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Published April 07, 2012, 11:30 PM

North Dakota bonanza farmer accomplished much before he perished on Titanic (WITH AUDIO)

FARGO - Even as her husband, H.F. Chaffee, helped her slip between the ship railings into a lifeboat below, Titanic passenger Carrie Chaffee believed everything would be fine. It’s going to be all right, her husband assured her. You’ll be rowed back to the ship in just a few minutes.

FARGO - Even as her husband, H.F. Chaffee, helped her slip between the ship railings into a lifeboat below, Titanic passenger Carrie Chaffee believed everything would be fine.

It’s going to be all right, her husband assured her. You’ll be rowed back to the ship in just a few minutes.

But as the small boat pulled away from the doomed ship, she recognized the source of the low purring sound. “It was the water rushing into the Titanic’s side, and my heart seemed to stop,” the Amenia, N.D., woman later told news reporters. “The great vessel was perceptibly lowering in the water.”

For the first time, Carrie Chaffee felt fear. She searched frantically to make out her husband among the dark shadows behind the Titanic’s rails.

“Lights were blazing behind them and ships dropping in front with a whirr of tackle,” Carrie said in an interview that appeared in an April 22, 1912, edition of The Forum, seven days after the Titanic sank. “I never saw him again.”

As the 100th anniversary of the epic disaster nears, some may not realize that one of North Dakota’s most prominent men was among the 1,488 passengers who didn’t make it. Chaffee, a successful bonanza farmer and financial wizard, was just 47 at the time of his death.

He left behind a devastated widow, five children and a business worth millions. But only after leading a life so fascinating that it’s sometimes hard to divine folklore from fact.

H.F.’s youngest son, Lester, described H.F. as a man who was kind enough to read to his son every night, but shrewd enough to keep a steel grip on his business concerns. “One thing you could say about the empire was that my father was a one-man deal,” Lester said in an interview with historians in 1974. “My father was a major stockholder in all these companies. He fixed it that way so he could give orders.”

In Hiram Drache’s book, “The Day of the Bonanza,” H.F. was described as the “managing genius of the bonanzas, an exacting man and a capable administrator who was not one to overlook the smallest details. He built his company into a multi-million dollar organization when other bonanzas were liquidating rapidly.”

‘A gentleman farmer’

Mark Chaffee of Fargo grew up hearing stories about H.F. from his dad, Lester. Nowadays, he regularly speaks to groups about his grandfather and the Titanic.

The Chaffee saga begins with Eben W. Chaffee, a Connecticut farmer. Representing a group of wealthy friends and neighbors, he came to this area to purchase land from the bankrupt Northern Pacific Railroad.

“They were selling land for one dollar an acre,” Mark said in a 1998 interview. “Eben had farmed rocky and hilly land in Connecticut and thought he had died and gone to heaven when he saw all the flat land here.”

He and the investors formed the Amenia and Sharon Land Co., purchasing 28,000 acres. He helped to establish the town of Amenia, located eight miles north of Casselton, and was sent as a delegate to Bismarck for the state’s Constitutional convention. He even had a town, located 23 miles southwest of Amenia, named after him.

After Eben’s death, his son, Herbert Fuller Chaffee, became president and general manager of the land company. H.F. was young, but he had already proven himself a capable manager. At age 19, he sold nine carloads of wheat right before the market dropped 3 cents per bushel and was thrilled by his foresight, according to a biography published on the White Star Line Memorial Foundation website (wslmf.org). White Star Line was the company that owned the Titanic.

Throughout his life, the detail-conscious H.F. carried an account book with him. He kept meticulous ledgers recording all of his expenditures, down to each penny spent on candy.

Despite his fiscal shrewdness, H.F. was generous. Come Christmas time, he gave all of his tenants’ children a present. In 1905, his Christmas list included 133 children.

Mark describes his grandfather as a “gentleman farmer,” who wore a suit and tie and never drank, smoked or swore.

“He used to have two expressions,” Lester said in the 1974 interview.

“ ‘Goodness gracious’ and he had one other expression, ‘By George.’ When he said that, boy, somebody had better jump because that meant he was really mad.”

Under H.F.’s management, the family business bloomed. He bought out the eastern stockholders and worked to develop an elevator company, a Casselton flour mill, a Minneapolis-based grain-commission firm and a railroad company formed to build a branch line into the towns of Lynchburg and Chaffee.

At its height, the Amenia and Sharon Land Co., had land holdings of more than 42,700 acres and gross assets of more than

$8 million, according to the White Star Line foundation.

H.F. also transitioned the company from a single-farm concept to a tenant system, with different tenants working farms of 320 to 640 acres. This system likely helped the company outlast most other bonanza farms of the era, according to the biography on the White Star website.

‘My Dearest Carrie’

The love of his life was Carrie Toogood, a young woman from Manchester, Iowa. H.F. met her while accompanying a cousin to visit Oberlin (Ohio) College, where Toogood studied music and art.

“She possessed a beautiful soprano voice and sang a great deal as a soloist all her life,” write biographers on the wslmf.org site. “Later on she would give voice, piano and violin lessons to children, both hers and to the children of prairie farmers while managing a complex household and giving birth to six children.”

Toogood was known as a strong woman who confronted any situation head on.

H.F. and Carrie wrote thousands of letters to each other in their lifetime. In the beginning, the young suitor respectfully referred to her as “Miss Toogood,” but as their relationship deepened, he called her “My Dearest Carrie.”

The couple married Dec. 21, 1887, and spent their honeymoon in Hawaii, an especially exotic trip for that time. They eventually returned home to Dakota. They also built their first home, which was rebuilt over the years into a large and impressive mansion.

The house had one of the first telephone systems in North Dakota, a generator for electric power and indoor water and plumbing, Mark says. There was also a carriage house, which eventually became a garage for H.F.’s 1903 Cadillac and the attendant chauffer’s living quarters.

The Chaffee place provided ample room for their growing brood, which included Eben, Dorothy, Herbert Laurance, Adele and Lester. (Another child died in infancy.)

The Chaffees had it all, but then Carrie grew ill. Her son Lester remembers it as “some twist in the neck or spine” that caused a cascade of health problems. “The doctor said, ‘Mrs. Chaffee, you’re at death’s door. You’re not going to get any better. If there’s anything you want to do, or people you want to visit, do it.’ ”

In 1910, Carrie traveled to Seattle to spend time with friends. While there, a friend suggested that she visit a female osteopath (a chiropractor), who cured her with a few treatments.

Free from pain at last, Carrie felt like she had a new lease on life. A trip to England, home of their ancestors, was on their bucket list, Mark says.

‘Until I see you again’

Even so, their true motivations for boarding the Titanic remain as murky as the bottom of the sea where the wreck now rests. One theory is that they traveled to England to trace family history. Another is that the Chaffees traveled to Europe to buy stained glass windows for the Congregational Church in Amenia.

Yet another theory, which Mark Chaffee shares with a dose of skepticism, claims that his highly principled grandfather was correcting a dishonest business deal. The story goes that H.F. was swindled out of $25,000 by a man who sold him a “gold brick” along with interest in a gold mine. The brick, it turned out, was gold-coated lead.

The swindle was reported in local newspapers. But incidents beyond that point are harder to pin down. Legend has it that H.F.’s oldest son, Eben, sold the brick to someone in England. Upon learning it was a fake, the buyer demanded payment. H.F. supposedly traveled to Great Britain to make things right and the person was so impressed by H.F.’s integrity that he gave him two extravagant gifts. They were first-class tickets, each valued at $5,000, for the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

Regardless of what brought them there, the Chaffees were among the 2,200 passengers and crew members aboard the Titanic when the great ship struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic at 11:40 p.m. April 14 on its first voyage from England to New York.

Historians have played and replayed the succession of errors that managed to sink an “unsinkable” ship, including ice warnings that were ignored and an egotistical need to beat speed records. “There were so many faux pas,” Mark says.

His own grandparents noticed the blasé attitude toward safety. “On Sunday there had been a drill scheduled for the crew, but it was called off,” Carrie told reporters afterward. “The captain was at a dinner party.”

In the same Forum article, Carrie recounted the night in great detail. The Chaffees were in the stateroom but hadn’t fallen asleep yet when they felt a slight jolt of the ship. “It was … not more than a jerky stop. Mr. Chaffee put on the lights and then began to dress slowly,” she recalled.

A passenger from across the hall knocked on their door and told them women and children were being ordered into boats, although officers said there was no danger. “We took pains to put on warm things and got on deck in half an hour,” Carrie said. “All was confusion there and showed the lack of drilling.”

Carrie still wasn’t scared. “I thought it a formality for the women to have to go, and remember laughing with my husband at the clumsy way everything was done,” she said.

When the time came for Carrie to enter a lifeboat, she resisted. H.F. reassured her that everything would be all right. “He’d pulled up some money out of his pocket, and he said here’s $20 or $30 if we get separated, until I see you again,” Lester told historians.

In the lifeboat, she joined one of the most famous of the survivors, Madeline Astor. Madeline and her husband, John Jacob Astor, were the richest people on the Titanic. He did not survive.

It was only as the lifeboat pulled away from the Titanic that Mrs. Chaffee realized how seriously the ship was damaged. For four hours, she shivered in a lifeboat and wondered if her husband could have possibly survived, Lester said.

As days passed, it became more apparent that he had not. She was eventually taken by the rescue ship Carpathia to the docks of New York City, where she was met by her son, Herbert Laurance, and a son-in-law.

Lester Chaffee, who was 9 at the time, was still at home in Amenia, being watched by servants. “He says he can remember kids taunting him. They told him both his parents had died, and he went home crying,” Mark recalls.

The Forum reported that at the time of his death, H.F. was one of the wealthiest men in the state. The article noted that he’d been insured for $161,750 – a kingly sum in those days.

End of an era

Overwhelmed by grief, Carrie returned to Chaffee and ordered the family mansion be torn down. She could not bear to live there without her Herbert, Mark said.

After Chaffee’s death, remaining family members ran the firm jointly but disagreed constantly on business strategy, according to the Encyclopedia-Titanica. The business was dissolved in 1922 and divided into individual holdings. “I don’t think any of my family were great businessmen,” Lester told historians. “They grew up to have a lot of money but they knew more about spending it I think than they did about making it.”

Carrie spent the remainder of her life in Amenia, Minneapolis and Duluth, where her daughter lived. She never remarried and spent a lot of her money on charitable causes, such as support for unwed mothers.

Carrie died on July 4, 1931.

She willed 40 sections of land to her children, but the family only had 13 left by the end of the Depression. Six of those were owned by Mark’s father, Lester. Lester later attributed his ability to hang on to his share to a clever young farm manager, Bill Guy, the father of North Dakota Gov. William L. Guy.

After Lester died in 1982, Mark inherited the role of family historian.

Mark says he’s been urged to write a book about his family’s history, but is kept busy as a mechanic at Fargo Freightliner, a CEO of Chaffee Wind Farms and – in an ironic twist, considering his family history – a longtime stint in the Navy Reserve.

Visual reminders of Mark’s once-powerful family remain, if you know where to look. The stained-glass windows, which could have played a role in the Chaffees’ Titanic voyage, were salvaged from the Amenia church after it was torn down in the 1980s, and are now on display at Bonanzaville.

The carriage house that once flanked the Chaffees’ Amenia mansion still stands but is uninhabitable.

And a massive monument, befitting a powerful bonanza farmer and his wife, is stationed at the bucolic cemetery west of Amenia. On one side, it lists their birth and death dates, along with the notation that H.F. was “lost at sea with S.S. Titanic Apr. 15, 1912.”

The other side bears an inscription from the Song of Songs of Solomon. It seems fitting for a man and wife, and especially so for the Chaffees.

“Until the day break and the Shadows flee away,” it reads.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525