A Fatal Fall


Nov. 28 — On this day in 1908, the Grand Forks Herald reported one man’s curious experience with fire.

No one was certain how the fire at the St. Anthony and Dakota Elevator got started. Speculation suggested that an engine passing on the railroad tracks located nearby threw off some dangerous sparks. In any case, the fire started quickly and went unnoticed until some passers-by spotted and reported it.

Any property fire is dangerous, but this elevator was surrounded by railroad property, a coal chute, the Cargill elevator, and a string of boxcars. Everyone knew the fire had to be contained quickly before it spread. The firefighters battled the fire tirelessly. Some of the other local men helped. One was Andy Cost of Park River.

While helping the firemen pull a hose into the air, Cost braced himself against the coal chute platform, 40 feet in the air. Smoke and ash billowed over him and the other men. They were already wet with sweat, and the soot stuck to their skin. They were warm despite the cold of the air around them. There was shouting and Cost and the other men strained to hoist the hose up further. Suddenly — a loud noise, and the platform collapsed, and Cost plummeted toward the frozen ground below.

It was a 40-foot drop, a fatal fall — but miraculously, Cost survived.

He hit a projecting beam on his way down, interrupting the force of his plunge, and landed on the ground. Cost laid there, severely injured. Those people nearby immediately called for some doctors to help him. The diagnosis: Cost had fractured two of his ribs, and also had severe internal injuries.

Firefighters were successful in keeping the fire from spreading. The St. Anthony and Dakota Elevator was completely destroyed, as was a great part of the 12,000 bushels of grain inside the building, but everything around it was saved — including Cost.

Cost lived for 12 more years — time enough to marry his wife Tina, and to join the service. He became a member of the 40th Field Artillery. He also had time to bury his older brother and to father two children before he died in 1920. He had time to tell and retell his story.

Sheridan Hotel



Nov. 29 — On this day in 1921, the residents of Bismarck were still excited over the recent visit of Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France. During the visit, Foch was reported to have touched the spirit of the west. By then, little remained of Bismarck’s Old West, but residents were reminiscing about Bismarck’s earlier days — a time when the city truly resembled the pioneer days of the west.

Residents could not reminisce about the West without remembering the Sheridan Hotel, a place, stated the Bismarck Tribune, that was “for many years the center of the romance of the west.” In those days, seeing military heroes and important politicians was not a special event as it was with the visit of Marshal Foch, but an everyday occurrence. There was no better place to see them than at the Sheridan.

The Sheridan Hotel was built by E.A. Bly in 1877. At that time, Bismarck was the end of the railroad, and the train stopped right at the front door of the hotel. Almost daily, officers, soldiers, frontiersmen, and pioneers could be seen boarding and leaving the train, and the Sheridan remained at the center of it. Among the famous generals who stayed at the hotel were Generals Hancock, Sturgis, Sherman, and of course Sheridan, for whom the hotel was named.

But much like Marshal Foch’s visit, what helped make the Sheridan House unique in those early days was not the presence of soldiers, but the presence of the many Native American visitors. The Tribune wrote, “The story of the recently burned Sheridan House and of its connection with the ‘Winning of the west’ could not be complete without the names of its many Indian guests. Sometimes the big chiefs were present as honored attendants at some function, in much the same manner that many Indians were present at the reception of Marshal Foch.”

Native Americans were brought to the hotel more often as prisoners, but many prominent chiefs also visited as guests, including Sitting Bull, Gall, Rain in the Face, Red Cloud, Running Antelope, and Sitting Bull’s daughter, Shooting Star. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce was brought to the hotel by General Miles after the chief was caught following his famous — and almost successful — retreat from the U.S. Army. From there, Joseph went to the East to ride in the dedication parade for Grant’s tomb.

During his stay, however, Joseph added a story to the many others that made the Sheridan a legacy of the West. According to the Tribune, Chief Joseph was seated at one end of a table at a banquet while Gen. Miles was at the other. A white woman present at the banquet was so impressed with the chief that she wrapped her arms around him, kissed him, and placed her ring on his finger. “Joseph, not to be undone by any act of gallantry,” said the Tribune, “searched among his followers until he found a ring. It happened to be a brass one, badly disfigured, which he placed upon the finger of the young lady, also returning her salutation.”

The Sheridan had burned down a month before Foch’s visit, but the Sheridan lived on in the memories of Bismarck’s early pioneers. To them, it was the “palace of the frontier,” and home of “the bronzed trooper, wily scout, and silent and impressive Indian.” It was a true marker of the Old West.

Maxwell Anderson


Nov. 30 — William “Bill” Hamann was a mover and shaker in the western North Dakota cattle industry. He was born near Richardton in March 1904 and began working with livestock in the late 1920s. Along with his associates, he established the Western Livestock Company in Dickinson; that was in 1948 — it grew to become the largest cattle auction in North Dakota.

People of Hamann’s generation remember him as an honest and trustworthy businessman. There were plenty of enthusiastic livestock buyers when the market was up, but if prices took a dive, Bill wasn’t one to walk away — whether the auction was in his ring or someone else’s.

Belfield auctioneer Pat O’Brien became friends with Hamann. “When Bill Hamann was at an auction,” he said, “everything that came through the ring had a value. I don’t care if it was a Billy goat or a boar pig or a semi load of cattle. There are a lot of great people in the livestock business, but of the people that I knew, Bill was the greatest.”

One morning Hamann caught a ride with O’Brien to a Montana auction. “He’d get in your car, and two miles down the road he’d be sleeping,” O’Brien said. “About halfway to Glendive he wakes up and says, ‘STOP!’ I ask, ‘Stop here?’ He said, ‘No, no, no. When we get to Glendive. Stop. I gotta make a phone call. I just remembered that I sent a man down in [Colorado] six loads of cattle a while ago, and I ain’t got paid for them.'” O’Brien laughed, saying, “That was when cattle probably cost $50,000 a load.”

Hamann was often a person who young ranchers would turn to if bankers wouldn’t help them get started. With solid advice and strong loyalty to ideals, Hamann would put cattle out on ranches on shares. A Medora rancher name Adolph Burkhardt said that by the time he got his place going, “We didn’t have much money for livestock so Bill furnished us with 300 Hereford cows on shares. We’d sell in the fall and split the check. Bill was real good to us.”

Hamann liked to tell a story about a bachelor living down near the South Dakota border. When the man asked Hamann to come and look at his hogs, Bill complied. Expecting to see hog pens, he was surprised when the guy asked him to get up and drive a horse and wagon filled with corn. The fellow got up on a saddled horse and told Hamann to follow him. After a mile or so, the farmer started calling his hogs – they were loose on the range!

“Hogs come out of every draw,” Hamann said. “Old ones, young ones, good ones, crippled ones!”

With his wagonload of corn as his flute, Bill became a sort of Pied Piper leading more than a thousand hogs to a nearby stockyard. And, Bill bought every one of those pigs, although he had no idea what to do with them. He ended up loading them into stock cars and sending them east. Then, he called a Minnesota feeder to tell him he should expect a rather large shipment of hogs.

“What am I going to do with them?” the buyer asked.

Bill said, “I don’t know. That’s why you got ’em.” It turned out the buyer was happy with the shipment and wanted more just like them. Bill told him, “I don’t think there’s any more like that in the world!”

Bill and his wife, Viola, raised 10 children over the years. He never retired, but he was seriously slowed down by a stroke when he was 74; he died six months later — on this date in 1979.

Mayville State University


Dec. 1 — Mayville State University opened its doors as Mayville Normal School on this date in 1890.

Mayville Normal struggled financially during its first six years. The panic of 1893 caused Gov. Roger Allin to veto many education appropriations, and the school’s future was uncertain. Enrollment fluctuated between one and two hundred students, taught by only six faculty members. The school’s six departments included English, history and geography, mathematics, the natural sciences, music and drawing, and the final department, Latin.

One student who came to Mayville in 1896 was Usher Burdick, who later became a high-profile politician in North Dakota. He enrolled late that year because of commitments to a threshing crew. There was no room for him in the male dormitory, and it was finally arranged for him to board with the school janitor’s family until Christmas. When Burdick took his entrance exams, he failed arithmetic and history and had to repeat two elementary courses, which he found both humbling and enlightening.

In 1897, the legislature overrode Gov. Frank Brigg’s veto on education spending, and Mayville Normal’s future was stabilized. That year, the school hired Joseph Carhart as its new president. Historian Elwyn Robinson wrote, “…bearded, experienced Joseph Carhart, with his black skullcap, brought a golden age. He was considered one of the ablest normal-school administrators in the nation.”



Dec. 2 — North Dakota has had two different towns named Calvin. The first one, in Rolette County, consisted of a rural post office established Oct. 23, 1899. The postmaster was Ira Eisenhour, and his job was short lived. His post office order was rescinded almost exactly a year later, and that was the end of Calvin number one.

The second town of Calvin was — and still is — near the Canadian border in Cavalier County. It was founded as a Great Northern Railroad townsite in 1902. The first postmaster was Rev. David Sykes, who named the town for John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian Church. It’s interesting that John Calvin had changed his name from his birth name of Jean Chauvin. In Latin, Calvin means bald.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from Humanities North Dakota.


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