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Blue Laws - 1917


On this date in 1917 charges were dropped against Fred Bartholomew, the proprietor of the Hotel Frederick in Grand Forks. He had been arrested on February 5th for breaking the Sabbath for keeping his lobby newspaper and cigar stand open on Sunday, which was forbidden under North Dakota Blue Laws. The reason for the dismissal of his case was that Senate Bill 81 of the 1917 Legislative Session had overhauled the Blue Laws. Not only did it revise these laws, the statutes were considered so burdensome and oppressive that the bill carried an emergency clause to be in force with the Governor’s signature.

Referring to the Blue Laws as ancient relics from Massachusetts, the sponsors of the new law sought to legalized what people and communities were already choosing to ignore. At the time North Dakota became a state, almost every state created before 1889 had some sort of Blue Laws. Regardless that the US Constitution mandated separation of church and state, these laws defined what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior on the Sabbath. So, like in many other states, North Dakotans tended to ignore many of the provisions – that is until William Langer became Attorney General. He intended to enforce all laws on the books.

While all servile labor was still not allowed under Senate Bill 81, the operation of railroads, streetcars, telegraph and telephone systems, electrical production, automobile garages, liveries, bakeries, and even pop-corn stands were deemed works of necessity. Meat and fish could be sold prior to ten o’clock in the morning. Foods prepared for onsite consumption were also allowed. Milk, candy, drugs, tobacco, cigars, newspapers and magazines could be sold any time of the day, but they could not be sold at a pool hall, bowling alley or temperance saloon.

Langer did run into a buzz-saw when he began enforcing Senate Bill 137, which prohibited shooting, sporting, horseracing, and other public sports on the First Day of the week. All forms of hunting were forbidden due to the ban on shooting. However, that also meant that Home Guard units, which often could only get together on Sunday, could not practice on their ranges. Nonprofessional baseball was allowed if there was no entrance fee, but could not be played closer than five hundred feet to a church. Motion picture shows were banned on Sunday.

It would take decades to further loosen the grip of the Blue Laws, and even one hundred years after the first major revision, the remaining statutes continue to be challenged.

Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis


“Frazier Loses No Time When S.B. 81 Passed”, Grand Forks Herald February 19, 1917

“In North Dakota”, The Oakes Times, March 8, 1917

Laws Passed at the Fifteenth Session of the Legislative Assembly of the State of North Dakota, Walker Bros. & Hardy Printers, Fargo, ND 1917.