Eriksmoen: Fast-talking auctioneer cowboy twice ran for North Dakota governor

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Schnell was considered one of the state’s best auctioneers, and he established a thriving auction house in Dickinson. He owned several ranches in North and South Dakota, was instrumental in founding the Home on the Range for boys at Sentinel Butte and was one of the driving forces in the establishment of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

In 1963, Schnell received the “Man of the Year” award from the North Dakota State University Saddle and Sirloin Club and, in 1965, received the “Man of the Year in Livestock” award from Denver’s National Western Stock Show. In 1997, Schnell was one of three charter inductees into the North Dakota Agriculture Hall of Fame, and in 2000, he was inducted into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Raphael “Ray” A. Schnell was born May 1, 1893, in Richardton, to Frank and Marianna (Engel) Schnell. One year earlier, his parents and 11 older siblings had emigrated from Russia and settled on a farm southeast of Richardton in Stark County.

While growing up, Ray took an active role in helping on the farm, and by 1915, when his father died, almost all of his older siblings had left the farm. Ray Schnell took over running the family farm, and in 1918, he married Clara Kittleson, a schoolteacher, and together they had 13 children.

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Schnell noticed that a large number of cattle and horses were being sold in the area, as well as frequent exchanges of farm and ranch land, and he reasoned that he could greatly enhance his finances if he could be the conduit for these transactions. In 1924, he attended an auctioneering school in Chicago that was conducted by Carey M. Jones, a highly respected auctioneer from Davenport, Iowa. Schnell refined his skills as an auctioneer and soon gained a reputation for running a smooth and quick-paced auction, putting him in great demand.

In 1925, wanting to be closer to where most of the action existed, Schnell purchased a farm southeast of Dickinson, where he relocated his growing family. During his early years of farming and ranching, Schnell centered his operation on raising registered and commercial cattle, but “during the hard times of the 1930s, the Schnells went into the dairy business in order to help make ends meet.”

In 1937, Schnell and his brother, Pete, purchased the old Stark County Fairgrounds and started the Dickinson Livestock Sales Co. Business far exceeded expectations, and today it is known as Stockmen’s Livestock Exchange Inc.

During the 1930s, Schnell became active in North Dakota’s Nonpartisan League (NPL), and when Ignatz Sticka, a Republican House member from New England, died on Feb. 18, 1939, he was replaced in District 31 by Schnell to finish out his term. Schnell was successful in running for a House seat in 1942 and 1944. During the 1940s, he was also busy expanding his business by purchasing a farm in South Dakota and establishing auction markets in Miles City, Mont., and Lemmon, S.D.

In 1950, Clarence P. Dahl, who had served three terms as lieutenant governor, decided not to seek reelection, and Schnell announced his candidacy for the position. He defeated Arley Bjella, a fellow Republican, in the June primary and then defeated Milton Higgins, the Democratic challenger, in the general election. Schnell ran for reelection in 1952, but was defeated by Dahl in the Republican primary election.

Schnell returned to western North Dakota and began working with Jim and Tom Tescher to establish and run the Home On The Range Rodeo in Sentinel Butte. In 1954, Schnell decided to run for governor and had considerable support.

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According to Lloyd Omdahl in his book “Insurgents,” he wrote, “two names (at the NPL convention) remained on the blackboard for the endorsement for governor. At this point, Old Guarder Ray Schnell rose to have his name withdrawn, leaving a unanimous endorsement for Grand Forks attorney Wallace Warner. Upon leaving the convention, Schnell began making overtures to the Republican Organizing Committee (ROC),” the archrival of the NPL.

"Insurgents" by Lloyd Omdahl. Special to The Forum

“Insurgents” by Lloyd Omdahl. Special to The Forum

Omdahl also pointed out that there was a struggle within the NPL during the latter 1940s and early 1950s. The NPL was divided between the conservative wing, the Old Guard, and a more progressive wing, the “Insurgents.” Eventually, many of the Insurgents wanted to merge the NPL with the Democrats, which was strongly resisted by the Old Guard NPL Republicans.

In 1955, Chester A. Reynolds, president of the Lee Jeans Co. in Kansas City, contacted Schnell to get his support in establishing a National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Schnell was immediately in favor of the project and agreed to head up a committee to determine where the museum for the hall should be located. He originally proposed that it could be located in Dickinson, but later narrowed the cities down to Las Vegas, Nev.; Cheyenne, Wyo.; Oklahoma City, Okla.; Dodge City and North Platte, Nebr.; Miles City, Mont.; and Abilene, Kan.

The committee met in Denver on March 15 and, after careful consideration, selected Oklahoma City. Schnell said that the inductees should be “the people who built the West.”

In January 1956, with the Insurgents building momentum within the NPL to move the league to the Democratic Party, the Old Guard made one last desperate attempt to keep it within the Republican Party. According to Omdahl, those plans were thwarted because “Schnell threw a big wrench in the works by announcing his availability for Republican endorsement for governor.”

If Schnell could take a block of Old Guard supporters into a fully united Republican convention, it would be impossible for the Old Guarders to have sufficient numbers to wield any power. The NPL “merged with the Democratic Party,” and the ROC successfully wooed the reluctant Old Guard members over to a new unity Republican Party.

In the June primary, Schnell was defeated by John Davis. In 1958, Schnell unsuccessfully challenged William Langer for his seat in the U.S. Senate, and in 1962, he successfully reclaimed his seat in the North Dakota House.

Ray Schnell died at his home in Dickinson on April 5, 1970.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at