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Lilac Day, 1937


Spring starts in March, but full-fledged springtime really begins when the fragrance of lilacs is in the air. Assuredly, spring is more than just lilacs, for the landscape comes alive, as wild plum thickets flower, prairie roses bud, and dormant rhubarb awakens. May’s soft southern breezes and bright sunshine bring a welcome warmth.

On this date in 1937, it was the fifth-annual “Lilac Day” at Fargo’s North Dakota Agricultural College. The Lilac Day celebration of spring was a concept born in 1932 within the fertile brain of Alfred Arvold, the theater professor who founded NDSU’s Little Country Theater.

Lilac Day enlivened college life as it promoted lilac bushes as the ideal shrub for North Dakota. Lilac observance eventually included a banquet and crowning a “Lilac Queen,” accompanied by numerous “Lilac Maidens,” chosen from various counties.

The biggest lilac idea of Alfred Arvold came in 1937. He proposed “lining with lilacs the 80-mile highway from Fargo to Grand Forks.” Planting lilac bushes as a flowering hedge alongside U.S. Highway 81 would beautify the roadway and provide a shelterbelt for adjoining fields.

Professor Arvold and some students completed the first plantings right on the NDSU campus, which bordered the highway. The hope was that a magnificent “Eighty Miles of Lilacs” could become a reality if county commissioners, local school boards, townspeople and farmers along the route would buy lilacs and plant them.

We do not know exactly how many people planted lilacs along Highway 81, but some did. In 1940, NDAC students did “two weeks of lilac planting.” In 1943, lilac shrubs were “planted and dedicated to ag college boys” serving in the Pacific during World War II.

Although lilacs aren’t native to North Dakota, coming originally from Europe or Asia, these flowering bushes arrived in the 1870s when early settlers brought them from Minnesota. The lilacs thrived despite harsh winters and summer droughts, requiring only occasional pruning to fit a yard or grove.

So, on this day in May, enjoy your neighborhood lilacs, in white, pink, red, blue, and purple. A lilac’s beauty arrives in a whiff of fragrant blooms, bringing many of us memories of our own “Lilac Days” of yesteryear.

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

Sources: “Boosts Lilacs,” Bismarck Tribune, May 5, 1937, p. 10.

“Lilac Hedge 80 Miles Long Is Arvold’s Idea,” Bismarck Tribune, May 11, 1937, p. 8.

“Local AC Students In Lilac Pageant,” Bismarck Tribune, May 20, 1940, p. 5.

“Lilac Days Set for May 18 To 31,” Bismarck Tribune, May 19, 1941, p. 2.

“Schonert Twins Are Lilac Queen Ladies,” Bismarck Tribune, May 10, 1943, p. 5.

“Charles Johnson,” Bismarck Tribune, May 14, 1943, p. 5.

“Lilac Time,” Grand Forks Herald, June 3, 1909, p. 8; “Lilac Time,” Bismarck Tribune, June 5, 1909, p. 4.

“Lilacs,” Bismarck Tribune, June 9, 1950, p. 1.

Luella Hanson, “Garden Chat,” Bismarck Tribune, June 17, 1953, p. 12.

Dick Crum, “The Love of Lilacs,” Indianapolis Star, May 3, 2003, p. 35.

Catherine Jelsing, “Drama Kings,” NDSU Magazine, vol. 5, no. 2 (Spring 2005), ndsu.edu/magazine, accessed on April 10, 2017.