Eriksmoen: 'Rebel' Republican congressman from North Dakota ran for president as a third-party candidate
In today's "Did You Know That?" column, Curt Eriksmoen writes about the early life of North Dakota's William Lemke, a presidential contender in 1936.
Many North Dakotans may know that Theodore Roosevelt was the presidential candidate on the Bull Moose, or Progressive Party, ticket, in 1912. There are also some who are aware that Gary Johnson, who was born in Minot, N.D., was the presidential candidate in 2012 and 2016 for the Libertarian Party.
However, did you know that, in 1936, there was another third party candidate for president of the United States from North Dakota?
William Lemke, from Fargo, ran for president on the Union Party ticket. Although Lemke was a Republican, he often championed issues and causes proposed by the Democrats and occasionally supported candidates from the Democratic Party for governor and president. Because he refused to “toe the party line,” historian Edward Blackorby referred to Lemke as “The Prairie Rebel."
According to noted North Dakota historian Elwyn Robinson, “Lemke became an intense, bitter, tenacious fighter for the plain people against the hated interests... He was brilliant, a good organizer, ambitious and aggressive, eager for power, a natural promoter and dreamer, an ultranationalist, and an Anglophobe.”
He was a leader of the Nonpartisan League, was elected to the office of state attorney general and also served nine terms in the U.S. House.
William “Bill” Frederick Lemke was born in a log cabin on Aug. 13, 1878, in Albany, Minn., to Frederick and Julia (Kleir) Lemke. In 1881, the family moved to Grand Forks, N.D., where Frederick and Julia “temporarily engaged in the hotel business.”
In the spring of 1882, the Lemkes moved, in a covered wagon, to Crystal, in North Dakota's Pembina County, and Frederick “preempted a quarter section of government land,” which they sold a couple of years later. The Lemkes then made the journey, in a covered wagon, to Towner County, near Cando, N.D, where Frederick became the owner of a homestead.
Bill attended a one-room country school for three months each year, and he finished the eighth grade in 1895. He had a great hunger to acquire knowledge, but he had no place to study since he lived in a small home with 10 family members.
To remedy this, he and some of his brothers dug a hole in the bank of the Big Coulee, near their house, that they could claim as “their space.” In this dugout, illuminated by lamplight, Bill read everything he was able to bring into his sanctuary. As a child, he was very shy, and whenever neighboring adults came to visit, he would avoid them by spending time in the dugout.
Bill spent one year attending high school in Cando and, in 1895, entered the University of North Dakota preparatory school. Having satisfied all of his high school requirements, he officially became a UND student in 1898 and “was seen as an ambitious student and a skilled debater.” Besides his scheduled classes, Bill was also in military science and “participated with zest and enthusiasm.”
Bill also joined the football team, and a number of his teammates later became major participants in North Dakota politics. Lynn Frazier was elected governor and U.S. Senator, William Nuessle served on the state Supreme Court for 27 years, and Victor Wardrope became a state legislator.
In 1899, the UND football team was outstanding, finishing the season 6-0 and outscoring their opponents 179-5. In 1901, Bill and Frazier were co-captains of the football team. Although Bill had not played football until he attended UND and was “slow afoot,” and small at 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighing 149 pounds, he became a core member of the team through grit and determination.
Those traits are apparently in the Lemke DNA because his second cousin, twice removed, is Mark Lemke, a former All-Star second baseman with the Atlanta Braves, who was 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighed 167 pounds. During Mark’s career, the Braves had the best record in the major leagues.
At the conclusion of the football season in 1901, Bill received news that his father, Frederick, had died. Frederick, like his son, was also ambitious and tenacious. He started with a homestead farm that he expanded to over 2,500 acres, and he became active in politics by getting elected to the Legislature in 1900. Frederick had been at an auction with the hope of acquiring some choice land, and when he was outbid for that land, he suffered a stroke.
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After Frederick’s death, Bill took some time off, away from the university, to help his oldest brother Ben organize the family farm. Bill returned to UND and, in February 1902, got nine of his close friends together to form the Varsity Bachelors Club (VBC), which was a social organization made up of student leaders.
The members made a pledge of bachelorhood, but the main purposes were for excellence in scholarship and to form a bond to give help to those members who may need assistance. It grew in prominence, and when one of the members, Fred Traynor, was elected to the Legislature in 1908, he was able to obtain state assistance to build a house on the banks of the English Coulee. VBC later became Phi Delta Theta, the first college fraternity in North Dakota.
Bill Lemke graduated in the spring of 1902 and remained at UND to begin law school. A number of his professors, as well as UND President Webster Merrifield, suggested that he should consider attending a more prestigious school out east. In the fall of 1903, Lemke continued his law school education at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., where he also worked in the office of the powerful U.S. Sen. William B. Allison.
The next year, Lemke transferred to Yale University, where he became friends with a student from Mexico. The friend’s father, Jose Castellot, owned considerable land in western Mexico, and Lemke purchased some land from him.
Lemke graduated from Yale Law School in 1905 and then returned to Cando to prepare for his law exam so that he would be admitted to practice law in North Dakota. He apprenticed under Charles C. Converse, a Cando lawyer, and after Lemke was admitted to the bar, he got an offer from James E. Robinson to join him in Fargo. Robinson was a veteran attorney who was quite progressive in his ideology, and the two men got along very well.
Robinson began putting out a monthly magazine called The Common Good, and Lemke agreed to be the editor and co-publisher. The magazine articles pushed for policies that Robinson and Lemke believed were good for the whole community, including “anti-corruption in politics and legal matters, low interest rates, government ownership of banks, election law reforms, and public ownership of institutions and marketing facilities.”
Although both men were Republicans, they were very progressive.
In 1908, the Robinson and Lemke law firm hired a new stenographer, Isabelle McIntyre, whose mother owned the boarding house where Lemke lived. Lemke fell in love, and abandoned the pledge he held when he founded VBC, and he and Isabelle got married on April 16, 1910.
To celebrate their honeymoon, they traveled to western Mexico to inspect the property he had purchased, and what he discovered totally impressed him. The land was beautiful, the climate was incredible and the price to purchase the land was cheap. He believed that, working with Jose Castellot, he could form a company that would buy up large tracts of land and sell the property to U.S. citizens at a huge profit.
We will continue the story of William Lemke next week.
[Correction: I was incorrect in this column on Saturday, Jan. 11, when I wrote that Johnny Klein taught high school band from 1948 to 1951 in Missouri. He actually taught band and chorus at that time, and during his last year the band was rated "highly superior plus."]
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.