OIL TO THE RESCUE
A pair of Bismarck oil men, new to North Dakota and chasing the state’s first small oil boom, likely made the deal of their life in early 1952, acquiring almost the entire 127 acre tract of Highland Acres, complete with partially constructed streets, water mains, a couple dozen good residents, and the potential to earn a healthy return on a relatively small investment, for just enough to let the credit union recover its own investment.
Bismarck residents picked up their newspapers from their doorsteps on June 6, 1952, to see the following headline blaring at them from the front page:
Wilhite, Seay Buy Highland Acres
That’s a headline which probably caused the paper’s late editor Ken Simons, whose dream of a cooperatively-owned housing development died with that headline, to roll over in his grave.
The good news was that the two men who bought the development, Irvin J. Wilhite and Arthur Seay, pledged to retain the restrictive clauses in the deeds. “What we want,” they told The Tribune, “is to make the area the most desirable in Bismarck. After all, we’re North Dakotans now, and we plan to live there ourselves. It would be a shame for a subdivision as well-planned as Highland Acres and in such a fine location to be spoiled by indiscriminate building and development.”
The Tribune said the men owned 246 lots, and planned to require houses “in the same general class as those that are there,” with prices expected to be in the $17-20,000 range. The immediate problem was getting sanitary sewer service to the development. Existing homes all had their own individual septic systems. With the new owners on board, the city moved forward, completing the first stretch by the end of the year. As the sewer system moved forward, homes began to be developed along the streets where sewer and water lines had been installed.
Wilhite, who was the visible partner and spokesman for the company, was a native South Dakotan and a former WW II bomber pilot who became a flamboyant Bismarck personality and founder of the Nokota Company, an oil and gas exploration company. He served three sessions as a state senator in the North Dakota Senate, from 1967-71, and was the Majority Leader in the 1971 session. He later became a real estate developer in Costa Rica, where he resides today, at age 97.
He and Seay incorporated as Capital City Development and were finally successful at marketing the properties and developing the Highland Acres we know today. By 1956, according to records at the Bismarck City Hall, lots along most of the streets were filling up with homes, thanks mostly to the advertising and sales efforts by the real estate company hired by Capital City Development, Hedden Real Estate.
Hedden took a different approach to marketing the lots and homes in the development, using radio, television and splashy newspaper ads using colorful sales pitches:
- “The Place of Beauty with An Eye to the Future”
- “The Dreams of Young and Old Alike Are Fulfilled In This Wonderful New Addition . . . Here YOU Decide the Design of Your Family Home!”
- “Luxury, Pride, PLUS economy is your family’s future in Highland Acres.”
FOUR MORE ADDITIONS
Another nearby landowner was keeping a close eye on Wilhite and Seay as they were filling up their vacant lots. When the original plat for Highland Acres was filed, it left a large open space between the country club and the eastern boundary of Highland Acres, about 40 acres. Ell Torrance, longtime Bismarck resident and president of the A.W. Lucas Company, which owned the largest department store in Bismarck at the time, owned a tract of land adjacent to the back lot lines on Crescent Lane, the eastern boundary of Highland Acres. He’d built a large home atop the high hill, looking west toward the Missouri River over the roofs of the new homes in Highland Acres, looking east toward the golf course, and north toward Jackman Coulee. His children had the run of the prairie, with the 8 acres he owned and 32 more acres adjacent to his land to the north, giving them almost 40 acres of open space.
But as Torrance watched the homes going up along Crescent Lane, he decided to develop his own property, creating Torrance Hill Addition and Torrance Addition in the winter of 1956-57. His plat for Torrance Addition was much the same as Highland Acres, with about 20 lots on one long, wide, winding street, with curb and gutter, but no sidewalks. Two more large homes were built on top the hill in Torrance Hill Addition, including a large rock-faced home by Harold Schafer, founder of the Gold Seal Company and father of modern Medora. Those homes remain today.
Much to the chagrin of his children, his son Richard told me many years later, Torrance began selling lots and building homes almost immediately. There went the neighborhood, Richard said. The addition ended up with 19 single-story ranch style homes, much like their neighbors behind them on Crescent Lane, on the street he named Arthur Drive, running north to near the edge of the coulee, all but five completed in a building flurry on the street in 1958 and 1959, with four more completed in the 1960s and the last, on the big lot at the end of the street, in 1973.
Wilhite and Seay, meanwhile, with most of their lots developed, and seeing the success of Torrance, purchased the property north of Torrance’s and created Highland Acres Second and Third Additions, about 32 acres surrounding a large green space along Jackman Coulee. The 56 lots in Highland Acres Second were laid out along long, winding streets on both sides of the coulee, which had been deeded to the Park District back in 1946 in exchange for what, by the early 1960s, had become the addition’s “Pill Hill,” the area where architects designed a handful of high-end homes—but still one-story with mostly one-car garages—for doctors and other wealthy residents.
The two major streets through the new addition were named Parkview Drive and Coulee Drive. Highland Acres Third lay east of Highland Acres Second, facing the golf course along Ward Road, now the mile-long major thoroughfare through west Bismarck. Here, half the homes faced west toward the Jackman Coulee park area, and half were in two large cul de sacs, so there were no through streets in the addition, and the homes in the two cul de sacs, Highland Place and Cottage Drive, though many of them upscale, again were all single family homes.
HIGHLAND ACRES TODAY
The eventual path of development of Highland Acres can be traced by taking a fascinating drive around the major street in the addition, Highland Acres Road, which completely encircles the development. On South Highland Acres Road, where Avenue C, the entrance to the subdivision, ends, the houses are of the Farwest Homes design—small, one story, ground level entrances and single car garages—and were built for around $10,000, some less.
But as you drive north along the street, the homes begin to get larger, culminating about half a mile from the subdivision’s entrance at the top of “Pill Hill” on the very north end of the development. As you continue around the loop and head back south to the entrance to Highland Acres, the homes again become more modest, so it is clear the developers sought to preserve the integrity of the neighborhoods, rather than intermingling large and small homes. You can almost hear Ken Simons cheering “Hooray for Wilhite and Seay!”
A drive through the Highland Acres neighborhoods in 2018 will confirm that the early promise made by Wilhite and Seay to retain the planned character of the addition was a good one, and that the vision of the Bismarck Veterans Homeowners Cooperative Association has been fulfilled. Now Highland Acres is a large, friendly neighborhood of nearly 400 single family ranch-style homes, with no more than a dozen two story homes in the entire development, although there are a number of split-entry and garage tuck-under designs, to take advantage of the addition’s hilly terrain. Two churches and a school, long winding streets carved into the land’s contours, green spaces for families to recreate, numerous cul-de-sac streets for quiet residential areas, and a complete absence of any commercial activity, except children’s lemonade stands on warm summer afternoons, maintain the area’s reputation as, indeed, still one of the most desirable places to live in Bismarck, fulfilling the dream Ken Simons and his fellow veterans envisioned more than 70 years ago.
And much of what made that possible was the Veterans’ Co-op’s ability to take advantage of North Dakota’s unique history to get the project off the ground back in the 1940s. The cooperative movement was especially strong here in this prairie state, and the foresightedness of the Farmers Union, still the major cooperative influence in the state today, in creating a major credit union, basically a cooperatively-owned bank, whose only goal was to provide financing for the improvement of the lives of its members, and its willingness to provide the initial capital to purchase the land and begin building homes, was the initial driving force in making the development a reality.
Then, the Bank of North Dakota, the only state-owned bank in America, created in the state’s socialist era by the Nonpartisan League, provided the initial financing for the first twenty or so homes.
And then the discovery of oil as the second half of the 20th century began brought the two entrepreneurs, Wilhite and Seay, to the state, and they quickly caught the spirit of North Dakota, motivated not only by profit, but also by the sense of community, in retaining the characteristics of the original idea of the veterans group.
The five additions form a contiguous neighborhood, still with no through streets, bounded by a golf course on its east side, a state college on its north side (both within walking distance of Highland Acres residents), a railroad right-of-way and a few hundred acres of open space on the west, between the houses and the Missouri River, and on the south side, the famous “Avenue C,” the exit road from the subdivision leading to downtown Bismarck’s commercial area.
Today second and even some third generation residents occupy the homes, enough young families to not only fill the school, but in recent years, create a need for additional portable classrooms to accommodate all of them.
On summer afternoons, you’ll find boys and girls hard at work building secret forts in the trees along the heavily wooded hillsides of Jackman Coulee, and makeshift bridges only the youngest and bravest of us would dare to venture across, from one side of the narrow, flowing creek to the other, and parents can often hear a Tarzan-like yell as their kids swing across the creek on a rope hung from a large boxelder tree in that marvelous green space, envisioned as a children’s park more than 70 years ago, and today untouched by even as much as a sidewalk. The big hill from Parkview Drive down to the coulee’s bottom is a favorite sledding hill in winter, and snowmen dot the coulee’s landscape, melting in spring into the gurgling water flowing west from the golf course through Highland Acres on its meandering way to the Missouri River.
Highland Acres is an important twentieth-century historical achievement, one not likely ever to be repeated, or even proposed, again. It is certainly significant to the history of Bismarck, and, as Dr. Ames said, the history of post-World War II housing is an important historical American resource.
Still, in Bismarck conversations, when someone is asked where they live, and the answer is “Highland Acres,” there’s a noticeable pause, in recognition that it is a special place in the city. But most don’t know the story of the Bismarck Veterans Homeowners Cooperative Association, and how Highland Acres came to be, and how it remains remarkably true to its founders’ vision. It’s a story that needs to continue to be shared.
Here’s a link to some historic photos on file at the Bismarck Public Library.