On Saturday, Sept. 27, my Mom and I travelled to downtown Bismarck to attend a one-hour walking tour called the Capital Farm Tour put on by the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, out of Washburn. We met at the Camp Hancock State Historic Site at 101 West Main Ave in Bismarck along with about 20ish other people. We arrived a bit early and were welcome to walk around the grounds to discover more about items on site which include a 1909 Northern Pacific Locomotive, the oldest church in Bismarck – the Bread of Life Church, a picnic area and Camp Hancock itself.
Camp Hancock (the building above) was part of a military installation established in 1872 to provide protection for the building of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The log headquarters building is what stands on site to this day, though it has been remodeled extensively and the logs are concealed by siding. The building is now an interpretive museum. It is free to visit anyplace on the grounds; there is a donation box inside the Camp Hancock building.
You could easily take a walking tour of the grounds and learn a lot of history just by reading.
This is the 1909 NP locomotive moved here on site after its last voyage from Jamestown to Pingree.
Above and below are just a few photos of the Church of the Bread of Life. You can still rent this church if you are looking to get married! It seats about 80 and has minimal amenities.
Our guide was a young man named Robert Hanna, pictured below. He was an excellent guide and was very easy to hear and understand with a strong, clear voice. We had a variety of ages and with nearby traffic zooming by, so this was appreciated. He had us start right at the site of the railroad tracks since this was the reason Camp Hancock was built. I can’t nearly begin to remember everything he shared with us. I was surprised at how much I learned and didn’t know about. My highlights are below. As the title of the walk suggests, this tour was primarily about farms and how farming played a role in the development of Bismarck and North Dakota.
Robert mentioned that the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center recognizes the importance of family farms by having an exhibit called Centennial Farms. This celebrates ND’s ag heritage by recognizing families that have lived on or owned their farms or ranches for over a century. Hundreds of families have registered their ag operations as Centennial Farms. These farms are in over 40 ND counties, some owned by children of original settlers, others in the fifth generations of the same family. These farms are part of ND’s proud history.
Do you recognize this building from Main in Bismarck? Now, do you notice anything odd about it, more specifically the façade of the building? I never did, but if you look you can see the 2 buildings are different – check out the windows on the top floor, for example. This building was originally constructed with a 3rd column on the far right, matching the one on the far left. However, it burned down and was never reconstructed. The two remain like you see above today.
Most of us probably recognize this building as Fiesta Villa, a popular Mexican Restaurant. This used to be a modern train depot. You might have seen in the building that you can find small baby dolls in the walls of the building. Rumor has it that one of the construction workers had bought the small dolls at the 5 and dime store because he missed his children who were back home! You can find some dolls in the walls in Fiesta Villa.
I have to say, we lucked out with wonderful weather. Nice and warm with a breeze on this late September day. Not a cloud in the sky!
A few more fun things I learned:
- At the time Camp Hancock was built (1872), Bismarck was actually named Edwinton, but it was later (1873) named Bismarck to attract German settlers.
- There was not much support for the railroad being built west as settlers were barely trickling into what is now North Dakota
- The Northern Pacific railway was considered transcontinental, going from the Great Lakes (where goods could be transported to the Atlantic) to the Pacific Ocean
- Camp Hancock had to be built to protect the people building the railroad and railroad goods because Native American tribes were attacking workers. This is understandable as the railroad was being built on their land, without their permission. The U.S. Army was needed to protect the survey and construction crews.
- The railroad was a valuable tool used to transport crops grown during this time, namely wheat and other grains.
- The staggering cost and magnitude of building the transcontinental railroad caused Northern Pacific into bankruptcy. This was a major factor in the Panic of 1873, bringing an economic depression to the U.S., other railroads and Europe. Reorganization, bond sales and an improved economy would allow NP to keep building.
- Conditions in ND are very favorable for growing wheat, even with the long, usually harsh winters. Most immigrants to the area farmed to make a living.
- The railway allowed the Marquis de Mores (founder of Medora, ND) to become a rancher and transport meat via railway. There was even a cold storage house made mostly of sawdust, that was in Bismarck for decades, surviving a few fires. It was eventually torn down to make way for a parking ramp.
- Bismarck became the capital of Dakota Territory, taking over the title from Yankton (SD). There are a few theories as to why Bismarck was made the capital and why Dakota eventually became two separate states. At the middle of most of these theories is a man named Alexander McKenzie and shady tactics he used.
- Alexander McKenzie was a prominent person in Bismarck – he was very influential in politics, though never serving office himself. His power allowed him to basically hand pick winners of elections. However, often his political power was gained by stealing votes, intimidation and even physically fighting opponents. While Alexander McKenzie was popular (his name still exists on a building in downtown Bismarck, a county and town in ND also bear his name) he was eventually brought down from power. McKenzie had travelled to Alaska and illegally took gold mines from owners. The owners fought back and won. McKenzie was arrested. Word got back to Bismarck and his reign on politics was soon over.
- Downtown Bismarck was ripe with activity when it began – mostly with gambling and prostitutes. It was well-known that the best whore house was in what now is the Bismarck Tribune building.
We stopped for quite some time while Robert talked about Oscar Will. I had never heard of him but he sounds like a very smart man. In Robert’s mind, Oscar is really the person who helped Bismarck and North Dakota thrive (not the politicians) as he allowed farming to become more diverse, grow and capitalize on growing techniques Native Americans had used prior to the white men taking their land.
Snippets from his Hall of Fame induction to the Ag Hall of Fame from the ND Winter Show website:
Oscar H. Will was called North Dakota´s Pioneer Seedman. He came to North Dakota in 1881 and was employed at Fuller Green House in Bismarck. He purchased the Fuller Green House in 1882 and established the first nursery in North Dakota. He soon started his experiments with native corn varieties that had been grown for hundreds of years by the Mandan and Arikara Indians. He developed and offered two varieties which proved to be his most successful: Pride of Dakota Flint and Gehu Yellow Flint. They were offered continuously in the Oscar H. Will Seed Company catalogs until 1959. Around 1886 a Hidatsa man, Son of a Star, gave him a bag of beans. From those beans he developed and introduced in 1896 the Great Northern Bean which is still cultivated and available in many grocery stores today. Mr. Will sold 2 million trees to the Northern Pacific Railroad which his work crews planted between Mandan and Jamestown to replace snow fences. He sold corn to the Northrup King Seed Company. His seed catalog offered many varieties of corn, oats, wheat, rye, flax, millet, clover, alfalfa, barley and buckwheat as well as vegetable garden seed, flower seed and nursery stock. He also offered insecticides, fertilizer, sprayers poultry supplies, drills, cultivators and plows. Mr. Will always credited Native American seed sources in his catalog which included many varieties of squash, dark and light colored beans, sweet corn, soft yellow and flint corn. He was a real seedman.
The growth of other crops, besides just wheat and grains, would allow ND to become diversified and thrive even in poor wheat growing conditions. This made the economy more stable for farmers.
- Oscar Will’s seed catalogs featured hand drawn covers. They came out once a year and some of them are now prized collectibles. An example of one is above.
- Oscar grew his own seed, bought seed, contracted with others and had his own gardens by what is now the Kirkwood Mall/Barnes and Noble bookstore.
- Oscar liked to grow a variety of produce including various types of watermelon. Watermelon seeds are hard to keep separate though. So Oscar would invite all the neighborhood children to come and eat ONE TYPE of watermelon at a time. The only condition is they had to spit the seeds in a bucket so he could keep them separated. What an ingenious way for free labor, right?!
We ended our tour at Peacock Alley (a supporter of the tour) where the Patterson Hotel once stood and the name still exists on the building. This was once a posh, luxurious hotel popular with politicians. It is also rumored that an underground tunnel once connected the hotel with the nearby train depot. The Patterson Hotel was notorious for selling booze during prohibition, had illegal gambling and likely had prostitutes on the property. The Patterson hotels top floors are now senior housing and the Peacock Alley restaurant is on the main floor.
I’d recommend this tour to anyone. They have only done a few so far but they have filled up quickly. You walk about a mile, but as long as you are mobile, it is an easy stroll. Great job Robert and Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation!