Dakota Datebook

Gudmundur Grimson, Part 1

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Gudmundur Grimson was born in Iceland in 1878. When he was four, his family of 15 immigrated to Dakota Territory and settled north of Milton, and it was on this date in 1965 that Grimson died. Today we bring you part one of his 3-part story.

When Gudmundur was 9, he started attending classes in a sod-roofed log schoolhouse where others like him didn’t yet speak English. A few years later, he walked four miles to town to enroll in the Milton village school, but they wouldn’t admit pupils from other districts because of the cost. Fortunately, principal John Nugent interceded for the boy, assuring the school board that Gudmundur would cause no extra expense for the Milton district.

After finishing eighth grade, Gudmundur worked as a country schoolteacher until he saved enough to go to UND – $150. After he enrolled, Grimson and two other Icelandic boys shared a small shack across the tracks from the school. One of Grimson’s roommates was Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who later became a world-famous Arctic explorer. The three boys had a weekly food budget of $1.60, and they subsisted on their generation’s version of Ramin Noodles… Grapenuts. A wood burning cook-stove provided their only heat, and it had to be fed every two hours. They rotated the chore at night and faced their frigid mornings with cups of hot Postum.

In 1905, Grimson earned a fellowship in political economics to study at Chicago University for three terms. In the spring, he returned to Grand Forks, completed his course requirements and was awarded his L.L.B. degree. He got married and hung out his shingle in Munich, north of Devils Lake. It was there that he got to know a farm family headed by Ben Tabert.

When Grimson was elected State’s Attorney five years later, he moved to Langdon. Twelve years after that, he met the Taberts again – this time across his office desk. They came to him, because they believed their 22 year-old son, Martin, had been flogged to death in a Florida lumber camp; they had letters from witnesses that made Grimson believe they were right.

The previous summer, young Martin had set out to see America. It was the first time he’d ever been outside Cavalier County, but he was confident he could pay his way working as a laborer. He eventually reached Florida but couldn’t find work. When he ran out of money, he hopped a freight train, but he was caught and put in jail. A Leon County judge fined him $25 plus costs; if he couldn’t pay, he would spend the next three months in jail.

Martin sent a telegraph to his parents that read: “IN TROUBLE AND NEED FIFTY DOLLARS TO PAY FINE FOR VAGRANCY. PLEASE WIRE MONEY IN CARE SHERIFF.”

Ben, his father, immediately sent a $75 bank draft to Tallahassee sheriff J. R. Jones, but the letter and money came back to the Taberts with “party gone” written on the envelope.

Unbeknownst to this family, Martin had become the victim of a slave-labor penal system that was legal in a number of Florida counties, including the one where the boy was sentenced. Sheriff Jones supplied convicts to the Putnam Lumber Company as “leased labor,” for which he received a fee of $20 per man, which is why Ben Tabert’s letter came back unopened.

Tune in tomorrow as we explore what Gudmundur Grimson discovered during his investigation.

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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