Rev. Oscar H. Elmer: Moorhead “Pioneer Preacher” and Early Presbyterianism in the Red River Valley, 1871-1886

Moorhead Historic Preservation Walking Tour

Rev. Oscar H. Elmer: Moorhead “Pioneer Preacher” and Early Presbyterianism in the Red River Valley, 1871-1886

Moorhead, Minnesota 56560, United States

Created By: North Dakota State University

Point of Interest Details

Oscar Henry Elmer was born on August 27, 1844 at Unionville, New York to Henry DeLancy and Julia Ann (DeKay), the second born son of twelve children. Oscar’s father was a harness maker and merchant in Unionville for many years. Elmer began his early education at Unionville Academy (New York) and Mt. Retirement Seminary (New Jersey), and then entered the then Presbyterian-affiliated Hamilton College in Clinton, New York as a sophomore in September of 1862. According to one record, Elmer had entered college with the intention of studying law, however after he “became impressed with the feeling that is was his duty to enter the ministry” entered Union Theological Seminary in New York City after graduating from Hamilton College in 1865.

Immediately upon graduating from the then Presbyterian Union Theological Seminary in the spring of 1868, Elmer was appointed to a missionary position in Sauk Centre, Minnesota by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions, and stayed in Sauk Centre for three years until his arrival to Moorhead, Minnesota in October, 1871. Elmer’s arrival in the Red River Valley signaled the arrival of religion as a permanent social institution in the region. Prior to 1871, only a handful of failed missionary attempts had been conducted in the area. The first official church service of record in Moorhead was conducted on October 22, 1871, in the dining room of the Chapin House. At this time there were about “twenty shanties and tents” in the developing village. Of the four original buildings in Moorhead, Elmer’s home was one. Until June of 1872, when a “rough” chapel was built for approximately eight members, services were conducted by Elmer in railroad coaches, unfinished buildings and warehouses. Also in 1872, Elmer helped to develop the first school at the Moorhead Presbyterian Church, which is now near Fifth Street North, on a site which is now in front of Moorhead City Hall. Elmer was also active in land speculation, farming and timber claims, investing several hundred dollars in Moorhead Merchants Bank from profits received from his operations in Clay County in 1873.

At the time of the formation of the Moorhead Presbyterian Church, Rev. Elmer helped to establish other Presbyterian church communities in the area. Throughout the Red River Valley, Elmer was seen traveling “up and down the valley in a homemade cutter” conducting missionary work for the Presbyterian Church. Elmer held pioneering church services and helped in developing churches at Grand Forks, Casselton, Wheatland, Tower City, and Mapleton. In addition to this, Elmer founded the Prairie Home Cemetery in 1875 in Moorhead after his brother and pioneering lawyer John Edgar had drowned in the Red River, apparently committing suicide due to suffering from “nervous difficulty.” John Elmer's body could not be shipped back East at that time and Rev. Elmer buried John Edgar in a make-shift grave. The following spring, Rev. Elmer organized a cemetery association entitled the Prairie Home Cemetery. John Elmer's body was then relocated to Prairie Home and buried as the first occupant in 1876.

On May 2nd, 1878 Oscar Elmer married Caroline Knight at Monroe, New York. The couple bore five children. Caroline, or Carrie, was very involved in the Presbyterian Ladies Missionary Society throughout her life, sharing in her husband’s passion for Christian missionary work for over 25 years in Minnesota. In addition, the Elmer’s were instrumental in forming the first Moorhead hospital in 1882, located on what is now the corner of Eleventh and Center Avenue, with Elmer a Board Member and Secretary of the Hospital Association of Moorhead. Their home was located at 221 5th Street, Moorhead and has since become the present location of The Colonial apartment complex. In addition to involvement with the Hospital Association, Elmer was a staunch advocate for prohibition and battled Moorhead liquor establishments, crusaded for temperance causes such as the WCTU of Moorhead and supported political candidates who favored prohibition. According to historian Carroll Engelhardt, Elmer’s efforts to establish foundations for moral order in Moorhead for the middle-class, created an “ethos” that “permeated most social institutions and reform movements.” Elmer was instrumental in forming the Moorhead Good Templar Lodge in 1878 and Moorhead’s Reform Club to combat or provide an alternative to liquor establishments in support of prohibition efforts in Moorhead.

In 1886, Rev. Elmer and his family relocated to Crookston, Minnesota where he was to stay until 1893, taking over the congregations of Knox and Warrendale in St. Paul, Minnesota. Apparently his public motivation stated for leaving Moorhead was that he wanted to be able to “educate his children” properly. While at St. Paul, Elmer also assisted nearby Presbyterian congregations at Hamline and Como. Elmer retired from full-time ministry in 1901 and remained active in the Presbyterian Church. Sadly, Caroline died on May 19th, 1904 during a “failed operation” and Oscar Elmer died only three months later, suffering a second paralytic stroke on August 15th, 1904.

For more information on the Elmer family, please feel free to visit site 25.


“Aged Pastor Victim of Paralytic Stroke.” The Saint Paul Globe. (St. Paul, MN), August 17, 1904.

Alden, Ogle & Company. 1889. Illustrated Album of Biography of the Famous Valley of the Red River of the North and the Park Regions of Minnesota and North Dakota: Containing Biographical Sketches of Settlers and Representative Citizens. Chicago: Alden, Ogle & Co.

“Autonomy of Hamilton College.” The New York Times. (New York, NY), December 12, 1893.

Lounsberry, Clement A. 1919. Early history of North Dakota essential outlines of American history. Washington, D.C.: Liberty Press. Engelhardt, Carroll L. 2007. Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fargo-Moorhead Centennial Corporation. 1975. A Century Together: A History of Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota. [Fargo]: Fargo-Moorhead Centennial Corporation.

“Hamline.” The Minneapolis Journal. (Minneapolis, MN), June 21, 1904.

Keillor, Garrison, and Ken LaZebnik. 2006. A prairie home companion: the screenplay. New York: Penguin.

Morrison, Leonard Allison. 1893. The history of the Alison, or Allison family in Europe and America, A.D. 1135 to 1893; giving an account of the family in Scotland, England, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Boston, Mass: Damrell & Upham.

Oscar H. Elmer Papers, MS 245. Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, Fargo.

Tompkins, Hamilton Bullock. 1877. Biographical Record of the Class of 1865, of Hamilton College. New York: Printed for the class.

"United States Census, 1860", database with images, FamilySearch( 30 December 2015), Oscar Elmer in entry for Henry D Elmer, 1860.

“Wife of Minister Dies.” The Minneapolis Journal. (Minneapolis, MN), May 19, 1904.

Image Credits

“Oscar Elmer home, 221 5th Street S., Moorhead, Minn.” NDSU Digital Horizons. rs008069. North Dakota State University (Fargo, ND), (Accessed 10/22/16).

“Carrie Knight Elmer.” (Accessed 10/22/16). (Public Domain).

Lounsberry, Clement A. 1919. Early History of North Dakota: Essential Outlines of American History. Washington, D.C.: Liberty Press. p. 619.

"The Colonial Apartments, 221 5th Street S., Moorhead, Mn.",-96.7724772,3a,76.1y,340.28h,60.75t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sXHNVoGNZhG-zuz5mqLIx5A!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1 (Accessed 10/22/16).

This point of interest is part of the tour: Moorhead Historic Preservation Walking Tour


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