Bob Lind column: Neighbors: Mattie Davis led the way in Cass school system

Mattie Davis loved kids and probably would have been a wonderful mother. But it wasn't to be; she never had children of her own.

Mattie Davis loved kids and probably would have been a wonderful mother.

But it wasn't to be; she never had children of her own. But she spent much of her life working for the education and welfare of thousands of other children.

She taught school in Casselton, N.D., and Fargo, was the first woman elected Cass County superintendent of schools and was a leader in developing youth programs.

Information about this pace-setting woman comes from a reader in Pelican Rapids, Minn., who wishes to remain anonymous.

Mattie was born in 1856 in Darlington, Ont., into a family with an impressive family tree. Her father was descended from Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, and an earlier ancestor had designed one of the towers of the beautiful cathedral in Rouen, France.


When Mattie was a child, her family moved to Minnesota where her father became sheriff of Wabasha County.

Mattie became a teacher, then married Dr. E.C. Davis in 1884. But tragedy hit the newlyweds. Mattie became ill with typhoid and slipped into a coma for several months. When she came out of it, she learned her husband, too, had come down with typhoid and had died.

Her brother Louis, living in Casselton in Dakota Territory where he was cashier of the United States Land Office of the territory, suggested she move there to get away. That's what Mattie did, coming to Casselton to teach 8th grade and later becoming the Casselton school superintendent.

She then taught in Fargo schools until 1896 when she was elected county superintendent of schools and went into high gear on behalf of the children and their schools.

- She originated a county corn-growing contest which became the forerunner of 4-H clubs.

- She helped organize neighborhood clubs which led to parent-teacher associations.

- She urged teachers to attend summer school to enhance their effectiveness.

- She led a drive for goals, uniform throughout North Dakota, which students in each grade would be expected to accomplish, a forerunner of state courses of study.


- She encouraged Cass County school officers to form an association, leading to the North Dakota Association of School Officers.

- She led a successful fight for a law requiring students to have daily instruction on abstaining from the use of alcohol and narcotics.

In 1897, Mattie was the leader of a drive to have a mill levy approved in a Fargo election to create a public library. But the plan was flooded out, literally. It was the year of the major flood, which covered much of downtown Fargo, when boats were literally being rowed over treetops; and when the only polling place in town, the pumping station near what is now Island Park, was under water.

When the election was finally held, the voters felt that repairing washed-out streets and damaged city facilities was more important than a library, and they voted it down.

But Mattie and other library backers fought on, and in 1900 a mill levy was approved and Fargo's first library was opened in the basement of the old Masonic temple.

Mattie was a leader in the Fortnightly Club, organized primarily as a social club for women. Fargo then, as now, was becoming home to many immigrants, although then they were primarily from northern Europe. Immigrant women came to the Fortnightly Club and asked to be taught English. An evening class on English was formed. Soon the women were happily telling how they now could show their children they could write their own name in English.

Another Mattie story: She worked with Grace Robinson, Fargo's first visiting school nurse, to have bathtubs installed in the basement of Washington Elementary School. There, Grace supervised daily baths and shampoos of the children.

And there's more about this remarkable woman:


- She was a leader in the women's suffrage movement.

- When Fargo leaders considered dropping the city's lone woman police officer, Mattie and others launched a successful petition drive to retain her.

- She led the fund drive to pay for the sculpture of Sakakawea on the state Capitol grounds, and she spoke at the dedication of that sculpture in 1910.

She was president of the North Dakota Education Association, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and an active member of the First Methodist Church, Fargo.

This was the woman who, as county superintendent of schools, visited the rural county schools with horse and buggy -- and who convinced the county commissioners they should let her hire a clerk, even though they had to pay that clerk a whopping $20 a month.

Mattie Davis died in 1936 at age 80. She left behind an impressive legacy, the benefits of which are still being felt by schools and children.

For all we know, maybe Fargo Cass Public Health is still sending a nurse over to Washington School to give baths.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, N.D. 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or e-mail

What To Read Next
Get Local