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Grand Forks Library digitizes 140-year-old city directory

Rare document provides glimpse into the lives of earliest residents, as well as advertising businesses.

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Leif Fritzell, information services librarian at the Grand Forks Public Library, holds the oldest known copy of the 1882-83 Grand Forks City Directory at the library. A digital version of the directory is now available online.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS – Wearing pristine white gloves, Leif Fritzell carefully opens and slowly turns the pages of a rare document – the oldest city directory – that offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the people who settled here in the late 1800s.

Seated at a conference table in the Grand Forks Public Library’s main floor Grand Forks Room, lined with bookshelves of city, county and state historical volumes, Fritzell pages through “Mitchell and Henderson’s Grand Forks City Directory for 1882-83.”

The directory is a treasure trove of information about individuals and businesses that occupied this nascent riverside town – very young at the time, but burgeoning with the influx of adventurers, visionaries and dreamers seeking new opportunities.

The document, which has been unavailable for public use for many years due to its fragile condition, is extraordinarily rare, said Angie Laxdal, marketing director for the library. The library believes it holds the only known copy, she said.

But it is now accessible to everyone anywhere, thanks to Fritzell, an information services librarian who recently completed a project to digitize the roughly 100-page directory.


Now that it’s online, it will serve as an important resource for historians, genealogists, family members and others looking for information and insights about their ancestors.

“You can look at it for free from anywhere you have an internet connection,” Fritzell said. “It opens up so much more opportunity for people to delve into the history of Grand Forks.”

Owners of historic Grand Forks homes may also find this and the library’s other directories especially valuable, as it lists the names, occupations and workplaces of their homes’ earliest owners.

“It’s really fun to help these kinds of patrons,” Fritzell said. “They get a sense of meaning about the place they inhabit – who else lived there, were they a butcher or baker. It shows where you are, in the lineup of the home’s owners.”

The directory also offers plenty of clues to the ethnic make-up of certain neighborhoods in the city, Frtizell said, noting that the Riverside Park area, for example, was home to railroad workers and a lot of Irish Catholic families.

“It’s an opportunity to find information in new ways,” he said.

Historical snapshot

Grand Forks began as a settlement of a few hundred people in the 1870s and was incorporated as a city in 1881, Fritzell explained. “It was the frontier. West of here wasn’t very settled.”

The 1882-83 city directory is the first of its kind, he said. “They didn’t have a need for a directory before 1881; not many people lived here then.”


The year 1882 was a “boom year” for Grand Forks; the population jumped from 3,000 at the start of the year to more than 6,000 by year’s end, he said.

The book is a snapshot of the residents, their occupations, workplaces and living quarters. One listing shows “Henry Burton, drayman, b., 3rd block, Alpha Av. N.” The letter “b” means “boards” (or, living at the residence but not owning it) and “r” indicates “resident.” No specific addresses are listed.

References to “Grand Forks, D.T.” reflect the town’s location in what at the time was Dakota Territory. North Dakota was not admitted to the union as a state – along with South Dakota – until 1889.

A business section includes advertisements for services and products such as dressmakers, grain elevator operators, a bowling alley, boots and shoe shops, whiskey and cigars, furniture, dentists and boarding houses.

Along with a listing of residents, the rare copy of the 1882-83 Grand Forks City Directory includes advertisements for a variety of business interests — including the Herald newspaper and First National Bank — in the booming community on the banks of the Red River Valley in then-Dakota Territory. The state of North Dakota was admitted to the union in 1889.
Photo by Pamela Knudson / Grand Forks Herald

Another display ad in the book, which sold for $2.50, admonishes readers, “Do Not Lend Your Directory”; the publishers were looking to sell the book, Fritzell said. “This was not a public service.”

References to some of the streets and avenues – named for family members of Alexander Griggs, the steamboat captain and founder of Grand Forks – like Lulu, Ione and Edith, will be unfamiliar to today’s readers. Nearly 100 years ago, those names were replaced with numbers. Selkirk, the name of Griggs' steamboat, became University Avenue. Some names — such as Woodland, Minnesota, Franklin and Division avenues — remain.

Oldest digitized directory in state

The 1882-83 Grand Forks City Directory is the oldest digitized city directory in the state, Fritzell said.

To carry out the digitization project, Grand Forks Public Library applied for and received a Library Vision Local History Grant, totaling $10,000, in December from the North Dakota State Library and North Dakota Library Coordinating Council.


The goal of the grant program is to support North Dakota libraries to develop, record, preserve and share collections of local history. This could include photographs, books, documents, newspapers, objects, oral histories and more in either a physical or digital format.

The Grand Forks library was one of 11 North Dakota libraries to receive the grant, which was used to purchase specialized, non-invasive equipment to scan and produce high-quality images of each page. It took Frtizell about six months to complete the digitization and uploading of a dozen city directories in the library’s collection.

Kept safe in protective conditions

The Grand Forks Library received the 1882-83 directory in 1905 from Dr. J.E. Engstad, a native of Norway and pioneer physician who founded the first hospital and organized the first medical society in North Dakota, Fritzell said.

The donation coincided with the opening of the first Carnegie library building in Grand Forks, he said. In those days, before electricity, residents were likely reading the directory by the light of oil or acetylene lamps.

The 1882-83 city directory, like other fragile directories in the library’s collection, “has been stored in an acid- and lignan-free archival folder for many years,” Fritzell said. “Locked away in a staff-only area, the volume has been kept safe from moisture, sunlight and other environmental contaminants. As librarians, we know how rare these directories are, so we’ve always treated them with great care.”

Unlike other digitized directories found online, the Grand Forks city directory is searchable by key-word, making it easy to find names and addresses, he said. “Just punch in the address and see what comes up. That wasn’t possible before.”

This 1882-83 city directory, along with the library’s other pre-1920 directories, are accessible via a link on the library’s homepage, www.gflibrary.com , and at http://www.digitalhorizonsonline.org/digital/collection/gfdirectories . Digital Horizons is a consortium of cultural heritage institutions that maintains an online public archive of regional historical materials.

In its first few weeks online, more than 300 people had already perused it, Fritzell said.

Before it appeared online, “not many people knew we had (this document),” he said. He’s pleased that it is now widely available electronically.

“What good is the book if no one knows it’s here, or knows of its existence?” he said. “It is our responsibility, as librarians, to help people find information.”

Some directories are known for listing only “the movers and shakers” in a community, Fritzell said, but this document illuminates the “butchers, bakers and candlestick makers – and the situation they found themselves in.” In that sense, “it is a people’s history.”

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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