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Zaleski: New history of old Fargo is a fun read

Jack Zaleski, The Forum Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

With the deft touch of a journalist, Danielle Teigen has written a focused history of Fargo that is meticulously researched and reader-friendly. That's no small accomplishment in a field of writing that is distinguished by ponderous academic tomes. Instead, the Fargo author brings to life the characters, places and incidents in the city's history that sometimes have been obscured by lore, legend and myth. Thus, the title, "Hidden History of Fargo" (The History Press, 2017).

Teigen is features editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. She's a South Dakotan who came north to attend North Dakota State University, where she earned degrees in journalism and mass communication. She manages a staff of writers and content creators, and has done excellent work to raise the quality and variety of features on everything from the arts to home decorating to cooking to self-help analyses. A self-described "word nerd," Teigen's love of the language shines in "Hidden History."

Her research targeted the more fascinating elements in the city's saga, beginning with Fargo's start as a tent city through its growth over the decades. Every era produced larger-than-life figures who influenced the city's perception of itself and its reputation elsewhere. Their stories and the circumstances of their time in Fargo weave a colorful tapestry that is far more interesting than a linear narrative of a city's history. Serious historical research has been skillfully applied to reveal Fargo's unique personality.

The book is comfortably organized into sections and chapters, each of which tells a story of early Fargo. Some are known popularly by anecdote, but Teigen's research unearthed fact and detail. For example, it's common knowledge that Fargo was named after William George Fargo, the founder of Wells, Fargo and Company Express. It's also known he probably never spent a day in the city. But his investment in the railroad was clout enough so that the city's name was changed from Centralia to Fargo in about 1872. He invested $500 in Fargo's first newspaper, the Fargo Express.

Less known: William Fargo was a prominent citizen of Buffalo, N.Y., where he built a spectacular 28,000 square foot mansion in 1872, only to be razed 18 years later.

Another page-turning section of the book spotlights Fargo's most illustrious madam, Melvina Massey, who was the first female to be jailed at the North Dakota state penitentiary.

African-American Massey was infamous for operating a classy brothel, the Crystal Palace on Third Street North, in a neighborhood known as "The Hollows." She was well-connected with the city's business and political elite, being so bold as to send engraved invitations to them for her grand opening.

Other sections of the book examine "Prairie Doctors," "Railroad Rulers," Battle of the Bonanzas," "Big Business," "NDSU vs UND," and "Fun Facts" (such as divorce capital of America). Fully footnoted, the book features a useful index and three appendices, one of which is especially close to the hearts of Forum staffers. Appendix A is "Area History Lives on in Forum Morgue Files," and is in part a tribute to the late Forum librarian and history columnist Andrea Hunter Halgrimson. The Forum library is among the best newspaper libraries in the country because of Halgrimson's work.

"Hidden History" is for anyone interested in the story of Fargo. Well-written and scrupulously documented, the book is eminently readable. It overflows with amusing, enlightening and reliable historical scholarship. It puts the lie to the notion that history has to be dull.

Zaleski retired in February after nearly 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He continues to write a Sunday column. Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com.

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