Stories

$1 per week for tuition? You’d have to go back to 1904 in Bemidji

By Sue Bruns for the Pioneer,

In 1904, Bemidji answered the needs of high school graduates and other adults who wanted training in specific areas of business and opened its first business college.

A small ad for Conway’s Commercial College appeared in the Feb. 25, 1904 Bemidji Daily Pioneer, advertising $1 per week tuition, a cut in price from the previous $2.50 per week. The school had recently opened at 108 Sixth Street. In October 1904, the institution’s name was officially changed to the Bemidji Commercial College. The Beltrami County Historical Society’s photo archives include a picture of the Business College class of 1905 with a note that names the 14 graduates.

There were 14 graduates in 1905 from Conway’s Business College in Bemidji. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)
There were 14 graduates in 1905 from Conway’s Business College in Bemidji. (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

By February 1905, Conway’s was expanding and guaranteeing jobs to students. Day and evening sessions were offered in Shorthand, Typing, Bookkeeping, Commercial Law, Commercial Arithmetic, Commercial Geography, Civil Government, Spelling, History, Reading, Letter Writing, Composition, Grammar and Penmanship. Advanced “Normal” coursework (for teaching) was also offered and music lessons were available for 50 cents per lesson.

An ad on Sept. 2, 1905 which states “All subjects taught by mail” might very well be the first offering of distance learning in Bemidji.

From 1905 through 1912, few references to a business college in Bemidji occurred in the Bemidji Daily Pioneer, but in 1913, Elias Martin Sathre opened the Bemidji Business College in the O’Leary and Bowser building on Third Street. Sathre had come from Crookston where his brother Jacob was president of the Crookston Business College and E.M. had been vice president from 1906 to 1910. Sathre also opened an abstract company in Bemidji and, over the years, was associated with other businesses and organizations.

Bemidji Business College offered Bookkeeping, Accounting, Business Management, Salesmanship, Law, Correspondence, Civil Service, Typing, Shorthand, Dictaphone, and Secretarial Duties.

In 1917, Ira W. French and his wife Jessie moved to Bemidji, and Mrs. French taught at the college. In November 1919, a contract was formed between the couple and E.M. Sathre and his wife Grace in which the Frenches paid $500 for half interest in the business. Mrs. French was to be the full-time manager for a salary of $50 per month. Mr. Sathre’s role was strictly financial, for which he received a salary of $25 per month. All profits and losses were to be divided equally between the two.

Elias M. Sathre (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)
Elias M. Sathre (Photo courtesy of the Beltrami County Historical Society)

The business college grew and thrived and established a strong reputation. Tuition rose gradually until it reached $18 per month. By 1927 BBC had relocated to the Troppman Building at Third and Minnesota — where Second Hand Splendor is today. Bemidji Business College was proudly mentioned in local news pieces as students and new teachers posted information over the years:

Jan. 2, 1914: Miss Sophie Hanson will return Sunday from Crookston where she has spent the holidays with her parents. Miss Hanson is a teacher in the Bemidji Business college.

June 14, 1915: Miss Leila Wallace of International Falls enrolled at the Bemidji Business college today.

Aug. 10, 1915: Miss Clara Bakken of Thief River Falls arrived in Bemidji today, having accepted a position as teacher in the Bemidji Business college.

Aug. 31, 1915: Mrs. S. D. Davis, wife of the cashier of the First National bank of Walker, and son, Harold, were in Bemidji yesterday, and while in the city Harold Davis enrolled in the Bemidji Business college.

News of job acquisitions by recent students of the business college provided great public relations as many graduates accepted jobs for federal and state entities and big companies. Several graduates, including E.M. Sathre’s son Paul, accepted jobs in Washington, D.C. Sathre even organized a Business College Club that brought graduates together in various locations — Minneapolis was one — where several had taken jobs.

In 1931 the partnership between the Sathres and the Frenches soured and was dissolved. Neither party had rights to the already established Bemidji Business College name. The Frenches started French’s Business College in the Troppman building, and Sathre set up the Northern Business College above Northern National Bank.

Rebuilding was difficult during the Depression. When French’s Business School dropped their tuition to a ridiculously low $5 per month, Sathre followed suit to compete but found it unsustainable. Times were tough and students flocked to the less expensive school. At times, French’s enrollment was as much as twice that of NBC’s, and Sathre resented the loss of good candidates to the less expensive option. In 1935, NBC had 26 students, the most since the school had opened, but French’s had 40.

Ads for Northern Business College pointed out that “there are inferior schools offering tuition for less, but it takes longer and costs more.” NBC claimed it could train its attendees in less time, costing graduates much less in terms of lost wages and fewer months of paying tuition.

Sathre had the advantage of owning and working with other businesses. His students gained valuable on the job training at his abstract business, his insurance business, and in the abstract office of the Beltrami County Courthouse. Enrollment continued to grow until space in the Security Bank building was added. In 1941, Sathre’s business college moved to the Dickinson building on Bemidji Avenue and Third Street above the Lakeside Appliance Store. Sathre was happy to have more space and the full operation under one roof.

Meanwhile, French’s college became accredited in 1941 and had been approved through the Minnesota Department of Education and the U.S. Veteran’s Administration to train young men and women for Civil Service jobs. In her book “Bermidji: A Snapshot of Bemidji 1940-1960,” Cecelia McKeig says that between 1938 and 1943, the college’s busiest years, “French’s Business College certified 254 young men and women for service in offices of the President’s Cabinet.”

Mrs. French passed away March 13, 1951, and French’s Business College closed in August of 1951.

Sathre died on Jan. 15, 1952, and Northern Business College closed shortly afterward, having outlasted his former partner turned competitor by about a year. Regardless of the division that occurred between the two entities, hundreds of young people from all across northern Minnesota received training from the business colleges that took them to places all across the country.

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