With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College is a 1913 film produced by the Selig Polyscope Company and was distributed by the General Film Company.

Aside from IMDb’s basic details, not much easily accessible information exists about this film. I am curious to learn more, but where to begin? After searching some larger online archives and coming up empty handed, I looked into the college itself.

North Dakota Agricultural College is now North Dakota State University, located in Fargo. NDAC started in 1890 as a land-grant college. The Morrill Act of 1862 gave U.S. states land to develop colleges for educating wider sections of the population in argicultural and mechanical arts. Though many of these universities still operate today, not all highlight their status as a land-grant institution.

NDSU maintains a special collection with artifacts of its own history, so I contacted the people there and asked about the film. While Archives Associate John Hallberg had not heard of it, he did a search within those archives and found some student newspaper (The Spectrum) coverage and a yearbook spread about the event that the film likely documents.

The event was called the “Student Life Special Train.” Perhaps like today’s chartered busses and limos, trains were booked for special events at the time. In 1911, for example, the Western Governors’ Special brought governors from Minnesota, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Oregon to visit Midwest and east coast states to promote business and other connections.

According to a news story, “Never before in the history of this country has such an enterprise as this been inaugurated.” The journey covered 4,000 miles to 21 cities in 20 days. Along with the dignitaries, five train cars featured exhibits showcasing these western states’ resources. The train also carried “a barber, tailor, stenographers, [and] typewriters for those of the newspaper men who accompany the train and special stationery for the governors.”

The next sentence in that same newspaper story caught my attention: “Motion pictures will be made showing the departure of the special from St. Paul, and the films will be displayed over the prominent American vaudeville circuits.” What was the name of that film, who produced it, where was it shown, and what did people think of it? Questions for another post, I suppose.

The Student Life Special Train appears modeled after the Western Governors’ Special Train. While the IMDb description claims the film traveled “throughout the great Northwest,” it actually traveled throughout North Dakota, visiting more than 30 cities in four days in February 1913. The cars included a dining car, a coach car, an observation car, a sleeper, and two baggage cars. The Great Northern Railway Company provided the equipment.

NDAC students planned and ran every part of the trip. As the student newspaper proclaimed, “This is a train of the students, for more students, by the students.” Home economics students prepared the meals in the dining car. The coach car included motion pictures operated by students. The baggage cars featured exhibits such as state geological maps from the Geology Department, fertilizer exhibits from the Chemistry Department, and candy from the Home Economics Department. At various stops, other student groups, including the Cadet Band, Crack Squad, Dramatic Club, College “Y” Quarter, and the orchestra, performed.

Several special guests accompanied students on this trip. A staff correspondent of the London Times and Telegram, Marguerite Curtiss, joined them from London. Lloyd McDowell, who rode on the Western Governors’ Special, also came along. A film company representative also came for the trip — in this case a Mr. Buckwalter from Selig.

Despite a snowstorm — it was a North Dakota winter, after all — the trip appeared to be a success, even with a $78.27 deficit.

Much enthusiasm surrounded the trip, not surprisingly in the student newspaper as both the trip and the paper were run by the student council. One story offered exalting language similar to the Western Governors’ Special: “The students of the North Dakota Agricultural College are preparing to launch out on an expedition, such as has never before been attempted by an educational institution.”

But what was the purpose of all this? According to the student newspaper, it was to raise awareness about the mission and benefits of the college. One newspaper story began, “Few people appreciate the mission of an Agricultural College.” In other words, the special train was a publicity campaign for the college “to do away with the notion that the Agricultural College is a one-horse institution.”

For me, all of this background helps with answering two general questions: It suggests possible film scenes, and it explains the film’s purpose. And, of course, it raises more questions than it answers.

4 thoughts on “Not Just a “One-Horse Institution:” Following the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College

  1. That’s fascinating. I wonder if this trip was part of a class (or perhaps several working together) as a project to showcase skills as well? If not, they missed an opportunity there 😉

    1. The trip was a college-wide enterprise. It was definitely about showcasing the skills that the college could offer potential students, including homemaking and farming, but also the fine arts. As land-grant institutions, these schools had different missions and purposes than the normal schools, which engaged primarily in teacher training. The land-grant schools in the western states were so much newer than the normal schools, so they had to do something to distinguish themselves.

      1. This post is my “something new”–I hadn’t heard of land grant institutions. It makes sense, especially as quickly as things were changing with the invention and growing use of various machines and chemicals that were appearing in farming and other aspects of life. It does seem strange to think back on a time when very very few people went to college and then only for a few select things because going for anything and everything is so widespread today :p

        1. I went to one of each — a land grant and a former teachers’ college. They felt very different in purpose and product, and not just based on Carnegie and other national rankings. While few people went to college then, progressivism and education — cultural uplift — played important roles in that era around the 1800s and 1900s.

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