Life Better for North Dakotans in Town and on the Farm

Fargo, 1915

Life on the farm and in the towns is no longer the dreary and often dreadful existence that faced the early homesteaders and community builders. To be sure, farmers and ranchers toil long hours without electricity and still fight prairie fires and isolation for long stretches of time in the winter, but the small, drafty homestead shack is pretty much a thing of the past.

Misses Palmer and Severud and their “wheels,” Milton, North Dakota, 1900s.  Courtesy of North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies.

Frame houses and improved soddies with cheery and well-furnished interiors are products of the farm prosperity of our times. Many have purchased new machinery, and some have automobiles. Trips to town are much more frequent than just a few years ago.
The towns have become busy centers of trade, entertainment, and culture. The larger towns have numerous specialty stores such as music, drug, apparel, shoe, candy, cigar, grocery. The latest in Minneapolis fashions and even California oranges are available. Both Fargo and Grand Forks have department stores with four floors of tempting goods. In smaller towns large general stores sell clothing, hardware, groceries, and most anything a customer needs. Stores usually stay open on Saturday nights to accommodate farm families.

Some farm folk even drove their cars to church in the winter, as this Park River family did in 1908.  Courtesy of North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies.

The bright lights of the cities — electricity has replaced the dimness of gas — attract rural folks to a wide variety of entertaining and cultural events. Sporting contests, moving pictures, traveling groups of vaudevillians (singing, comedy, acrobatic, and animal acts), street fairs, attractive parks, circuses, even opera and stage plays, give visitors and residents much to do. Libraries have the latest publications. The state’s Public Library Commission, organized in 1907, sends out over 300 traveling libraries to towns that do not have a permanent library.

Town bands and fraternal organizations are especially popular. Every town, every Indian reservation, every high school, even stores and social organizations, have bands. The music of John Phillips Sousa fills the North Dakota air. We are band crazy!

A gala Fourth of July in Osnabrock, North Dakota, about 1908.  Courtesy of North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies.

Fraternal organizations bring men together in large numbers. The Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Young Men’s Christian Association, Foresters, Elks, Woodmen of the World, and Sons of Norway provide men with a social setting. The Rebekahs, Eastern Star, Womens Christian Temperance Union, and Red Cross appeal to some women although many find musical and literary clubs more to their liking.

Thorson Brothers Store in Park River in 1899. Courtesy of North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies.

Whether in the country side or in towns, the church remains the main gathering place for not only spiritual but also social occasions. North Dakota has 2,500 churches with a combined membership of 226,000 people. About 40 percent are Roman Catholic and 30 percent are Lutheran. The rest are mostly Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist, and Episcopal. The church is especially important for our immigrant families. Their worship services are usually conducted in the native language, and before and after the service people exchange news from the old country. In both rural and town churches, women play one very important role. The men govern but the women raise the money for building and expanding facilities and activities. Ladies aids, altar societies, and Sunday schools provide women with both religious and social experiences.

Stopping for lunch with Mom and the kids in the 1900s on the farm in North Dakota.

Life in North Dakota is changing quickly. The towns are paving their old muddy streets and laying water and sewage systems. Telephones (Grand Forks, has 2,000!) are making life easier. And, the automobile, that wonderful horse-less carriage, is bringing everything closer.

One of the beautiful parks in North Dakota towns in the 1900s.  Courtesy of D. Jerome Tweton.

Mandt, North Dakota, band in 1900s.  Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

St. Patrick’s Church and parsonage in Dickinson.  Courtesy of D. Jerome Tweton.

North Dakota father and his daughters in front of trees they planted on their farm.  Courtesy of North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies.

A grand place to eat in Grand Forks in the 1900s.  Courtesy of D. Jerome Tweton.

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.

Grade Level


Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change