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March 23: Town of Napoleon

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Many small towns across the state slowly shrank after a peak population of 680,000 in 1930, a number that would not be reached again until after 2010. People had moved to larger cities, farms consolidated, and various economic busts meant many small towns lost their schools, businesses, churches, and post offices. However, the majestically named town of Napoleon was noted to be prosperous on this date in 1986.

The Bismarck Tribune reported that Napoleon did not have a single empty storefront on Main Street. In fact, it had brand-new houses and businesses going up, was home to a thriving livestock sales barn, and the town’s newspaper, the Napoleon Homestead, was marking its centennial.

Napoleon was platted in 1884. It was named after a realtor from nearby Steele named Napoleon Goodsill, not the notorious emperor of France. However, the high school ignores this inconvenient fact, calling its sports teams the Imperials.

Napoleon steadily grew. In 1918 its most famous resident was born. Ben Meier grew up on a farm outside of Napoleon and worked in banking and insurance. In 1954 he was elected Secretary of State, serving for 34 years. He holds the record of longest serving North Dakota state official, and he was the longest-serving Secretary of State in America until surpassed in 2010 by Bill Gardner of New Hampshire.

In 1959 the Napoleon Livestock auction sales barn was opened. In 1979 George Bitz, a passionate auctioneer, purchased half the business. On this date in 1986, it was reported that his stewardship of Napoleon Livestock had made it the top auction barn in the state. Indeed, little Napoleon was prospering. It had reached its peak population of 1,103 in 1980, while most small towns in the state had steadily declined.

As of 2023 the population dipped to about 750 people, but the Napoleon Homestead is still published; there are two schools for grades K through 12; there are churches, civic clubs, parks, and businesses. There’s the Logan County History Museum and a country club with golf course. Napoleon Livestock is still handles a hundred thousand head of cattle yearly. And there’s even a tourist attraction: farmer John Grenz collected 34 antique threshing machines and lined them up along a ridge, mimicking a line of lumbering dinosaurs wandering the prairie.

Dakota Datebook by Trista Raezer-Stursa


  • Author Unknown. “Ben Meier.” The Bismarck Tribune. October 3, 1995, pg. 9A.
  • Author Unknown. “Livestock Auction has a New Owner. The Bismarck Tribune. August 18, 1961, pg. 7.
  • Author Unknown. “Our Story.” Napoleon Livestock. https://www.napoleonlivestock.com/about accessed February 21, 2023.
  • Cole, Janell. “Ben Meier Still a Home Town Boy.” The Bismarck Tribune. March 23, 1986, pg. C1.
  • Cole, Janell. “Napoleon Livestock: ‘We Sell for Half the State.’” The Bismarck Tribune. March 23, 1986, pg. C1.
  • Cole, Janell. “Napoleon: Prosperous Town.” The Bismarck Tribune. March 23, 1986, pg. C1.
  • Dregni, Eric. Midwest Marvels: Roadside Attractions across Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

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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