Dakota Datebook

George F. Shafer

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

George F. Shafer was born in the town of Taylor in Stark County on this date in 1888. He was the first governor of North Dakota who was actually born in the state. He filled the office twice, from 1929 to 1932.

Shafer’s parents, Charles and Eva, had a ranch in what is now McKenzie County; they were among the first white settlers in that area. Charles opened a post office about five miles east of Watford City, and a settlement developed around it. Predictably, it was named after the Shafer family, which spelled their last name s-h-a-f-e-r. The town, however, used a different spelling,
s-c-h-a-f-e-r. It’s said that another settler, G.B. Metzger, saw Shafer’s name misspelled so many times that he thought it would be ironic to have the name of the whole town spelled incorrectly.

In 1906, opposed the town of Alexander and captured the designation of county seat. Schafer experienced a nice little boom, and by 1920, the population was up to 225 people. But, when the railroad failed to come through as planned, the population declined. The county seat moved to Watford City in 1941, and Schafer is now a ghost town.

Eva educated young George and his siblings, because there was, at that time, no established school in McKenzie County. George was 12 years old when he finally enrolled in school. He graduated with honors from Williston High School in 1908.

George went to college at UND, where he quickly became known for his sense of humor and his skills as a debater. At age 22, he wrote a history book on McKenzie County. The cowboy roundup, he said, was “often wet to the skin for days at a time; and, sleeping on a damp bed in the rain, the sleet, and the snow, there is little wonder that nearly every cowboy is a victim of rheumatism and a physical wreck at the age of thirty-five years.” One of the cowboys Shafer was referring to was Teddy Roosevelt.

He also talked about his father’s experience as a postmaster: “The mail was carried from Stroud by means of a spring wagon in the summer and a saddle horse in the winter,” Shafer wrote. “The distance was twenty-six miles and the trip was made twice each week. The stage driver, leaving Shafer in the morning, met the driver from Williston at Stroud at noon, and returned to Shafer the same afternoon. During the first year the postmaster conveyed the mail without compensation, in order that post office facilities might be established in the new county.”

Shafer graduated valedictorian of his class in 1913 and went back to his hometown to practice law. There, he lived in a homestead shack that had been moved into town. Within a year he was elected state’s attorney, and then again in 1916. The Non-Partisan League offered him their nomination for governor in 1918, but he decided to run for the office as a Republican. He narrowly lost the election to the Non-Partisan’s other choice, Lynn Frazier.

Shafer worked as the state’s Attorney General until 1928, when, at age 40, he became the youngest man ever elected governor. The state capitol burned down during his tenure, and he is credited with helping to design the present building, which was said to be the most efficient in the nation. He served in a time of drought and depression but, to his credit, the State Mill and Elevator still showed a good profit. Shafer also worked with landscape architects to map the Badlands in hopes of someday having them turned into a national park.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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