The largest and one of the last counties to organize in North Dakota did so on this date in 1905. McKenzie County was created in 1883 by the territorial legislature, but the legislature eliminated the county in 1891 due to its lack of settlement, but recreated the county in 1905.
The county was named for political giant Alexander McKenzie. The town of Alexander was also named after McKenzie, became the temporary county seat in 1905. The town had its roots in the Bird Head Cattle Company, a line camp that set up shop at the head of Lonesome Creek. The town was platted in the summer of 1905. Its courthouse was a log building on the Bird Head Ranch. Locals called the courthouse “the Log Shack,” and could rent it for $1 per month.
After the county was opened for settlement, homesteaders gathered to file for their claims. The post office was established that fall, and a hotel and newspaper followed. So did the removal of the courthouse.
In 1906, the town of Schafer was established near Cherry Creek, about 20 miles east of Alexander. It became the county seat, and it grew to attract horse races, a band, a newspaper and a baseball club. A jailhouse of native granite and concrete was completed in 1910.
Schafer had attracted over 200 people by 1920, but then steadily declined after the Great Northern Railroad bypassed it. So spelled the beginning of the end for Schafer.
One event of particular note in Schafer occurred in 1931 when a mob of 80 men seized Charles Bannon, the confessed killer of an entire family, and lynched the young farmhand from the new Cherry Creek bridge.
Schafer, along with its now infamous county jail, ceased operations as county seat in 1941, with the seat moving to Watford City. The courthouse itself was moved, as were other buildings, and Schafer dried up. Today it’s a ghost town.
Mckenzie County subsequently converted a hospital into a courthouse, then built a new structure in 1978. In 2015, the county that had once been eliminated for lack of people, now expanded the courthouse to accommodate growth – the population swollen by the Bakken oil boom.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura