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Chaffee

4/21/2006:

The post office of Chaffee, North Dakota, was established on this day in 1894, two years after Chester Fritz was born there. The railroad had named a station on the site “Rita,” but in 1894, it was renamed to honor Eben Chaffee, who had promoted the site.

The history of Chaffee is actually shared by two other ND towns, Sharon and Amenia. Eben Chaffee moved to Dakota in 1875 and built a 28,000-acre bonanza-farm near Casselton. It was an operation of the Amenia-Sharon Land Company, named for Chaffee’s hometown of Sharon, CT, and for partner John Reed’s hometown of Amenia, NY. They bought the land from the Great Northern Railroad, and the town of Amenia served as their headquarters.

Eben’s son, Herbert Chaffee, went to Oberlin College, where he met Carrie Toogood, a fellow student in the Conservatory of Music. They got married in 1887 and moved back to North Dakota to take over the family business. Their first child was born almost exactly nine month after their wedding day.

Herbert turned out to have a gift for management. Under his reign, the Chaffee operation expanded, and at its zenith, included 42,000 acres of farmland, 34 grain elevators, a grain-trading business, dozens of smaller company-owned businesses and three company towns – Amenia, Sharon and Chaffee.

Herbert – or Bert – felt he was only scratching the surface. He bought out the remaining company investors within six years and regularly worked a 72-hour work-week.

Meanwhile, Carrie became a competent manager for their demanding household, which grew to include six children. She became known as a decision maker – one who faced life’s problems head-on. Despite the enormous demands on her time, she also gave voice lessons to area children.

Twenty-five years after they married, Bert and Carrie took a European vacation. It was 1912, and their return voyage began from Southampton – they were traveling first class aboard the Titanic. Three days later, the ship went down and Herbert was lost. If his body was recovered, it was never identified. He was only 46 years old.

Carrie survived and was picked up by the Carpathia on Lifeboat #4. One of her fellow 36 passengers was the newlywed second wife of John Jacob Astor, one of the wealthiest people in U.S. history. Madeleine Astor was 19, pregnant and, like Carrie, suddenly a widow.

Back in North Dakota, Carrie used the backbone for which she was known to take an active role in managing the Land Company. She also became known for her work with charities and became a charter member of the American-Chinese Education Committee in Canton, China. She died in Amenia on Independence Day, 1931.

Various family members tried to jointly keep the farm going, but there was constant disagreement. Finally, in 1922, the company was dissolved and its assets sold off.

By that point, the town of Chaffee had reached its population high of 126. In 1966, the post office was closed, and the town became a rural branch of Wheatland. Amenia, often misspelled as Armenia, and Sharon, the largest of the three towns, have maintained their post offices.

Written by Merry Helm