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Eriksmoen: 1906 saw one of North Dakota's nastiest campaigns

One of the meanest and dirtiest campaigns in North Dakota politics took place in 1906 when Alexander McKenzie's powerful political machine set out to defeat a candidate for the state Supreme Court.

John Knauf
John Knauf was defeated in his bid for a seat on the state Supreme Court in a dirty campaign. Special to The Forum

One of the meanest and dirtiest campaigns in North Dakota politics took place in 1906 when Alexander McKenzie's powerful political machine set out to defeat a candidate for the state Supreme Court.

John Knauf, a Republican lawyer, had committed the most unpardonable sin during the McKenzie era: He represented clients who leveled grievances against the Northern Pacific Railroad. The NP was making huge amounts of money off of North Dakota, and it handsomely rewarded McKenzie and his chief lieutenants to make certain that this bountiful climate would remain.

Knauf was born April 5, 1868, near the town of Waterloo in south-central Michigan. Knauf's siblings became prominent doctors, lawyers and teachers.

Knauf's mother died when he was 6 years old, and his father died when Knauf was 15. His brother Joseph, 22, gathered his nine younger siblings and moved to Dakota Territory in April 1883. He rented a farm near Cleveland, 20 miles west of Jamestown.

The crops they planted that year failed, and they had a difficult time surviving the cold, hard winter of 1883-84. They received a lifeline when an older sister, Helena, graduated from medical school and established a doctor's office in Jamestown in August 1883.


John finished his formal education in Jamestown, then attended Jamestown College for one year. He transferred to St. John's in Collegeville, Minn., majoring in business, then enrolled at the University of Michigan law school, graduating in 1892.

In June 1892, Knauf returned to Jamestown, where he became the protégé of Samuel L. Glaspell, a former legislator and Stutsman County state's attorney. Glaspell was deeply involved in Republican politics, which also became Knauf's party. In 1894, Knauf organized the Young Men's Republican League at a meeting in Grand Forks and was elected president. He was also elected Stutsman County judge.

In 1903, Knauf's older brother, Arthur, received a law degree from the University of Minnesota, and together they established the law firm Knauf and Knauf in the North Dakota Bank building, which they purchased. Among their clients were people who believed they were harmed by the NP. No Republican who had political ambitions would touch these cases, but John placed principle before politics.

Knauf was active in the Republican Party, and historian Elwyn Robinson referred to him as "the boss of Stutsman County because he could deliver the German Russian votes."

Early in 1906, Newton Young, a member of the state Supreme Court, announced that he would retire before his term expired in 1910. Knauf made it known that he would be a candidate for that position.

At the Republican convention in Jamestown on July 12, 1906, Judson LaMoure, McKenzie's chief lieutenant, tried to convince delegates they should elect Tracy Bangs of Grand Forks as their nominee. Bangs was an able attorney, but he was a Democrat.

The Fargo Forum reported that the Cass County Bar Association sent a telegram to the convention urging delegates to vote against Knauf, but Knauf was elected as the Republican nominee.

McKenzie's task of defeating Knauf became more difficult on Aug. 15, when Young decided to turn in his resignation early. Gov. Elmore Y. Sarles appointed Knauf as his replacement. McKenzie and his supporters took drastic action.


Usher Burdick, in his book "Great Judges and Lawyers of Early North Dakota," wrote: "Five or six lawyers in Fargo issued and had printed a statement against Knauf that he was a boozer and a libertine." Burdick wrote that these were "false reports about Knauf," because he had not "used intoxicating liquors of any character." The reports about Knauf were circulated among key individuals involved in the 1906 campaign.

One of the people who believed the reports were true was Elizabeth Preston Anderson, president of the North Dakota Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Anderson hosted an Indignation Meeting in Mayville where Knauf was portrayed as a "whiskey-drinking" candidate. Knauf couldn't get the Republican leadership to support him in countering this charge because they were the ones who planted the rumor.

Democrat Charles J. Fisk defeated Knauf in the November election. Burdick wrote: "Here was a case where misstatements, intentional falsehoods and vicious political opposition fanned into a state-wide hysteria, defeated one of the great men of North Dakota."

Knauf returned to his Jamestown law office, where he continued to represent clients with grievances against the NP. He was also active in the movement to reopen Jamestown College, which was forced to close in 1893. It reopened in 1909.

His fellow attorneys learned that the charges against Knauf were all fabricated and, in 1909, he was elected president of the Stutsman County Bar Association. In 1913, he was elected vice president of the Bar Association of North Dakota and, the following year, became president. He died on Sept. 19, 1952.

Information about "Did You Know That"

and all three volumes of the book are available at eriksmoenenterprises.com. The column and books are written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen. Reach the Eriksmoens

at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net


The Eriksmoens will be available for book signings Saturday and Nov. 8 at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D.

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