Eriksmoen: Suspected former Confederate rebel was first commercial beer brewer in eastern North Dakota

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Albert W. Stiles is credited with being the first commercial beer brewer in what is now eastern North Dakota, establishing a brewery at his trading post in Fort Pembina in 1874. Stiles later founded a town in Richland County, N.D., and also drew up elaborate plans for the creation of a much larger town on his land in Kittson County, Minn. He became a land and pension agent in Washington, D.C., before becoming a special agent for the General Land Office, where he specialized in the “investigation of fraudulent land entries.”

Albert Wilson Stiles was born Aug. 20, 1846, in Liberty, Mo., to Benjamin and Margaret (Wilson) Stiles. Albert’s ancestors had arrived in this country prior to the American Revolution and were recognized for their success in politics and the law. One of his great- grandfathers served as a justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and another great-grandfather was the governor-general of Bermuda.

Benjamin, Albert’s father, established his law practice in Liberty in 1840, but he died in 1848. Margaret, with her two young sons, Albert and Edward, moved in with her parents, Dr. & Mrs. James Wilson. Tragically, she died three years later, and the two youngsters were raised in Dr. Wilson’s household.

Growing up in Liberty, Albert Stiles was subjected to the most pro-Confederate environment outside of the Deep South. With a population of 1,288, “the city recorded zero votes for Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election.” It is likely that as a youngster, Stiles dreamed of going to college and becoming a lawyer like his father and paternal grandfather, but that dream was postponed and possibly shattered by events that occurred in April 1861.

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On the 12th, Confederate forces began shelling Fort Sumter, initiating the start of the Civil War. “Missouri lawmakers declared that it would be armed neutral in the conflict and not send materials or men to either side.” Then, on the 20th, a secessionist mob, mainly citizens of Liberty, seized the arsenal in the town.

This incident alarmed authorities in the North, and on Sept. 17, Union forces under the command of Lt. Col. John Scott clashed with the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guards, led by Gen. David Rice Atchison, just outside Liberty at the Battle of Blue Mills. Because of heavy losses, Scott’s soldiers retreated into Liberty to care for the wounded, and later they peacefully left the town.

After the battle, many of the young men from Liberty joined the Confederate Army or the Missouri State Guard, but since Stiles had just turned 15, he was too young to enlist. Since the Confederacy needed more soldiers, the Confederate Congress passed the Partisan Ranger Act on April 21, 1862, allowing males, including many teenagers, to join the ranks of irregular guerrilla groups such as those organized by people like William Quantrill in Missouri and Kansas. I have discovered no evidence that Stiles did this, but given the proud legacy that his ancestors had for military duty, this appears to be a likely scenario.

In 1869, because of unrest by the Lakota/Sioux in the Red River Valley, legislation was passed to establish a fort to protect the settlers in the area, and Mag. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock recommended building a fort near the town of Pembina. The building of the fort would require hundreds of wooden logs and Stiles signed a contract with the military to provide the logs needed for construction. At the same time, he also sold cord wood to steamboat captains who traveled up and down the Red River.

This 1922 painting by Peter Rindisbacher depicts two company forts on the level prairie at Pembina, N.D., on the Red River. Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

This 1922 painting by Peter Rindisbacher depicts two company forts on the level prairie at Pembina, N.D., on the Red River. Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

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When construction was completed on July 8, 1870, the military was pleased with the services provided by Stiles and they agreed to license him as the sutler, for the fort’s trading post. Just as Stiles was about to open the trading store for business, he met a bright young man who had published newspapers in Fort Garry (now Winnipeg). That man, George Winship, was looking for employment, and Stiles hired him as his assistant and bookkeeper.

One of Winship’s major duties was to periodically travel to Fort Garry to purchase supplies for the store. Another key hire for Stiles was a 19-year-old brickyard employee for the Hudson Bay Company named Billy Budge. Stiles was impressed with the youngster’s desire to learn and hired him to do odd jobs at his store and to also serve as cook.

Both Winship and Budge later ended up in Grand Forks where they became leaders in the community. Winship founded the Grand Forks Herald, and Budge became very wealthy in the real estate business. For the first 50 years of the existence of the University of North Dakota, he was, by far, the school’s biggest benefactor.

There were normally about 100 men garrisoned at Fort Pembina, and one of the commodities Stiles had difficulty keeping in stock was beer. Tempers flared with many of the soldiers whenever his store ran out. To remedy this, in 1874, Stiles began brewing his own beer.

With the money he was making, largely off beer sales, Stiles began purchasing land near the Red River in both Minnesota and Dakota Territory. Stiles and his brother owned land between Lidgerwood and Hankinson in Richland County that was a junction point for both the Great Northern and Soo Railroads. The rail station town was named Stiles, which lasted until the late 1940s.

Stiles biggest attempt to establish a town was on land he owned in the extreme northwestern corner of Minnesota. He named the town Interapolis and platted it with streets and avenues. However, no construction ever took place.

In 1880, Stiles was hired by the General Land Office as a general land and pension agent. In 1883, the GLO realized that rampant fraud was taking place in regard to the Homestead Act, the Timber Culture Act and other land settlement acts, and he was promoted to special agent to investigate these criminal activities. He was employed by the GLO in Washington, D.C., until his death on Sept. 22, 1904.

“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