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The New Normal


As new states were established during westward expansion, the first order of business—even in territorial times—was the distribution of political spoils. That is, each state sought to scatter its infrastructure equitably across its turf. State (and territorial) legislatures were charged with creating institutions and situating them according to the extant pecking order, populous counties with clout receiving plum institutions and less populated regions the dregs, if any were left.

Institutions came in two broad types: education and social service (with much more variety in the latter). In Dakota Territory and the new state of North Dakota after 1889 there were two waves of distribution during the First Dakota Boom and and its echo about twenty years later. Taken together, the process yielded too many institutions, what one historian called “too much too soon”. It looked something like this, in no particular order (I’m working from memory, not notes):

  • Agricultural College—Fargo
  • University—Grand Forks
  • State School of Science—Wahpeton
  • Normal School (for teacher training)—Mayville
  • Normal School—Valley City
  • Industrial School—Ellendale
  • Normal School—Minot
  • Normal School—Dickinon
  • Junior College—Bismarck

Having addressed higher education, there was then the matter of social services at a time when the delicacies of language were less than we might expect in the age of political correctness. Consider:

  • School for the Feeble Minded—Grafton
  • School for the Deaf—Devils Lake
  • School for the Blind—Bathgate, but later relocated to Grand Forks
  • School for Incorrigables (or some such term for recalcitrant youth)—Mandan
  • Hospital for the Insane—Jamestown
  • State Prison—Bismarck

What have I forgotten?

Suffice to say, any new state, after the Civil War, would have built into its creation a host of institutions for educating its youth (or reforming them) and treating the physical and mental ills of its population. And the clamor for each of them was intense, because each represented an investment of state resources in the local economy: each would be built from materials locally supplied and each would employ local citizens as staff (teachers, care givers, custodians, etc.). Any community able to lobby successfully for one of these was stabilized; its future was reinforced, if not assured.


Into or out of this context, consider Agincourt’s community leaders when the local orphanage went out of business circa 1910. An empty building. Unemployed staff. Should we be surprised that an ad hoc committee of politicos and business types sought a solution, lobbying the legislature in Des Moines for creation of a new teacher training school—a so-called “normal school”—to fill the vacant buildings on the northwest edge of town?

Adaptive use as enlightened self-interest. I rest my case.

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