Drinking and living down by the river, 'Catfish Charley' saved a child's life
He was one of early Fargo-Moorhead's most eccentric characters, living on the banks of the Red River and drinking a little too much booze. But one day in the summer of 1917, Catfish Charley put down the bottle and saved a child's life.
Hear Tracy Briggs read the story of Catfish Charley here:
FARGO — Take away the rumpled, baggy clothes and you can almost see a hero in the face of Charley Feiste. He has a strong jawline, sparkly eyes and an impish grin. He’s handsome enough that if Charley’s life story were to be made into a movie, actor James Marsden might take the starring role.
But what exactly would the movie be about? Part tragedy, part comedy and all hope that everyone of us might rise to the occasion when needed.
To the earliest residents of Fargo, N.D. and Moorhead, Minn., Charley Feiste was better known as “Catfish Charley", an eccentric character who didn’t really work, except for a few odd jobs here and there. It might, he probably figured, take away from his real love of hanging out on the banks of the Red River fishing for, you guessed it, catfish. When Charley wasn’t fishing and probably even when he was, he was drinking. Throughout the early 1900’s local police repeatedly charged Feiste with public drunkenness.
A Forum reporter at the time wrote about Feiste in not so glowing terms, stating that the only time he used his full name was when he was “tabbed at the police station, and that is quite frequently, because Charley is one of Chief Dahlgren’s steadfast customers.”
Catfish Charley didn’t seem terribly disturbed by his frequent visits with Fargo’s finest. In fact, he opted to have a little fun with it. When the city jail was built in 1906, Charley became the first prisoner to occupy the new "bullpen" holding cell. Charley insisted police take his photo. That’s the photo you see with the impish grin.
The reporter described it as “a momentous occasion, both for Charley and the local city jail.”
You get the idea. Charley wasn’t exactly a pillar of society. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t a good guy — the kind of guy who would risk his life to save another.
Tragedy on the Red
Flash forward 11 years to July 1917. The United States was about three months into World War I. The paper was full of stories about local boys going off to war, while housewives were encouraged to save fruits and vegetables for the nation’s food supply. The Fargo Country Club had just opened its new clubhouse, and Moorhead was getting ready to build its new high school. In the paper, you could spot a good deal on aluminum kettles (just 89 cents) and read about the hottest fashion trend — a boat-shaped turban hat which promised to give you a “delectable silhouette".
As for Charley, he was still fishing.
But on Thursday, July 19th, he had company. Four little boys came down to the river to cool off on the hot, summer day. Nine-year-old Jordan Eide and 8-year-old Harry Brandon lived next door to each other on Front Street. Their homes would have been near what is now the little statue of liberty near Veterans Memorial Bridge between Fargo and Moorhead.
Jordan and Harry met up with 8-year-old Sonnie Stevens and 6-year-old Bunchie Stevens, brothers who lived on 4th street near what is now Wells Fargo Bank by the YMCA. The boys had been told not to go to the river that day. In fact, Jordan’s great aunt had even given him a dime not to go swimming. But the boys disobeyed, instead walking to the Northern Pacific Bridge on the Moorhead side of the river. They took off their clothes and waded into the cool water.
Sonnie got scared and hurried out of the water when it reached above his knees. According to one newspaper report, he told his friends, “You can call me baby and all you want,” just moments before the other boys were carried away by the current.
Sonnie picked up a stick, and Bunchie was able to grab it and pull himself to safety. But Jordan and Harry were still in trouble — their heads bobbing up and down as the river carried them away.
He later told the newspaper, “I told Harry and Jordan to keep a’ kickin, but Jordan’s face got under the water and he just couldn’t kick anymore.”
Here’s where Catfish Charley comes in.
He heard the boys screaming while he was sitting on the banks of the river a few yards away. According to The Forum, Charley rescued Harry.
“Plunging into the current, Feiste grabbed the little fellow as he came up for the second time and bucking the current carried Harry to shore. The little fellow was unconscious for some time and it was thought that life would cease any moment,” the reporter wrote.
But Harry came to as crowds began to gather. Unfortunately, after an extensive search both Thursday and into Friday, Jordan was never found. But it wasn’t for lack of trying on Charley’s part. He stayed down at the river all night and into the next morning hoping to help. The Forum reported that Jordan’s mother, Lillie Eide, was so distraught that when visitors stopped at her Front Street home to offer their condolences, she did not recognize them. She is said to have repeatedly sobbed “Jordan was my only child.”
'Not a bad man'
Jordan Eide’s parents got through the tragedy, living into old age, but they never had another child. It appears the three surviving boys — Harry, Sonnie and Bunchie — eventually served in WWII and also lived long lives.
As for Catfish Charley, not much changed. He was back in jail for drunkenness just a month after his heroic efforts that day in July. But according to newspaper reports, the police perhaps looked at the tipsy fisherman a little differently.
“Charlie Feiste is not a bad man,” the officer told the reporter. “In fact, Charley Feiste is a hero, proving himself a real man when he leaped into the treacherous rapids just below the Northern Pacific railroad bridge over the Red River and saved the life of Harry Brandon.”
The last census record of Catfish Charley in Fargo is 1930 when he was listed as a 54- year-old unemployed lodger in a house on Front Street, not far from the river. He might have lived into old age, but there is no immediate record of it. But Catfish Charley does live on in the lore of the Red River as the fisherman who once took more from the river than fish.