Time polishes perverse legends. We fans of Moorhead-Fargo history have always taken a peculiar pleasure in the wild and woolly tales of epic days gone by — Fargo as the long-ago divorce capital of the West, for one, or Moorhead as a booze-soaked Prohibition-era Saloon Central unrivaled across America.
It’s like discovering Blackbeard the Pirate or the Viking Harald Hardraada perched on a distant branch on your family tree … great conversational fun, especially now that the statute of limitations has run out.
But is the legend that Moorhead was “the wickedest city in the world” actually, you know … true? It’s based on the great booze boom that began June 30, 1890, the day the new state of North Dakota declared itself “dry”— a ban on the sale of alcohol that lasted until 1936, when the nation’s 18th Amendment was negated by the 20th.
By the next morning, saloon keepers in Fargo had packed up and begun the move to the east bank of the Red River — a strategy echoed by their peers in Grand Forks and Wahpeton as well.
The resulting barrage of barrooms set the stage for 25 years of wide-open taps in Moorhead, until temperance crusaders succeeded in passing their own prohibition that applied throughout Clay County.
Of course, drinking didn’t die out; it merely went underground, where it remained until the county ban was lifted the year after the U.S. began guzzling again. So Moorhead, once the wettest of the wet, stuck it out with the ostensibly dry even longer than the rest.
But in its heyday, did it really deserve its “wickedest” reputation?
I turned to one of my favorite truth-tellers, local historian Carroll Engelhardt, last week. Our conversation was inspired by “Wet or Dry,” the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County’s terrific new exhibit on what they deftly term “the spirited debate about the morality of alcohol from our Wild West past to the end of Prohibition.”
You might say that Carroll wrote the book on the city’s wild side. His 2007 history, “Gateway to the Northern Plains” — published by University of Minnesota Press — puts the turn-of-the-century drama into perspective.
In 1884, little Moorhead had just a dozen saloons, and Fargo, 34. But when Dakota Territory was split into a pair of fledgling states in 1889, the hurricane-force temperance movement that battered the nation spilled into the conversation. Middle-class morality that laid social ills at the feet of liquor was pitted against the traditions and tastes of working-class men and certain ethnic groups, including the Germans and Irish.
While the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and churches preached sobriety, the liquor industry advocated indulgence. Saloon keepers and dealers lobbied hard to keep bars open. One of their tactics was opposition to women’s suffrage to keep the ladies away from the ballot box.
When citizens of what would become North Dakota assembled to vote on their freshly written constitution, they were actually to vote twice: once on the constitution itself, and separately on whether to prohibit the sale of alcohol. The prohibitionists won by a hair … and neighboring Minnesota beckoned.
On June 30, 1890, all of Fargo’s saloons officially closed. On July 1 and in days to follow, the most robust popped up east of the Red River. Home-grown entrepreneurs prospered, too, in the wide-open city of Moorhead. By the mid-1890s, 45 licensed saloons lined the streets — streets paved, incidentally, with license fees that made up the bulk of city revenue.
Now upstanding Fargo citizens sniffed that Moorhead was “a segregated suburb for indulgences not tolerated in Fargo itself.” (That’s a quote from the cities’ centennial history book published 40 years ago.)
It was clear, however, where the majority of the Minnesota city’s drinkers were coming from. “Jag wagons” provided Fargo-Moorhead’s first public transportation. Saloons sponsored the four-seater conveyances, drawn by a single horse, to collect eager drinkers at the corner of NP Avenue and Broadway, then haul them home when they’d had more than enough.
Carroll points out the dilemma the booming saloons presented to civic founders like Solomon Comstock. As Clay County’s first prosecuting attorney in the 1870s, he saw firsthand the mayhem that drunkenness inspired. But he also recognized the prosperity that came from the liquor trade.
“He couldn’t decide whether to be pure or prosperous,” the historian muses. “He and his wife, Sarah,were strongly in favor of temperance. But he also understood that the temptations of alcohol included stiff license fees, the main source of money for civic improvements.”
Among the down sides of catering to the single working-class men who populated most of Moorhead’s saloons were the inevitable enticements of gambling and prostitution. Police records chronicle the many assaults that stemmed from the former from the time of settlement, when beer-soaked field hands and lumberjacks flush with fresh paychecks often fell victim to the tender mercies of card sharks.
Carroll has dug deeper, too, into the houses of ill repute that fed off the underside of the saloon trade. Knowing they couldn’t eliminate the hard-working ladies, he says, the city councils on both sides of the river settled for keeping the women out of the bars and off the streets. They limited their enterprises to designated red light districts — in Fargo, the area where the Fargo Library and City Hall now stand; in Moorhead, a stretch along the railroad track north of present-day Hornbacher’s.
“Prostitution was like alcohol,” the historian, now retired from the Concordia College faculty, observes. “You can prohibit selling alcohol, but you don’t stop drinking.”
Reformers, though, made headway through the ’90s and after the turn of the century. They elected reform leaders who cleaned up corruption and hired police officers who gradually got the upper hand, at least in enforcing curfews and Sunday closing laws. City boosters and railroad promoters understood that the rowdy crowd caused inbound solid citizens to turn away. Reining in the trade not only relieved some of the pressure for outright prohibition, it was just good business.
That’s the evidence, then, that this early town was indeed as wild and woolly as the best — or worst — of the West. But did that really make Moorhead “the wickedest city in the world”? Carroll just laughs.
Leave it to Mark Peihl, another historian extraordinaire and architect of much of the factual framework of local history, to let the air out of that beloved balloon.
A stickler for historical fact, Mark settles the perennial question in the tabloid published by the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County for its impressive new exhibit, “Wet or Dry?” He traces the not-uncommon boast to countless other locales that have claimed the title, many with deeper and broader credentials … some, even, with pirates.
He tracked the claim back to a flamboyant Chicago Tribune columnist and NBC radio commentator, Floyd Gibbons. The tirelessly self-promoting journalist rose from police reporter at the Minneapolis Daily News to 30 years spent covering wars and hot spots on four continents. A tabloid reporter, interviewing him in 1937, wrote: “And in a conversation with Floyd, who has knocked about in Port Said, Marseilles, Alexandria and Shanghai, we asked what was the toughest town he’d even been in.
“He said, ‘It was Moorhead, Minnesota.’”
Maybe true. Maybe not. Personally, knowing too many hard-drinking journalists myself, I’m betting on “not.” But when it comes to romantic claims, at least the questionable boast is undeniably light-years more promising than the banner they wave in Sheboygan, Wis. — the “wurst city in the world.”