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A Sad Departure

On this date in 1908 the Lesh family announced that they were leaving Bowbells, North Dakota for Idaho. John Lesh and his family were among the earliest settlers of the area. They arrived in North Dakota in 1897. There wasn’t even a claim shack in what would become Bowbells. There was only a rudimentary shelter erected by the railroad for those who came to look over the area. The 16 by 100 foot structure was divided into ten rooms. Each family was allowed one room for cooking, sleeping, and general living.

The Lesh family was alone in the structure for a short time, but other adventurous settlers gradually joined them. Some went to Minot and other areas, but many remained. According to an article recounting the situation in the Bowbells Tribune, not a single furrow had been plowed at the time. However, the inhabitants of the temporary shelter quickly moved out to establish claims and begin their lives in North Dakota.

Life was not easy, but the railroad helped. Water cars were brought in and people were allowed free water for themselves and their livestock. Other cars on a sidetrack were used as stables for livestock and for storing possessions until houses and barns were erected. The railroad also brought in lignite that the settlers used for fuel.

Railroad officials named the town for the Bow Bells at St. Mary-le-Bow church in London, England.  Bowbells was established in 1898, and incorporated in 1906. It’s on the main line of the Soo Railroad in northwest North Dakota in Burke County. The population in 1910 was 651. As of the 2010 census the population was 336.

Venturing out to North Dakota in the late 1800s was an adventure but it was also full of opportunity. John Lesh said that when he arrived, he had eighty-eight cents to his name. Yet he managed to build a farm and become successful. The Bowbells Tribune was confident that the world had never before seen the great opportunities that America offered people of limited means. The people of Bowbells were sad to see the Lesh family leave – the departure of the earliest settlers signaling the end of an era.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Bowbells Tribune. “Passing of an Old Landmark.” 16 October 1908. Bowbells ND. Page 1.

City Data. “Bowbells, North Dakota.” http://www.city-data.com/city/Bowbells-North-Dakota.html   Accessed 14 September 2018.

Burke County. “City of Bowbells.” http://www.bowbellsnd.com/  Accessed 14 September 2018.

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