HIGHLAND ACRES AND THE BISMARCK VETERANS HOMEOWNERS COOPERATIVE ASSOCIATION — PRODUCTS OF A PERFECT STORM
Highland Acres Addition to the city of Bismarck, was a housing subdivision developed cooperatively by a group of returning World War II veterans in the 1940s and 1950s. Its success led to the subsequent development of nearby Highland Acres Second and Third Additions and Torrance and Torrance Hill Additions. Together they make up today’s Highland Acres neighborhood in west Bismarck, a neighborhood of some 400 single-family homes, a school, and two churches.
A “perfect storm” of circumstances, many of them unique to North Dakota, set the stage and opened the curtain for the development of Bismarck’s Highland Acres by the Bismarck Veterans Homeowners Cooperative Association, guaranteeing its place in North Dakota’s history.
First, in post-war America, millions of young men returned home, married millions of young women and needed housing. Highland Acres was Bismarck’s response.
Second, the project was launched as a cooperative. The cooperative movement was exceptionally strong in North Dakota, bringing electricity and telephones to rural North Dakota in the form of the North Dakota Rural Electric and rural telephone cooperatives; fuel and other farm supplies through the Farmers Union Oil Company; insurance for homes, farms, vehicles and medical care through the Farmers Union Mutual Insurance Co.; and markets for grain — elevators for farmers to sell their crops through the Farmers Union Grain Terminal Association.
Most city dwellers in North Dakota were just one generation removed from the farm, and most had benefited from, or still participated in, local and statewide cooperatives. So it not was not surprising that the response to the housing shortage in Bismarck was the formation of a cooperative to get homes built for returning veterans. While the cooperative structure ultimately failed, it was critical to the launch of the project, which eventually succeeded.
Third, because the project was launched as a cooperative, it caught the attention of another cooperative venture, the North Dakota Central Credit Union. The Central Credit Union was a child of the North Dakota Farmers Union, the ultimate cooperative in the state. The Farmers Union, organized in North Dakota in 1927, grew out of the state’s socialist movement of the early 20th century. By the time of the post-war housing shortage, in addition to its other cooperative business ventures, it had also organized its own lending and savings institutions, in the form of credit unions, organized at the local level but partnered together statewide as the North Dakota Central Credit Union, owned by Farmers Union cooperative members. Credit unions worked by members pooling their savings to provide financing to other cooperative ventures, such as the Bismarck Veterans Homeowners Cooperative Association. So the Highland Acres venture had immediate access to credit to begin operations.
Fourth, there was the Bank of North Dakota. Financing individual homes was a critical part of the venture, and that’s where the Bank of North Dakota came in. A product of the Nonpartisan League takeover of North Dakota government for a decade earlier in the 20th century, and still today the nation’s only state-owned bank, it stretched its charter provisions, to provide home mortgages to co-op members, greatly aiding the sale of homes by providing a central clearinghouse for prospective homeowners.
And fifth, the timing of two events unique to North Dakota also played a key role in Highland Acres development. By the time the war ended, plans were already being implemented to begin the state’s largest-ever infrastructure project, construction of the massive Garrison Dam on the Missouri River. Not only did it provide jobs for returning veterans, enabling them to stay in their home state, but it brought a flood of new workers as well, and the promise of economic development for central North Dakota once it was completed. Thus the need for housing.
And the discovery of oil in western North Dakota in the early 1950s brought more new residents, new wealth and two entrepreneurs to North Dakota, names that will still be familiar to many North Dakotans today (well, OK, pretty OLD North Dakotans), who rescued and completed the project as a private venture once the cooperative structure had broken down.
The absence of any one of those factors — a critical need for new housing, a strong cooperative movement, a state-owned bank, the construction of the Garrison Dam and the discovery of oil — might have doomed the project. The existence of all of them guaranteed its success. Here is the story of Highland Acres.
THE DREAM BEGINS
“For those committed to keeping preservation in contact with the most significant historical events in the twentieth century United States, the post-World War II suburban landscape will be the defining resource.” — David L. Ames, professor of Urban Affairs and Public Policy and Geography, University of Delaware
If Bismarck had a suburban landscape, it would be Highland Acres, a neighborhood of about 400 homes on the city’s west edge, developed to meet the post-World War II housing shortage that was as critical here as any place in America.
Dr. Ames writes, “The suburban landscapes that developed around American cities after World War II are among the most significant historic resources of the 20th century; they represent the fulfillment of the dream of home ownership and material well-being for a majority of Americans.”
“In them,” Dr. Ames continues, “a distinctive settlement pattern emerged, centered on the single-family house on its individual lot sited within the large-scale, self-contained subdivision with a curvilinear street pattern.”
Such a place was postwar Bismarck, where that dream was fulfilled for many families by the Bismarck Veterans Homeowners Cooperative Association.
In 1945, in Bismarck, and across America, a generation that had left its parents’ homes as boys four years earlier to fight a great war began returning home as young men, some to their sweethearts, others with sweethearts on their arms, and they needed places to live.
In Bismarck, the City Commission appointed a group of community leaders, headed by Kenneth W. Simons, the editor of The Bismarck Tribune, to a newly formed Bismarck Municipal Housing Committee, which arranged to bring in trailers for use by returning veterans.
But members of Bismarck’s veterans’ organizations — the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans — felt that veterans were not getting enough say in the fight against the lack of housing, so in early 1946 a Veterans Housing Committee was formed, made up of members of all three groups.
The American Legion put up $200 to the support of the activities of the Veterans Housing Committee, saying they expected to be paid back if an organization was formed to build homes.
Once again, Tribune editor Simons, himself a veteran and active American Legion member, emerged as a leader, using the resources of his newspaper to push the effort forward. The group set as its aim a mass building program, and to get it rolling, Simons printed an advertisement in the newspaper seeking to learn if there was interest in such a homebuilding program. There was.
The Tribune reported more than 150 persons answered the ad, expressing interest in building a house. On the basis of the response, the group decided to get a home building organization started.
Meetings were held. On April 2, 1946, under the headline “LOCAL BUILDING CO-OP FORMED” The Bismarck Tribune reported “More than 150 home-seekers attended a meeting Monday night in the Veterans Club and approved articles of incorporation for a co-operative to be formed for building homes in Bismarck.”
Of note was the word “co-operative.”
Just a week later, on April 10, 1946, the veterans organizations and the city’s Housing Committee formed the Bismarck Veterans Homeowners Cooperative Association, and April 27, just over two weeks later, they filed the articles of incorporation with the North Dakota Secretary of State. Things began moving fast.
Initially, 108 persons paid a fee of $100 — not an insignificant sum in 1946 — to become a stockholder in the cooperative. The group elected a 19-member board of directors (whose size the co-op would later come to regret) and set a membership goal of 125. The members were not required to be veterans, but about three-fourths of them were veterans.
From the 19-member board, seven “Division Chiefs” were elected to become, in essence, the management committee of the Association. The seven divisions were Management, Finance, Engineering, Architecture, Materials, Contracts and Community Facilities.
FINDING THE LAND
The first task was to find a tract of land. The organization was large enough that the land would need to be located on the city’s edge. Most people in Bismarck believed that the city’s growth would be north of the Capitol and west toward the Missouri River. The city’s Municipal Country Club Golf Course was on the northwest edge of town, and the group initially contacted the city and asked if they would be interested selling that land to the association and in finding a new location for a golf course and the city’s softball diamonds which sat alongside it. The idea was formally proposed to the Bismarck Park Board at a meeting on April 17, 1946, by editor Simons, on behalf of the newly formed Homeowners Association.
Simons told the group the golf course and softball diamond land was attractive because of its location and terrain — it was at the very edge of the city at that time, in the rolling hills surrounding Jackman Coulee, a deep gully with a running stream at the bottom, which pretty much formed the city’s northern and western boundaries.
“It costs no more to develop the land properly for best residential use than it does to accept the square lot lines we have now,” Simons said. “There is no good reason why even a modest home should not be placed in attractive surroundings. We can, if we want to do so, arrange the land so there will be a community play park at the back of every lot.”
Simons proposed the Park Board use the money from the sale of the land to build a new golf course and softball diamonds. The Park Board demurred, but pointed the association to a parcel just to the west of the golf course, owned by R.H. Keating and the Jaskowiak estate — land through which Jackman Coulee continued its southwesterly course to the Missouri River. Within weeks, the association had taken an option on 80 acres and began the legal process for purchasing it.
It was later able to add another adjacent 50 acres to the parcel, including an area on the north side of their land owned by the Park Board, which it obtained from the Park Board in trade for land along the coulee, which was not fit for residential use and would later become an undeveloped city park, providing a long strip of green space through the middle of the development. The land remains undeveloped today.
With enough members to ensure there would be a large-scale housing project, and with a sizeable bank account generated by the $100 memberships, planning began.
Contractors were contacted and they estimated that considerable cost savings — as much as 30 percent — could be realized if they built a large number of homes in a concentrated area with a few floor plans.
In May, the city was visited by Sam Kaplan, from the Chicago office of the National Housing Agency. His visit began a long association between the co-op and the agency. On May 16, the association’s secretary, C.H. Koch, wrote Kaplan a lengthy letter summarizing the progress the group had made in the short time it had been in existence.
“Everything is still very much in the planning stage,” Koch wrote. “Everyone of us, except our attorney, is working in his spare time. And we are all new at such a thing as this. We feel that if we can make this succeed, which I am certain we will do, we will have helped the housing problem in Bismarck immeasurably. Also we will have helped many people acquire homes of their own who, otherwise, might have a much more difficult time doing so.”
Koch went on to say his group would like assistance in financing, especially with G.I. loans for the veterans, assistance in getting materials (“priorities which will produce the goods, not mere hunting licenses”) and technical information on building.
In June, the association’s Finance Committee sent out its first formal communication with the stockholders, in a letter with a form to be filled out seeking financial information, stating “The information which must be had now is exactly the same as will later be required of the members by the Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans Administration and by the bank or other financing agency before G.I. or other loans can be secured by the members and before home construction can begin. The reasons the information must be had now are these:
- You must know how large a loan the Veteran’s Administration or Federal Housing Administration will guarantee or insure for you, in order to determine what price you can afford to pay for a home and how much of that price can be borrowed.
- The Architectural Committee must know what price you can and will pay in order to provide plans for the best possible house at the lowest possible cost for the members.
- The Finance Committee must know what house you want built, and for what price, how much you can pay in cash and how much you can and will borrow.
- The Executive Committee must know these facts before it can “talk turkey” with material supply companies, construction contractors, and money-lending agencies in order to secure the most advantageous arrangements.
In July, D.E. Freeman, chief of the association’s Management Division, flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of the Housing Agency staff and with North Dakota U.S. Sen. Milton Young. Both the agency and Sen. Young provided valuable assistance along the way as the work of the association progressed. The FHA sent its land planner from Chicago to assist the group and approved the Association for FHA insurance before construction began the following year.
In September, the association sent its Finance Division chief, R.W. Hermes, to Dayton, Ohio to meet with a similar group there that was a year or so ahead of the Bismarck effort. Based on what he had learned, and with help from the FHA, the association began preparing contracts for members to sign and start the home ownership process, making provisions for not just those who had down payments available and financing arranged, but also for the possible construction of homes by the association itself to be available on a lease-purchase basis to members who could not make a regular down payment.
Next: Buying the land, choosing a name.