By Bill Vossler
One way for early struggling towns to import wealth and prestige into their streets just prior to 1889 statehood was to be chosen as a county seat. Or steal it, by hook or by crook. Following are the stories of how some of North Dakota’s small towns earned the coveted title of county seat.
Cooperstown vs. Hope
In 1882, Cooperstown and Hope vied for the county seat of Griggs County. Hope, then in Griggs County, had been founded in 1881. Cooperstown, on the other hand, had not yet been founded, according to the book, Griggs County History. The Cooperstown plat was filed October 26, 1882, “only twelve days before the November 7th election to decide the county seat,” the book says.
The book says the fight for the county seat was nothing short of sensational, “fraught with charges of armed robbery, assault, attempted kidnapping, ballot box stuffing, injunctions, court trials, and numerous legal and, perhaps, illegal maneuverings.”
Surprisingly, the no-town town won the election and became the county seat of Griggs County. According to Griggs County History, “After the election named Cooperstown as the county seat, [the town’s namesake Rollin C.] Cooper deemed it wise to get the records to Cooperstown as soon as possible before the opposition could get an injunction and prevent moving of the books.” The records were then kept at one end of Cooper’s granary.
About the same time, his mules carried building and other supplies to the site, and by the first of the new year, a fledging county seat had been built.
After “scouts” appeared to size Cooperstown up, the Cooperites should have been prepared for what happened next, as the book says, “. . .late one night the door (to the granary) was forced open and several men with drawn guns entered and overpowered the occupants” guarding the records while the courthouse was being built. “The records were carried to the sleighs outside and the men ordered to dress and accompany the raiders.” When they refused, the raiders, and the records, left.
Eventually at trial a compromise was reached. Cooperstown would remain county seat of Griggs County, and Hope would be moved into Steele County. But, it did not become a county seat.
St. John vs. Dunseith vs. Rolla vs. Rolette
No other county had as many claimants for county seat as Rolette County. Most early settlers located around St. John and Dunseith. When the county was formally organized on October 14, 1884, Dunseith was established as the county seat.
St. John balked. “There were citizens who were not content to see Dunseith as county seat,” says Laura Thompson Law in the book History of Rolette County. “. . St. John was said to be determined to get the county seat at any cost.”
At this point, the county records suddenly disappeared. “The board of county commissioners was charged... with the responsibility of recovering the records,” Law says, “and after Deputy Eaton had been absolved of blame, a special committee was named to find out who had made off with the documents.”
Just as suddenly as they disappeared, the records reappeared in the safety box in Dunseith.
During the run-up to the May 6, 1895 county seat election, much campaigning on both sides engendered considerable ill feeling, Law writes. Committees were sent from each town to observe voting.
To little avail, “a large amount of repeating is said to have taken place,” Law says. St. John, with 225 voters, somehow cast 1,125 votes and was declared the winner of the county seat.
Dunseith ignored the results. “. . .the officials at Dunseith continued to hold office as if no election had been held. The small war between Dunseith and St. John, begun with the county seat campaign, was now renewed – each side doing its best to outwit the other.”
To prevent its rivals from taking office, Dunseith instituted injunction proceedings. Law says, “Dunseith officials set out with documents which would prevent the St. Johnites, elected May 6 from qualifying for their positions.”
The cat-and-mouse game continued, as St. John officials “went into hiding across the Canadian line,” Law says, and sneaked back in the dark of night on the last qualifying day, appeared before the St. John justice of the peace, and qualified.
St. John then set up the county seat government. Never mind, Dunseith figured, and continued running its own county seat government.
“The county records for this period have the unique distinction of containing the minutes of two rival county boards of commissioners,” Law says. “Dunseith officials conducted business as if unaware that St. John even existed.” Road district supervisors were appointed, the county attorney’s salary was fixed, action was taken on a corduroy road to be built and farmers were urged to destroy wild mustard, Canadian thistle, and other noxious weeds. The Turtle Mountain Times was named the official county paper.
Meanwhile, St. John officials elected road supervisors, bonds of officers were approved and “The county commissioners instructed the sheriff to go to Dunseith and bring the county records and other county property to St. John,” Law says.
A band of armed St. John citizens discovered Dunseith’s county office doors wide open. The safe and desks were unlocked, and county records were gone.
A Minnewaukan court finally appointed St. John the official county seat. St. John officials retrieved the county seat records without a problem. However, they had trouble transporting them, dropping the safe into a creek, where, Law says “important books and papers were damaged.”
One or three years later--November 2, 1886 or 1888, depending on which record, Rolla ran against St. John, and won the county seat. In this curious election, Law says, “among those running for county treasurer was one listed as She-Skunk.”
In 1910, Rolette aimed for the county seat, garnering 1,082 votes to Rolla’s 700. However, two-thirds, or 1,194 votes, were needed to grant Rolette the county seat, so Rolla retained its position, and is still Rolette County’s seat today.
Rugby vs. Barton
Barton had some of the richest land in Pierce County, and the largest population in the late 1880s, when it put in an early bid for the county seat, which would probably assure a railroad line through the hamlet, and lifeblood for the town.
Providence was called into the matter, as Anton Ruud traveled through the northern part of the county with a petition “praying that Pierce County be organized with Barton the county seat,” said The Pierce County Tribune on November 16, 1982. “And that started a royal feud between the two cities. Even if there were no county officials to elect, two political factions were formed and announced a slate of candidates. A convention was held in front of the old Merchants Bank building in Rugby at which time the slate of candidates was named… the ‘steering committee’ being duly careful about not listing any men from Barton.
“This action on the part of Rugbyites, of course, did not sit too well with the neighboring county-seat aspirants and a mass meeting was called at Hovey’s Store in Barton for the purpose of nominating another ticket.”
On election day, rumor has it that a train going through Rugby was waylaid using rifles and/or whiskey to convince the travelers, all from Minot, to form a line of “voters” heading down to the polling place.
According to The Pierce County Tribune, “When the final vote was tallied by McHenry County Commissioners [on] April 11, 1889, Rugby had 195, Barton 96.” Bartonites were incensed, but nothing could be done. Rugby became the county seat, despite the accusations of fraud.
Fessenden vs. Sykeston
In a May 15, 1919 article in the Wells County Free Press titled “The Stealing of the Courthouse,” W. F. Strobel wrote about how he and others stole the Wells County Courthouse in 1891.
“We really had to steal that courthouse” he said. “Of course we had the legal right, for we had worked hard to get the county seat in Fessenden. We had advertising pencils printed with ‘Vote for Fessenden for County Seat’ and we went over the county and distributed those pencils. Of course we had a good deal of opposition from Harvey and some other towns. There were not many voters to be had, but we managed to get a pretty fair majority of the whole.”
Fessenden won the county seat vote. “Now came the question of how we were to get the courthouse from Sykeston to Fessenden,” Strobel said. Fearing physical violence, they used whiskey to get the sides pretty friendly with each other.
“We had plenty of help getting the courthouse building raised and loaded onto eight wagons,” he said. “Then came the long drive up (to Fessenden) with the building over bad roads and, for the most part, some half-tamed broncos for motive power. We loaded building, safes and all and got them to Fessenden after a long time.”
Courthouse books were also stored in other shacks in Sykeston, and rather than bring those buildings, Strobel said they brought just the books. “. . .we had so many books that there wasn’t room in the (courthouse) building for the county officers.”
Though county seats are as important today as ever to the economy and status of North Dakota towns, thankfully the shenanigans for obtaining them have disappeared.