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Max Bass and the Silver Spoons


Max Bass was almost too good at what he did. His job was bringing new settlers to North Dakota. As the premier immigration agent for the Great Northern Railway, Max Bass convinced 27,000 Dunkards to move from Eastern states to farms near Cando.

Max Bass promoted North Dakota. He procured railway cars to carry newcomers to the state. He scheduled freight cars to haul their baggage and household goods.

The Dunkards were German Baptists, known as the Brethren, who had left Germany because others did not agree with their practice of adult baptism. Each one who was baptized was dunked, fully immersed, three times, face-first, one dunk for each of the Trinity — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — hence Dunkards.

They came to Pennsylvania in 1719 and spread to Indiana, Ohio, and other states. By 1893, Max Bass approached the Dunkards in Indiana in an effort to bring them to North Dakota. But they were afraid of the bitter cold of midwinter and of blizzards. Some doubted the soil quality or the length of the growing season. Max Bass gave several Dunkards free passage to Cando and personally showed them that they could succeed at farming in Towner County.

The first group of 350 Dunkards came to Cando in March, 1894, after a long trip on the Great Northern. As Max Bass told the story, one of the Dunkard women, Mrs. A. B. Peters, gave birth to a baby, right in the train car. Because of their admiration for Mr. Bass, the parents named their boy after him — Max Bass Peters

"I always loved children," said Max Bass, and after "the first little Dunkard was named for me . . . it pleased me greatly." So, he gave the infant a silver baby spoon, along with a congratulatory note.

Word of this spread among the Dunkers, and other parents named their babies "Max" or "Max Bass" or "Bass;" or even "Bass Max." For each newborn, Max Bass sent a sterling silver spoon, along with a handwritten note to the parents.

By 1901, the Dunkards were having about 200 babies a year. As Max Bass said, "I still send silver spoons, and shall continue the gifts as long as my money holds out, but only last week I received seven letters in one day telling me of new namesakes . . . . [including] Max Johnson and Max Bass Peterson and Bass Anderson." His success at getting Dunkards to North Dakota was emptying his pocketbook.

Still, Max Bass continued the baby spoon tradition until his death in Chicago in 1909. A newspaper story about Max Bass and the silver spoons appeared on this date in 1896, but the tale had been forgotten ... until now.

However, the name of Max Bass will live on in North Dakota history because of the town named for him, Maxbass, located forty miles north of Minot.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department.

Sources: "Max Bass Troubles," St. Paul Globe, May 14, 1896, p. 3; "Ruined By The Babies," Minneapolis Tribune, March 17, 1902, p. 5; "Milk and Honey," St. Paul Daily Globe, August 1, 1895, p. 2; "Dunkards Go West," St. Paul Daily Globe, March 27, 1894, p. 8; "Many Dunkards Go West," New York Times, March 28, 1897; "By The Thousands," Minneapolis Tribune, March 31, 1898, p. 7; "Max Bass Dead In Chicago," Minneapolis Morning Tribune, October 18, 1909, p. 5; "Needs of the State," Bismarck Daily Tribune, October 21, 1909, p. 4.

Roy Thompson, "The First Dunker Colony Of North Dakota," Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, Vol. IV (Fargo: Knight Printing Co., 1913), p. 81-97.

William C. Sherman and Playford Thorson, eds., Plains Folk: North Dakota's Ethnic History (Fargo: N.D. Institute for Regional Studies, 1988), p. 104-110.