Meet Fargo's original power couple

O.J. and Helen deLendrecie were successful in business, politics and love. They will always be known as Fargo's original power couple.

O.J. and Helen.jpg
O.J. and Helen deLendrecie were successful in business and politics in Fargo at the end of the 19th century and into the next. Photos from The Forum and NDSU Archives

Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.

Isabella and Ferdinand.

Jackie and JFK.

William and Kate.

In Fargo, O.J. and Helen deLendrecie were one of the power couples in the community at the turn of the 20th century. Business owners, civil servants and activists, the deLendrecies used their financial success to improve the lives of those around them. And their presence continues to be felt in the community, even a century after their deaths.


Onesie Joassin “O.J.” deLendrecie hailed from a wealthy Quebec family whose money meant a great education that was intended to land him a career as a teacher. But that never happened; instead he turned to retail, selling lace and eventually dry goods. His business ventures took him to Paris, Chicago, Missouri and Wisconsin, which is where he married Josephine Helen Basye in 1879.

Leading lady

At the time, she was a successful actress going by the stage name Helen d’Este and had married a fellow actor named J.G. Stuttz a decade earlier. Though she’d started her career in amteur theatrical productions in Racine, Wisconsin, she eventually embarked on a professional tour with her “undiscovered talent,” according to a July 2014 article by Curt Eriksmoen . They joined an acting troupe for a tour in Illinois and were soon managing the group and starring in its productions; they called themselves the Olympic Theatre Company, expanded to 25 actors and toured in Ohio from 1870-1871. The next year, one of Helen’s three brothers, Edward, signed on as business and theatrical manager, which touted Helen as the star actress. She received rave reviews from local newspapers.

By May 1873, the troupe returned to Racine and considered taking the show on a European tour. They didn’t travel overseas but did throughout parts of the Midwest, Appalachia and South. Unfortunately, the Stuttz marriage became strained, and J.G. created his own company in 1876 with a new headlining actress.

By 1878, Helen’s company found itself in financial trouble, so she ventured into burlesque but quickly suffered a backlash and discontinued her show. By early 1879, she decided to disband her company due to money issues and returned to Racine. That’s where she met O.J. and was swept into that romance quickly; once she finalized her divorce to J.G., she and O.J. married one week later.

Within a month, the newlyweds had boarded a train and were scouring the business district in Fargo for a place to put down roots.

Location, location, location

Legend has it that O.J. started looking in the morning, selected a site by lunch time and was having plans drawn up by day’s end. He’d chosen an interesting spot for his dry goods store — a vacant lot on the very western edge of the new frontier town that many felt would never be reached by the rest of the business district. The Chicago Dry Goods store on the lot just one block west of Broadway became an early success for the deLendrecie family, and when the disastrous fire of 1893 leveled much of the new city, deLendrecie seized an opportunity to expand his footprint with an even bigger store.

Though his two-story wooden shop had burned to the ground , deLendrecie replaced it with a two-story stone structure that would have dwarfed its predecessor. Eventually, the store earned such a fantastic reputation throughout the region that O.J. added two more floors to the mammoth department store, which would grace downtown Fargo well into the 20th century.


In 1904, three floors were added to the two-story brick deLendrecie's building. In 1975, the complex became known as Block Six. It now houses retail stores, a restaurant and apartments. Photo courtesy of the Institute For Regional Studies, NDSU, Fargo

Community cornerstone

While O.J. was amassing his financial fortune, his wife Helen became a prominent woman in Fargo’s social circles, as her mesmerizing presence and professional acting skills served her well. (However, as a divorced actress, Helen appears to have concealed some details of her past that may have been unsavory in that Victorian time of class and gentility.)

Though Helen kept herself busy with a new home and her husband’s thriving business, she missed her family back in Wisconsin and convinced her younger brother Charles to join her in Dakota Territory. He homesteaded near Hope, northwest of Fargo, but eventually moved to McIntosh County.

Back in Fargo, Helen set her mind to raising funds for the construction of a Unitarian Church in downtown, a goal reached in 1892. In addition, she began writing columns for a newspaper and entered the political sphere alongside her husband. Helen became the first woman elected to a position on a Fargo ballot when she ran for school board in 1896 .

Women’s suffrage became her focus, and she organized the Political Equality Club of Fargo, serving as its first president. She also founded the North Dakota Equal Suffrage Association and served as treasure and star speaker.

“(Helen) and her husband were progressive people, and they had this big building, so when the North Dakota Votes for Women’s League was organized, she offered office space for that group,” said Ann Braaten, associate professor and curator of the Emily P. Reynolds Historic Costume Collection at North Dakota State University, in an August 2020 article by Tracy Briggs . “So they had a place that was public, and it was open certain days of the week for people to come in and visit with somebody that was knowledgeable about suffrage and pick up literature.”

Despite her best efforts, when the suffrage bill came up for vote in 1911, Helen’s impassioned speech was not enough to sway the votes, and the bill was defeated. However, the space Helen and O.J. donated to the cause of women’s suffrage has been commemorated by a new sign placed by the deLendrecie building earlier this year.


New signage on the corner of 7th Street and Main Avenue in downtown Fargo marks the location where women suffragists met. David Samson / The Forum

O.J. served as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and helped found the Fargo National Bank, serving as vice president; he also served as a Mason and member of the Commercial Club (the predecessor of the Chamber of Commerce) as well as other social organizations.

His business success also offered him an opportunity to invest in real estate, so he bought a Detroit Lakes summer home and even land in western North Dakota as well as President Theodore Roosevelt’s Maltese Crossing Ranch.

Marveling at medicine

In 1896, Helen was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she sought a second opinion. Her search led her osteopathy, an alternative medicine involving the manipulation of bones, joints and muscles to treat ailments. She traveled to Kansas to be treated by the leading practitioner of osteopathy and was deemed cancer free after six weeks.

Helen was so intrigued by this new branch of medicine that she set her sights on having the legislature legally recognizing osteopathy as a medical practice. Even though Helen was a Democrat urging a Republican Senate to pass the bill, she prevailed, thanks to her impressive speech; the bill was sent to the House, where it also succeeded and was eventually signed by the governor despite opposition from the medical community.

The passage of that bill inspired Helen to found a college of osteopathy after her husband purchased a church and moved it to 101 Eighth St. S. Helen became president of the Northwestern College of Osteopathy and the Fargo Osteopathic Infirmary — the first woman to hold such a position in North Dakota . Her brother became a physician and instructor at the college, which consolidated with another college in Des Moines in 1902 before closing in 1911 when Helen’s brother moved from the area.

Family tragedy

O.J. and Helen never had children of their own, so when her great nephew was born in 1893 to an absent father and terminally ill mother, Helen offered to raise the child. Albert Berch Jr.’s paternal grandmother was Mary Ann Berch, Helen’s sister. The baby’s mother died less than two years after he was born and his father drifted in and out of his life, so Helen raised him in Fargo , where he spent his preschool years at the St. John’s Orphanage.


Helen deLendrecie
Helen deLendrecie was a prominent Fargoan featured in "Killing Albert Berch," a story about an Oklahoma murder. Photo courtesy: NDSU Archives

Later, Albert attended a military academy, but at age 12, he ran away and ended up in Kansas where he was caught stealing money. Realizing the error of his ways, Albert returned to Los Angeles, where the deLendrecies had purchased a winter home after O.J. retired and left his business in the hands of his brother Eugene.

Albert eventually became a barber and moved to Oklahoma, where he met his wife, Lula, whom he married in 1920. The pair ran a hotel and welcomed a daughter named Almarian in 1922.

Then things took a turn for the worse in 1923.

Albert needed to hire a porter for the hotel and was given the name of an African American man named Robert Johnigan, who came highly recommended. He hired him but faced immediate backlash from racist residents and KKK members. Despite death threats hurled at both men , Albert refused to fire the man, but Robert eventually resigned. As he was preparing to leave the hotel, a gang burst into the lobby and fatally shot Albert and Robert. Two men were arrested and tried for their murders, but Lula struggled financially and had to sell the hotel shortly after.

Helen’s great nephew’s tragic story has been captured in a book called “ Killing Albert Berch ”, written by his grandson. The tragic story no doubt saddened the aunt who volunteered to raise him ; just three years later, Helen died only two years after her husband. The deLendrecies are buried in the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, now known as Hollywood Forever.

Today, nearly a century after the power couple known as O.J. and Helen deLendrecie died, their legacy remains an important feature of downtown Fargo, both in the building that still bears their name as well as the tireless work they provided their community at a crucial time in the community's history.


Danielle Teigen has a bachelor's degree in journalism and management communication as well as a master's degree in mass communication from North Dakota State University. She has worked for Forum Communications since May 2015, first as a digital content manager before becoming the Life section editor and then deputy editor. In 2020, Danielle recently moved back to her hometown in South Dakota, where she works remotely for Forum Communications as managing editor of On the Minds of Moms as well as writes occasional news and history stories.
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