Old Settlers in Trail County
On July 6, 1952, thousands of citizens, composing what was reported as the largest public gathering in the history of Traill County, North Dakota, assembled at Belmont Park, site of the pioneer Red River settlement of Frog Point, to dedicate a historical marker. So what the heck was United States Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee doing at this local affair? Well, he was running for president, as a Democrat, and wherever there was a crowd, he was willing to speak!
The 1952 celebration was the ninth annual picnic of the Old Settlers Memorial Association, an organization dating from March 2, 1944. On that date there was a public meeting in the old Belmont Town Hall, with those in attendance agreeing to form the memorial association. Their intent was, they said, “with solemn faith in God, full confidence in mankind and irrevocable fidelity to our country and institutions,” to collect funds and construct a “pioneer’s memorial building,” which would house records and artifacts of the area.
All this sounds homely and typical and not all that interesting, but we should put this Belmont memorial impulse into the context of a larger history. According to the historian David Wrobel, the old settler association was an organizational type of profound importance throughout the American West. Old settlers – that is, original settlers of any locality, gathered into associations to hold picnics, write histories, and emplace monuments – gave us the original take on our historical identity. In the course of memorializing the pioneers, the organized old settlers laid down a narrative of hardship, hope, and progress that established a sense of community and direction.
As for the details of the Old Settler’s Monument at Belmont Park, I’m indebted to one of my fine senior seminar students, Betsy Ferwerda. She dug up the facts on an otherwise forgotten monument.
This old settler monument is different from others in one key respect: it gives equal time to Norwegians. What I mean is, old settler associations and their monuments are generally the creations of Anglo-American pioneers. Ethnic immigrant folk are not involved. In Traill County, though, the old settlers got started so late, in 1944, that by then the Norwegians had come to feel the same sort of old-settler impulse as the Yankees.
The roster of founders of the old settlers association includes these names: Alfred Torgerson, Albert Haugstad, Carl Gronberg, Albert Hovet, Olaus Renslen, Oscar Nesvig, Carl Gunlickson, Gunder Dale, Martin Nettum, L. C. Odegard, Hermer Bangen, Julius Spokely, Melvin Sondreal, Theodore Peterson, and Edwin Cooper. Almost all of those, I’m sure you noticed, are Norwegian names! Which is fitting, since more than 60 percent of the settlement generation of Traill County was Norwegian.
I think, too, the founding of an old settler association in the middle of the Second World War, in 1944, gave it a certain rhetorical cast – I mean that stuff about faith in God, mankind, and our country.
The Old Settlers Memorial Association never did get its building, but it did emplace a nice historical marker at Belmont. The granite monument was crafted by Myhre’s Monumental Sales & Service – a gravestone maker in Fargo. It depicts a covered wagon on the left side, a log cabin on the right, and the state flowers of Minnesota and North Dakota above. The legend reads: “Memory of the Pioneers who settled the Red River Valley.” Simple enough.
The old settlers held their last picnic in 1975, and in 1976 they turned the Belmont Park site over to the county. Old settlers live their threescore and ten, their monuments, being stone, a little longer, even if largely forgotten.