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Robin Huebner, Published April 14 2014

Robin Huebner Reports: Remnants of Fargo's 'frontier college' can still be found nearly 100 years after it closed

FARGO – An institute of higher learning that few know existed once stood atop the hill just south of Fargo’s Island Park.

The last building left on the Fargo College campus – a Carnegie library – was torn down 50 years ago. But remnants of the school can still be found in the Fargo-Moorhead area, nearly 100 years after it closed.

The library cornerstone, dedicated in 1910 by former President Theodore Roosevelt, is on display at Bonanzaville in West Fargo.

A building where the college once held music performances, now home to the Fargo Fine Arts club, still stands about a block from where the campus was located.

And an old pipe organ that once stood in the Fargo College chapel is still being used at St. Benedict’s Catholic Church in Horace.

The North Dakota State University Archives has a collection of Fargo College memorabilia and runs a website that includes history of the school.

“It’s good to know how things started,” said John Hallberg, NDSU Archives associate, “and I think a person can really learn from the past.”

After 35 years in business, Fargo College closed due to financial problems.

The hilltop space it once filled is now home to the headquarters of R.D. Offutt Co. and RDO Equipment at 700 7th St. S.

A ‘frontier college’

According to records at the Institute for Regional Studies at NDSU, Fargo College got its start while North Dakota was still Dakota Territory.

Congregational Church missionaries dreamed of a “frontier college,” and formed a committee to explore the idea.

The cities of Fargo, Valley City, Jamestown and Cleveland, N.D., each made bids for the college, which included offers of money and land.

Fargo was chosen because it was the largest population center.

A board of trustees was elected in summer 1887 and Fargo College was born. The college had no buildings, so it opened that fall in a rented classroom downtown.

The first professor, Francis T. Waters, sat for three weeks in an empty classroom until the first student finally enrolled.

The first building Fargo College could call its own went up in 1890 on a plot of land near Island Park chosen by the trustees. Jones Hall had classrooms, dorm rooms, a chapel and a dining hall.

The second building opened in 1908. Dill Hall had classrooms, science labs, a gymnasium and a locker room.

The third building constructed on the campus was a Carnegie library donated by Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. It was that addition that drew a former U.S. president to Fargo for a visit.

Teddy Roosevelt visits

When Roosevelt pulled into Fargo by train on Sept. 5, 1910, to dedicate the cornerstone for the new library, a huge crowd was on hand – more than 10,000 people, according to some newspaper accounts.

As part of the dedication, Roosevelt praised the state in his address, stating, “I can never begin to say what I owe to North Dakota.”

The library building stood for years after the school closed, until it was razed to make way for a new Western States Life Insurance building.

Soon after demolition in 1964, a cornerstone box – what we would now call a time capsule – was opened during a ceremony. According to a Nov. 1, 1964, news story in The Forum, that honor went to two former Fargo College students, Charles Pollock and Charles Dawson, founder of Dawson Insurance.

The box contained photos, yearbooks and a copy of the speech made that day in 1910 by Roosevelt.

According to the story, Otto Haakenstad, president of Western States, said it was with mixed emotions the library was being torn down. “The building has outlived its usefulness,” he said at the time.

More recent generations have a much different mindset – to preserve and restore such buildings when possible.

“It wasn’t until the 1970s that people started to begin valuing old buildings, and realizing old buildings had value in just sitting there,” said Mark Peihl, an archivist at the Clay County Historical Society.

Known for music

Historical accounts state that Fargo College had a well-respected and thriving Conservatory of Music.

The program was housed in several different locations over the years, including what is now the Avalon Events Center in downtown Fargo. Its final stop was Watson Memorial Hall, a residence northeast of the campus at 601 4th St. S.

Lizzie Watson bought the home in 1920 or 1921 and donated it to the college for music recitals and receptions.

The building wasn’t used by Fargo College students for long. When the school closed, Watson Hall was given back to Watson, who donated it in 1930 to the Fargo Fine Arts Club, which has called it home ever since.

The still-thriving club has monthly meetings for eight different groups of interest, including art, books, drama and creative living. Club members work hard on repairs and upkeep on the building.

“Through the Depression and floods, we’re still standing,” said Rose Dunn, a longtime Fargo Fine Arts Club member.

Another piece of Fargo College history still in use is the 125-year-old pipe organ that once stood in the chapel of Jones Hall. A gift to the college from the Grand Forks Congregational Church, it was placed in the chapel just before the turn of the century.

The pipe organ needed a new home when Jones Hall was torn down in 1940, and it was purchased that year by St. Benedict’s, where it takes up much of the balcony space in the quaint country church.

Student life

There were plenty of activities for Fargo College students. They produced a newspaper known as Blue and Gold and an annual yearbook called “Wau-kan.”

There was a YMCA and YWCA presence on campus. The school was proud of its Christian foundation and implored students to stay true to their faith.

That was evident in a 1905 student handbook, which states: “Do not think because F.C. is co-educational and has a good moral atmosphere that it is a matrimonial agency or a reform school.”

Debate competitions were big on campus, as were sporting events, where early college rivalries sprang up.

A November 1908 newspaper article reported that Fargo College beat NDAC (North Dakota Agricultural College, now North Dakota State University) for the city championship in football.

“The preachers were too much for the farmer boys,” quipped the sports writer.

After big debates or an athletic victory, students would hold a giant bonfire near the stadium at the bottom of the hill.

Gradual demise

With big expectations, the school billed itself as “the biggest little College in the West,” but enrollment wasn’t high enough to sustain it for the long term.

The first graduating class had two students, while its largest graduating class was 25 in 1917.

World War I took a heavy toll on student numbers, and the school operated with deficits for several years. Historical accounts say a lack of foresight by college leaders was also a problem, and the college closed its doors in 1922.

For nearly a decade, alumni and businesspeople made pitches and raised funds to reopen the school, but the onset of the Great Depression ended those hopes.

In 1940, the Fargo School Board and Western States Life Insurance acquired all Fargo College campus property.

Jones and Dill Halls were demolished not long after, and the Carnegie library was razed 24 years later.

One might wonder how different downtown Fargo would look and feel if the buildings had been preserved and repurposed.

We will never know, and that makes one admirer of old buildings think about the lessons learned.

“There’s artistic value in that architectural heritage,” said Rob Kupec, past president and current secretary of the FM Heritage Society.

He worries that heritage will be lost to future generations. “It may take another 125 years for people to appreciate what we have now.”

Readers can reach Robin Huebner at rhuebner @forumcomm.som.

Huebner is also a 5 p.m. news anchor on WDAY-TV.