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Did You Know That: Oscar Towner became Elk Valley's biggest champion

During the first seven years of the 1880s, one person in northern Dakota Territory appeared to be a man with the golden touch. Oscar Towner founded the Elk Valley Farm Company, a lucrative bonanza farm in Grand Forks County; was instrumental in e...

During the first seven years of the 1880s, one person in northern Dakota Territory appeared to be a man with the golden touch. Oscar Towner founded the Elk Valley Farm Company, a lucrative bonanza farm in Grand Forks County; was instrumental in establishing the town of Larimore, a thriving Red River Valley community; and enticed hundreds of people to relocate in what is now North Dakota.

Many of those people who moved to North Dakota purchased land he had owned in the county named after him or near the town named in his honor. However, lady luck's smile turned to a frown when Towner began engaging in other enterprises. When he died in 1897, he was "penniless."

As a tobacco farmer in the mid-to-late 1870s, Oscar Towner suffered from a series of disastrous crop failures. In 1879, he went to St. Louis, where his father, Minor M. Towner, was a wealthy tobacco trader and banker. While there, he met with Newell G. Larimore, president of the Central Elevator Company, a large grain dealership.

Newell and his brother, Arthur, were hoping to purchase a large tract of good farm land on which to grow grain. With reports of bountiful harvests on the bonanza farms of the Red River Valley, they hired Towner to check out what was available in northeastern Dakota Territory.

Upon Towner's arrival at the Elk Valley, west of Grand Forks, the St. Paul Globe wrote, "as he cast his eye over this splendid stretch of country, and noted its every feature, he knew at once that the Elk Valley was what he was looking for ... he soon returned to St. Louis, where in a very short space of time he organized what is now known as the Elk Valley Farm Company (EVFC)." The Larimore brothers, the financial backers of the EVFC, purchased 15,000 acres through the recently established land office in Grand Forks and appointed Towner as supervisor.


During the winter of 1880-81, Towner constructed "a frame house, barns and sheds, and a blacksmith shop." His family joined him in March 1881, and during the summer, he broke 8,000 acres of virgin sod. Towner convinced some of his Missouri friends to move to the Elk Valley, one of which was Eli Shortridge, a future North Dakota governor.

That year, James J. Hill's St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad (later renamed Great Northern) was running tracks just north of the farm, and a decision was made to establish a town that was named in honor of the Larimores. Towner began selling lots for the town and then turned that duty over to his bookkeeper, William Roach.

In January 1882, Towner returned to Missouri and persuaded his father and other investors to provide funding for his role with the EVFC, as well as for his own land purchasing enterprise. To work the fields of the land owned by EVFC, Towner subcontracted with Shortridge, who brought in 32 African-Americans, from Missouri, to work as farm laborers.

With the EVFC off to a great start, in August, Towner sold his shares to the Larimore brothers and resigned. He purchased 40,000 acres of land in northeastern Dakota Territory and divided his holdings into farms of 320 acres. He built cottages, barns, and sheds on the farms and hired laborers to till the fields. While that was underway, Towner began making frequent trips to St. Paul and Missouri to promote and sell or rent his farms.

Towner continued his activity in Larimore. He built a 75-room hotel and was instrumental in the construction of a church. The Globe reported that Towner "was the livewire of that locality, and as a promoter and booster was second to no other." With a soaring reputation, he ran for the territorial legislature in 1882 and defeated the incumbent, Knute Nomland.

While serving in the 1883 Legislative assembly, he actively joined a coalition to get the capital moved from Yankton to a more central location. When that was successful, he joined with other high-rollers from the Grand Forks and Pembina areas to establish a town that would hopefully become the new capital of Dakota Territory. Towner named this new town Odessa, and the syndicate he formed backed this plan by putting together a strong lobbying effort. It all fell apart when Hill refused to run his railroad through Odessa.

In February, Towner's father died, and as the only son, Oscar may have inherited much of his wealth. However, he now had no one who could give him sound financial advice.

The 1883 Legislature had created a new county north of the Devils Lake region that they named in honor of Towner. Naturally, he took a great interest in Towner County and tried to make it thrive. Towner purchased many acres of land and then went to Missouri, convincing many of his friends to relocate there. This group of about 40 men became known as the "Missouri Colony." Towner determined that barley was the grain that would grow best in this region, so he turned his focus on German communities, encouraging them to move to Towner County.


In 1884, Towner established a ranch in McHenry County. It was in the Mouse River region, about 50 miles east of Minot. In 1886, a town was established near his ranch which was named in his honor. Sales of land owned by Towner had slowed down, and he believed he could turn quicker profits in another enterprise - mining. In October 1886, he sold his ranch and moved to Minneapolis to confer with friends about starting a mining enterprise.

We will conclude the story of Oscar Towner 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: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net .

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