"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Was Moorhead really "wickedest city?"

Fargo is a much better-known city than Moorhead. They may be "sister cities" but it's Fargo as the namesake for a movie, and with a "blowtorch" type of radio station (KFGO), and with the Roger Maris Museum.
Moorhead has a couple nice little colleges. But it's Fargo with the nationally-recognized NDSU football program, a program capable of beating the U of M Gophers.
Moorhead State used to come and play our UMM Cougars. That was when UMM was in a conference that seemed more logical than the one we're in now. We're all familiar with opponents like Moorhead State, Winona State, Northern State and Bemidji State. The opponents UMM has now, require a little research so that we might understand just what these colleges are and what they stand for. Christian Science?
Moorhead seems a little obscure compared to its sister city. I remember passing through Moorhead in the middle of the night and stopping at a restaurant called "Sher's Kitchen," in the parking lot of the shopping mall. This I did every 3-4 months en route back from Grand Forks where we had concluded a dance gig. The group was the "Tempo Kings."
I remember when John Woell took his Morris High School marching band to Moorhead to perform.
If you were to ask me what particular claim to fame Moorhead had, I'd come up with nothing. I'd think of how Moorhead was where we got on that ribbon of Interstate Highway (No. 29) and went north to Grand Forks, across so much windswept prairie.
The new technology has connected everyone to where no place in the U.S. seems remote anymore. But there was a time when Fargo-Moorhead had a remote reputation. Someone told me once that if you worked for a company and were assigned Fargo-Moorhead, you were at the bottom of the ladder in that company.
Fargo! The purpose behind naming a movie "Fargo" may have grown from this. Sitting in Hollywood, the windswept northern plains would certainly fit one's image of "remote" and "mysterious." A good place for a mysterious murder. But they'd be thinking in terms of Fargo and not Moorhead.
It seems Moorhead had more notoriety in its past. It even got the attention of Will Rogers, the great actor/storyteller who left us too soon in a plane crash. Rogers is reported to have said Moorhead was "the wickedest city in the world." Wow!
I guess it's not the kind of statement the Chamber of Commerce would want to attach itself to. Is this what it takes to get Hollywood's attention? A mysterious murder or a reputation for low-life behavior?
Hollywood is a little more enlightened today - I'll cite that tech revolution again - but there was a time when we seemed a little like Siberia.
Moorhead was dangerous. Imagine your typical Old West saloon from the movies of yore, places where you had to step lightly and watch your words. Imagine the kind of piano-playing that accompanied this atmosphere. (I remember this piano sound also in the "Dudley Do-Right" cartoon.)
 
Rough edges in early days
Hear that pub-style honky tonk piano in your head as you study that early Moorhead history, because that saloon atmosphere would seem to have been pervasive. Maybe we're seeing a parallel today in the "oil patch" of western North Dakota. Civilization moves in but it takes a while. The rough edges become fodder for future storytelling.
I'm not sure to what extent any museum in Moorhead would want to acknowledge those extremely rough early days. It's probably quite muted. For whatever reason, Moorhead was sandpaper-rough in its early days. You can imagine John Wayne as "J.B. Books" pulling into town. You can imagine Jimmy Stewart as the old "sawbones" (doctor).
Let's get blunt: The founding fathers of Moorhead were quite fine with the idea of saloons as a major industry! Saloons were deemed a helpful foundation for the fledgling economy. Saloons multiplied in that notorious chapter of the city's history, spanning 1878 to 1915.
The John Wayne/Jimmy Stewart movie "The Shootist" was set at the turn of the century. The automobile had been created. Harry Morgan played the sheriff who trumpeted all the positive change and derided the likes of "J.B. Books" who lived by the raw ethos of the Old West, a pistol ready.
Moorhead had its eyes on the future but had lots of the old element still hanging around.
Some saloon owners really tried to promote a controlled and civilized direction with their businesses. An example was the White House which had a summer garden outside. Inside were found electric fountains, pink frame windows and solid oak features. Then we had the Higgins-Aske Co., proud of its eight-drawer cash registers. Higgins-Aske also boasted of its tile floor, "the longest straight bar in the state."
A fellow name of Haas ran an establishment with 400 electric lights! The Harry Morgan character would beam at such an asset. An establishment that had the Rustad name had brass footprints leading to the door. Ed Wilson ran a joint that had as an asset a $200 mirror!
As evidence of the raw times, we can note that not only did the saloon operators put the welcome mat out, they'd dispatch rafts on the river and buggies on the roads, to sell alcohol to farm laborers, whose value to their employers would then become diminished.
Given that the city fathers were quite OK with the burgeoning saloon sector, we might expect a little graft, eh? A police chief and city treasurer were fired for embezzlement. There are stories of bribery. Saloon owners wanted the authorities to "look the other way" for staying open extended hours and on Sundays.
I guess there was no proof of outright bribery. But many saloons did stay open after midnight and on Sundays.
Shall we progress into the topic of "street walkers?" Oh, why not. After all, Will Rogers said Moorhead was "the wickedest city in the world."
I'm not sure how much of this our Marty Ohren is familiar with. He's a native of Moorhead. A proud native I'm sure.
All that notoriety is filed away in historical annals, but presumably not much of it at the musuem, not conspicuous anyway.
I'm getting information for this post from a piece by Gertrude Knutson which appears in a compilation of historical reflections published by Ethelyn Pearson. Ethelyn's book is called "It Really Happened Here!" She's the mother of retired Morris industrial arts teacher Larry Pearson.
Certainly there were "houses of ill repute" in Moorhead. The city tried vainly to keep this under control. Houses would get torn down only to have the activity settle elsewhere. Such ladies would be decoys in the saloons. They lured suckers into situations where robbery could be performed. Again, imagine that saloon style of piano in the background.
I doubt that James Arness could have gotten all this under control.
The saloons were deemed off-limits for ordinary and responsible women. The only exceptions might be some establishments known for decent dining, e.g. The House of Lords and Midway Buffet.
One bar owner in a low-life place crossed the line by having his wife fill in as bartender. This was rationalized on the basis of the wife being German and not Scandinavian!
Ordinarily if you met a woman at a low-life place, you could assume she was a prostitute. Watch your wallet. I'm reminded of the movie "Open Range" where we saw the hero characters walk into a bar with their lever-action rifles - and nobody cared. This was the rough Old West. The NRA and Wayne LaPierre would be proud.
City fathers knew all the misbehavior couldn't continue indefinitely. A police chief name of Malvey raided the streetwalkers. Sometimes a madam would be hauled into court and fined. Sometimes there was jailing. But often the judges would opt for having sentences suspended if the offending parties pledged to leave town.
No one was "shocked" that there might be gambling in a given establishment. In the movie "The Shootist" there was that unsavory character running the game of "Pharoah" over in the corner. In Moorhead there was a notorious gang known as the "tin-horn gamblers." Saloon owners frowned on them.
Gamblers took money from saloons, and their presence always promised violence.
"All right, draw!" That cliche may have been spoken more than a few times in the old Moorhead. Keep that honky tonk piano in the back of your mind. James Arness might not want to stick around.
Old western TV shows always had good prevailing over bad at the end, with pure morality rising to the surface (as in a fairy tale). Reading about old Moorhead, one wonders if the likes of "Lucas McCain" really could assert himself above all the riffraff. (Chuck Connors played Lucas on TV, remember?)
Theft was so common, people had to budget this in, it seemed. There's a story of the wayward soul who got intoxicated in the Fargo-Moorhead establishments, was jailed, and ended up ecstatic that he still had $1,357.20 in cash on his person, along with a gold watch-and-chain and some German paper money. All this could easily have been lifted from him.
Saloon owners did well financially amidst all the disorder. Their daughters would come to school dressed in silk and satins, while the less well-off children wore homespun material. The sons would get new cars.
The Scandinavian stock pushed forward with an emphasis on education. They built many churches and schools. They co-existed with the unsavory tone.
Foul and obscene language floated out and about constantly. Let's note that our Marty Ohren is a civilized sort. He manages our Thrifty White Drug Stores (one on each side of main street in Morris, although logic suggests there only needs to be one). The Ohren family attends my church: First Lutheran in Morris.
The occasional volley of gunshots was heard in old Moorhead. No one could out-gun "J.B. Books," except at the end of his life when he was weak (dying) and a bartender sneaked up behind him with a double-barrel shotgun, after Books has dispatched all the bad guys. Ron Howard played the young boy in the movie, remember? And Lauren Bacall played Wayne's love interest, a widow landlord.
 
Saloons' heyday reaches end
The year 1915 brought significant change for this restless young city on the plains. The saloon era ended for Moorhead. The city did vote to stay "wet" but this was trumped by an election that made Clay County "dry."
The saloons would return 15 years later but the atmosphere would be more civilized.
Writer Gertrude Knutson researched material made available to her by Mark Peihl of the Clay County Historical Society. So the museum doesn't distance themselves totally after all. But certainly it's not put forward with any element of pride.
Today Moorhead can be proud that it's a fully developed and civilized city. Even if it takes a back seat to Fargo and its "blow torch" radio station.
Again I'm plugging the book "It Really Happened Here!" by Ethelyn Pearson. Not sure if it's still available, but I recommend it.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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