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The Anticipation Town

Our notions as to how any particular tract of prairie came to be settled in the nineteenth century are important. We project our values onto the process. Some of us, farm folk perhaps, like to envision sturdy, wholesome plowmen who look like Charles Ingalls fanning out across the landscape to build little houses and raise little families on the prairie. Others of us, more industrialist by nature, point out that everything starts with the railroads, establishing a business ethos from the beginning.

When the local historians of McIntosh County produced their Golden Jubilee history in 1938, their tone was not cynical, but it was a bit puckish as they described their local history beginning with an “anticipation town,” as they called it. For ahead of the main swell of settlement — which in McIntosh County would be Germans from Russia — there commonly came certain forerunners to reap speculative profits.

Mostly they were Anglo-Americans, Yankees. They arrived ahead of the crowd and grabbed choice townsites, got control of surveys, established institutions from which they would profit. As soon as McIntosh County was split off from Logan, they streamed into a new town they called Hoskins. Two of the parties involved — John Wishek, an Austrian-born aspirational capitalist, and George W. Lilly, a speculator from Bismarck who soon would join with Wishek to found the McIntosh County Bank — later recalled how the process unfolded.

“A party of gentlemen,” Wishek says, in April 1884, came down a hundred miles from Bismarck in a couple of spring wagons and a rented rig drawn by a smart Morgan horse. Only townships had been surveyed, not sections, but the surveyor’s notes spoke of a lovely lake in the hills, and they set out to find it. When they did, they named it, and the town they planted alongside it, Hoskins, which was the maiden name of the wife of someone they hoped to impress — Col. Clement A. Lounsberry, editor of the Bismarck Tribune.

The anticipatory town makers had enough influence to get the locality surveyed. They had lumber hauled from over east at Ellendale, a railroad town, and erected themselves residences and claim shanties with gable roofs, every one of them ten feet by twelve. In 1885 Wishek pulled his shanty into the center of the settlement to serve as headquarters for the new county of which the Hoskins promoters claimed the seat. They founded two newspapers, one of which declared, “No town ever started with better prospects.”

Not that anyone was making much money, but they had faith that what they called the “Ordway Line” — an imagined railroad nicknamed after its local apostle — building from Bismarck to Aberdeen, would arrive in Hoskins and raise property values. German-Russians commenced taking up land in 1885; stores and a hotel rose in Hoskins; everything was going according to plan.

In the fall of 1887, however, it became known the Ordway Line would pass some three miles east of Hoskins, through a point where insider traders — the land department of the railroad itself — had laid out their own town of Ashley. The 1938 Golden Jubilee history — and I wonder if the authors were a little influenced by the Great Depression’s disillusionment with capitalist speculation — makes it plain the Hoskins boys were more moved by prospects than by the charms of any particular place, even the lovely lakeshore of Hoskins.

Lilly writes, “In the spring of 1888, all offices and stores and other buildings were moved from Hoskins to Ashley, and only the school house was left on the old site.”

Where that schoolhouse stood now sits a remarkable historical monument which, in due time, I’ll tell you about. Because however brief their heyday, those transient developers left lasting marks on the country.

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