In 1886, Fargo’s first high school graduation was held in a roller skating rink with an early suffragist leading the way
As high schools prepare for graduation, here’s a surprising look back at the first commencement for Fargo High School in 1886.
LISTEN TO TRACY BRIGGS NARRATE THIS STORY:
FARGO — It was tucked away in an old file cabinet in the corner of The Forum archives, not much larger than the size of my open hand. The printing is delicate and ornate, and the heavy cardstock paper is weathered by time.
I knew right away it was fragile and I should handle it with care, whatever it was. As I lightly held it with my hands, I read the words:
“First Annual Commencement, Fargo High School, June 25, 1886.”
I had found the first-ever graduation program from Fargo Public Schools, long before North, South, Woodrow Wilson and Davies High Schools were built and 117 years before this year's graduates would be born.
I thought about the first person who touched this program 135 years ago and how this would have been around the time my great-grandparents would have graduated from high school. But as cool as it was to look at, I wondered what we could learn about Fargo’s first graduates from this tiny card. As we approach yet another graduation season, this recently discovered program shows just how much (and little) times have changed.
The first graduates
It should be noted, Fargo High School’s five graduates of 1886 don’t appear to be the first high school graduates in the area. The archives show Mathias Forsberg graduated from Moorhead High School in 1883. However, I haven’t been able to get my grubby, history-loving paws on that program, so we’ll use this program of Fargo’s class of 1886 to learn more about what commencement might have been like way back then...when Grover Cleveland was in the White House, the Civil War had just ended 21 years earlier and North Dakota was still three years from statehood.
An odd venue for graduation ceremonies
Before we get into what happened that graduation day, it’s interesting to note where it happened — at the Palace Roller Rink on N.P. Avenue in Fargo, where the MAT Bus Depot is now. It’s probably not all that unusual when you realize what was going on at the end of the 19th century. Historians say a roller skating craze was sweeping the country in the 1880s, and Fargo wasn’t immune.
According to John Hallberg of the NDSU Archives, the rink opened in 1884 with the headline of the Sept. 5, Argus newspaper heralding the event: “The New Palace Roller Skating Rink on N.P. Avenue was opened with the rattle of drums, the blare of trumpets and much eclat.”
The rink was probably sizable enough to accommodate the large crowd of people expected to watch the city’s first high school graduation ceremony and equally useful for the reception and dance to follow. While there is no proof of this, how much do you want to bet a few people grabbed some skates and made a few rounds around the rink following the ceremony? Perhaps an example of the first post-graduation party?
As you open the program, you can see the ceremony included a prayer and five different musical selections, including “Light and Shade” by Johann Strauss.
Also of note, all five graduates gave speeches with titles including “Strikes and Strikers,” “The Mormons,”Hyperion,” “Progress,” and “Woman as an Author.”
Early suffragist was the valedictorian
The valedictorian was E. Beulah McHenry, who delivered the “Woman as an Author” speech as part of her valedictory address. McHenry went on to marry Charles Amidon, who eventually became a federal judge, while then Beulah McHenry Amidon became one of the area’s first suffragists.
Their daughter, Beulah Elizabeth Amidon, became an even more famous suffragist in the early part of the 20th century. She was a highly accomplished lawyer, writer and organizer who served as the press secretary for the National Woman's Party. She was also known in suffragist circles for her good looks after being identified as “The Prettiest Picket” in the caption of a photographic portrait published in "The Suffragist" on May 26, 1917.
Other graduates included siblings Alice and Chester Johnson. She became an elocutionist while he became a lawyer. Graduate E. Beecher Starbird later attended Carleton College and worked in the early automotive industry, while historical records show William K. Twomey worked as a barber.
Grammar school graduation
Yuppies of the 1980s and ‘90s weren’t the first to celebrate their children graduating from grammar school. A ceremony was also held marking the accomplishments of the younger grades in 1886.
That ceremony, the night before on June 24th, was not held at the roller rink but in the classroom of teacher Miss E.A. Kent.
The Fargo Argus gave the ceremony and the teacher a rave review.
“The room was beautifully decorated with all manner of flowers and too much cannot be said of Miss E.A. Kent and the excellent manner in which she has trained her scholars”
The program from 1886 was one of about a dozen or so printed items I found in the Forum archives. One document, from just a few years after 1886, spells out what classes students would have had to pass to graduate. It didn’t appear the students had many choices in their course of study. Each year, from freshman to senior year, was planned and included classes such as Latin, Cicero, Physiography, Botany and Rhetoric.
So proud they could burst their corsets
It’s pretty clear from the way the newspaper covered commencement, that the city was pleased as punch over its first-ever graduates and the city’s role in making it happen. This is from the Fargo Daily Argus from commencement day:
“After years of close study, they are to bear forth the honor of the highest department of our public schools. Whatever college or university may do them hereafter they have now received their full inheritance in public instruction provided for them by the city.”
The article from graduation goes on to commend Fargo (just eleven years from becoming a city) for paying a combined $13,000 in salary to 17 teachers who provided stellar instruction to the young people. Accolades also went out to Fargo’s new high school between Ninth and Tenth Street and Third Avenue South.
The Argus writes, “They have erected a capacious school building with all of the modern conveniences.”
Of course they didn’t know it at the time, but that building would burn to the ground just 30 years later, get rebuilt, then burn again another 50 years later in 1966. But best not to think about that. Instead, remember June 25, 1886 as a day to celebrate the scholarly pursuits of a young city and did so, smack dab in the middle of a roller skating rink.
Other stories by Tracy Briggs:
Tuberculosis pandemic had some North Dakota schools trying open air classrooms in the winter of 1922-23
The year Fargo decided to 'hang' Moorhead pranksters for stealing the town Christmas tree
Fargo-Moorhead was once home to the tallest ski jump in the United States