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Professor to present at 'Nonpartisan League at 90' event

When low- and middle-income North Dakotans faced difficulty buying houses early in the past century, a new and adventuresome bunch of state leaders had an answer: Let's put the state in the housing business.

When low- and middle-income North Dakotans faced difficulty buying houses early in the past century, a new and adventuresome bunch of state leaders had an answer: Let's put the state in the housing business.

Why not? The state was getting into banking then, too, as well as flour milling, insurance and other enterprises.

"Like many of the Nonpartisan League's programs, on the face of it, the NPL's Home Building Association had merit," said Gordon Iseminger, a UND history professor and one of the scheduled presenters at "The Nonpartisan League at 90," a conference later this week focusing on the history and impact of the prairie-radical movement.

The Home Building Association lasted just three years. Political opponents blasted it as socialism, and lumberyards and savings and loan associations objected to state-sponsored competition. Defenders said it wasn't given enough time to show what it could do.

But it failed, Iseminger said, largely because of mistakes made in its organization and early operation.


"It was monumentally mismanaged," he said.

The association did leave a legacy: Between 50 and 60 so-called NPL homes exist in Fargo, Bismarck and perhaps a few other places, Iseminger said, and there are plans to get some listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"They were all built according to the same plan, and they are attractive houses, usually story-and-a-half bungalows," he said.

The conference opens Thursday night with a visual presentation on grain elevators of the Great Plains, prepared by Dave Britton of Grand Forks. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Memorial Union's Lecture Bowl.

"I've had a hobby of taking pictures of grain elevators for the past 20 years," said Britton, who operates a trucking company.

"I was around them quite a lot as a kid, but that was when I was on the dirty end of a shovel, helping my dad," he said. "I didn't care that much about them then.

"But they're part of our rural heritage, and they're disappearing."

'Northern Lights'


Friday's sessions, also in the Lecture Bowl, begin with an analysis of William Langer's evolution as the NPL attorney general: "From Elliot Ness to Dear Abby."

Talks later in the day will cover wartime democracy in North Dakota during the 1918 gubernatorial election; the role played by the NPL newspaper, the Leader, in development of the League, and another presentation on Langer, who went on to break with the League and become governor and U.S. senator. "What made Bill Langer tick?" is the title of the talk by Eric Bergeson, a Fertile, Minn., writer who syndicates the "Country Scribe" column.

Lloyd Omdahl, Grand Forks, a former lieutenant governor, state tax commissioner and professor of political science at UND, will recount the NPL's switch from the Republican to the Democratic column in the 1950s.

The 1982 film "Northern Lights," which tells of the rise of the NPL, will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday.

The Nonpartisan League was born out of resentment toward out-of-state banks, railroads, grain traders and other interests and the political and economic influence they wielded in the state. Its organizer, a farmer from Beach, N.D., named A.C. Townley, had been an organizer for the Socialist Party, and the new movement advanced a program of state ownership of vital enterprises when it took control of state government in 1919.

Its political success was short-lived, but the heart of its populist program survives in the state-owned Bank of North Dakota in Bismarck and the North Dakota Mill & Elevator in Grand Forks.

Lynn Frazier, a farmer from Hoople, N.D., won the governorship for the NPL in 1916. A commemorative marker was installed on his grave in the Hoople cemetery just last month.

All conference events are free and open to the public, and UND students may earn a course credit for participating. People planning to attend are asked to contact Kimberly Porter, professor of history at UND, at (701) 777-6230 or at kimberly.porter@



Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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