The Best in the West
Over the years a surprising number of Cavalier County residents have opened a forgotten trunk, found something unusual in the back of a cupboard or found an old box of pictures with a rolled-up photo of a crowd of people standing on the steps of a capitol or university far from home. The front row of the group photographed are sitting on chairs and holding on to a banner with the words “The Best in the West” in big letters. On other photos a prominent spot is reserved for the band that accompanied them. Seven of these historic photos are displayed at the Cavalier County Museum at Dresden, and over the years they have generated hundreds of questions from visitors who study the faces and mention “this looks like my grandpa.” They could be right.
By Rita Maisel
While working on the Langdon Centennial book, people would bring in copies of these pictures so we knew it was an important part of Langdon history. Initially we did try to find lists of the travelers. What we found were stories, but the information was not complete enough to include in the book, so a compromise was reached. One of the long pictures was reduced so it would fit along the top of pages 30 and 31 in the centennial book with an abbreviated identification. Later additional information was compiled for a Langdon Long Ago column on the tours. When people would ask me to repeat the column, I could not remember when it had been written. A whole summer in recent years had been spent trying to index early columns saved in scrapbooks by the late Duane Field only to find that titles I remembered had not survived. The partial index, which we had not printed out at the time, was somewhere in a computer at the library. That listing, when located, gives only the column title and the newspaper date. The actual story, if we could locate it, would have to be found in a bound volume of papers with that date. History involves a lot of trial and error plus some legwork. We recently found a tour story from October 14, 1985. The earlier reports it had been written from dated to the 1920s and apparently were written by B. E. Groom, who was editor of the Cavalier County Republican from 1912 until 1925, and helped to promote and lead the tours. The wording of the 1985 story uses the vocabulary of B. E. Groom’s writing which is still fun to read.
Mr. Groom began with, “They carried a large banner proclaiming them “The Best in the West” and traveled on specially chartered trains composed of sleeping cars, day coaches and baggage facilities while enjoying what, for some, was the first view they had of Winnipeg, the Twin Cities or Duluth. Officially the trips were known as the Farmers Tours and from 300 to 600 people took part in them each June from 1923 through 1927.”
Note: Museum visitors told us tours had as many as 800 participants, and because they did not notice any duplication in the seven pictures displayed there might have been additional tours. Both on behalf of Cavalier County and the Greater North Dakota Association which he also represented for many years, Mr. Groom also led delegations to Chicago during this era and on through later years. He is also remembered for leading local groups to many of the early Winter Shows at Valley City.
The tour idea originated with County Agent W. L. Johns and B. E. Groom who felt that local famers would be better farmers if they had an opportunity to observe farming methods elsewhere. This spread to include following the crops to market, visiting dairy and creamery operations, mills, grain markets, packing houses, factories, mines, universities and government buildings. Whether wives and teenagers were included the first year or not has been forgotten, but from 1924 on there were special features for both as a part of the tours.
The 1924 trip is recalled as having visited Grand Forks, Fargo and Wahpeton. In 1925 Winnipeg was their destination with many having their first escalator rides while shopping at Eaton’s and Hudson Bay. Visitors to Winnipeg recalled that meals were served at the Fort Garry Hotel across from the depot and that much of the sightseeing in downtown Winnipeg was done on foot.
The 1926 tour visited the Twin Cities where they brought back pictures reportedly taken from sightseeing streetcars on Hennepin Avenue, visited many of the large mills, picnicked in the parks and had their picture taken on the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul.
Note: One of the many memories that comes into most conversations about the tours is that of a local couple who had hoped to get away on their honeymoon undetected and were spotted by tour members who saw to it that their marriage got off to a rousing start before the train reached its destination. Their story in the Langdon book lists their marriage as 1926.
Newspapers in 1927 listed 650 people from all parts of Cavalier County who were accommodated by a fleet of fourteen sightseeing buses on their tour of Duluth, cruised Lake Superior by boat, dancing to the tunes provided by the Milton Band which accompanied them, and liked the experience so well that many of them returned in the evening for the moonlight cruise.
Note: Members of the 1927 tour included a group of young ladies, recent high school graduates, who had received tickets for the tour as graduation gifts. Add to this the Milton Band and a good time was had by all.
Another highlight at Duluth was visiting the steel mills and then the factories which turned that same steel into barb wire and some 3 million nails per day. At Bemidji they visited the park now famous for its replica of Paul Bunyan and were the guests of the local Chamber of Commerce who later reported that the North Dakota dirt farmers and their wives consumed over 500 pounds of Bemidji pike at a fish fry in the park. They got their first view of the process of turning sugar beets into sugar at Crookston. At several points, local citizens loaned them cars so they could visit experimental farms, dairies and greenhouses. At the universities they had classes in new or improved farming methods, home economics, horticulture and poultry raising.
Most of the tours lasted four days, and the total cost per person ranged from $11 to $14.25 for railroad fares, sleeping accommodations and sightseeing excursion fees. Meals, when not provided as a complimentary feature by local organizations, were extra. Their special train would remain parked at the depot while they were sightseeing so they could use the sleeping cars and have a place for their baggage during the day.
Each year a group picture was taken, and many people brought the pictures home as a souvenir of their trip. The one in the Langdon book has the photographer and his address so we assume that must be the picture for 1925 although the faces are too small to identify today. Other souvenirs were china plates, mugs, sets of salt and pepper shakers, or an ash tray with identified scenes from the city visited. Box cameras were not plentiful until the next decade, but some did bring snapshots of family or friends taken at a tourist stop. Almost everyone purchased post cards at the various sites. Most sent them to their friends and family. The postage stamps were primarily of the 1 cent variety – a bargain in any era. They also brought home many memories of special experiences which remained undiminished by the passing years. And those who heard their stories continue to pass them on to the current generations.