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NDSU exhibit at Bonanzaville to highlight unruly local history

A new exhibit coming to Bonanzaville in West Fargo will examine a period of Fargo-Moorhead’s history that was known for prostitution, gambling and illicit activity.

Uncovering Vice in Fargo-Moorhead, 1871-1920” is curated by Angela Smith, NDSU assistant professor of history, and her museum studies students. It is scheduled to open Monday, May 8, at 7 p.m. in the main gallery at Bonanzaville. There is no admission charge for the opening night reception.

The display focuses on 19th century brothel owner Melvina Massey and looks at the legal and cultural context of vice in Fargo-Moorhead from 1871 to 1920. It also includes artifacts found through salvage archeology of “the hollow,” Fargo’s Red Light District during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“History is sometimes buried, both literally and figuratively, and in this case, students looking for it got their hands dirty,” Smith said. “This is just one aspect of the project that uses outreach in many areas to add to the historical record of Cass and Clay counties as they were in the 19th century.”

The exhibit is sponsored by Bonanzaville, the North Dakota Humanities Council and NDSU’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.

“This project is a shining example of the importance of higher education to the livability of communities,” said Brenna Gerhardt, executive director of the Humanities Council. “Kudos to Dr. Smith and her team at NDSU for their contribution to North Dakota’s cultural economy. Not only will this hands-on learning experience stick with these students for life, but the history they uncovered challenges so many narratives of North Dakota’s bucolic past. Like any good humanities program, this exhibit confronts us with hard truths and tough questions in an engaging way.”

According to Smith, vice came face-to-face with authorities during the establishment of the river towns. Informal codes of the frontier developed, and new legal challenges to prostitution, gambling, drugs and alcohol arose. The railroad brought men for a quick divorce or seasonal work, and many patronized brothels. Alcohol was consumed in legal saloons in Moorhead and in illegal “blind pigs” in Fargo. Gambling and drug use were also part of the unsavory activities.

The local history research for the exhibit has been ongoing since 2013, when Smith and her students discovered Massey’s name in Fargo’s public records. Massey was repeatedly arrested and released and continued to operate her brothel until she died in 1911. She went to prison once, for 10 months in 1901, but it was for illegal liquor sales, not for prostitution.

In 2014, Kristen Fellows, assistant professor of anthropology, and Smith began examining Massey’s history more deeply. When the city of Fargo began excavation for a new city hall in 2016, Smith and Fellows worked with the historical commission and city executives for permission to sift through the dirt where the Crystal Palace was built in 1892. Items gathered from that operation are central to the exhibit.

The exhibit was designed, written and installed by graduate and undergraduate students as part of Smith’s museum studies class at NDSU. Students taught by Fellows and John Creese, assistant professor of anthropology, collaborated with Smith’s class by cataloguing and researching artifacts.

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