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The Most Popular Man

In her charming book about McIntosh County, Along the Trail of Yesterday, right under Seth McNeal’s 1886 Independence Day ballad singing the praises of pioneers, appears a photograph of the stone monument to the same: a squarish obelisk alongside which stands a bullet-pocked tin sign saying, “Old Settlers Monument Original Site of Hoskins First Settlement McIntosh County Established 1884 / Monument Constructed Out of Local Rocks and Names Chiseled by Herb Larimer Ashley Pioneer.”

Which is mostly true. Herbert M. Larimer proved up a homestead in 1901, so he was close to an old settler; married a local girl, Margaret A. Weber; and took up school teaching in Ashley. He was well known in town, his community theater group one night in 1904 voting him both “most popular man” and also the prizewinner for “ugliness, homeliness, and meanness.” So you know they liked him.

Just what possessed Larimer to construct one of the most fascinating historical monuments in North Dakota is addressed in the county’s 1938 Jubilee History, which says, “Desiring that he accomplish some task worthy of recognition by posterity, Mr. Larimer conceived the idea of building a memorial honoring all pioneers that they might not be forgotten.”

If you read this history, I think you will agree there is a tongue-in-cheek tone to the passage, an intimation that the monument-making may have been as much about Mr. Larimer as it was about pioneer memory. I think I know why. In the first place, in 1918 Larimer testified for the prosecution in the trial of John Wishek, popularly known locally as “Father Wishek,” who was acquitted on charges of sedition. Also, by the time of monument construction, 1933-35, Larimer had gone with his wife to the courthouse in Fargo where, Cass County court records confirm, they divorced. This perhaps damaged his bona fides as a community member.

As to the material of construction, we go back to the Golden Jubilee history to read, “All pioneers or their descendants were requested to furnish a rock with the name of the pioneer inscribed thereon.” Examination of the monument shows some of them did; the chiseled names of old settlers vary stylistically, indicating multiple parties involved, including one markedly dyslexic. The stones are smooth-faced, however, so someone stone-sawed them all, and it seems likely Larimer did most of the inscribing, too.

There was a ceremony of consecration in 1933 on the Hoskins lakeshore at the spot where once stood the schoolhouse in the center of the village. Mary Erle Johnson, granddaughter of Clare D. Johnson (arguably the county’s first settler, and a real frontier character), baptized the inscribed stones with lake water. District judge William H. Hutchinson from LaMoure gave an address, taking time from fighting the recall campaign in progress against him organized by people who protested his support of farm mortgage foreclosures.

Then everyone walked off except Larimer, who worked away on his monument until 1935. On 14 December that year the Bismarck Tribune reported he had completed his work and placed atop it a cannonball boulder inscribed, “McIntosh County 1883-1933.” The crowning boulder appears clearly in the photo in Nina Farley Wishek’s book.

But it is not there today — look for yourself when you pass the monument, west of Ashley, between Highway 11 and the lakeshore. So besides all the other interesting details, we have the mystery, what happened to the cannonball boulder? Who has it? Bring it back, all is forgiven.

In the meantime we have the intact monument serving as an index of old settlers in the locality. This could be the basis for a fine study of the composition of local frontier community.

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