Friday, December 17, 2010
Oscar Henry Elmer, the Red River Valley’s first preacher, conducted the first religious service in Fargo on this date in 1871. Without a church to preach in, services were held in a make-shift tent. Attendance to the evening service was encouraged by the promise of free liquor after the service. Among the rough settlers and railroad men then populating the city, this offer proved excellent motivation for the cold winter trek to the church tent.
Elmer himself was born and raised in upstate New York. He attended Seminary in New York City from 1865 to 1868, before moving to St. Paul, Minnesota. There, he was ordained in the Presbyterian Church, and was assigned his first congregation in Sauk Centre. In 1871, the church sent Elmer to the new town of Moorhead. The railroad had not yet crossed the river to Fargo, and Moorhead had sprung up as a railroad camp, primarily composed of men working for the railroad, and those providing food, supplies, and lodging to the workers. The town consisted of about twenty shanties and tents, and few permanent structures.
On October 22nd, Elmer led the first church service in Moorhead, preaching from “…the dining room of the Chapin House [Hotel].” On December 17th, Elmer crossed the river and held the first church service in Fargo. On January 1st, the railroad bridge to Fargo was completed, but trains were unable to cross until March. During that time, Elmer continued to preach from the Chapin House Hotel in Moorhead, as well as traveling to Grand Forks, Fargo, Lisbon, Casselton, Mapleton, Wheatland, Tower City and Turtle River to conduct services and organize churches. In June, a “rough chapel” was erected in Moorhead by the church’s eight members; this would later become the First Presbyterian Church. Elmer also began a Sunday school in Fargo out of J. G. Keeney’s timber shanty. Keeney used the wooden room as his law office the rest of the week.
Elmer’s contributions to the Red River Valley were not confined to religious matters; the Reverend also helped to create public schools, Moorhead’s first hospital, the YMCA, and the Prairie Home Cemetery. He worked along with his wife in Moorhead until 1886, when he became pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Crookston. After serving seven years at that church, he was sent back to St. Paul, where he remained active until his death in 1904.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
Lounsberry, Col. C. A. 1919 Early History of North Dakota: Essential Outlines of American History: 618. Liberty Press: Washington, D.C.
Oscar H. Elmer Papers, 1869-1901, MS 245. NDSU Institute for Regional Studies and University Archives. North Dakota State University, Fargo.