Even in its earliest days, city was meant to be a college town

    Crookston was meant, from the beginning, to be a college town. One might still hear old timers refer to the Northwest School of Agriculture (NWSA) as the “A.C.” which is short for Ag College. No matter what it was called, it was still a high school for farm kids whose farming parents paid tuition for room and board for six months.  I’ve puzzled over why the name “A.C.” stuck for as long as it did.            

    Probably no different for us  baby boomers who remembered when UMC  used to be known as “The Tech,” short for the University of Minnesota’s Technical Institute (UMTI)  in the 1960s.  Not many people know that Crookston, over one hundred years ago, had at least THREE business colleges.         

    Perhaps that is why the distinction was made of Ag College versus the bustling business colleges located in downtown Crookston.     

    According to a Crookston Daily Times headline on June 29, 1905, Crookston boasted about their four outstanding business colleges (Queen City College, Button College, Crookston College and Eclectic Business College). The Crookston College I am familiar with is because it is prominently featured on p. 79  of the “Images of American: Crookston” book.  Jacob Cornelius (Pederson) Sathre had started up his business college enterprise in May of 1898. I later learned that Mr. Sathre took over the brick building that Frank Jerome had built on Robert Street, to be the St. Louis Hotel.  There had been a major flood in 1893 of the Jerome’s and Woods Addition. I believe Sathre remodeled and made the hotel into a two story college. As President of the Crookston College, he and his wife, Othilda or Tillie, lived close by, at 126 Lincoln Avenue. His brother Elias Martin (E.M.) was the Vice President and he and his wife Bessie, resided at 210 Robert Street East.    

    With the town of Crookston booming at the seams with new businesses, the Sathre brothers intended to fill the need with experienced, knowledgeable young people who could efficiently work in an office or business setting. By October of that same year, Sathre’s Crookston College was complete and they had a graduating class of 24 graduates on March 29, 1900.            

    Apparently, it was a two year course of typing, bookkeeping, shorthand, stenography, etc.  Sadly, Jacob Cornelius Sathre died in 1922 at the young age of 55. I don’t know when the Crookston College had its last graduating class or when the building was demolished. Someone mentioned they remembered seeing lots of cream colored bricks in the river across from the old Sports arena, close to the Robert Street bridge. Those bricks are the remains of the former St. Louis Hotel and Crookston College.  

    Competition is a GOOD thing when it comes to business and perhaps even truer when it comes to business colleges. That’s why I’ve been curious about Crookston’s Button College and naively thought it had something to do with sewing classes!  I dug a bit deeper and found that there was a Julian (aka John) Asher Button who had been initially hired as a stenographer for Halvor Steenerson’s law office in May of 1899.  Then I discovered that John A. Button was building a new college in September of 1903.  I believe his family lived upstairs of the college on 611 North Broadway which was right across from the Polk County Courthouse.   

    In a February 19, 1903 article in the Crookston Daily Times, Button had a crowded house with 95 students enrolled.  There might have been some skepticism about how permanent his institution was going to be in Crookston. He supposedly planned to erect “a handsome college building that will be specially fitted for the purpose.”  He maintained that his brother would help him with the enterprise and that there was ample capital on hand to do this.  Button also bragged “an average of three pupils a week are assigned to positions.” Mr. Button claimed that he had “ten applications from employers for every pupil he turns out.” Where there was a need a century ago, Button was trying to fill it. However, later that same year, in 1903, there was a questionable incident that happened where the headline read, “John A. Anderson Claims Professor Button Drew Gun on Him.”  What was that altercation all about?    

    I read in a September 7, 1905 Crookston Times article that Button’s college “Makes a New Departure” with having vocal culture and piano being taught.  He hired Andrew Rood whose studio was close to Robert Street as a vocal instructor.  Seems ambitious Mr. Button was getting close to Mr. Sathre’s turf by expanding not only his student population but also departing from business into music.   

    This is where it got interesting for me. What was it like to live and sleep in the same house where Mr. Button used his North Broadway residence as a college by day? I had my new genealogist friend, Kay Steenerson, do some looking up for me on the census on the Button family.  She found a photo of John’s parents, Hiram and Fanny Button, where it also listed who all his brothers and sisters were. The family seemed to be a good lot from New York with some Quaker background.   

    Actually, Kay connected me with a Button relative. Carma lives in Wyoming and she sent me a very helpful, scanned document that fit some of the pieces together. As reported in an Otter Tail County document dated 1916, John Button’s siblings were Chalkley (lived in Otter Tail county close to his parents’ farmstead), Florence (died as an infant), Byron (lived in Williston, ND), Asher Julian (aka John) business college in Moorhead, Jessie who married Ole Tranby, Malta, MT, Oscar (aka Hiram) (school teacher in Bellingham, WA), Alvin (school teacher in Aldrich, MN), Lucia, married Clarence Rawdon, Malta, MT, Mabel, married David Henry, Malta, MT, Myrtle died at age 7 and Fannie Luella died at age 3.  Seems the large Button family was into education and a few spread out west to North Dakota and Montana.

    Kay also found that John Button’s wife, Sina O. Athelia Bragett Button, had divorced John A. Button by the 1910 census. It was highly unusual for people to get a divorce back in that time.         Carma also wrote that John’s brother, Byron, was divorced. It must have been very difficult for Sina Button to raise her family in a house where the college was going on.  John and Sina’s four children were listed as Lilly M. Button (born 1884) and Frank J. Button (1899) . The older Buttons were born in North Dakota. Judging by the dates, Luella S. (1900) and George A. Button (1905) were probably born in Crookston, Minnesota when John Button, the father, had started work as a stenographer for Halvor Steenerson in May of 1899.    

    The Crookston Times headlines asserted in March of 1910, “Mrs. Button Gets Divorce on Grave Statutory Offenses.” This could not have been good for his business or the college’s reputation.  Before that highly publicized divorce, in 1907 it had been announced that Dr. Jacob Sathre, Button’s competition, was dedicating a new hall. Crookston College was seemingly doing well and had added a new addition. However, by January 2, 1909, Mr. Button wanted $10,000 for alleged libel from Sathre. (That seemed to be the going rate for any lawsuit in those days)  Without going to the actual article and reading the microfilm, what was being said can only be guessed. (Interested readers are invited to continue the investigation!)            

    However, the rumors must have really been flying when on March 26, 1910 Mr. Button and Anna Jager were married in Brown City, South Dakota shortly after his divorce with Sina.  Anna was born in Minnesota but her parents were pioneer residents of Becker County who originally came from Norway.  Anna Jager was 40 while Mr. Button was 45 years old. I think Button was marrying Anna on the rebound; I found out she was, too.    

    According to quotes taken from the Detroit [Lakes] Record in April 1912, Anna had received “considerable notoriety because of her marriage to a comparative stranger with whom she became acquainted while she was teaching the Rochert School in Holmseville Township. Her husband was posing as a postal inspector but he later was proven an imposter and also a deserter from the United States army, and he is now serving time for his misdeeds.” According to the Detroit Record account, “Following this adventure she [Anna] secured a divorce and a short time later married J.A. Button, who for several years has conducted business colleges at different points in the Northwest.”    

    Kay, the genealogist, found out that Anna had been a school teacher at Concordia, in Fergus Falls.  The tragedy about Anna is that the Crookston Times headlines read on April 20, 1912 “Anna Jager Button Blows Brains out.” Keep in mind this was right around the time of the Titanic sinking. Headlines seemed to reveal massive instability with a lot of people around that tragedy. However, a week later the explanation was given for Anna’s demise in the headline, “Button Says Wife Jealous, Reason for Suicide.”    

    In the Crookston Times April 1912 newspaper account, Mr. Button saw his wife’s remains in Grand Forks and brought them back to her home in Detroit Lakes where Anna Jager’s mother had recently lost her son and also her husband.  The article continued, “One of the pathetic incidents in connection with the case occurred when Mr. Button arrived in Grand Forks and saw for the first time the dead body of his wife. The gaping wound and the horror of it all completely unnerved the man.”   

    I’m not sure if this Button man is to be pitied or vilified. The next Crookston Times headline of October 5, 1912 read “Button Residence Scorched” which means perhaps that his first wife’s Crookston home, where the business college used to be, was burned to the ground. I looked up in a 1915 Crookston City directory that several years later, Sina and her oldest daughter, Lily, boarded a room at 211 Hurlbut St.  I found out from Kay that Sina eventually moved to Minneapolis in the 1920s and died in 1938 and is buried in Rock County, Minnesota.      

    Mr. Button had earlier opened up business schools in Devils Lake and Grafton and it was recorded that he opened up a school in Moorhead in August of 1915. According to census reports, Mr. Button was a very busy man who started schools…and marriages, but he was not good on follow through. He was later in the 1930 census which revealed Button as a widower, after perhaps a third marriage, living in Sonoma, California. He apparently died at age 66 in Fargo, North Dakota in 1933.    

    I wonder whatever happened to the Button children, Lily, Frank J., Luella and George A. Button? I also wonder what happened to the three Sathre children, Helen, Floyd M. and Haven Curtis.  I DO know Floyd Sathre wrote a letter home to Crookston on March 30, 1918 from a battleship Vermont, he was off to fight in WWI. Eventually, they all moved to Florida to live near Mrs. Sathre.  Jacob C. Sathre, the father and former president of Crookston College, will be featured in the next “Legendary Locals of Crookston” book, Button will not.    

    I stated earlier that Crookston has always been a college town. However, after looking at the lives of Mr. Button compared to Mr. Sathre, I think there was far too much drama in downtown Crookston back one hundred years ago with the cut-throat competition between Crookston’s businesses and business colleges. By comparison, the Red River Valley farmers’ A.C. was tame.  Perhaps occasionally sheep or pigs got out of their pens, but that was the wildest it probably got.            

    While the farm kids lived away from the watchful eyes of their hard working parents, abiding by strict rules back then for the NWSA high school students was the way things were run.