A small, quiet peaceful town, nestled on the shores of the beautiful Des Lacs Lake in the heart of a rich prairie country, is a description of the city of Kenmare, in northwest North Dakota. Rolling hills and colorful bluffs surrounding the valley add to this picture of natural beauty. Small but well-cultivated farmland and green, rolling pastures dotted with healthy cattle, gives this settlement a touch of "God-given" serenity.
If one could walk down the streets of this city and view the happy, friendly faces of the people, he would wonder what the secret of such a contended settlement was. Strange as it may seem, it is no secret at all, but merely the passing from father to son of the satisfaction of witnessing and being a part of the change, from a pioneer settlement to a prospering town.
Quite different was the first glimpses that the pioneers saw of the territory around Kenmare. The beautiful trees that shade the streets and the lake side were not in existence, neither the checkered pattern of the cultivated farm land. Only the fast rolling prairies with tons and tons of waving, prairie grass.
Great herds of longhorns were fattened on these plains each year. The N-N Cattle Company from Texas, was the predominating company. The company would herd the cattle to the Dakota’s over the Montana plains and load them at Kenmare for market. In 1894, 125,000 head of cattle were shipped from Kenmare.
The fences of the corrals, which covered acres of land, were made of native poplar poles. The cattle, traditionally the Texas Longhorns, were vicious and frequently broke their horns in attempting to escape from these corrals and stories are related how it was necessary at frequent intervals to clear away the severed horns from outside the pens. Eighteen to twenty-five animals constituted a carload and one can readily visualize the tremendous number of special trains necessary to haul the annual output to market.
A number of smaller ranches extended between the Des Lacs and Mouse River valleys. Sheep grazing was quite extensive in the hills between the Des Lacs and the Missouri and the coulees southwest of Kenmare were frequently used as natural corrals while awaiting shipment.
The first known settler in this vicinity was a Mr. Cartwright, who opened the first mine in the community, in 1880.
The first known squatter in present Kenmare was Augustine Rouse. Rouse apparently came here about 1891 and prospected for coal. He provided a dugout for his quarters on the site later occupied by the Ringen Hardware Store and served as Kenmare’s first postmaster until 1896 when he was liquidated in a gun battle. Lignite was the post office name operated by Rouse but following his death, Lignite was abandoned and the settlement remained unnamed until 1897.
In 1892, Mr. and Mrs. McBride Sr., and their son Neil, Jr., came to what is now known as Kenmare, from Oxbow, Canada, where continued drought forced them to look for greener fields. They drove their cattle down across the border and squatted where Cartwright had abandoned his corrals and shack. Mrs. McBride opened a boarding house for surveyors who were engaged in establishing land boundaries. Next to mining and ranching, this proved to be one of the first business places in the vicinity. The McBride family was later joined by their son, Andrew Jr., who moved into Kenmare and opened a meat market in 1897.
These pioneers witnessed many hardships that made the success of this town even more memorable. Andy McBride remembers the two day trips necessary to go to Minot for provisions; the severe winters; the arrival of immigrants; the immense number of cattle shipped from here; early day hunting, and the bitter political fights that frequently led to gun play.
Murders were numerous; men disappeared, never to again be heard from although bleached skeletons in burned hay stacks doubtless accounted for many of the disappearances.
Another early invader of the region was E.C. Tolley, who came here primarily to explore the coal regions, study and determine to his own satisfaction whether or not the area was suitable for development. With his horse he roamed over the country prospecting for coal, studying the grasses, watching the moisture and in general forming opinions as to the fitness of the country. Convinced that the area was worthy of his efforts, Tolley set about to interest prospective settlers. On July 27, 1896 the government plat was filed in the United States Land Office at Minot. Mr. Tolley, W.T. Smith, D.P. Show and several others were among the first to file on land in the vicinity. The first building constructed in Kenmare, except for the section house, was Mr. Tolley’s shack on a site now described as the south side of the square.
In 1885, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Ward moved to this area to work as a section man on the Soo Line Railroad. Mr. Ward built a livery stable on lots later occupied by George’s Cafe.
Good news travels fast, so was the conditions in these early days. When satisfied people could settle in this vicinity, some immigrants flocked here by the hundreds. In the spring of 1897, 1200 carloads of people were unloaded in Kenmare. The people were forced to live in freight cars for a few days, until they were able to locate a claim and erect some buildings. The Soo Line later built immigrant sheds or shacks to house these brave pioneers. Among the first immigrants were Will Smith, Elmer McGrow, Charles McFarland, Levi Landis and others.
It was also early in 1897 that P.M. Cole, Geo. Robertson, J.A. Englund, J.D. Benson and other pioneer merchants arrived. Cole erected a frame building on a lot on the present southwest corner of the square; T.W. Tasker established a hardware store; J.C. Scott and C.F. Meyer were the village’s first blacksmiths and Andy and Neil McBride opened a meat market; Tracy Bros. built a livery barn; J.D. Benson erected a hotel and J.A. Englund a machine shed; Mr. Robertson and G.P. Makee opened a general merchandise store and drug. In 1899, the west side of the square, which was made up of six or seven business places, was burned. It was following that the brick building, later owned by Lewis Knudson and known as Messinger’s store, was built. This was Kenmare’s first brick building. The early homes of these pioneers were sod shacks with the kitchen tables turned on its side to provide a door for the house. Truly this was a melting pot...all sizes...all colors...all creeds...all eager to stake their claims in a new country.
However, the life of these pioneers was not all excitement and adventures. Hardships were many, especially through the severe winters. The winters of 1896 and 1897 were unusually severe, and the children were able to play on drifts that completely covered the stockyards and other shacks that were in the process of being erected. One pioneer, Clyde O. Bohn, remembers when he arrived in Kenmare, on March 24, 1897, it was blizzarding so that you could only see a few hundred yards. The storm continued until April 10, and Bohn wondered if springtime would ever come to North Dakota. On April 11, a Chinook wind started blowing and in three days the prairie was one mass of crocuses.
Conditions always seem worse in the eyes of women, but anything can be possible during a North Dakota winter. Several women describe the winters of 1897 and 1898 as being the worst mass of snow storms in history. The temperature was consistently 40 degrees below zero and one storm followed closely on another. The river froze to the bottom and the cattle had to depend on snow for water. One lady remembered waking up one morning only to find their house completely covered with snow. The storm had lasted 10 days. The cattle were housed in a straw shelter, and in search for water, ate a hole in the roof. They were able to survive by eating snow.
North Dakota winters were minor examples of hardships for these courageous pioneers. Floods! The very sound caused the people of these early days to shiver, for homes were destroyed each year by rushing water of the melting snow. Troubles continued throughout the summer, drought, grasshoppers, army worms, hail and many visiting cyclones destroyed homes and crops. Prairie firs also usually destroyed miles of grassland and crops before they were controlled.
Each pioneer carried with them the spirit of holidays. And, of course, Santa Claus didn’t forget the children of the Dakota "iceland". One Christmas, a family covered a tree they had taken from the river with cotton. It looked very nice with its homemade decorations, but it caught fire when the candles were lighted and had to be thrown outside.
Pioneer days may have been hard for the parents, but it was fun for the children. There were Indian potatoes to dig, gophers to trap and bird nest to find and the big old buffalo rock to play around.
Flowers of all kinds bloomed on the prairie and kids knew the places where the long stemmed violets and blue bells grew. Picnics and berry picking trips were the favorite recreation in the summer.
Pioneer days may have been hard, but after all, God was good. He does things well. The people had homesteads, and were debt-free and happy. What more would one want?
The town platted in May, 1899, although lots had been squatted on before the plat was filed. The village of Kenmare was incorporated in December, 1901, and the village officers elected December 23, 1901. Martin Lund, C.M. Lathrop, S.S. Paulson, L.J. Palda Jr., and W.F. Neideritter were the original alderman. A.M. Olsen was the treasurer, E.M. Rogers, assessor; J.M. Howland, marshal; Henry P. Brown, clerk, and W.E. Grinnell, justice of the peace. Attorney Palda was elected president of the first council and drew many of the general ordinances.
Kenmare was given the name Kenmare at the suggestions of a daughter of one of the Soo Line officials who went through here on one of the first passenger trains to make the trip after the road was opened. She had done some traveling in Europe and remembered a town called Kenmare in Ireland was located scenically very much like this town. So, Kenmare was adopted as the name. Kenmare means, "forever more". Previous names such as Lignite after the coal mines, and Tolley, after E.C. Tolley, were abandoned.
As has been previously mentioned, Augustine Rouse operated the first postoffice, but after his death in 1896, it was abandoned.
After that time and until April 30, 1897, all mail for Kenmare residents channeled through the Donnybrook postoffice. Records at Washington, DC, indicate that John H. Clapper was the first postmaster. After April 20, 1897, mail was received daily via the Soo Line, and rural delivery service was established December 1, 1903, with four carriers, receiving compensation of $600 per year. Succeeding Clapper was E.C. Tolley, who served until 1901.
Anna Rasmussen taught the first school in her claim shack in the summer of 1900. The benches and tables were homemade. Her sister, Christine, taught the following fall, using her brother’s shack as a school house.
The first school building in Kenmare was on the lot of the McCommel residence with Miss Mary Miller as teacher. A large one was built, but it burned six months after completion in 1904. The following year the first half of a school was built. The second half was built in 1907 and dedicated in 1908. The Kenmare School Township was organized in June 1897, with Tom Ward, Henry Banning and Neil McBride as directors and P.M. Cole as treasurer.
The first class was graduated in 1909 with 15 receiving diplomas.
The Kenmare Deaconess Hospital was originally founded by Dr. I.C.J. Wiig in 1908, and in 1913, was purchased by Doctors John and Fred Ewing, who in 1916, organized the Lakeside Hospital Association.
At that time the first part of the present brick structure was erected, and a second addition was necessitated in 1919. In 1921 the hospital ownership was assumed by the methodist Church. For many years the institution conducted a training school for nurses but this was discontinued in the early 30s and the hospital has since been operated by a graduate staff, and the original hospital, a frame building, converted to a nurses home. Recently a modern brick home has been built for the nursing personnel.
The first known church service in Kenmare was conducted by a minister from Minot in a shack owned by one Prow, located on the site of the present depot. The congregation was small and the collection smaller, amounting to 25 cents, which appeared to be the entire capital of the assembly. Prow operated a restaurant but was much displeased with the country and the story is related that he was continually complaining about the dry weather. One evening he took his departure and started back for Missouri. When south of town he was caught in a heavy rain storm and was nearly drowned and that was the last ever hear of Prow.
Having just plain church didn’t satisfy most of the pioneers, so we find the beginning of different denominations in the village. The Catholic church has been in Kenmare since the first mass was held in 1895. The following year in 1896, the Lutheran church was organized on the wild prairie. True to the tradition of Methodism, the Methodist itinerant preacher was among the pioneers in Kenmare. Their first service was held in 1897. The Baptist church soon found its way into the hearts of these early pioneers, when in 1900 the church was organized.
The Rogers Lumber Company established the first lumber yard in town and the Ward County State Bank, later known as the First National Bank, was the first banking institution. P.W. Sharp and M.H. Misfeldt established the first newspaper, The Kenmare News, in March, 1899. In 1905, the water system, was installed with the sewer system following two years later.
The city park was quite different looking than it is now, the first few years it was just natural grass and barren trees, about all it was good for was a good place for dogs to play. The story was told that when the town was first plotted that vacant block was intended for court house space, but when the famous Gooseneck section of Ward County came into being the decision was made to make a city park of it, not without several good political scraps, however. The Park Board began functioning in 1910.
The following history of Kenmare is taken from a booklet entitled "Kenmare If Anywhere", compiled by Glenius O’Neill, presumably in 1947, when Kenmare celebrated its 50th Anniversary. Much of the information for that booklet was taken from past issues of The Kenmare News, and a publication entitled, "Talk on the Early Days in Kenmare", by Tracy E. Showers.