Capitol site

Farm Forum

The visit by the North Dakota State women’s basketball team to Brookings to face the South Dakota State University cagers for Dakota Territory bragging rights reminded me of an earlier battle between southern and northern Dakotans.

That tussle back in 1883 involved nine players, rather than ten. And southern Dakotans had the extra player 6 to 4. Hardly fair, but the northern underdog won out.

The group was chosen to tour Dakota Territory in the early summer to inspect cities interested in becoming the territory’s capitol.

Committee members were wined and dined as they visited each of the 11 bidding communities.

Each visit involved parties, tours, toasts, cigars and speeches by promoters in such places as Ordway, Frankfort and Odessa. Committee members traveled in style.

Railroad companies, wanting the capitol on their iron, rolled out their most modern, comfortable rail cars and diners for the trip, and stocked the kitchens with the most elegant of food and the bars with the most expensive of drink.

In Pierre, committee members even got a free steamship ride and hiked up a gumbo hill.

To be eligible for selection, a community had to guarantee at least $100,000 for construction, plus at least 160 acres of free land for the capitol.

Submitting bids were Mitchell, Huron, Ordway (near Aberdeen), Pierre, Aberdeen, Bismarck, Redfield, Canton, Odessa, Steele and Frankfort.

Ordway, with property bought up by Sioux Falls speculators, offered the $100,000 plus 320 acres for the capitol and another 160 acres for a railroad depot and sidings.

Another wide spot in the road, Odessa, on Devil’s Lake in what is now North Dakota, offered $200,000 plus 380 acres.

Even the little town of Frankfort in what is now South Dakota put up $100,000 and 160 acres.

In July 1883, Bismarck was selected on a five to four vote. It probably was a good thing, but southern Dakota folks wondered about the vote of Brookings’ George Mathews, who sided with the four northern Dakota members. He was one of five southern Dakota committee members, but four of them were bitterly divided in favor of either Pierre or Huron.

What southern Dakota citizens didn’t realize was that Mathews had argued for Huron, but when he saw that the vote was a sure thing for Bismarck, he joined the other.

Of course, Bismarck in what became North Dakota wasn’t exactly in the center of Dakota Territory, but neither was the first capitol in Yankton of what became southern South Dakota.

At the time, it didn’t take a Gatling gun scientist to know that sooner or later the territory would be divided and become two states. Further, it was logical to assume that the dividing line would split the territory evenly.

Bismarck, at a hub of rail and river traffic, was picked, probably with future statehood in mind to later became the capitol of North Dakota.

That left another decision for citizens in southern Dakota. Huron was confident it would be the site. But folks again chose a centralized location, and the then rough and tumble cow town of Pierre won in a statewide vote.

Incidentally, capitol committee members earned $6 a day for their efforts. That’s less than the per diem for the women basketball player’s pre-game meal.

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