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A Hermit Hid Money Under His Shack, 1905

1/6/2017:

There once was an old farmer named Olaus O. Berg, in Walsh County, who lived in seclusion from the outside world. His neighbors called him a hermit, for he lived a solitary life in a tumbledown shack on his 160-acre farm in Vesta Township, seven miles northwest of Park River.

We don’t know very much about Olaus Berg. But we do know that he was born in Norway in 1845, and he immigrated to the U.S. in 1872. Some time in the 1880s, Mr. Berg established his Walsh County farm, and, for the next twenty years, he lived in quiet privacy.

It was on this date, in 1905, that the Devils Lake Inter-Ocean newspaper reported that Olaus Berg had been examined by the Board of Commissioners for the Insane, had been judged insane, and sent to the Asylum for the Insane at Jamestown.

The details from the newspaper story told about his eccentricities and his obsession with gold. Many believed that Olaus Berg had hoarded a small fortune. Businessmen knew that Mr. Berg insisted on being paid in gold for his crops, and bankers knew Berg was always anxious to convert paper money into gold coins.

Olaus Berg’s other peculiarities included sleeping in a hole beneath his shanty on a “bed of straw. To reach his bed, he descended through a trap door.

He made his clothes from grain sacks, and his own flour by grinding wheat in a coffee mill.

Olaus Berg was locked away in Jamestown State Hospital for the last 19 years of his life, and he died in 1924. When taken into custody, this seemingly-poor man had $750 in paper money on his person. Residents speculated that he may have accumulated a sizeable fortune, having spent very little over 20 years. Reportedly, several people searched for treasure on Berg’s farmstead, but we find no reports of hidden gold. Perhaps Olaus Berg’s gold coins still lay buried, waiting to be found.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “Walsh County Hermit’s Doings,” Devils Lake Inter-Ocean, January 6, 1905, p. 1.

“A Peculiar Hermit,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, December 27, 1904, p. 2; “Sleeps In Hole Under Shack,” Pembina Pioneer Express, December 9, 1904, p. 7; ‘O. Berg,” Ward County Independent, January 11, 1905, p. 2.

“Olaus O. Berg,” Vesta Township, Walsh County, N.D., 1900 U.S. Census.

“[Olaus] Berg,” inmate, Homer Township, Stutsman County, N.D., 1910 U.S. Census.

“Olaus Berg,” Age 79, Stutsman County, Died March 15, 1924, N.D. Public Death Index, accessed September 5, 2016.