Dakota Datebook

Ragnvold Nestos

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

North Dakota has the distinction of having had the first governor to ever be recalled, but the person who took away his job in the recall election is little known today. Eighty-two years ago, today, Ragnvold Nestos, an immigrant bachelor from Norway, became the thirteenth governor of North Dakota.

Nestos was born in a mountainous region of Norway in 1877, the oldest of ten children. Because Ragnvold was in charge of herding the cattle, and because their farm was so isolated, he rarely had the chance to attend school, averaging only about three months of school a year. When he immigrated to the United States at age 16, his education was equivalent to a fifth grade in American schools, and he could neither speak or understand English.

He traveled to America on a small boat called The Prince, using money borrowed from his uncle, who lived in Buxton, North Dakota. The trip from Liverpool to Philadelphia took thirteen days, and when he arrived, he had 85 cents in cash, and a stash of hard tack and butter. Unfortunately, the container smashed and covered his only good suit in butter; but the hard tack was still intact enough to last until he reached Buxton.

In his memoirs, Nestos recalled, “The Fourth of July was celebrated in that little town that year, but I had a lone nickel with which to celebrate the day. From the middle of July I worked long hours in haying for 75 cents a day, harvesting at $1.25, and threshing, $1.25 to $1.50 to pay my uncle for my ticket, to get clothes, and to get ready for school.

“In November 1893, I started in the first grade in the Buxton public schools. I worked for my board, doing chores during the week and working in my uncle’s harness shop on Saturdays.”

Within 4 years, Nestos advanced enough to be able to attend Mayville Normal School, followed by UND Law School. He became adept at debating and public speaking, and after starting a law practice in Minot, he got interested in politics, first getting elected as a state legislator.

By 1916, Nestos had started making a name for himself and narrowly missed being elected to the U.S. Senate. Four years later, he was endorsed by the independents to run for governor, but his friend and colleague, Bill Langer, joined the Non Partisan League and beat him.

The following year, a delegate convention of the Independent Voters’ Association met in Devils Lake to consider the state’s political future.

Nestos recalled, “Every county was represented; the total membership was nearly 600. The convention was called to consider whether any of the officials inaugurated in January should be recalled. After nearly two days of debate, we decided to recall the Governor, the Attorney General, and the Commissioner of Agriculture and Labor. I was selected by unanimous vote to make the race for the governorship against the man who then occupied the office, Lynn J. Frazier.

“A long and bitter campaign followed, and on October 28, 1921, the election resulted in victory of the Independent candidates. I won by a majority of 4,102. On November 23, 1921, the newly elected officials were inaugurated, the first to be elected in a recall election.”

In June of 1922, Nestos won the Republican nomination for governor and was reelected for another term.

Thus it was that a shepherd boy – with almost no education, with no English skills, and only eighty-five cents in the pocket of his buttery suit – rose to fill the highest office in North Dakota.

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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