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North Dakota's first million-dollar donation was made by a man who left the state at age 18

InForum history columnist begins the story of Chester Fritz, a North Dakota native who left an enduring mark on the University of North Dakota.

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Photo by Michael Vosburg, Forum Photo Editor. Artwork by Troy Becker.
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FARGO — The American Endowment Foundation ranks North Dakota among the top 10 states in terms of charitable giving. That ranking is based on charitable statistics for current residents of the state.

However, former residents are also known for giving large amounts of money or endowments towards causes or institutions within the state. The first million-dollar donor in the state’s history was by a person who left North Dakota in 1910, at the age of 18, and did not return to the state until 50 years later. Between 1950 and 1969, Chester Fritz donated more than $2.25 million to the University of North Dakota.

Fritz, who was one of America’s most successful dealers of precious metals in Asia, was born and raised in North Dakota’s Red River Valley. His mother abandoned him when he was 12 years old and he was raised by his aunt and uncle, who were educators in Richland County. After attending the University of North Dakota for two years, Fritz moved to Seattle, on his own, to complete his college education and become engaged in commodities trading in China. In the 35 years Fritz spent in China, he made, lost and remade fortunes, primarily trading in precious metals like gold, silver and tungsten. During the later years of his life, Fritz donated much of the money he made to UND, the University of Washington, the Lidgerwood (N.D.) School District, and the Adirondack Museum in upstate New York.

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Chester Fritz graduated from the University of Washington before getting a job with Fisher Flouring Mills Company.
Contributed / Ancestry.com

Chester William Fritz was born on March 25, 1892, in Buxton, to Charles and Anna (Belanger) Fritz. Charles farmed a plot of land near Buxton but had a tough time making a comfortable living off the farm. Anna’s parents, Ferdinand and Marjory Belanger, also owned a farm near Hatton and Chester spent much of his time living with the Belangers and their youngest daughter, Kathrine “Kittie” Belanger, who was Chester’s aunt. Because he was intellectually gifted, Chester began his education in a country school at the age of four.

Unable to make a living by farming his own land, Charles moved with his family to Fargo in 1898, where he sold insurance, drove a delivery truck for a produce store and helped area farmers during the harvest season. Chester continued his elementary education in a public school in Fargo and spent much of his time away from school at the Fargo Carnegie Public Library reading novels. In 1902, Chester's father lost his foot after falling into the cylinder of a threshing machine.

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The Fritz family was living in poverty prior to the accident, but with Charles unable to work, life became an even greater struggle. Anna took a job as a clerk and bookkeeper at a dentist’s office, but the pressure she felt became too great. In 1905, she deserted her husband and son. When Charles filed for divorce in 1908, Anna was discovered to be living in Los Angeles. There is no evidence that Anna ever contacted Chester after she left in 1905. One interesting item showed up in the 1920 census, which listed an “Anna Belanger” as being an “inmate” at the “Institution for the Feeble Minded” in Grafton. The census listed both of Anna’s parents as being born in Canada. Chester’s maternal grandparents were born in Canada. Was this the same person? I do not know.

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Unable to care for Chester, Charles sent his son to live with Kathrine (Belanger) Macdonald in 1905. Kathrine married Neil Macdonald a year earlier and both were living in Lidgerwood when Chester came to live with them. Neil was the superintendent of schools in Lidgerwood and Kathrine was the principal of the high school. Chester paid $8 a month for room and board, working odd jobs and attending school. Because of the Macdonalds, Lidgerwood was listed as one of the best school systems in North Dakota. In June of 1908, Chester graduated from high school as valedictorian of his class and enrolled at UND in the fall. Both of the Macdonalds were graduates of UND.

During his freshman year at college, Fritz worked many hours each week to put himself through school and he was also active on campus. He excelled in debate and declamation (oration) and joined the Ad Altiora (higher things) Literary Society under the direction of sociology professor Dr. John M. Gillette. Fritz also joined the varsity Bachelor’s Club, formed by William Lemke in 1902, which later became Phi Delta Theta, the first college fraternity in North Dakota.

After his first year at UND, Fritz hopped on a freight train heading west and got off the train in Billings, Montana. While there, he worked doing odd jobs for room and meals at the Grand Hotel and, to earn money, he received a commission for selling tourist tickets to Wyoming. In the fall, Fritz returned to UND and one of his classmates was Maxwell Anderson who was active in the school’s theater department. Anderson and Frederick Koch, the head of the department, organized a group of students interested in putting on plays and called their group the Sock and Buskin Society, later renamed the Dakota Playmakers, and Fritz became an active member of the society.

After completing his sophomore year at UND, Fritz returned to Seattle with the intent of enrolling at the University of Washington. Having not saved enough money to enroll, Fritz took a year off and worked for a wholesale plumbing company in Vancouver, British Columbia. In the fall of 1911, Fritz returned to college at the worked six days a week selling cigars at a Seattle drug store. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics in June of 1914.

After graduation, Fritz began working for the Fisher Flouring Mills Company, a newly established flour milling company with an international market. He began working at the testing laboratory in Seattle where he learned the ropes of the milling business. Then, in the spring of 1915, Fritz was sent to Hong Kong to work with Charles E. Richardson, the company’s chief exporting authority in Asia. Fritz was a quick learner and accounts of his trading success were reported in several American periodicals. He was given business assignments that took him across southeast Asia, but that came to a halt with the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917.

According to Chinese historian Yanran Xu, “World War One changed everything around the world. It led China into an era where different international powers became entangled with it and forced China to embrace internationalization.” Fritz used this downtime in sales to embark on a six-month tour of China. When the war was over in 1918, Fritz rejoined Richardson in Hong Kong as a business partner. Although their operations in tungsten mining and exportation to the U.S. was a failure, Fritz’s exposure to Chinese business practices and Chinese contacts put him in a good position for the future.

Curt Eriksmoen will continue the story of Chester Fritz next week.

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com or calling 701-793-8508.
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