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November 28: Agnes Geelan, Mayor of Enderlin

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One of the most prominent people from the town of Enderlin was a barrier-breaking woman named Agnes Geelan. Enderlin is a Soo Line railway town located on a bend of the Maple River.

In 1946, Enderlin made history when townspeople elected Agnes Geelan as mayor, making her the first female mayor of an incorporated town in North Dakota.

Born in Hatton in 1896, Agnes Kjorlie was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants. After high school she earned a teaching certificate from a Mayville Normal School. She took a break from teaching in 1918 and 1919 to work for women’s suffrage, but after helping gain voting rights, she returned to teaching.

In 1926, Agnes married Elric Geelan, an Irish-American Soo Line Railway employee, and they settled down in Enderlin.

Through the turmoils of the Depression and World War II, Agnes observed Enderlin’s local politics and found it wanting. In 1983, Agnes recalled those times, saying: “We women were very critical of town politics, because they usually elected some retired railroad worker who couldn’t care less. I came home from a trip and found I was nominated. I asked a businessman what was going on and he said, ‘Agnes, you’ve bitched so much about city government, we figured we’d give you a chance to see if you could do any better.’”

She won that 1946 election and went right to work. Under her leadership, Enderlin made a series of improvements -- paving streets and putting in new water and sewer systems. A new water plant had the city’s water sparkling. Enderlin also struck a better deal with the electric company.

In 1954, after 8 years in office, Agnes relinquished her position, later saying: “I must have done all right, because when I retired, the town elected another woman mayor,” Doris Smith.

On this date in 1955, the Bismarck Tribune acknowledged Enderlin’s pioneering mayors – Agnes Geelan and Doris Smith.

Agnes didn’t abandon politics, however. She became the first woman elected to the State Senate, and she later led the North Dakota Workmen’s Compensation Bureau. And after age 80, she wrote three books, one about politician “Wild Bill” Langer, and two novels.

Agnes Geelan died in 1993, at age 96.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Professor Emeritus.

Sources:

  • “Lone Woman Mayor Quits,” Bismarck Tribune, November 28, 1955, p. 2.
  • “Octogenarian Promotes Latest Book Plans Sequel,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, January 29, 1983, p. 19.
  • “N.D. Politician-Author, 96, Dies,” Bismarck Tribune, March 13, 1993, p. 7.
  • “Novel Latest in String of Firsts For Geelan,” Bismarck Tribune, February 22, 1983, p. 6.
  • “Mrs. Agnes Geelan to Retire,” Mandan Pioneer, May 22, 1971, p. 1.
  • “All GOP Primary Winners, One Democrat Lead in ND,” Bismarck Tribune, November 8, 1950, p. 1.
  • “Agnes Geelan: Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame 1987 Inductee,” Norsk Hostfest, hostfest.com/2020/10/20/agnes-geelan, accessed on October 22, 2022.
  • “Agnes Geelan,” N.D. State Death Certificates, 1908-2007, Ancestry.com.
  • “Agnes Geelan; Elric Geelan,” Find A Grave Index, Ancestry.com.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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