MARILYN HAGERTY: Storytellers carry history of Grand Forks County

There we were -- sitting around a table with Capt. Alexander Griggs, the father of Grand Forks, and M. Beatrice Johnstone, the early Grand Forks County Superintendent of Schools.

There we were -- sitting around a table with Capt. Alexander Griggs, the father of Grand Forks, and M. Beatrice Johnstone, the early Grand Forks County Superintendent of Schools.

Ronald Davies, the judge who presided at Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 when the high school was forced to accept black students, was there. So was UND President John C. West, who guided the institution through the Great Depression.

Mathilda Engstad joined us. She is the wife of Dr. John Engstad, who was well known as an early physician here in Grand Forks.

And there was an American Indian Shawl Dancer at the table, too. She's JuniKae Randall, a historian.

Tthe meeting was called to order by Don Lemon, past president of the Grand Forks County Historical Society board. He was getting an update on the roster he engineered of storytellers who will go out in the area and talk about their roles in the development of the county as we know it today.


In addition to the storytellers gathered around the table, there are others who are available. They are ready and willing to go into classrooms, club meetings, luncheons -- anywhere.

They are helping to create interest in the history of Grand Forks County. They do it without pay.

Gary Malm, a Grand Forks County Commissioner, portrays Alexander Griggs, who is known as the father of Grand Forks County. And Ruby Grove talks to students about the early days when M. Beatrice Johnstone was superintendent of schools. She tells them of the 83 percent of students in the early 1900s who all were immigrants or children of immigrants. Her 20-minute presentation covers the years between 1918-25.

Roger Melvold tells the story of John C. West, the beloved UND president who took a cut in salary and guided the school through the Great Depression years.

While the colorful pioneer physician John Engstad is quite well remembered, little is known of his wife, Mathilda. Sonya Hathaway is helping to tell the story of women of those times. Hathaway is a doctoral student at UND who will be speaking Thursday at the Fine Arts Club of Grafton, N.D.

Retired District Judge Kirk Smith proudly carries the story of the Honorable Judge Ronald Davies to schools and public meetings. Smith, who was acquainted with Davies, reviews the courage of Judge Davies when he was sent to Little Rock, Ark., in the 1950s and ordered to keep schools integrated.

Smith spoke this past week to his Kiwanis Club at the Alerus Center. As he related the story of the famous judge, he noted the Grand Forks federal building has been named in honor of Davies.

June Randall, who has a wide acquaintance with Indian history of the area, speaks to groups around this area. She is working on a television series on Indian history. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa.


One of the most colorful stories is that of an early Grand Forks physician, Henry Wheeler. He is said to have shot outlaw Clel Miller when the Jesse James gang was attempting to rob the bank at Northfield, Minn. It is rumored that Wheeler brought the skeleton to Grand Forks and some say it still is here.

The story is told by John Hanson, a Grand Forks resident currently serving as state commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars. Hanson will bring Dr. Wheeler to life for physicians Wednesday at Altru Health System in Grand Forks.

As he stands ready to tell his story, Hanson says, "Have stethoscope. Will travel."

Also available is Robert Kulack, a retired school principal, who will portray Elroy Schroeder. He can tell the story of the longtime superintendent widely known in this area. He died in 1958.

And the story of Alexander Henry, an early fur trader along the Red River in the 1790s, is waiting to be told. It is done by Daniel Rice, dean of education and human development at UND.

The talks can be tailored to time available -- such as 20 minutes or so for a service club or classroom presentation. The storytellers are ready.

Arrangements to hear history from the mouths of people who have studied the past can be made by contacting Leah Byzewski, director of the Myra Museum, (701) 775-2216, or Don Lemon, (701) 775-8928 and (218) 779-6108.

Reach Hagerty at or by telephone at (701) 772-1055.

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