When the U.S. officially formed a centralized government in 1789, its economic system was largely based on “capitalism,” meaning that “private ownership was the means of production and that market transactions were the principal drivers of economic activity.”
For individuals, profit was a principal motivator, and government played a minor role in terms of regulations or restrictions. This system was still largely in place at the start of the 20th century, and one of the most successful capitalists in eastern North Dakota at that time was Jerry Bacon.
Bacon, as a teenager, started selling horses near Grand Forks in the early 1880s and, from the money he amassed, began purchasing acres of fertile farmland in Grand Forks County. Bacon moved to Grand Forks, where he and Warren S. Wood rebuilt a large hotel that had recently been destroyed by fire. Bacon had partial ownership in and served as vice-president of the Grand Forks Transit Co. and the Northwestern Trust Co., president of the Northern Packing Co. and director of the Patent Cement Concrete Co. and the Nelson Grain Sower Co., and he also became the major owner of a couple of different banks.
Along with these businesses, Bacon also owned considerable real estate in Grand Forks. In early 1906, Bacon became the principal owner and publisher of a new, conservative daily newspaper, the Grand Forks Evening Times, and he recruited some of the best journalists in the area to run it.
Bacon first hired Holger “Happy” Paulson, a young, outstanding reporter for the Grand Forks Plaindealer, and made him city editor. Since the Plaindealer was about to fold, Paulson convinced another employee there, Norman B. Black, to also join the Times, as general manager. Bacon convinced William Preston Davies, a longtime writer for the Grand Forks Herald, to head the editorial department and Herbert H. Lampman to be editor-in-chief. Bacon also brought in Alice Nelson Page, a leading suffragette in North Dakota, to be the society editor.
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In 1911, George Winship, owner and editor of the Herald, retired, and Bacon became the leading financial backer in the purchase of the Herald. For the next three years, Bacon's Times Co. printed the Herald as the morning newspaper and the Times as the evening paper, and in 1914, the two newspapers were combined to become the Morning and Evening Herald. In 1927, Bacon sold the newspaper to his brother, Julius, who sold it two years later to Ridder Publications.
Jerry Bacon was interested in many different things, but he had one overriding obsession: stopping socialism from getting a foothold in North Dakota. Socialism is the antithesis of capitalism because it is “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”
According to North Dakota historian Elwyn Robinson, “Socialist activity had begun in North Dakota in 1900,” but for the first 15 years, it never gained the support of more than 8% of the voters in any statewide election, and Bacon viewed it with little concern. However, in 1915, a new movement began that embraced many socialistic principles, and it was something that a lot of farmers felt would help them because they believed that they were being exploited by big-money interests out east, primarily the railroads and grain dealers.
This movement was called the Nonpartisan League (NPL), and the leader was a former Golden Valley County farmer, A. C. Townley. The NPL quickly gained the support of many people, and by the end of the legislative session on March 5, 1915, more than 30,000 farmers had joined the League, which became an active and powerful force in North Dakota politics.
According to Elwyn Robinson, the goal of NPL leadership was to "enter the Republican primary (in 1916), gain control of the state government, and enact its program" of sweeping reforms, resulting in a multitude of new laws.
The year 1916 was a good time to be an NPL office seeker in North Dakota because, when the Republican primary was held in June, all but one of the state office candidates endorsed by the League won the Republican nomination. In the November election, the full slate of NPL candidates within the Republican Party was elected.
In the Legislature, the NPL won control of the House and picked up some seats in the Senate. Legislators were instructed about upcoming legislation, and a strategy was developed to enact parts of the NPL program. Up until this time, North Dakota had basically been run by big-money interests. Among the new laws passed were the forbidding of discrimination of rates by the railroads, a large increase in aid for rural education, giving women the right to vote, a reduction in the number of hours required for working women, a guarantee of state bank deposits and an establishment of a "grain-grading system."
The Legislature also exempted farm improvements from taxation and established a state highway commission and a Consumers' United Stores Company to distribute goods directly from the manufacturers to consumers. “The lawmakers would have done even more if the NPL had also controlled the Senate.”
With high expectations in 1918, NPL leaders geared up for the next election by broadening their platform to include national issues. They "called for a democratic world government, the end of monopoly, full employment with public works for the unemployed, national ownership of public transportation and communication, steeply graduated income and inheritance taxes" and the expansion of civil rights.
The rapid ascension of the NPL alarmed many of the old guard Republicans, including Bacon, who swung into action. Between 1918 and 1920, Bacon wrote, published and distributed at least six pamphlets, each between 60 and 100 pages, lashing out at the NPL. In 1918, he wrote "The Farmer and Townleyism," "Carry the Truth to the People" and "The National Nonpartisan League Debate." In 1919, he wrote "A Warning to the Farmer Against Townleyism as Exploited in North Dakota" and "Townleyism Unmasked," and in 1920, "Sovietians: Wreckers of Americanism."
Bacon’s press also published the works of other writers who opposed the NPL. One of the most popular was "A Sermon on Applied Socialism," written by the Rev. F. Halsey Ambrose, a firebrand Presbyterian minister in Grand Forks. The 1919 publication was “a violent assault on the NPL” that sold over 5,000 copies in two weeks.
Bacon supported the early efforts of Ambrose, despite the fact that the minister was the leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Grand Forks. Bacon may have believed in the philosophy that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
This mutual alliance lasted until 1924 when Ambrose attacked two prominent women on the Grand Forks School Board for being pawns of the Catholic Church. “He referred to Catholic supporters as ‘the scum of the earth’ and pledged that Catholics were the same the world over.” Bacon and the editors at the Herald were now fed up with Ambrose and began to attack the KKK in the newspaper.
Bacon could feel some satisfaction about two of his major objectives as publisher of the Herald, because in 1921, the NPL went into a temporary decline, and after 1924, the Ku Klux Klan in Grand Forks lost its political impact.
On Sept. 19, 1933, Jerry Bacon died in an automobile accident.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.