Interview with Carrie Harbison
Frontier Life in Belfield
The Harbisons, John and Carrie, came from New York City to open a general store at Belfield in 1884. John’s father, who ran a linen-import business in Brooklyn, provided enough money to finance their venture.
Would you tell us about Belfield and your business?
My husband built a general store on the south side of the railroad tracks. Other businessmen at this time were the two McBurney Brothers of Chicago, Louis Hay of Bay City, Michigan, John Thayer of Brooklyn, New York, and Max Bass of Chicago. Besides being proprietor of the store, Mr. Harbison is postmaster and operator of a freight line to Deadwood. He has operated the freight line for two years, hiring men to drive the horses and mules which were used to draw the covered wagons. On the return trips these men load the wagons with buffalo bones found scattered over the prairies. These are bought by Mr. Harbison for ten dollars per ton. He ships them to a firm in Detroit, Michigan, which in turn sells them in the East for fertilizer. At the time of our settling in Belfield there were about one hundred residents, only one of which could speak English; they were Swede, Norwegian, German, and French.
Does anything impress you about the country?
One of the things that impress me very much are the beautiful cactus blossoms all over the prairie. The prairie dog towns are very numerous and it is interesting to watch them. Great herds of antelope roam over the country.
Could you tell us about any amusing incidents in Belfield?
A man by the name of Robert Montgomery, who could neither read nor write, operated a saloon near us. Martha Dow, graduate nurse from a hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, moved in from Dickinson and opened a bakery next door to Montgomery’s saloon.
One night the justice of the peace came up on the train. As the hotel was closed, he had supper with us. After supper my little maid came in and said, “Mr. Montgomery is very sick. Will you go down and take your medicine kit?” I had taken a course in Red Cross work before I came West.
My husband, the justice of the peace, and I went down to Montgomery’s room. With him we found Martha Dow, standing beside his bed. I asked him if he would take some medicine. He said, “No, I am a very sick man and I am going to give all of my property to Martha.” The justice of the peace then gave me a paper to sign. After I had signed it, he gave it to Montgomery who placed a cross on it as he was unable to sign his name. The justice of the peace said, “I am going to marry the couple and I want you for a witness.” We thought it strange but did as he said, and the ceremony was performed.
The next morning I looked out of the window and saw Montgomery chopping wood. Mr. Harbison went out and asked, “Why were you married in bed last night? You are not sick.” “Well, to tell you the truth,” he replied, “I did not have a pair of pants to my name, only these overalls, and I was ashamed to be married in those!”
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.