S. Walker, a political leader who had served in the Illinois Legislature with Abraham Lincoln. Walker, a Democrat, would have a profound influence in shaping Thompson’s political philosophy.

For 16 years, Thompson worked “in the general mercantile business” at stores in Girard and Palmyra. He also obtained his law license, was city treasurer of Girard, and became a member of the county board of supervisors.

In 1888, the Thompsons packed up their belongings and headed to Dakota Territory to begin a new life. They arrived in rural Towner County, and it was here that Thompson secured a homestead and began farming.

When he was elected county judge in 1890, Thompson moved his family to the county seat in Cando. While serving as judge for eight years, he also began selling real estate. With the money that Thompson earned, he helped establish banks in Cando and Rock Lake, serving as vice president of the former and president of the latter. He also purchased 7,000 acres of farmland near Cando.

Besides his family and businesses, Thompson had a passion for the growth and development of Cando and Democratic Party politics. He served on the local school board for six years and was mayor of Cando for four years. When his good friend John Burke, a Democrat, ran for governor of the state in 1906 and 1908, Thompson worked tirelessly to get him elected.

Also working to get Burke elected were the Progressive Republicans, and when they succeeded in that pursuit, some expected an eventual payback. That opportunity happened Oct. 19, 1909, when Sen. Martin N. Johnson, a Republican, died in office.

It was up to Gov. Burke to name a replacement. The Progressives choice for senator was Thomas F. Marshall, the current U. S. congressman, who ran against Johnson in 1908. When Marshall had first entered the House in 1901, he was a Conservative, but he later turned Progressive.

The Democrats were hungry to be represented in Congress because no one held that position from their party since 1899 when Sen. William Roach was defeated by Porter J. McCumber.

The leading Democratic contenders were William E. Purcell from Wahpeton; John L. Cashel from Grafton; George Duis and Tracy Bangs from Grand Forks; Duald McArthur from Bottineau; Melvin Hildreth from Fargo; John Lamb from Michigan; and Col. Ben Whitehead from Williston. All but three of these candidates had served in the state Senate.

Hildreth and Bangs were prominent attorneys, and Whitehead was a newspaper publisher. Both Purcell and Cashel had personally appealed to Burke for Johnson’s former position. Burke said he would make his decision Nov. 9, but he was uneasy with all the leading candidates. He knew that because of sharply divided factions, the naming of any one of these men would greatly alienate many others.

Early in November, he was greeted by a delegation led by James V. Brooke, a former legislator from Devils Lake. It was strongly suggested that the governor’s best choice was to appoint his old friend Fountain Thompson.

The more Burke thought about it, the choice appeared to be a wise one. Thompson, though a good Democrat, had never sided with any of the factions. When Burke made the announcement Nov. 11 that Thompson would be the next U.S. senator, almost everyone was stunned, but no one expressed any public anger.

Even McCumber, the senior senator, thought Burke had made a wise choice. On Dec. 7, Thompson was sworn in, and he took his seat in the upper chamber. Less than two months later, the state was in for another surprise when the resignation of Thompson was announced Feb. 1, 1910, by McCumber. Thompson’s replacement, chosen by Burke, was Purcell, who already was in the Capitol ready to take his seat.

Immediately, most pundits and politicians believed this had been prearranged by Burke. They suspected that Thompson knew his appointment was only temporary.

Thompson had no political base to run for re-election in 1911, and Purcell was best positioned to run a statewide election. The reason given for the resignation was “ill health,” and Thompson promptly left for San Antonio, Texas, before he could be asked any questions.

After things had quieted down, he returned to his usual busy schedule, tending to his multitude of business interests in Cando.

Thompson remained in Cando until he retired in 1921 and moved to Los Angeles. There was not much in the news about Fountain Thompson until April 30, 1940, when it was reported that he had just become the oldest living former U.S. senator in the nation. He held that position for almost two years, until his death on Feb. 4, 1942.

Today, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts is the oldest living former senator, but two North Dakotans are in the top 20. Jocelyn Burdick is the fourth-oldest, and Mark Andrews comes in at No. 20.

“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.