Dakota Datebook

Illegal German School

Monday, November 21, 2005

Segregation, racism, religious differences – issues such as these have not typically been common within North Dakota schools. But they have existed in different forms during the state’s history.

One high-profile case erupted in the town of Expansion, a tiny port on the Missouri River that never got beyond a population of 75. The townsite was later covered by Lake Sakakawea after the building Garrison Dam.

This area in Mercer County had a large population of prosperous German families whose children entered public school unable to speak English. The parents felt this disadvantage was a large problem for their youngsters. These families were predominantly Evangelical Lutheran, and they desired more religious instruction for their children, as well.

Sometime in 1915, a number of German Lutheran farmers decided they needed to have their own school. They organized, adopted resolutions and petitioned Mercer County Superintendent of Schools Thomas to approve their plan.

They already had a church building, so they began to remodel it to include a school. They set a curriculum that offered all the same classes as the public school, but which also added some religion-based courses. They ordered textbooks with money from their own pockets and hired a graduate from Concordia College in Moorhead to be the instructor.

At some point in early 1916, Superintendent Thomas decided to oppose the school, because the children were being taught English through the use of the German language. He said English had to be taught from within the English language.

The farmers resisted, saying they were in charge of their children’s well-being, not the government. They wanted their kids to have the best education they could, based on their own unique needs.

Superintendent Thomas responded by ordering the parochial school closed. Invoking the compulsory education law, he declared all the German children had to immediately enroll in the public school.

The challenge was too much for the Germans, and they refused. At least two were arrested.

In March 1916, the Bismarck Daily Tribune reported, “Jacob Haffner was arrested, charged with refusing to send his children to school. Superintendent Thomas claimed the parochial school was not provided for by law. Haffner was taken before a justice at Stanton and fined. This case has been appealed to the district court on the grounds that the parent, not the state, is keeper of his child.”

Three days later, State Superintendent E. J. Taylor sided with the county superintendent. Sullivan and Sullivan, high-profile Mandan attorneys were representing Haffner, as well as Fred Pfenning, who was arrested on a similar charge.

A Stanton newspaper reported their cases were to go before the state Supreme Court, and on this date in 1916, Sullivan and Sullivan succeeded in getting Judge Nuessle to order State Superintendent Taylor to show just cause for why he didn’t approve the school’s curriculum.

Unfortunately, records of what ultimately happened no longer exist. If you know the end of the story, we’d like to hear from you!

Bismarck Daily Tribune. 9 and 19 Mar 1916. 21 Sep 1916.
Mercer County Republican. 23 Nov 1916.

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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