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Eriksmoen: First female ND higher education institution president also in theater

The woman who appears to have been the first female president of an institution for higher education in North Dakota had earlier been the leading lady and co-owner of a popular touring theatrical company.

As an actress, she employed the stage name Helen d’Este (pronounced des-tay) and co-starred with her husband, J. G. Stuttz, in almost all of the company’s productions.

Her performances received rave reviews in the local press. In 1879, Helen moved to Fargo with her new husband, O.J. deLendrecie, and she became a civic leader, the first female to win a Fargo city-wide election, the co-founder and president of a college, and one of the leading advocates for women’s suffrage in North Dakota.

On Oct. 1, 1848, Josephine Helen Bayse (often spelled Basye) was born on a farm near Racine, Wis., to Samuel and Jane (Barkley) Bayse. Helen must have realized early in life that she had a mesmerizing presence that commanded people’s attention and the assertiveness to elicit their approval.

For this reason, she became a very good actress, and later, an important spokesperson for a variety of causes in North Dakota. A prominent newspaper editor wrote that she had a hypnotic effect when addressing the legislature.

In the 1860s, Helen likely performed in amateur theatrical productions in Racine, where she was observed by Stuttz. Not only was he impressed with her acting, but he fell in love with her. The two were married on April 26, 1869, and decided to become professional actors.

The Chicago Tribune reported that Helen embarked upon a theatrical career with “little to aid but courage, ambition, and undiscovered talent.” As an actress, Mrs. Stuttz adopted the stage name Helen d’Este.

In August, the newly married couple began a three-month tour in Illinois with an acting troupe managed by A. F. Kingsley. In November, Helen and J. G. took over the group and assumed the leading roles. They called their ensemble the Olympic Theatre Company, expanded it to 25 members, and spent the remainder of the 1870-71 season touring throughout Ohio. For the next five years, the couple would spend eight months each year on the road, performing in plays, returning to Racine for the summer months.

In 1872, Helen’s 21-year old brother, Edward, was hired as business and theatrical manager of the group, now known as the Old Reliable Theatre Company. He billed Helen as “The Great Classic Actress” and “The Brilliant and Accomplished Actress.”

As the company toured the southern states, they continued to play to overflowing crowds in the theaters and received glowing reviews. In Atlanta, a newspaper reporter wrote that this company was “the best that has ever come South.”

When the highly successful season ended in late May 1873, Helen and J.G. returned to Racine, seriously contemplating a European tour.

The company was renamed the Helen d’Este Dramatic Combination, and during the 1873-74 season, they toured Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia. The next season, they put on shows in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.

The shows in 1875 began in Kentucky, but as the season progressed, cracks in the relationship between Helen and her husband became apparent.

A split appeared to be imminent when J.G. formed his own company in 1876 and hired a new leading lady. Hopes of reconciliation appeared in February 1877 when the two performed together again in Alexandria, La., but after three weeks, they went their separate ways.

Helen’s company began to run into financial trouble late in 1878, and aware that burlesque was doing well, she ventured into this venue. That came to a swift halt in December when she ran afoul of the law in New Orleans for a performance that was described as “indecent and demoralizing.” Charges were dropped when Helen promised to discontinue her act.

Struggling to stay financially afloat during the 1878-79 season, Helen was forced to disband her company after the last show in Winona, Miss., early in 1879.

In Yazoo City, 60 miles southwest of Winona, was a merchant who was moderately successful. How and when Helen and O.J. deLendrecie met is lost to history, but a strong romantic relationship obviously blossomed during the spring and summer of 1879. The merchant impressed upon the actress his dream to make a fortune in Fargo, a rapidly growing town in northern Dakota Territory. They journeyed north, and Helen finalized her divorce to J.G. in Milwaukee on Sept. 1. The couple then proceeded to her home in Racine, where they exchanged wedding vows one week later.

The deLendrecies arrived in Fargo in the fall, and O.J. contracted to have a store built. He originally called it the Chicago Dry Goods Store and then changed it to the O. J. deLendrecie Company.

Business flourished, and his best customers were the town’s more affluent people because O.J. was the first merchant in the area to sell “expensive silks imported from Japan and India.”

Helen was invited to join Fargo’s exclusive social circle and soon emerged as a leader of it, a position she loved.

This was the time when Victorian morality began to sweep across American society in what Edith Wharton aptly called “The Age of Innocence.” Her popular novel of the same name clearly illustrated that divorced women were shunned by high society.

In Jan MacKell’s book, “Brothels, Bordellos and Bad Girls,” which was centered on the same time period, she wrote, “Socializing with actresses was frowned upon in decent society.” At the time, actresses often were regarded as women with loose moral values.

Helen’s dilemma was that she had been an actress and was divorced, and now she was a part of the high society, who would surely shun her for this. It appears the deLendrecies made a concerted effort to keep certain information about Helen’s past hidden from the people of Fargo and North Dakota. That secret remained hidden for 135 years.

Considering everything she accomplished over the 35 years she lived in Fargo, many may argue that it was a secret worth keeping. We will detail some of her achievements next week.

I want to thank Greg Nesteroff, a newspaper reporter in Nelson, British Columbia, who made the connection that Helen deLendrecie and Helen d’Este were the same person. I am indebted to him for the generous use of his notes about Helen’s life up to the time she married O.J. deLendrecie.

Nesteroff currently is working on a book about J. G. Stuttz, Helen’s first husband.