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Ordway’s Agricultural Exhibit


If you're familiar with your territorial governors, you probably remember Dakota's seventh executive, Nehemiah Ordway, as the one who successfully pushed for the relocation of the territorial capitol from Yankton to Bismarck. Or, you may remember him as the corrupt governor removed from office for questionable political practices.

But those two elements alone should not define his entire administration. During his four-year term, the population of Dakota more than doubled. While there were other factors involved, Governor Ordway played an important role in encouraging population growth with projects like the Agricultural Rail Exhibit.

Appointed by President Hayes and confirmed by the Senate on this date in 1880, Governor Ordway began his executive duties in Dakota Territory a few weeks later. He opened his term by personally examining every corner of the territory. Setting aside his previous misconceptions, the New Hampshire native was quite surprised by Dakota's agricultural potential. He concluded it was better adapted to diversified farming than any other region in the United States. Now he just needed to get the word out. Knowing many easterners harbored false impressions of the upper Midwest, he devised a plan to show them proof of the land's fertility: a traveling exhibit featuring the fruits of Dakota's soil. The Northern Pacific Railway quickly jumped on onboard. What better way to advertise the country than to showcase goods produced on land contiguous to the railroad!

The Northern Pacific donated a special baggage car for Ordway's project, and by September of 1880 it was filled with wheat, rye, corn, potatoes, squash and other products from Dakota and Montana. Accompanied by Governor Ordway, the traveling exhibit headed east, making stops throughout New England including the New England Agricultural Fair in Worcester, Massachusetts and the state fair in Boston. One local newspaper described the exhibit as striking; with nothing in New England to compare to it. It drew excited crowds at each stop and thousands signed their name to a register requesting further printed information on the land. Governor Ordway addressed the crowd at several stops, insisting that any who sought "change could not do better than to settle in the new country of the Northwest."

In November, Governor Ordway returned to Yankton, but the exhibit car continued to make its way through New England and portions of Canada. By the end of its journey, the agricultural rail exhibit had gathered the names of nearly two hundred thousand potentially interested land-seekers; undoubtedly keeping in motion Dakota's unprecedented population boom of the 1880s.

Dakota Datebook w[podcast]/media/dakotadatebook/2009/june/01.mp3[/podcast]ritten by Christina Sunwall


Kingsbury, George W. History of Dakota Territory. Vol. 2. Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1915.

Lounsberry, Colonel Clement A. Early History of North Dakota: Essential Outlines of Americans History. Vol. Complete in One. Washington, D.C.: Liberty Press, 1919.

"North Dakota Governors Online Exhibit", State Historical Society of North Dakota