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A Warning to License Cars


The first automobile in North Dakota appeared on the streets of Grand Forks in 1897, having wandered across the Red River from Minnesota. But the first car actually owned by a citizen of North Dakota wasn’t recorded until 1900. By 1902, cars were becoming more common. Many people drove two-seaters that sold for $250. Banker T.L. Beiseker of Fessendon drove a top-of-the-line Welch that he purchased for $6,000, drawing crowds of spectators whenever he went for a drive.

Vehicle owners were unregulated until the state first began licensing motor vehicles in 1911. The first license plates were black with gold lettering. There was no design or slogan, and license numbers consisted of only four digits. It wasn’t until 1950 that “North Dakota” was emblazoned at the top of the license plate. In 1956, the slogan “Peace Garden State” was added at the bottom of the license plate. Also in 1956, the states and the Canadian provinces standardized the size for plates at six by twelve inches. In 1993, the state added a scenic landscape with a buffalo.

7,000 vehicles were registered that first year of licensing in 1911. Most of them were gasoline-powered, but fourteen were steam, and six were electric. The North Dakota Secretary of State was pleased with the response to licensing requirement, but felt there were at least 3,000 vehicles that remained unregistered. He stressed that the regulation of motor vehicle traffic was very important from a safety standpoint. The first reported traffic death occurred in 1904 when the car driven by Charles Service of Park River malfunctioned and careened down an embankment, killing Service.

Although cars became more common, some North Dakotans were slow to embrace the licensing. On this date in 1939, the North Dakota Motor Vehicle Department initiated a vigorous campaign to make sure all motor vehicles in the state were licensed. Motor vehicle registrar Adolph Michelson said that as of April 30, his department had received 95,000 applications, but he estimated that as many as 40 percent of vehicles were still not licensed. Drivers were warned that the highway patrol was instructed to pull over and ticket all vehicles not displaying up-to-date plates.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher.


North Dakota Studies. “The Automobile is Here to Stay.” "" Accessed 21 March, 2016.

Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. “N.D. Warns to License Cars.” 9 May, 1939.

Old License Plates. “Vintage North Dakota License Plates.” "" Accessed 21 March, 2016.