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North Dakota's first official immigration promoter later became a U.S. represenative

Henry Helgeson was elected North Dakota's first first agriculture and labor commissioner. One of his duties was to promote immigration in the state.

Helgesen.jpg
Henry Helgeson was elected North Dakota's first agriculture and labor commissioner in 1890.
Contributed / Wikicommons
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FARGO — When North Dakota became a state in 1889 the man given the responsibility for overseeing all of its agricultural interests, as well as manufacturing and mining enterprises, had only lived in this state for two years.

In that short period of time, Henry Helgesen had done very well. He constructed a thriving hardware store in Milton, owned profitable farmland, and managed a booming real estate business.

Immigrants were the major reason for much of his incredible success because he sold new property to them as well as the lumber and tools to build their new homes. Helgesen reasoned that if North Dakota was to prosper, it needed many new immigrants to live and work in this state.

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Henry Thomas Helgesen was born June 26, 1857, on a farm near Decorah, Iowa, to Thomas and Marit (Anderson) Helgeson, immigrants from Norway. While growing up, Henry helped on the family farm and also worked on neighboring farms. For his elementary education, he attended public schools and then studied under the tutelage of John Breckenridge, a noted educator in Decorah.

Henry attended Breckenridge’s private normal institute for high school and then was a student at Decorah Business College, which was organized by Breckenridge and run by John Rowe Slack. Following college, Henry went to work at a local grocery store and, in 1880, married Bessie Nelson.

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With three young children in 1887, and seeing only limited opportunities in Decorah, Helgesen learned about the successes that a number of the people from his hometown had achieved after moving to Dakota Territory. A good example was Martin Johnson, a large land owner in Nelson County who later became a U.S. senator.

Helgesen liquidated his holdings in Decorah and, with his family, boarded a Great Northern Railroad train to Dakota. The GNRR had reached the small village of Milton earlier in 1887, and Helgesen reasoned that this hamlet had the potential for rapid growth, and decided to make Milton his new home.

Milton is located in southeastern Cavalier County with no other large towns within 50 miles. Helgesen obtained some farmland near Milton and erected the first business house in the town. That business was a hardware store that also sold lumber and furniture.

Milton.jpg
Milton in the 1890s.
Contributed / North Dakota State University Institute for Regional Studies

Helgesen also obtained a license to sell real estate, and his timing was perfect. In 1888, over 100 houses were sold in a three-week period, and the town of Milton was incorporated on May 2, 1888.

With the town and community growing rapidly, Helgesen’s businesses were booming and, in 1888, he built the largest house in Milton.

Learn about notable figures from North Dakota's past with "Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen.

Helgesen became a community leader and embraced Republican politics. He was one of the leading proponents of promoting immigration and, with North Dakota about to become a new state in 1889, he decided to run for commissioner of agriculture and labor, a newly created department by members of the 1889 Constitutional Convention. One of the responsibilities of the commission was immigration promotion. On August 21, 1889, in Fargo, the Republican Party held its first state convention and Helgesen became the party’s choice to run for that office.

The commissioner was to promote agriculture and horticulture and manufacturing and domestic arts. This was the one department created by the new state constitution that had oversight of the vast majority of workers in the state. The commissioner was authorized to make by-laws, rules, and regulations that related to the department. He was also responsible for monitoring the agricultural industry and labor situations, and for mediating labor disputes, resulting from strikes or lockouts.

In addition, the commissioner was responsible for promoting immigration in the state and was the state statistician. He also served as the state dairy commissioner and was to be the promoter of stock breeding, horticulture, manufacturing, mining, and domestic arts. His department was responsible for holding district fairs, farmers’ institutes, and stock shows.

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In the November election, Helgesen was elected to be the state’s first agriculture and labor commissioner. North Dakota was a predominantly agricultural state and, in 1890, over 75% of the people worked on farms. There were 27,611 family farms, on which an additional 14,575 farm laborers were employed.

Besides looking out for the farmer’s interests, Helgesen was also entrusted with other labor issues involving workers at flour, grain, and saw mills; brick yards; print establishments (primarily newspaper-owned); boiler factories; cigar factories; butter and cheese factories; harness and saddle shops; tailor shops; and coal mines. While Helgesen was commissioner, there were only three local labor unions in the state.

Helgesen was re-elected as commissioner in 1890, but during his second term, he was becoming disgruntled. He received criticism from other states for recruiting workers from those states to help out North Dakota farmers during the harvest season. He was also disappointed with the friends of Gov. Andrew Burke because they gave credit to Burke for things Helgesen accomplished. Consequently, he did not seek re-election in 1892. With a salary of $150/month, he reasoned that he could make more money by devoting more of his time and attention to his enterprises in Milton.

Besides tending to his businesses and spending more time with his growing family, Helgesen served on the Milton School Board from 1893 to 1901, the last four years as chairman of the board.

In 1901, he began buying additional land in other parts of the state and, in 1905, sold his store. From 1907 to 1913, Helgesen was a member of the board of the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

In 1908, Helgesen was ready to return to North Dakota politics. Thomas Marshall, who had served four terms in the U.S. House, announced that he would not seek re-election so that he could run for the U.S. Senate. To fill that vacancy a number of prominent Republicans announced their candidacy: Erastus A. Williams, Louis Hanna, James Robinson, George Young, and Helgesen. Alexander McKenzie, who was the acknowledged kingmaker in Republican politics in North Dakota, made it known that he wanted Hanna elected, and, at the June 24 primary election, Hanna became the Republican candidate.

In 1910, A. J. Gronna, the other U.S. representative from North Dakota, decided not to run for the House so that he could run for the Senate. In the primary election, Helgesen and Hanna were elected to run as the Republican candidates for the U.S. House and, in the general election, they defeated their Democratic challengers, Tobias Casey and Melvin Hildreth, by a two-to-one margin.

Helgesen was a progressive Republican and was re-elected to the House three times. In 1912 he defeated Verner Lovell, in 1914 he triumphed over Fred Bartholomew, and in 1916 he was victorious over George Bangs.

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When the U.S. attempted to assist its ally, Great Britain, during its war with Germany, Helgesen became alarmed that the U.S. could get drawn into the conflict, and he was one of the most vociferous congressmen to warn against any overt actions. Despite Helgesen’s warnings, incidents kept happening that escalated into total distrust of Germany by the majority of Americans, and Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Three days later, Helgesen was hospitalized with appendicitis and because of complications during surgery, he died the next day.

Born Robert Zimmerman, Dylan went by Elston Gunnn when he lived in Fargo — and plenty of other North Dakotans changed their names before making it in the entertainment industry.

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com or calling 701-793-8508.
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