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April 5: The Disreputable Pool Hall

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In the early 1900s, pool halls became popular hangouts, offering an inexpensive place to spend time with friends. Pool began as a game played by wealthy businessmen in their elite clubs. Its reputation altered once pool caught on with the working class. Pool halls were seen as unsavory havens that fostered laziness, gambling, smoking, gang activity, and drinking. In the musical “Music Man,” the song “Trouble” details the dangers of the pool hall. The con man Harold Hill’s signature song explains that pool is a gateway drug leading young men into depravity and antisocial behavior.

North Dakota began cracking down on pool halls early in the twentieth century. On this date in 1905, the Bismarck Daily Tribune published a list of acts recently passed by the state legislature. Along with authorizing a Board of Embalmers and establishing fees to reimburse witnesses in trials, the legislature addressed the dangers of the pool hall. One act was titled “An Act to Prohibit Persons Under the Age of Eighteen Years to be Allowed to Play In, or Visit, Any Pool, Billiard or Card Resorts.”

Efforts to control the evils of the pool hall continued at both the state and local levels throughout the early 1900s. In 1907, the Devils Lake newspaper addressed complaints of minors in pool halls, noting that the state law prohibiting minors in pool halls was still on the books and should be enforced. In 1910, the Fargo police chief asked the city council to address problems associated with pool halls. He noted that when Moorhead bars closed, young men would come over to Fargo pool halls and frequently brought alcohol with them. The council drew up an ordinance that would close pool halls at eleven p.m. and ban minors from the halls. The council noted that the ordinance “would force young men to bed at the proper hour.”

These days, according to the North Dakota Tournament Association, pool remains popular. It has shed its disreputable reputation and is not just for the guys. Women participate actively in pool leagues. A 2022 tournament in Fargo attracted 900 participants. Each year, the association presents the Pioneer of Pool Awards in recognition of North Dakotans who best represent the sport.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Carole Butcher


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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