The year Fargo decided to 'hang' Moorhead pranksters for stealing the town Christmas tree
In a time of 'peace on earth and good will to men', the earliest residents of Fargo and Moorhead decided Christmas 1873 should be celebrated with a mock hanging of six 'bodies' off of the Red River bridge. What caused the ruckus and was it all just good, clean Christmas fun?
Hear Tracy Briggs narrate this story:
FARGO/MOORHEAD — If you imagine what Christmas must have been like in the earliest days of Fargo-Moorhead, you might picture “A Little House on the Prairie”-like scene of Pa playing his fiddle while “Halfpint” cradles her corncob doll. You’d never imagine what really happened in 1873 — a mini Civil war, of sorts — between the neighboring towns so over-the-top it ended with figures being hung in effigy over the Red River.
This sordid and sometimes silly Christmas tale of what happened when the two young towns decided to put up a community Christmas tree, has been told a few times by a few different sources. Some of the details are slightly different with each telling. But the most complete accounting of what happened that December is written on the site “Fargo, North Dakota: Its History and Images,” by the NDSU Archives, which took the account from a publication of the day entitled, “The Record.” The magazine story was published in 1896 by a so-called "old timer” who remembered what happened 23 years earlier. Other sources include the diary of a Moorhead Reverend and stories from The Red River Star, Moorhead’s first newspaper.
How it all began
It’s actually pretty amazing that the people of Fargo-Moorhead were thinking about a little Christmas together on the prairie at all. The two towns had just popped up two years earlier when a few settlers staked claims in advance of the Northern Pacific railroad coming through town in 1872. Only a few hundred people lived in the homes and farms in the immediate area.
As the “old timer” tells it, a few Fargo residents crossed the Red River into Moorhead one day in early December to attend a church service, where they talked over the details of putting up a community Christmas tree. But disagreement started almost right away.
“The Fargoites wished the tree to be for pleasure of all children of whatever church or creed or no church at all, and the feeling in Moorhead was for a tree for the children more particularly of church people, but we of Fargo, being outvoted, came home feeling we were not bidden to the feast,” claimed the Fargo-based writer.
That’s when a local farmer named J.B. Chapin (who would eventually become mayor in 1880) encouraged his fellow “Fargoites” to get their own tree and make it “the largest and the best.” He put up $10 dollars of his own money towards the tree (Chapin must have been a pretty successful farmer, as that would amount to about $235 today). So a telegraph was sent to Brainerd, Minn. : Two trees were ordered to be chopped down and loaded onto a railcar for a trip to Fargo.
Trees arrive in Fargo but don’t stay long
The trees arrived sometime around December 21 and were sitting in a railcar out front of Fargo’s Headquarters Hotel, the hotel built by the Northern Pacific to serve as the hub of its rail activity in the Red River Valley.
But according to an entry from the diary of Rev. O.H. Elmer, dated Dec. 22, the Christmas tree was stolen sometime overnight. To make matters worse, a light snow had fallen in the early morning hours, hiding any footprints the thieves might have left behind.
According to The Record, “A careful search was made for the trees, and a committee visited Moorhead on a still hunt, for we felt sure some of the Moorhead boys had done us the trick, but the trees could not be found.”
The Fargoans had no evidence that those Minnesota scoundrels stole the trees, but assumptions and accusations were made. And that’s when things started to get ugly.
Later that night, the Fargoans decided to hang an effigy of the Moorhead men they suspected of doing the dastardly deed. So they made six straw dummies and hung them off of the Red River Bridge. Whether they were trying to make a point or just having a little fun with Moorhead, travelers through the area took it very seriously..
“Someone on the early morning train out of Fargo saw them hanging there and telegraphed the Associated Press that as he came over the river that morning six dead men were hanging from the bridge timbers, undoubtedly the work of the northwest regulators,” said The Record.
A melodramatic bunch
The Christmas tree caper got even sillier when the Fargoans, wearing evergreen on their lapels, walked solemnly in a mock funeral procession down to the Red River. They draped the empty railcar in black and sang funeral dirges as they took down the straw men from the bridge and buried them in the snow. Not to be outdone, Moorhead reportedly held a mock funeral for J.B. Chapin, the man who instigated Fargo bringing in their own trees in the first place. Another story from The Red River Star claimed Chapin had seized control and become “The Squatter Governor of Dakota Territory." (Statehood was still 16 years away).
Historians say all of the shenanigans surrounding Fargo-Moorhead’s first Christmas tree shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
Mark Peihl, archivist at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, said the flap over the tree appears to have been in jest.
"Much of it is an inside joke," Peihl told The Forum in a story from 2015.
In fact, one account says the Moorhead men involved knew that Chapin “the squatter governor” was indeed a generous and jovial man.
So what happened?
After the mock funerals, the two trees mysteriously found their way back to the railcar outside The Headquarters Hotel. The culprits never confessed, and they were never caught. From there, the trees were put up near what is now the small Statue of Liberty by the Veterans Memorial Bridge between the two cities.
All in all, that Christmas of 1873 “sounded kind of wild and woolly," according to John Hallberg, an archivist with the North Dakota State University Archives.
But it ended in celebratory style on both sides of the river. In Fargo, children under the age of 14 were each given a silver dollar, and The Wild Rice Band played a few tunes. The Record reported, “The children had enjoyed a Christmas to their hearts’ content, the older children, and this included everyone, turned to and danced till broad daylight in the morning.”
In Moorhead, a similar party raged on in a former store known as "Black's Hall", where they celebrated around their own tree. It appears, while they might have celebrated separately that year, there were no hard feelings and all seemed to enjoy the pranks and jokes. Articles from the newspaper noted the sharing of gifts between people from the two cities.
Two years later, in 1875, the two cities became incorporated, basically meaning they officially became cities. Over the next nearly century and a half, Fargo and Moorhead would go through a lot together — from growth and prosperity to fire, flood and economic hardship. But that Christmas of 1873, it’s clear, the earliest residents of the two cities decided to build their new community on a strong foundation of not taking yourself too seriously.
Other stories by Tracy Briggs:
Tuberculosis pandemic had some North Dakota schools trying open air classrooms in the winter of 1922-23
Fargo's most famous UFO sighting happened in the skies above a Bison football game
How Fargo-Moorhead residents of 1933 made the best of the holiday season as the Great Depression struck
The post-war, pandemic Christmas of 1918 featured Christmas tree shortages, 'handkerchiefs galore'