Blackwater Township

Blackwater Township, North Dakota

Around 1902, homesteaders began moving onto their claims in what would later become Blackwater Township, McLean County, North Dakota.

Blackwater is south and southeast of Roseglen Township. The northwestern part of the township borders White Shield.

The homesteaders came distances as short as Minnesota and South Dakota, and from as far away as Maine. A large number of them came from Iowa, and a few from Wisconsin.

Some of the early settlers were second generation Americans, while others came directory from their native land. They all came seeking a farm of their own.

Early Settlers

Borger Antonson and his cousin, Ed Bjornholt, came from Norway, as did Mrs. Belle Martin. Axel Nelson and John Erickson came from Sweden. Fred and John Kerzman, George Boden, Otto Schultz, John and Charles Meyers, Frederick Krantz, Henry Beyers, Henry Blohm, and N.K. Heinzen came from Germany.

Names such as O’Shea, Hanlon, Kelly, Walsh, Sullivan and Minnehan indicate the Irish ancestry of some of the homesteaders.

The Spindler family came from Czechoslovakia. Those with English and Scotch background include the Bidlacks, Clifford Lyons, Ed Hodges, Silas Parson, Walter Pease, W.G. Merriam, and George Houghaling.

Blackwater Township was sort of a melting pot in its way.

Lee, Earl, and Bert Kennedy came to Blackwater from their stony farms in Maine. Here in North Dakota, they could break the sod rather than clearing pine trees, then picking rock, before gaining even a few acres to put into crop.

They discovered, however, that there were plenty of rocks buried beneath North Dakota’s rich black soil. Lee Kenney’s homestead was across the section line from the farm taken by his cousin, Lee, and so was in Emmet Township. A rock pile built in true Maine style, with straight lines resembling a wall, still stands at the edge of his farm west of the Alvin Holst farm, although it became obscured by a growth of buckbrush.

Not all of the early homesteaders were men, either. Mrs. Pauline Kerzman, a widow with nine children, came from Minnesota to the SW 1/4 of Section 27. Three school teachers, Abbie Cook, Alberta Barr, and Grace Bidlack, were among the earliest homesteaders, as well as Martha Bidlack, a sister of  Grace. Abbie Cook and Grace Bidlack were from Manilla, Iowa. They were to teach a fall term of school in Iowa, spend the winter vacation on their homesteads, then return to Iowa for the spring term of teaching.

The Carter ranch on Douglas Creek, with its headquarters on Section 24, was sold to the North Dakota Cooperative Stock and Land Company in the winter of 1902. The ranch was stocked with sheep, and W.G. Merriam was hired as manager. The ranch was named the X4 Ranch. Its sheepherder was Jimmy Kane.

In 1967, when the Golden Jubilee book was published, there were still many who could remember the tall pole set in the ground at the top of the hill overlooking the ranch buildings. There were several cross pieces nailed to this pole, enabling the men to climb to its top and see where the sheep were grazing. This pole was one of the early landmarks for people driving across the country, as it could be seen for several miles.

By 1906, the grazing land was taken up by homesteaders, so the owners of the sheep, who were from St. Paul, had to sell the flock and the X4 Ranch went out of existence.

Mr. Merriam had filed on a homestead a few years before this, so he went into farming. The herder, Jimmy Kane, moved into Garrison, which was then a new town. He lived there for the remainder of his life.

The earliest settlers had to ship their household goods and farming equipment to Washburn on the Soo Line branch out of Bismarck, or to Minot on the Great Northern. Either way meant a long drive over the prairies to their claims.

In May of 2003, three homesteaders left together from their farms in Minnesota. They were Axel Nelson, who had come from Sweden in 1900, Walter Pease, an Iowa native, and Jerry O’Shea, with his wife and four children. In the winter of 1903, they had lumber sawed at a mill in Minnesota and shipped to Minot, along with livestock, farm machinery, and household goods.

On their first trip to their claims, they loaded the wagons with their goods, and took their stock. Mary (Nettie) and Joseph O’Shea were around thirteen and eight years old, respectively. As they were the oldest of the O’Shea children, they had to walk behind the wagons and drive the cows.

The first night, they camped out on the prairie somewhere near old Roseglen. Upon reaching Mr. O’Shea’s claim the following day, they found that a windstorm had demolished the shack that was supposed to have been readied for them. Alec Tebeau, a brother-in-law of Mr. O’Shea, had a small shack on land nearby, so Mrs. O’Shea, Mary, and Margaret stayed there, while the men returned to Minot to bring the lumber for the new shacks. The east portion of what was the Joe O’Shea home in 1967 was the original homestead house, which consisted of two rooms.

O'Shea School District

George P. and Anetta Myers Milde filed on the NE 1/4 of Section 23, building a sod house on it. Both had taught school in Iowa, so Mrs. Milde opened up a school in her home in the fall of 1903. Twelve children attended that year, including Mrs. Harold Van Cleve (Lily Boden), Mrs. Nettie Kerzman (Mary O’Shea), and Joe O’Shea, who were still living in the area in 1967.

In the spring of 1904, a meeting was held in the Milde home to organize a school district, and to make plans to build a school house. Jerry O’Shea donated the SE corner of his farm for a building site.

Members of the first school board were J.D. Myers (President), Charlie Myers (Clerk), G.P. Milde (Treasurer), and Jerry O’Shea and George Boden (Directors).

Their first business was to name the new district, and they chose to name it the O’Shea District. It was the 44th school district created in McLean County.

Being handy in carpentry, Paul Milde was given the job of building the school  house. The school he built was different from the little rectangular, box-type buidling that was common for school houses at at that time. It was a square building with a coal room and a cloak room, along with a fair-sized school house.

As Mr. Milde was working alone, the work progressed slowly, and there were doubts as to whether it would be ready for the opening of school at the regular time. Mr. O’Shea decided to speed things up, so he contracted several of the younger men in the neighborhood, promising them a free dance in the new school house in return for their labor. The men came, and the building was completed in short order.

Mr. Milde contacted a fiddler at Expansion, a little town on the south side of the Missouri River. Mr. and Mrs. Day came across the river in a row boat, and were met and brought to the O’Shea home. A large crowd came to the dance, and a good time was had by everyone.

Mrs. G.P. Milde was the first teacher in the 1904-05 school year, and had twenty-nine pupils, including Mrs. Harold Van Cleve (Lily Boden), Mrs. Fred Albrecht (Ruth Krantz), Mrs. Vincent Kubicek (Mary Spindler), Mrs. Margaret Peterson (Margaret Kerzman), Mrs. Henry Kerzman Sr. (Mary O’Shea), and Joe O’Shea.

Mrs. Milde taught in this school for two terms, and was followed by Miss Ora Pitman and Miss Alberta Barr (Mrs. Walter Pease). At first, the schoolhouse was also used as a church. The Methodists held church and Sunday School there until 1908, when a church was built.

The Catholics held services there until about 1914, when a new church was built just west of the school house. This church was later moved to Washburn, where it was remodeled. As of 1967, the only cemetery in the township was in this church yard.


The first settlers traveled to old Coal Harbor, or on to Washburn, for their staple groceries. Usually, a homesteader would make a trip each fall to get a winter supply of such staples as flour, sugar, coffee, dried fruit, and kerosene. If anyone in the family was in need of winter clothing and there was enough money left over, some shoes, underwear, overshoes, and some yards of dress goods would be purchased at that time.

Blackwater homesteaders were fortunate in that they were not too far from Missouri River timber, so each summer they would go and get a load or two of driftwood.

Coal could also be found in a few places, but the best coal came from the Battle Butte mine. It was open only in the late fall or winter, so people had to wait until the mine opened for business in order to haul coal. A major concern of homesteaders was to never let the supply of coal get too low.

North Dakota weather is unpredictable, and it can be fierce. On September 12, 1903, an unusually early blizzard hit the area. That winter was a severe one, with lots of snow and several blizzards. February 1, 1904, began as an unusually warm day, a reprieve after a long cold spell. Several people took advantage of this day to go after coal. That afternoon, a strong northeast wind came in with a roar and, in a few minutes, a blinding blizzard covered the countryside. Mrs. Milde kept her twelve pupils in her home that night, and was thankful for having plenty of food and lignite coal on hand. Those who had gone after coal spent the night at the mine, but were able to return the following day.

After a fierce winter with so much snow, the spring brought floods. One Blackwater  homesteader, Henry Cook, lost his life while trying to move to his claim in Section 9. He and three sons had started out from Underwood with two heavily loaded wagons, using a road the followed the Missouri River flat at that time. As they came to the Douglas Creek near the site of Fort Stevenson, the usually sluggish little stream became a raging river. Mr. Cook crossed first, and made it safely. His boys turned a little too soon, missing the narrow bridge, tipping their wagon. Mr. Cook unhitched one horse and rode into the flood to save his sons.

He and two of the boys were washed downstream and drowned. Ed, a boy of about fourteen, managed to climb onto a chunk of ice and floated on into the Missouri River. Two young men, who were in the area looking for stray cattle, heard the boy’s cries for help. They threw a rope and pulled him to safety.

Mrs. Cook, Ed, and Emil, the youngest child, moved to the homestead. Ed’s health was adversely affected by his hours on the ice, and he died of tuberculosis in the spring of 1910. Mrs. Cook remained on the farm until her death.

Blackwater Post Office

The only post office in Blackwater Township was opened in 1905 by Ira Matheny. Mr. Mahoney came to Blackwater in 1902 as a teacher to the Congregational mission school established by Dr. C.L. Hall at Like-a-Fish-Hook Village. In November of 1902, Martha Spillers, an RN from Michigan, came to be a nurse at this mission. Ira and Martha were married in 1903 at Elbowoods. Ira served as postmaster for Fort Berthold, as Mrs. Hall had moved to Elbowoods when the mission and school were moved there.

In 1905, Mr. Matheny moved up to John Armgrimson’s homestead, and opened a post office named Blackwater. It was named after a small lake in the northwest corner of the township that had been called Blackwater Lake by the Indians.

After 1905, when Garrison was started, the mail to Elbowoods was taken by stage from Garrison, and the Blackwater post office was along this stage route.

When Mr. Metheny homesteaded in Section 17, he moved the post office to his homestead, where he built a store, which carried a full line of merchandise until 1923, when the store was closed.

A few years later, the post office was moved to a room in the Matheny home. With the advent of better roads and the R.F.D. out of Emmet, the north portion of the township was served by the Emmet post office. Then the Star Route carrier began delivering mail directly to patrons in the southern part of the township, so the Blackwater post office was discontinued in 1941.

By 1967, the prairie trails and section line roads had been replaced by gravel roads that are open year round for mail carriers and school buses.