A Bit of North Dakota History

Jul 31st, 2006 @ 7:58 am | Author: By Ellen-Earle Chaffee
Several news stories and letters about current higher education events have referred to William 'Wild Bill' Langer, governor of North Dakota from 1933-1934 and again from 1937-1939. The current situation is different in many ways, but it's an interesting story. The roots of Langer's nickname are evident in a summary of his career on the UND Library website (http://www.library.und.edu/Collections/Langer/og19.html).

'He slashed state appropriations in almost every area, save for primary and secondary education. In the fall of 1933, he set about raising the price of wheat by placing an embargo on all out of state wheat. Although the embargo was struck down several months later by the federal district court in Minneapolis, it accomplished its goal of raising wheat prices.

'Langer cleaned out most executive departments and appointed persons loyal to him. He also openly solicited state employees for subscriptions to his newspaper, the Leader. Each subscription was equal to five percent of their annual state salary.

'While Langer viewed this as a legitimate campaign fund raising, he was indicted by a federal grand jury in the spring of 1934 on charges of "soliciting and collecting money for political purposes from federal employees ." (History of North Dakota, p.410).

'After a trial lasting almost a month, Langer was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to eighteen months in prison, and subject to a $10,000 fine. The North Dakota Supreme Court removed Langer from office, since he had been convicted of a felony. The former lieutenant governor, Ole H. Olson, moved into the governor's office on July 19th, even while crowds marched through Bismarck shouting "We Want Langer."

Another source (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Langer) points out that after his eviction, 'Langer gathered with about ten friends, declared North Dakota independent, declared martial law, and barricaded himself in the governor's mansion until the Supreme Court would meet with him. Langer eventually relented, and Olson served the remainder of Langer's term as Governor.'

The UND source continues, 'In 1936, in a close three-person race, Langer returned to the governor's chair, winning the election with 36% of the vote. Langer's second term was marked by continued efforts to stem the Great Depression, but also by conspiracy and charges of corruption. Langer directed the State Mill and Elevator to pay 35 cents per bushel over the market price.

'Three of Langer's close friends were found to be profiting by purchasing county bonds at a discounted price and selling them back to the Bank of North Dakota at full value. In 1938, the State Board of Equalization reduced the assessment on property owned by the Great Northern Railroad by three million dollars. It was revealed that an attorney of the railroad had purchased $25,000 of worthless stocks from Langer, and then never asked for the delivery of the stocks.'

Langer's political pressuring had many positive and negative results. Seven people at NDSU (then NDAC) lost their jobs for failure to contribute to Langer's campaign. Due to the political intrusion, NDSU lost its accreditation for several years. This incident prompted the creation of a State Board of Higher Education to ensure academic freedom and autonomy from political pressures.