Mike Jacobs: ND 18: The governors' highway

State Highway 18 could be called The Governor's Highway. More than a third of the state's governors are closely associated with towns along the highway. This could be mere coincidence, but it could also reveal something about North Dakota's polit...

Mike Jacobs
Forum Communications Company Publisher, Mark Jacobs. photo by Jenna Watson/Grand Forks Herald


State Highway 18 could be called The Governor's Highway. More than a third of the state's governors are closely associated with towns along the highway. This could be mere coincidence, but it could also reveal something about North Dakota's political culture.

Let's locate the highway first.

Highway 18 is the first north-south highway west of Interstate 29, and it runs roughly parallel to the big highway. The interstate runs near the Red River, through the state's richest farm land. Highway 18 closely parallels the ridges that mark the western edge of the valley. The soil is good and the yields high, but it's not the Red River Valley.

The interstate serves three of North Dakota's largest cities, including the Fargo metro.


In comparison, Highway 18 is a little fellow. From the South Dakota line to the international border, it passes through or close to 20 incorporated towns. Only five have more than 1,000 people, according to the highway map. Only one has a county courthouse.

The largest is Casselton, population 2,329. Casselton claims the most governors, five according to the city's welcome sign.

Four of the highway's incorporated towns have fewer than 100 people. One of these is Arthur, hometown of Doug Burgum, the current governor. Burgum's life story provides some clues to the highway's unique status in North Dakota. His family were successful farmers and grain merchants. Burgum leveraged this success to found a software company, which he sold to a high-tech giant. Its campus in Fargo is Microsoft's second largest.

The stories of the highway's other governors are similar. They were people of means and ambition. Could the highway's relative remoteness and its second-class status have motivated them?

This fits my notion of North Dakota's aspirational culture. Young people are taught to dream, and the landscape, the weather, the remoteness all encourage the idea that North Dakotans need to make something of ourselves.

Here are the 11 individuals connected to Highway 18 who made themselves governors of North Dakota, in chronological order:

Andrew Burke, 1891-93, the state's second governor. He was a banker in Casselton and the treasurer of Cass County.

Eli C.D. Shortridge, 1893-1895, the third governor. A farmer from Larimore, he was elected by a "fusion" of Democrats and progressives.


Roger Allin, 1895-97. A farmer from Park River, he's remembered best for vetoing the appropriation for the university.

Lynn J. Frazier, 1917-21, another farmer. He was the Nonpartisan League's candidate for governor. In 1921, he became the first governor of any state recalled from office. A year later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served for 18 years.

William Langer, 1933-34 and 1937-39. Probably the state's most colorful political figure, Langer grew up near Casselton, became an attorney and gained a reputation as a maverick Republican. He was removed from office when he was found guilty of violating federal campaign laws. The conviction was overturned, and he returned to the governor's office in 1937. He thus served non-consecutive terms. Most lists of North Dakota governors count him twice (just as lists of U.S. presidents often count Grover Cleveland twice).

Walter Welford. A farmer in Pembina County, Welford was elected lieutenant governor in 1934. He became governor when Thomas Moodie was ruled ineligible because he's voted in Minnesota less than five years before the election.

Welford is buried in Cavalier, the only county seat among Highway 18's towns.

Clarence Norman Brunsdale, 1951-1957. Although he farmed in Steele County, he retired to Mayville and is buried there.

William Guy, 1961-1973. Guy farmed at Amenia, less than seven miles north of Casselton (and right on Highway 18). He's counted among that town's governors. His tenure in office is the longest among the state's 32 individual governors.

George Sinner, another Casselton farmer, was governor from 1985-92. From his farm, you can see the next governor's home.


Jack Dalrymple, 2010-16, belongs to one of the state's most prominent farming families. His great-grandfather, Oliver Dalrymple, was among the first of the "bonanzas," farming on a huge scale.

And that brings us to Burgum, elected in 2016 as the state's 32nd governor - or 33rd , if you count Langer twice.

That's 11 individuals, a third of the total and surely enough to qualify N.D. 18 as "the governor's highway."

There is another contender: Highway 41 from Wilton to Mercer was called "the governor's cut-off" because it reduced the distance from the capitol building to Gov. John Davis' home place near McClusky.

The bridge carrying U.S. Highway 2 across the Red River into North Dakota is named for a governor, Oscar Sorlie, the only governor who made a career in Grand Forks. When he died, Lt. Gov. Walter Maddock succeeded to the office.

Maddock was born in Grand Forks, Dakota Territory - the first governor born in what became North Dakota.

And that's this week's dose of North Dakota political trivia.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald. His column is published each Tuesday.

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