Jorde Sale Inspires Latest Column|
March 27, 2013
Many thanks to those of you who wrote to me about last month’s article “Anatomy of a Territorial.” This article apparently enthused quite a few of you, and I will admit it was one of the most enjoyable I have written. No doubt, finding that old photo of the American Indians waiting for payments outside the First National Bank of Eufaula, Indian Territory, really was exciting.
Last month’s article was also the first where I have written about a town that I did not visit. Interestingly, this is becoming a lot easier, with myriad photos available on the Internet and the advent of Google Earth, which in many cases can allow you to virtually drive the streets of distant towns and cities, and in my case, look to see, in advance, if an old bank is still standing.
In that vein, this month we will take a visit to a far-away town that I have not visited and likely will never visit, but via Google Earth I feel I have already been to several times. This particular article is inspired by Lyn Knight Currency Auction’s sale, in freezing late January, of the Glen Jorde Collection of North Dakota National Bank Notes.
Now, I am not a collector of North Dakota, and I have never been to North Dakota. But, as many of you know, I am a fool for ghost towns and virtual ghost towns, and North Dakota is replete with both. Long before Glen decided to part with his half century built collection, I had been perusing the ghost towns of North Dakota in print and online. Predictably, most of these towns never had a bank, let alone a national bank. During this pastime, I found a neat website of North Dakota ghost towns, and one, described therein as being the most populous of all the ghost towns listed (at 116 residents) caught my attention. Do you really have to ask why?
So, this month, let’s take a short jaunt to the far west of North Dakota, to barely populated Slope County, and visit ghostly Marmarth, N.D. Slope County, located in the southwestern corner of the state, is the least populated county in North Dakota, with just 727 people according to the 2010 census. It is also the 19th least populous county in the United States.
With the arrival of a branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad in 1907, a town site was laid out on the west bank of the Little Missouri River. By 1908, structures were being built in what is now Marmarth, which was named for Margaret Martha Fitch, granddaughter of Albert J. Earling, president of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. The town grew rapidly because of the railroad, and in 1909 a village form of government was established. The first high school graduation class was in 1912. This class of two included Colin Clements, who went on to become a well-known author and Hollywood playwright.
The Milwaukee Railroad played an important part in Marmarth’s history—the early days saw three east-bound and three west-bound passenger trains daily, along with many freight trains. The Marmarth roundhouse was used to both service and turn the frequent trains.
By 1915 the population of the town had increased to 1,000 people and at that time a commission form of government was adopted. That same year the first electric light plant was built for the city and was in full operation by the fall of 1915. It was in that same year that Billings County, where the town was then located, was divided and Slope County was created.
Things progressed rapidly, and by February 1911, Marmarth was the largest town in North Dakota on the Milwaukee Railroad and the fifth largest town west of the Missouri River. By 1917, it was the only town in North Dakota to have natural gas piped in for both commercial and domestic use. By then the town hosted many businesses including a bank, two hotels, a hardware store, jewelry store, laundry, post office, newspaper (The Marmarth Mail), theatre, gas station, Ford Agency, meat market, and a hospital. Marmarth reached peak population of around 1,300 in 1920, but the town and the population began to decrease rapidly after the railroad closed in 1922.
One of the most impressive projects constructed in Marmarth was the Barber Building, which was built in 1909. The ground floor of this building was occupied by businesses, including the newly formed First National Bank of Marmarth, while the upper story was a fully equipped Opera House. It was at that time the finest playhouse west of Minneapolis. The Barber building burned in 1918 but was quickly rebuilt the same year. The Barber building was purchased by the Marmarth Historical Society to keep it from being torn down so it still stands in Marmarth, but it is in a sad state of disrepair.
Marmarth still exists in its beautiful and unique setting on the Little Missouri River, surrounded by the badlands and shaded by majestic cottonwood trees. With a population of 116 people, it is an interesting mixture of old and new. The old Milwaukee Railroad Bunkhouse is still operating year-round as a rooming house with dormitory-style rooms. During the summer it sees a large influx of paleontologists and amateur dinosaur enthusiasts, as Marmarth is set in the middle of one of the best dinosaur fields in the country.
I saw the pictures of the Barber Building, both before and after the fire, and was impressed how a building of its size could have been destroyed and rebuilt in the same year, 1918. Marmarth must have been quite the place in its day. I traveled down Main Street on Google Earth and got to see everything that remains in Marmarth, including the abandoned ruin that the Barber Building is today. I decided I would like to get a note from its bank.
The First National Bank of Marmarth, N.D., received charter 9082 and opened for business in March 1908. Originally, its building was attached to the left side of the Barber Building and opened onto the corner (see pre-1918 photo of this building). In 1918, the Barber Building and the bank were completely destroyed by fire, but were rebuilt that same year. A completely new design was constructed, with the Barber Building expanded, and the bank enclosed in it, this time on the right side, with the bank entrance facing, but not directly on, the opposite corner (see post-1918 photos). The bank operated until local depression forced it into receivership at the end of 1933. Its total issue consisted of Series of 1902 Red and Blue Seal notes, and a small issue of Series of 1929 Type 1 notes, for a total value of $300,000.
I had decided I wanted a note from this bank, but the notes were not to be had, even with eight large and 10 small notes reported. So, when I heard that Glen’s collection was going to be sold, I realized my chance had finally come. I didn’t brave sub-zero temperatures to travel to Fargo to attend the sale in person, but enjoyed participating from the comfort of my home using Knight Live for live internet bidding.
Glen had two really attractive large notes in his collection, surprisingly just two serial numbers apart. One was grade AU-50 and the other VF-30, though it was very hard for me to see much difference between them, and the VF-30 note had better signatures. I set my sights on that note, and added it to my collection. When it arrived it was really even nicer than expected (see photo).
Marmarth today truly is a near ghost town. The old railroad station has been cut into two pieces and one piece moved onto Main Street as one heads into town from the west. The Barber Building, fortunately saved from destruction, is a derelict ruin, the entrance to the First National Bank desolately boarded up. Marmarth surely must have been something in its heyday (see town view circa 1920) and so its ghostly remains are all the more interesting to me.
I wasn’t able to buy all the notes I wanted from Glen’s collection, but I did get a few, and I hope to present some more ghost banks from this state to you over the next year.
Readers may address questions or comments about this article or National Bank Notes in general to Mark Hotz directly by email at email@example.com.
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