August 13, 2019 — Today is the birthday of William Lemke, who was born to German parents in Minnesota in 1878. As one of nine children, Lemke’s boyhood was spent in the Big Coulee area of Towner County. His aggressive father had already acquired 2,700 acres when he died of a stroke when he was outbid on a piece of land he wanted.
William lost an eye in a childhood accident and was described as shy but eager for knowledge. His big jaw, rough skin, and rumpled clothing gave him a tough exterior. This, coupled with fierce determination, led historian Edward Blackorby to label him a “prairie rebel.”
Lemke went to UND, where he was seen as an ambitious student and skilled debater. Although he was only 5' 8" and 149 pounds, he also gained respect on the football field. He was a member of the Varsity Bachelor Club, whose members were to save each other from feminine wiles. It was in this group that he met many future leaders, including his good friend, Lynn Frazier.
Lemke watched farmers fall deeper and deeper into debt as banks, railroads and grain terminals grew fat with profits. Historian Elwyn Robinson wrote that Lemke “became an intense, bitter, tenacious fighter for the plain people against the hated interests; he was a natural extremist... Versatile and emphatic in speech, the language of the threshing crews as well as that of the courtroom came naturally to him. He neither smoked nor drank,” Robinson continued. “When the occasion demanded, he could drive himself unsparingly with a terrible concentration. He was brilliant, a good organizer, ambitious and aggressive, eager for power, a natural promoter and dreamer, an ultra-nationalist... Until America became involved in the First World War, his friends called him ‘the Dutchman.’”
After graduating from UND in 1903, Lemke studied law at Georgetown and Yale, and then practiced in Fargo. He soon gained a reputation as a friend to farmers and was very drawn to the solidarity of the rebellious Nonpartisan League, which had roots in the Socialist Party. The League had 26,000 members in 1916, when Lemke became a salaried employee. He was very soon on the executive committee. Robinson wrote, “The League became a religion to Lemke.”
One factor that drove many North Dakotans to join the NPL was the state’s perceived “colonial” status – farmers saw themselves supplying the nation with food but getting nothing in return. As World War I entered the picture, many North Dakotans saw it as just another advancement of corporate interests at their expense and vigorously opposed joining the overseas conflict.
The NPL gained an important edge in state politics in 1916, including the election of Lemke’s old friend, Lynn Frazier, as governor. Frazier, a relative unknown, often turned to Lemke for counsel, and Lemke wielded tremendous political influence. The state made important strides toward protecting its own interests until the party ultimately failed in 1921.
Lemke went on to serve in U.S. Congress in 1932, where he continued to champion the causes of family farmers. During the Great Depression, he co-sponsored the Fraizer-Lemke Act, which would have helped North Dakota farmers refinance their mortgages to save their farms. Lemke had been instrumental in getting FDR elected, but Roosevelt now refused to support Lemke, and the bill sank. Disillusioned by Roosevelt’s “New Deal” – as many were – Lemke accepted the Union of Social Justice Party’s nomination for president – the only North Dakotan who’s ever run for the office. He lost but received almost 900,000 votes. In the same election, he was re-elected to Congress in which he served – except for one term – until his death in 1950.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.