It was during harvesting in 1913 that Fingal Enger was caught in a downpour. He wouldn’t go inside until he was certain that all the wagons were in and every horse properly tended, and he ended up catching pneumonia. It was a hard thing for Enger to be slowed down by illness – the 6' 4" farmer was legendary for his size and strength and had always done the work of two men.
Enger was born in Norway in 1846. Early in 1872, he left Fargo with two other men to find land in the Goose River area. According to historian Erling Rolfsrud, each man carried an axe, a gun and a knapsack. By the time they chose homestead sites, they were out of food and were lucky to share fox stew with a hermit known as “Gamle Erick,” or Old Eric.
The men took turns helping each other build their 16' x 16' log houses, with Enger’s being the first settler’s house built in Steele County. They used no nails. Instead, they used wooden pegs and had roofs made of bark covered with sod. Once they were finished, Enger knew he could make more money in town, so he hired a neighbor to break his land and headed back to earn enough to buy farm equipment and more land.
In Fargo, Enger cut firewood in what is now Oak Grove Park. He rarely tired, starting early in the morning and chopping into the night by firelight. When loading river steamers, he would sling bags of wheat or flour over each shoulder when others could handle only one.
Within three years, Fingal found the “right girl,” Gjertrud Nyhus, but the two had to wait for a minister to pass through before they could marry. Rolfsrud writes that when the day finally arrived, the couple almost missed it, because a cow got out, and Fingal had to find her and then repair the fence. The service was nearly over by the time Fingal and Gjertrud walked the five miles to the church... Fingal was married in his overalls.
By all accounts, Enger was a religious and very generous man. Education was important to the Engers; they had nine children – eight boys and one girl – and Enger wanted them to be able to speak English while still retaining their Norwegian heritage. When a college-educated man filed a claim nearby, Enger talked him into teaching school in Enger’s home, then got the neighbors together and built the young schoolteacher a house.
Enger also helped start Oak Grove Seminary in Fargo, helped establish Augsburg College in Minneapolis and was on the executive board for the Grand Forks Deaconess Hospital. He helped many people with loans and gifts, and he was legendary for his kindness to animals. He bought the first threshing machine in the area, was twice elected to the state senate, invested in grain elevators and was the proud owner of a Percheron stallion from France.
By the time Enger lay dying of pneumonia, he was the largest single landowner in the state, with 73 quarters. He called for his attorney and representatives of the schools and hospital he had helped, and they arrived on this date in 1913. Fingal asked them to put in writing how many thousands of dollars he had promised them, so he could sign. The men left the room to draw up the papers, but Fingal died a few minutes later. Gjertrud died 3 months later.
The Steele County Historical Society has gathered the remains of Engers’ log house, along with its additions, and rebuilt it next to the County Museum in Hope. It’s definitely a worthwhile tour.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm