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Wishek Family Helped Settlers

Stelter, Stan. “Wishek Family Helped Settlers.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 11B.


ASHLEY- Max A. Wishek is the son of a pioneering German family in south central North Dakota.

He also hails from McIntosh County, one of the state’s counties most populated by Germans. But the “Germanness” isn’t as solid as it would appear on the surface.

For one thing, the first settlers in the McIntosh County area were almost entirely English - or Yankees - and Norwegians, Max points out. It wasn’t until later that a great influx of German settlers converted it into an area heavily dominated by that ethnic group.

In addition, although Max is a descendant of a poor immigrant German family he has both English and French ancestry.

In spite of their German heritage, neither Max nor his father, John H. Wishek, a key figure in the settlement and development of McIntosh County, could speak German until picking it up later in life. Max says German wasn’t spoken in his parents’ home or the home of his grandparents, the Joseph Wisheks.

It was John H. Wishek, a tall, bearded man known as “Father” Wishek to many early residents, who led the settlement of the county. “In sum, the story of John H. Wishek was the story of McIntosh County,” wrote Elwyn P. Robinson in “History of North Dakota.”

John Wishek was one of three children of Joseph and Barbara Wishek. Joseph had immigrated to Pennsylvania from Baden, Germany, in 1848. His wife’s family had come from France.

They moved to Ohio, where John grew up. He entered law school at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, using money he’d earned as a stone mason.

After graduation, John practiced law for some five years in Ohio before corning to Bismarck in 1884. He’d planned to visit a friend, continuing his search to the Lake Hoskins area southeast of Bismarck.

There he joined George Lilly and others who had begun promoting settlement of the vacant area after picking a site near the lake for a business center and county seat.

The enterprise founded by John Wishek and Lilly helped locate an estimated 10,000 people in McIntosh, Logan and Emmons counties in North Dakota and McPherson County in South Dakota.

John Wishek was the principal in developing, among others, the townsites of Ashley and Wishek and Pollock, S.D. He built up large holdings - reportedly up to 35 corporations at one time including land, banks, a lumberyard, implement firms and grain elevators.

He acquired much of the right of way for the Soo Line Railroad, which finally came to the county in 1898. The railroad, in turn named the settlement of Wishek in his honor.

John Wishek also was active in politics. For years, he served as registrar and state’s attorney in the county and served in the state Legislature as part of the powerful Alexander McKenzie political machine.

It was in 1891 that John married Nina Farley, who had moved with her family to the area in 1887. Nina, the daughter of a Yankee family, had roots reaching back to William the Conqueror: or Williamus DeFalaise, one of 11 spellings of the Farley family name in England. Her family immigrated to Virginia in 1624, shortly after the trip made by the Mayflower.

Her father, Albert W. Farley, who grew up in Michigan, decided to make the move to the Ashley area after searching for better climatic conditions because of his asthma.

It was Nina Farley Wishek, a gifted artist, pianist and writer, who became the first schoolteacher in Ashley, a town that became the county seat after it was initially located at the settlement just to the west called Hoskins.

Max was born Aug. 29, 1901, in Ashley, the fifth of John and Nina Wishek’s eight children. He remembers milking cows as a daily chore on the family “farm,” a 160-acre parcel with the home located on Ashley’s east edge.

His early life, Max recalls, was much like those of others growing up at the time, having work at home or going out to help shock and harvest at area farms.

“We had a close family life,” recalls Max. “That was before radio. Everybody entertained themselves.”

Max says his father was a strict man and very frugal. “Father was a very economical man. That was because he grew up poor.”

“He had quite a temper. When things didn’t go right, he let us know,” adds Max. And, although he was not “highly religious,” Max continues, John Wishek gave the sites for many area churches.

He was, however scholarly, building up a large personal library. “He would make us kids learn,” notes Max, reciting a Macbeth line his father required him to memorize.

Because of the size of the family, several of the Wishek children were sent to the grandparents’ home in Ohio prior to the building of the roomy family home in 1906.

Max says he decided to become a lawyer, taking his pre-law courses at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Following in his father’s footsteps, Max entered the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, graduating in 1924.

He joined his father’s practice, although the elder Wishek - then about age 70 - was less active. Eight years later, John Wishek died, leaving a legacy of many businesses, which Max noted required much effort to save in the Depression years.

Throughout his life, Max has been involved in politics, Republican through and through. He proudly recalls reports that cite McIntosh County as being the “most Republican” in the state and, at his wife’s reminding, that it once was listed as the “most Republican” in the country for its size.

Elected county state’s attorney in 1930, Max served six years in the job and again in 1939-40. After being defeated for the post in 1940, he retired from local politics but continued his interest in state politics.

Max felt he might have had the state attorney general’s post under William Langer, who served twice as governor in the 1930s. But Max didn’t see eye-to-eye politically with Langer then, despite being good acquaintances.

Max’s interest in politics continued on the national level. He’s served as a Republican delegate to national conventions and proudly points out he was one of the state’s presidential electors voting for President Nixon in 1968.

Max and Viola Wishek

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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