County Seat Moves from Sykeston to Fessenden
WELLS COUNTY SEAT AND RECORDS HAULED FROM SYKESTON TO FESSENDEN 80 YEARS AGO
Reprinted from the Herald Press December 28, 1996
By Leonard Lund
Wells County History (Volume VI, Number 3, March 6, 1975, Wells co. Historical Society)
November 16,  was the 80th anniversary of the forcible removal of the Wells County seat by 29 horse-drawn wagons from Sykeston to Fessenden. Sykeston was the only town in the county when it was organized June 24, 1884, and Fessenden was voted the court house when it was only a year old. In a contest for the seat of government on Nov. 6, 1894, Fessenden received more that three-fifths of the votes over the other contenders, Harvey, Cathay, Manfred and Sykeston.
However, D.T. Davis of Cathay and Charles V. Brown, who had been a land agent at Sykeston, were unwilling to admit defeat and immediately prepared to start injunction proceedings. Their efforts were countered by J. Austin Regan, pioneer Fessenden businessman, and John A. Williams, a county auditor for six years. Williams apparently wanted to move from the two-story store building which served as the court house in Sykeston.
Williams, later called “the father of Wells County,” had secured an enormous number of lead pencils with the slogan “Vote for Fessenden for county seat” printed on them for distribution. He also had instructed his co-workers to go into the Cathay territory on the day before the election to tell the voters that the Soo Line railroad had given Davis, Cathay pioneer and grandfather of former Gov. John Davis, $5,000 to work to divide Wells into two counties. Cathay would serve as the seat for one county and Harvey for the other, the voters were told, and if they didn’t want the county divided they were advised to go to the polls early and vote for Fessenden, according to an account by Albert Ranky. Davis and Brown were unaware of the plan until the voting was over and a large majority had voted for Fessenden.
When Regan and Williams received reports of the victory for Fessenden, they rounded up several men, some with teams and wagons, to drive to Sykeston for the safes, records and court house furniture before the serving of injunction papers. Sheriff David J. Lloyd favored Fessenden and conveniently took a long delayed vacation from his duties.
With Brown, Lloyd had started a fuel and machinery business in Sykeston, but they had moved their business to Fessenden and Cathay in 1894. Brown had charge of the business in Cathay. Teams and wagons for the trip to Sykeston were furnished by Lloyd, Richard and William Price, Herman Mickalson, George and Hampton Lyness, David Jones, August Affeldt and Franz Albus.
When they reached Sykeston, Regan, Williams and their crew gathered for their first difficult assignment – getting liquid refreshments.
Then they went to Richard Wikey’s store to buy cheese and crackers. Wikey, however, refused to sell them anything and vowed he would have “nothing to do with such roughnecks.” Ranky’s account reveals that a young man in the crowd placed his hands on the counter, leaped across, found the cheese and crackers and invited all to help themselves.
Wikey, looking on, said nothing. When all had eaten, he was well paid for his cheese and crackers.
From Wikey’s store the Fessenden delegation went to the court house, where they faced their main challenge – how to move a five-ton safe.
In order to haul it, Ranky says they needed one more wagon, another good team and strong timbers. Jack Mathews, a Sykeston resident, had the team and wagon and a delegation was sent to bargain with him. They offered Mathews a price that he was unable to refuse.
Another delegation was sent to the lumber yard for the timbers. Since the lumber dealer refused to loan or sell them any timber, they helped themselves, again paying the merchant. They loaded the safe on timbers across two wagons. Smaller safes and records, some scattered in Sykeston houses, were loaded into other wagons. Since the ground was soft and the loads were heavy, the wagons were on the road to Fessenden all night and the next day. But they reached their destination without interference from anyone.
Safes and records were taken to the Boray Hotel, which had been erected by L.L. Boray [in Fessenden].
County commissioners later decided to call a special election for May 7, 1895, on a the question of a $12,000 bond issue for construction the present court house and jail, one of the oldest still in use today in the state. The bond issue carried by a 274-125 margin. J.W. Ross, a Grand Forks architect was hired for $300 to furnish plans.
On July 10 the county board awarded a $10,500 construction contract to H.B. Chess of Fessenden. Commissioners were John M. Lloyd of Fessenden, Robert Schultz of Sykeston and John Montgomery of Harvey.
Originally, the court house was designed for stone walls, but specifications were changed to brick.
On October 11, D. McDonald, superintendent of construction, filed a complaint against Chess for the “dilatory manner” in which the work was being carried out. Commissioners fired Chess and authorized McDonald to proceed with the work.
E.M. Makinson was the brick-laying contractor at $2.70 per 1000 bricks. Carpenters were E.S. Atherton, Ben Ollinger, Fred Farnham, Hans Paulson, Christ Heitzman, Alex McFadden, M. Strom and Halstein Anderson.
On Dec. 12, commissioners contracted for six hard coal heating stoves from Wikey for $270 and the building was insured for $10,000 with Beiseker Insurance for a $200 premium.
Their court house completed, Wells County residents and visitors celebrated its opening on New Years Eve in 1895. The imposing structure was decorated with spruce trees, flags and bunting and an orchestra provided music for dancing by more that 100 gaily dressed couples. [The guests had begun arriving on the previous night from Minot, Harvey, Manfred, Cathay, Carrington, Sykeston and other areas. The spacious courtroom had been converted into a dance hall and dancers stepped off the last hours of 1895 to the strains of F.B. Gray’s Little Brown Orchestra of Leal. The grand march was led by Warren A. Stickney, editor of the Wells County News, and his companion a Miss Pool. Supper was then served by John Foos in his hotel.]
The happy crowd then returned to the court house. By 3 a.m. the Brownies had finished the program and retired but since the trains were late, an orchestra was picked up from the crowd and the dancing continued until 5 o’clock. According to The News, the only disagreeable feature of the occasion was the sticky condition of the floor. The floor, freshly oiled, had not thoroughly set when it was mopped. Just before the ball began the floor was waxed and the combination of oil and dampness formed a glue which accumulated on the soles of shoes. “This was a little disagreeable, as everyone was so ‘stuck up’” commented The News.
Wells County’s first court house, by contrast, was purchased in 1884 from Harry L. Durbrow, who had opened a general store and post office in Sykeston during the winter of 1883-84. Marshall Brinton, the first elected county superintendent of schools, taught the first term of school in one of the upstairs rooms of the court house during the winter of 1884-85. The court house, torn down after the county seat was moved, was located about three blocks north of the Northern Pacific depot, just east of the present water tower between the homes of Edwin Huss and Mrs. Louise Garman.
District Judge Roderick Rose of Jamestown conducted the first term of court in Sykeston in June 1892 with his son Edwin as stenographer. A.G. Covell of Sykeston was states attorney and Jay W. Carr, Sheriff. With the removal of the court house, Sykeston lost citizens. T.L. Beiseker moved the Wells County State Bank, his family and residence to Fessenden. Others who moved to Fessenden were E.F, Volkman, Beiseker’s cashier, and H.B. Chess and family. Kate Needham moved her home and Lloyd and Brown their machinery building. Brown and Davis mover their homes to Cathay, where they were joined by Rev. H.C. Compton.
Wells County again issued funding bonds for $30,000 on Jan. 30, 1897 to cover additional building costs (the total cost came to $19,000) and other accumulated debts. [Bonds, to run for 20 years as six per cent, were sold to the Wells County Bank in Fessenden. Issued in denominations of $1,000 each with semi-annual interest-bearing coupons of $30 each, the bonds were singed by John Montgomery, chairman of the county bard, and Williams, county auditor. They were certified as registered in the county treasurer’s office by C.J. Schmitt, county treasurer. Bonds were paid in full Jan. 30, 1917, to the Woodman Lodge which had purchased the bonds from the bank, from a sinking fund which the county levied annually for that purpose.] Since that time the county has been free from bonded debt.
Williams, who played a major role in the court house move to Fessenden, was born in Hillsdale County, Mich. and came to Wells County with his family in 1884. He was elected justice of the peace at the first general election in 1884, clerk of court in 1888 and county auditor in 1890. In addition to his work as auditor during construction of the present court house, Williams played a part in building the first brick school in the county at Fessenden in 1896. He founded the Wells County News in 1895 and the Bowdon Guardian in 1900. Williams died April 8, 1913 and was buried at Fessenden.
[Sykeston, founded July 4, 1883 was named for Richard Sykes, a former wealthy merchant from Manchester, England, who served as an agent for and English syndicate which purchased land in the area. With a bonanza farm located two miles east of Sykeston, the syndicate purchased alternate sections of Northern Pacific railroad lands for less than $1 an acre. Lands controlled or owned by the syndicate included 13 sections in Bilodeau Township, 13 ¼ sections in Sykeston Township, 11 in Speedwell, 10 in Haaland, 3 1/2 in Chaseley, 1 3/4 in Hawksnest and one in Progress.]
In the county’s first regular election Nov. 4, 1884, Sykeston, the only town, received 73 votes for county seat from a total of 81. Each voter wrote in his choice for county seat.
Prior to its organization on June 24, 1884, with Brinton as chairman of the first board, Wells County had been designated Gingras County by the territorial legislature in 1874. [Antoine B. Gingras, namesake for the original area of the county was a fur freighter at Pembina and one of the richest men in North Dakota at the time, according to E.S. Killie, curator for the Wells County Historical Society.]