Interview with Carrie Harbison

Frontier Life in Belfield

The Harbisons, John and Carrie, came from New York City to open a general store at Belfield in 1884. John’s father, who ran a linen-import business in Brooklyn, provided enough money to finance their venture.

Would you tell us about Belfield and your business?

My husband built a general store on the south side of the railroad tracks. Other businessmen at this time were the two McBurney Brothers of Chicago, Louis Hay of Bay City, Michigan, John Thayer of Brooklyn, New York, and Max Bass of Chicago. Besides being proprietor of the store, Mr. Harbison is postmaster and operator of a freight line to Deadwood. He has operated the freight line for two years, hiring men to drive the horses and mules which were used to draw the covered wagons. On the return trips these men load the wagons with buffalo bones found scattered over the prairies. These are bought by Mr. Harbison for ten dollars per ton. He ships them to a firm in Detroit, Michigan, which in turn sells them in the East for fertilizer. At the time of our settling in Belfield there were about one hundred residents, only one of which could speak English; they were Swede, Norwegian, German, and French.

Inside Fred W. Altenburg’s harness shop in Belfield, North Dakota, in 1912.  Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Does anything impress you about the country?

One of the things that impress me very much are the beautiful cactus blossoms all over the prairie. The prairie dog towns are very numerous and it is interesting to watch them. Great herds of antelope roam over the country.

Could you tell us about any amusing incidents in Belfield?

A man by the name of Robert Montgomery, who could neither read nor write, operated a saloon near us. Martha Dow, graduate nurse from a hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, moved in from Dickinson and opened a bakery next door to Montgomery’s saloon.

One night the justice of the peace came up on the train. As the hotel was closed, he had supper with us. After supper my little maid came in and said, “Mr. Montgomery is very sick. Will you go down and take your medicine kit?” I had taken a course in Red Cross work before I came West.

Downtown Belfield around 1910.  Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

My husband, the justice of the peace, and I went down to Montgomery’s room. With him we found Martha Dow, standing beside his bed. I asked him if he would take some medicine. He said, “No, I am a very sick man and I am going to give all of my property to Martha.” The justice of the peace then gave me a paper to sign. After I had signed it, he gave it to Montgomery who placed a cross on it as he was unable to sign his name. The justice of the peace said, “I am going to marry the couple and I want you for a witness.” We thought it strange but did as he said, and the ceremony was performed.

The next morning I looked out of the window and saw Montgomery chopping wood. Mr. Harbison went out and asked, “Why were you married in bed last night? You are not sick.” “Well, to tell you the truth,” he replied, “I did not have a pair of pants to my name, only these overalls, and I was ashamed to be married in those!”


By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Grade Level

3-6, 8

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change