One of North Dakota’s greatest organizers originally came to this area to farm, teach and preach the gospel. However, John Worst far exceeded his greatest expectations.
Besides accomplishing the things he planned on doing, he also was a North Dakota senator, lieutenant governor, president of the North Dakota Agricultural College and Immigration Commissioner. He also helped organize a town that, in the 1880s and ’90s, was the “largest town located between Bismarck and Pierre,” S.D.
John Henry Worst was born Dec. 23, 1850, in Ashland County, Ohio, to George and Margaret (Martin) Worst.
His father was a farmer and an elder of the Maple Grove German Baptist Church. Most activities outside of the home took place in the church, and the majority of the families were very close-knit because they had moved together from Pennsylvania to Ohio. Collectively, they were called Dunkards.
John’s early education took place “in the public schools of Wayne County.” For his high school classes, he attended German Baptist schools at nearby Smithville and at Salem College in Indiana.
Following graduation, he taught school and farmed for 10 years. In 1867, John spent a year at Chesapeake Bay and returned to Ohio to become editor of the Fairfield County Republican in Lancaster.
Worst was very intelligent and rued the fact that he lacked a college education. In the late 1870s, he helped raise funds to establish Ashland College, now Ashland University.
As a German Baptist college, much of the organizational money came from the local church, and when the college opened its doors on Sept. 17, 1879, “the first one to enroll was John Worst.” He dropped out before graduating to work as editor of the church magazine, the Brethren Evangelist, and he also “published several pamphlets favoring progressive Brethren principles.”
In the early 1880s, several Dunkards left Ashland to explore farming prospects in central Dakota Territory. While there, they wrote back that conditions were great for establishing a new colony. To check it out for himself, Worst organized a hunting party to go to western Dakota so he could explore the agricultural potential.
On Sept. 21, 1882, Worst and his group from Ashland arrived in Bismarck. The next day he and his party of hunters began a 10-day hunting expedition. He then traveled to see his friends who had settled in Dakota Territory. Impressed with the land, Worst filed a homestead claim 40 miles southeast of Bismarck.
In the spring of 1883, Worst arrived with his family to begin his farming operation and construct the necessary buildings. On Aug. 17, the town of Williamsport was platted three miles north of his homestead. Soon, other settlers from his church in Ashland arrived, and Williamsport began to thrive.
On Nov. 9, Emmons County was organized, and Williamsport was named county seat. Worst was appointed county superintendent of schools, a position he held until 1889 when he was elected to represent his district in the North Dakota Senate.
In 1890, Worst was
re-elected to the upper chamber, and throughout his service of three legislative sessions, he chaired the Education Committee. Under his leadership, many progressive education laws were enacted.
In 1894, the Republican Party persuaded Worst to run for lieutenant governor.
At the time, the races for governor and lieutenant governor were separate, and it was possible to have people from two different parties elected to the statehouse. Worst’s opponent was Lars Ueland, a farmer from Edgeley who had served with Worst in the 1889 and 1893 Legislatures. During the 1889 session, Ueland was a Republican, but he switched parties and successfully ran as an Independent-Populist in 1892.
In the November election, Worst defeated Ueland 22,910 to 17,517. The two men later became friends and were instrumental in getting the first branch extension station for North Dakota Agricultural College established at Edgeley in 1903.
Worst’s term as lieutenant governor must have been very frustrating. During the 1895 legislative session, he was president of the state senate and helped secure passage of bills to provide adequate funding for the state colleges. However, Gov. Roger Allin vetoed the appropriations, and the colleges were only able to stay open because of generous local financial support.
Besides the 40 percent cut in state appropriations for NDAC, the college was facing another major hurdle while it was preparing for the fall opening in 1895 – it did not have a permanent president. In 1893, college president Horace Stockbridge had been removed after he found himself in the middle of a power struggle between the governor, Eli Shortridge, and two influential members of the Agricultural College Board, H. R. Miller and J. B. Power.
Shortridge attempted to replace Miller and Power with members who were more liberally minded. The governor accused the two men of misappropriation of funds because they were using the college as a market for products grown on their large farms.
Miller and Power refused to resign, stating that the charges were “illegal and unconstitutional.” In a court decision, the two men were allowed to remain, and Stockbidge was forced out. Power was named as acting president.
In 1895, it was decided that the new president needed to be someone who had an agricultural background, demonstrated educational leadership, was well respected and politically astute. Since Worst scored high marks in all of these areas of concern, he was named as the new president and assumed that position following Power’s resignation on June 30.
We will conclude the story of John Worst next week.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: firstname.lastname@example.org.