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Leaping at the Chance for Romance

Western cities on railroad lines emulated whatever was au courant in cities back east. So in 1876 the editor of the Bismarck Tribune inquired, “Why can’t the ladies of Bismarck organize a Leap Year ball? In style, you know: ladies come after the dear young fellows; escort them to the hall, fetch ices, etc.” In the east such balls were society affairs, with well-heeled ladies forming committees to see to the elegant details, then on the appointed night, showing up for their beaus with coaches.

In Dakota Territory Mandan stole the march on Bismarck for the first recorded leap year ball in March of 1880. It seems to have come about with some inadvertence, as a young homesteading couple was planning to get married at the Northwestern Hotel, and the owners, the Byrnes, decided to draw a crowd by wrapping a leap-year ball around the ceremony — thus cleverly enlisting the young women of Mandan to turn out the crowd for them!

Thereafter good-sized towns in the territory commonly generated leap year gatherings either at hotels or in public halls. Bismarck itself got into the game in 1880 with an affair at the Sheridan House, for which “the young ladies who had charge of the ceremonies” were commended for their organizational skills and “the young gentlemen [were] very thankful.” Jamestown took the cake for such events with a fantastic, elaborately decorated affair at the Opera House in 1892.

Smaller towns soon got on the bandwagon. A note in the Walhalla paper in 1884 indicates there was something of a circuit of leap year events by which young women transported their fellows town to town. “Several ladies and gentlemen from Carlislie,” we read, attended the leap year ball at Bathgate and the Calico Ball at Hamilton, and report a very enjoyable evening at both places.”

There are hints that small-town leap year balls could become raucous. A report from Tower City in 1884 made sport of the young lady who, having danced the night away, could not find her overshoes to wear home in the morning — only to discover they had been on her dancing feet all along!

The custom of leap year balls faded in late nineteenth century, but the custom of leap year proposals remained. This generally lighthearted practice is said to have originated in Ireland in the fifth century — the idea being that on February 29, it was permissible for a woman to ask a man to marry. By the settlement era on the prairies, the window for female marriage proposals was considered to extend for the full leap year.

Mostly, it seems, leap year proposals were the pretext for local gossip and jokes. A report from Cooperstown in March 1888 asserted “a beautiful and popular young man at St. Ignace has already had seven leap-year proposals.” A few years later press reports circulated “that the popular young store clerk and assistant postmaster down at Wahalla is busily engaged every day receiving leap year proposals.”

We do not read of such matches following through to happily ever after, but romantic that I am, I would like to think this happened. I take some hope from an item in the Golden Valley Chronicle of 16 January 1916. It recounts a house party at which “several leap year proposals were extended to the young men.” The reporter noticed a “happy smile . . . on the countenances of several of our would be benedicts.”

I wish he had included names of the leap year suitors and the “would be benedicts.” I would look them up in local records and see what became of them. Perhaps I would be disappointed, but I would like to learn they lived long and happy lives together, or if not, at least died young, in love, in love-story fashion. Surely we’re entitled to a happy ending at least every four years.

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