When Agassiz Elementary School opened a hundred years ago in Fargo, it was not without controversy. Located on Eighth Avenue South across the street from a corn field, some felt it was too far out in the country. Others were outraged that the $110,000 cost was three times the original estimate.
The Nonpartisan Leader reported in 1915 that school board chairman C.O. Smith was “a gentleman well known and not inconspicuous in politics.” The selection of his political crony, Samuel Crabbe, as the building’s architect – and the defects that resulted – caused the greatest uproar of all; for Mr. Crabbe was the city engineer, not an architect, and, by most accounts, an incompetent engineer.
Allegations flew fast and thick. Concrete floors above children’s heads were seventeen inches thick and weighed sixty tons each, their edges resting on walls set in Red River Valley silt and quicksand. Concrete was cracking; the heating plant was defective; the hardware used in construction was much more expensive than in comparable schools.
Despite assurances from board members, citizens feared Agassiz’s flat roof might collapse under a heavy snowfall. To allay concerns, the school’s building engineer climbed up on the roof after every snowfall to measure accumulation. His inspections consistently showed no cause for worry, but his assurances fell on deaf ears.
Finally, at precisely 2:05 p.m. on this date in 1915, workers began placing tons of pig iron on the roof to test its strength. By 4:15 p.m. more than 18,000 pounds of pig iron had been piled upon the roof, and it remained there until workers began hauling it down forty-one hours later. The test load equaled sixteen feet of snow, but citizens of Fargo were still not convinced, so reinforcements and pillars were added.
Eighty years after Agassiz opened, too late for its original detractors to feel vindicated, a portion of the roof finally did succumb to melting snow, but it collapsed into a newer classroom than the original 1912 structure.
Over the past century, Agassiz has educated students of all ages, currently serving as Fargo’s alternative Woodrow Wilson High School, as well as office space for other district programs. But few events there have provided as much drama as the pig iron incident 97 years ago today.
Dakota Datebook written by Karen Horsley
The Nonpartisan Leader, Fargo – October 14, 1915
The Forum, Fargo – December 2, 1915
Grand Opening Celebration advertising supplement to The Forum – March 4, 2012