Jerry Tweton pretty much embraced history completely. He grew up in Grand Forks, studied history at Gustavus Adolphus and UND, earned a doctorate from the University of Oklahoma and returned to Grand Forks and a life as an active historian. He joined the UND History Department in 1965 and soon became its chair. He retired more than two decades later as Chester Fritz distinguished professor and professor emeritus.
That’s the academic record. Here’s the research record: Tweton wrote a number of books, including a biography of the Marquis de Mores, a kind of romantic folk hero in North Dakota, where the French nobleman was a contemporary of Theodore Roosevelt and the future president’s sometime friend and sometime rival. Tweton’s book is unblinking, telling the story of de Mores’ life as a capitalist in Dakota Territory and as a nationalist politician and anti-Semite in France – as well as his mysterious death in North Africa.
Another of his books, “Years of Despair,” written with his colleague Dan Rylance, deals with the Dirty Thirties in North Dakota, highlighting relief programs that helped residents beleaguered by drought and low prices survive to rebuild their farms, families, communities and the state.
Tweton’s scholarship included other books and dozens of articles, and when it came to sharing historical research, he was a kind of pioneer. He organized the Northern Great Plains History Conference, which continues today. He was a member of the founding committee of the North Dakota Council on the Humanities and served as its first chair. That organization, too, continues.
As part of his work with the Humanities Council, Tweton adopted the persona of historical characters, presenting their views and activities and assessing their impact. Roosevelt was one of his subjects; Tweton portrayed Roosevelt complete with his nasal twang, a feat that required prodigious memory and considerable dramatic talent.
These presentations were part of the Great Plains Chautauqua, a revival of an old American tradition that featured real American characters, William Jennings Bryan among them.
Bryan made an appearance at the Chautauqua at Devils Lake, N.D. Roosevelt himself was not there, of course. He and Bryan didn’t see eye to eye on almost anything.
Tweton also impersonated John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant who became the richest American of his generation on profits from the fur trade. Another subject was Alexander McKenzie, the Northern Pacific Railway’s agent in North Dakota – a man sometimes credited with getting Dakota Territory divided so the NP could manipulate four senators rather than only two.
Tweton was an innovator in the classroom, too. In the late 1960s – turbulent years on campus and beyond – he offered courses on current events, not so much as history lessons but because he liked to discuss issues and the classes provided context for students. These efforts continue at UND, with “pop-up” courses intended to take a quick, close look at single subjects.
So, it can be said that Tweton was an active historian, but Tweton was more. He was active in history. He served as chair of the Grand Forks School Board, and he was a leader among faculty on campus. He played an important role in the oft-mentioned presidential search in 1970 – the one that passed over Tom Clifford only to have the choice imposed by the State Board of Higher Education.
Perhaps most remarkably, Tweton was a history entrepreneur. While he was still on campus, he opened a bookstore in downtown Grand Forks, and when he retired, he and his wife bought property in Fessenden, N.D., and established a bed and breakfast.
This enterprise was called “The Bieseker Mansion” after Thomas Lincoln Bieseker, a banker, politician, newspaper publisher and land developer, who “for a time directed the Canadian Pacific Railway’s land development in Alberta and British Columbia,” according to a sketch of the house in “Buildings of North Dakota” by NDSU architectural historians Steve Martens and Ronald Ramsay.
Tweton died there last week at age 86.
The setting was appropriate. Fessenden has a nice collection of historic sites. In addition to the mansion, completed in 1899, there’s the Wells County courthouse, built in 1895, and the Wells County Fairgrounds, with a grandstand dating to 1926 and an auditorium built during the Depression by one of those federal programs that Tweton described in his book – all in a town of fewer than 500 people. Of North Dakota’s 53 county seat towns, only nine are smaller in population and only one of those, Medora, has more historic sites.
There’s one more thing: Tweton had a kind of flair. Check out the pictures with the obituary in Sunday’s Herald.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher at the Herald.