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Christmas Eve Calamity


Dr. E. F. Ladd was among the first faculty hired by the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University) in Fargo. He was the first Dean of Chemistry. He became well known throughout the state as a crusader for purity in consumer products. He analyzed canned goods in his laboratory. He frequently discovered formaldehyde and borax in food. He found that companies were using inexpensive saccharine for sweetening instead of sugar. He also set up an area at the college where he tested paint.

Dr. Ladd published the results of his experiments in journals to bring the issues to the attention of the public. Through his efforts, North Dakota passed laws regulating the purity of food. In 1902, he was appointed State Food Commissioner and held the position until 1921. He was instrumental in the passage of the Pure Food Act of 1906.

On this date in 1909, a disaster struck the Agricultural College and Dr. Ladd. A fire broke out in the Chemistry Building. Since it was Christmas Eve, no one was in the building and no one was injured. An explosion resulting from the fire demolished the building, and it was a total loss. But perhaps the greater loss was Dr. Ladd’s personal library.

By December 29, donations were pouring in from across the state to help Ladd restore lost items. Governor James Burke offered the assistance of the state. Max Stern of the Dakota Trust Company sent $20, saying the fire was a loss to the state and the entire nation. The Women’s Literary Club of Minto expressed their sympathy and sent $5. Farmer H.B. Schmidt sent $2 with appreciation for Ladd’s effort to “rid the state of impure and adulterated food products.” Fargo Banker W.F. McFadden formed a committee to collect donations. A group of businessmen sent donations of $50. Ordinary farmers and housewives sent whatever they could afford, often just $1. Donations came in from every corner of the state. Their efforts allowed Ladd to replace his library.

A new Chemistry Building was erected the following year. In 1952, it was renamed Ladd Hall, but an equally touching tribute lies in the letters of the ordinary North Dakota citizens who generously responded in his time of need.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Bismarck Tribune. “Chemistry Professor Becomes U.S. Senator.” 1/30/2011.

E.F. Ladd Letters. North Dakota State University Archives.

Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. 25 December, 1909.