Social Change, 1945-1972: A Background Report

“Say kids, what time is it? It’s Howdy Doody Time.” “Hi, boys and girls, I’m Captain Kangaroo.” “Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me? M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E!” Before and after school North Dakota’s boys and girls were entertained and sometimes educated by television programs. Between 12:30 and 1:00 PM the trials and tribulations of the Hughes and Lowell families of Oakdale on “As The World Turns” or between 1:45 and 2:00 PM the victories and defeats of the Bauer family of Five Points on “The Guiding Light” brought exaggerated family lives into North Dakota homes. At night the antics of Lucy and Ethel on “I Love Lucy,” the goings-on in the Cleaver household of “Leave It To Beaver,” the problems of North Dakotan Ann Sothern on “Private Secretary,” or the music of “The Lawrence Welk Show” with a popular native son changed family life. Television had come to North Dakota.

In 1953 John W. Boler brought television to North Dakota with KCJB-TV in Minot. WDAY-TV in Fargo and KFYR-TV in Bismarck began operations later that year. The next year Boler raised a 1,000-foot tower and antenna northeast of Valley City. With studios in Valley City and Fargo, KXJB-TV, Channel 4, carried CBS programming to one of the largest viewing areas in the nation. In 1959 WDAY-TV constructed a 1,206 foot tower which enabled the station to reach around 150,000 homes in an area that stretched from Grand Forks to Wahpeton and from Jamestown to the Detroit Lakes region of Minnesota. With improved transmission methods and the development of satellite stations, most North Dakotans were in visual touch with the outside world through television. Some people, of course, had to install pretty tall antennae on their houses.

The look of the 1950s:  Mrs. Macaroni candidates in Devils Lake, 1954.  Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

In 1963, a 2,063-foot tower was erected near Blanchard–the highest structure in the world. It provided KTHI-TV with transmission capability of over 100 miles in all directions. By 1970 the home without a television set was becoming rare.

Without question television altered North Dakota life. Librarians feared that residents would shove books aside in favor of visual entertainment. The Great Depression had severely eroded the holdings of the state’s libraries. The postwar prosperity found expression in a drive to improve existing libraries and organize new ones. As the 1950s began, only about a third of the people had access to an adequate library. That began to change. A “Citizens for the Library” movement revived struggling libraries, promoted new county libraries, and advanced the idea of bookmobiles to serve rural towns. The Library Services Act of 1956 was of special importance to North Dakota where local library service was lacking in many towns. The 1957 legislature allowed counties to levy up to two mills for library support. Federal, state, and county funds helped establish several county libraries and bookmobiles. With more money and more books, libraries experienced a significant rise in circulation. Thor Heyerdahl’s “Kon Tiki,” Herman Wouk’s “Caine Mutiny,” Lloyd C. Douglas’s “The Robe,” Leon Uris’s “Exodus,” and Grace Metalious’s “Peyton Place” were among readers’ favorites.

By the late 1960s, federal financial help reached about a half-million dollars. Larger communities were in the process of planning or contracting new libraries.

The TV antenna is as common as the windmill on the state’s farms in the 1950s.  Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

Like libraries, public schools and higher education had gone without needed facilities and materials during the depression. It had been a time of crisis for education at all levels.

Funding for public schools increased from $13.9 million in 1945 to $51 million in 1960 to three times that by 1970. The legislature established higher teacher certification requirements and minimum high school curriculum standards. Lawmakers also established a foundation aid formula for school funding and permissive legislation for school consolidation. Consolidation came slowly and was achieved often after bitter controversy. But, with improved roads and some state transportation funding, it did come. In 1947 the state counted 2,274 school districts; in 1960, 1,000; and in 1972, 372. One-room rural schools declined in numbers quickly. By 1960, 20,000 children still went to one-room schools. That number dropped to less than 400 by 1970.

Reorganization and improved funding worked a revolution in North Dakota’s school system. Before World War II, about 40 percent of students finished the eighth grade, and only half of the students who entered high school graduated. By the early 1970s, 80 percent completed the eighth grade, and nearly 90 percent of those who went on to high school earned their diplomas.

The prosperity of the postwar era provided North Dakota with a vastly improved public school system: new schools, better trained teachers, a stronger curriculum, and, most important, students better educated to face an increasingly complex world.

Parade in Strasburg, showing the spirit of small towns, despite the rural depopulation.  Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

Higher education shared in the postwar prosperity: more money, more students, more buildings, more programs. Between 1950 and 1960 enrollments increased from just under 8,000 to just over 14,000 students. With more employers demanding a college degree, by the early 1970s enrollments mushroomed to over 27,000. The expansion in physical plants and academic programs were made possible by substantial increases in legislative appropriations—$4 million in 1945, $88 million in 1972.

The teachers’ colleges (Minot, Mayville, Valley City, Dickinson) began to offer liberal arts courses and Minot had a graduate program in education. The University of North Dakota and the Agricultural College (renamed North Dakota State University of Agriculture and Applied Science in 1960) introduced new and strengthened existing graduate programs. For example, UND gave 16 graduate degrees in 1945; in 1972 it granted 344. And, the university was making plans to expand its medical school from two to four years.

A one-room school in rural Emmons County.  Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

In the 1950s two new colleges were founded. Mary College became the state’s second church-related liberal arts school, and Williston established a junior college which became a branch of UND in 1967. In 1972, the Turtle Mountain Tribal Council approved the establishment of a two-year college on the reservation. Berthold, Standing Rock, and Fort Totten reservation officials began planning for their colleges. The School of Forestry at Bottineau came under administrative control of NDSU. In 1961 Ellendale became a teachers college and a branch of UND in 1965. A fire in 1970 led to its closing. “The progress in higher education during the past twenty years has been phenomenal,” George W. Starcher, UND president, observed in 1970. And it was.

Churches were no exception to the fruits of prosperity. Membership grew, as did the number of new and remodeled buildings. In 1920, one in three North Dakotans belonged to a church. By the early 1970s, about 75 percent of the population claimed membership—well above the national average. The Lutheran church grew the fastest; about half of church membership was Lutheran; Roman Catholics accounted for about a third. Of the other traditional faiths (Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopal), only the Episcopal dropped in membership; the others showed slight increases.

Students at a Fargo high school in typing class.  Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

Although not great in numbers, the Pentecostal movement made gains in North Dakota. Represented by the Assemblies of God, the Church of God, and Foursquare Gospel, Pentecostal parishes increased from 59 to 100 between 1940 and 1970. The membership of the Assemblies of God, the largest of the Pentecostal groups, grew from 1,200 to 5,000 members.

Rare was the non-Lutheran church that was located in the countryside. In 1930 nearly 900 white-steepled churches dotted the landscape of rural North Dakota. Financial distress and the inability to find clergy forced the end of many rural congregations. By 1970 fewer than 400 had survived.

A typical North Dakota elementary classroom in 1954, except that these students are fighting an outbreak of ringworm.  Courtesy of Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, UND.

The disappearance of so many rural churches and one-room schoolhouses reflected a shift in North Dakota’s population. Farms were getting bigger, from 500 acres in 1940 to almost 1,000 acres in 1970. This meant fewer farms, 74,000 in 1940 and 44,000 in 1972. North Dakota’s population dropped from 642,000 in 1940 to 618,000 in 1970. The countryside, however, lost population at a much greater rate. For examples, McLean County lost 40 percent of its people; Sheridan, 39 percent; Logan, 33 percent; Billings, 32 percent; Kidder, 29 percent; Renville, 29 percent. All counties without urban centers lost population.

The large cities grew larger as many small-town residents and farmers moved into town. Between 1950 and 1970 Grand Forks’s census figure jumped 44 percent; Bismarck, 69 percent; Fargo, 32 percent; Minot, 48 percent. North Dakota’s rural landscape was undergoing dramatic change.

Strip malls are becoming common in North Dakota towns.  Courtesy of Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, UND.

The North Dakota of 1972 was much different than the North Dakota of 1945. Television connected residents to the outside world; seeing world events unfold was more real than just hearing about those events on the radio. Libraries were becoming centers of social and cultural meaning. The public schools, colleges, and universities blossomed and provided North Dakota’s young people with the best possible education to make their way in society. Church membership and life reflected the strong faith of the people. And, North Dakota was becoming more urban as population shifted from the farms and small towns into the cities. Elwyn B. Robinson, whose “History of North Dakota” was published in 1966, summed up the postwar decades pointedly with two words: “revolutionary change.”

The area marked off by the white line is the Grand Forks “urban renewal” district where old buildings will be demolished.

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

3-4, 6, 9-12

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

Related Links

’Adding Picture to Sound’: Early Television in North Dakota
Centennial Anthology of North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains (Summer 1993) by Bill Snyder, pp. 221-228.