For 24 years, between 1890 and 1915, Moorhead, Minnesota, was infamous for being a tough, rowdy saloon town. The reputation was well earned. Alcohol sales were the city’s major industry with one in every 10 families deriving their income from the liquor trade. Thomas H. Curran, a Moorhead policeman, apparently weighing the perils of law enforcement against the opportunities awaiting, about 1895 traded in his brass badge for a brass railing. In time Curran would become a partner on arguably Moorhead’s most famous saloon: “The Three Orphans.”
In 1890, prohibitionists had scored a major victory when North Dakota outlawed alcohol sales and went totally “dry.” Thirsty resident of neighboring Fargo simply went across the Red River to Minnesota, where alcohol was still legal. “Let the saloons come,” said John Erickson, Moorhead’s mayor and a brewery owner. “The more the better it will be for us. They pay more in taxes than anyone else. How many temperance people…pay $500 a year in taxes?”
Curran, of Irish ancestry, was born in England in 1863, and although records differ, most likely immigrated to America about 1880. Sometime during that decade he moved to Minnesota. At the age of 21 young Tom met and married a woman named Bridget, her name believed to be McNamara. She was an immigrant from Ireland and about the same age. Over the next thirteen years the Currans would have five children: James born in 1884; Mary, 1886; Lucy, 1888; Margaret, 1893, and William, 1897. Tom is shown here in a family photo.
The financial requirements of his growing family may have convinced Curran to abandoned the role of peacekeeper for one of saloonkeeper. When he made the switch, he did not have to look far for a job. By 1900, Moorhead boasted forty-seven saloons to serve its own population of fewer than 4,000. According to city directories Curran first surfaced in 1896 as a bartender for a saloon owned by L. H. Kertson.
Having learned the whiskey trade, within five years Tom struck out on his own, opening a saloon about 1896 on Moorhead’s First Street at the northeast corner of Ridge Avenue. Enlisting two partners, H. J. Waldron and Frank Freel, he called his drinking establishment Curran & Company.
For unknown reasons Curran’s initial effort at operating his own saloon proved short-lived. By 1902 he was back working as a bartender for W. H. “Billy” Diemert, a well-known Moorehead publican. In a photograph of the city’s “drinking” district below, Diemert’s place can be seen at right. According to directories, Curran stayed with Diemert until 1905 when a new and attractive prospect opened.
The shortest route from dry Fargo to wet Moorhead, the distance of a little over a mile, was the bridge over the “Northern” Red River. Since those waters belonged to Minnesota, saloons blossomed all along the bridge, making it a short hop for Dakotans. One of those establishments, shown below, belonged to Billy Diemert. In 1904 he agreed to sell it to Curran and two partners, John W. Higgins and Julius Aske. Higgins was a Canadian, born in Nova Scotia who had moved to North Dakota, and then to Moorhead. Aske was a native-born Minnesotan of Norwegian heritage. Only in his late 20’s, Julius was the youngest of the trio.
The site of the building, shown above in Diemert’s day, was a boat-like structure anchored on stilts in the riverbed abutting the bridge. From the photo below it appears that the partners added considerably to Diemert’s structure in creating the saloon they called The Three Orphans. It soon became one of the premier drinking establishments at the bridge, known for its fancy interior and a 48-foot bar the owners claimed “was the longest in the country.” (The bar wasn’t even close actually but the word hadn’t gotten to Moorhead.) The front porch, a favorite with patrons in summer, faced the Red River.
Speculation has thrived as to why only Higgens' and Aske’s names appear on the building. Some have speculated that Curran, as a former policeman, preferred to be a silent partner. Truth was, however, Tom was almost a decade gone from policing. Moreover, Moorhead directories regularly listed him as a partner in The Three Orphans. In a 1973 newspaper article in the Fargo-Moorhead Forum, Curran's son, William, shown here, recalled as a boy going with his father on Sundays when the bar was closed “to watch him blend whiskey in the basement, a blend that was bottled as “Three Orphans Whiskey.”
This suggests the crucial role that Curran was playing in the business. He was the saloon’s “rectifier,” that is, the partner entrusted with mixing up the establishment’s proprietary brand in order to achieve a particular color, smoothness and taste. Rectifying was an art and Curran apparently had mastered it. He was buying barrels of whiskey shipped from selected Midwest distilleries, carefully mixing the whiskeys according to his recipe and bottling the blend in gallon jugs.
Those ceramic containers hold their own story. Shown are three jugs that bear the Three Orphans logo. They were the product of the potteries of Redwing, Minnesota, a town 260 miles southeast of Moorhead, famous for the quality of its stoneware vessels. Today Redwing ceramic products are collected avidly in the United States and beyond. A national collectors organization with a newsletter, based in Redwing, keeps the torch burning for buyers. As a result, prices, particularly for saloon jugs, are kept high. Three Orphan Saloon jugs today sell regularly for $4,000-$5,000, depending on condition. Remember that Higgins, Aske and Curran gave the jugs away with their whiskey.
Although the Three Orphans saloon enjoyed the steady clientele that dry Fargo provided, there was a distinct downside. According to Moorhead police records, 75 percent of arrests in the 1900s were alcohol related. After the harvest when thousands of farm hands arrived to drink up their pay, general rowdiness and often violence was the result. Liquor money also bred political corruption. Many locals became opposed to the whiskey trade. As expressed by one Moorhead business and political leader: The problem was: “…If they took the 47 saloons out of Moorhead, what was left?…Liquor was the principal business of Moorhead….Moorhead’s greatest problem was whether to be pure or prosperous.”
By 1914 the residents of surrounding Clay County joined the national clamor to ban strong drink and voted the county dry. As a city, Moorhead was exempt from the edict — but only for a year. The law was changed and in May 1915, voters outlawed alcohol in the city. It likely was no coincidence that exactly 25 years to the day Fargo dried up, so did Moorhead. Along with other watering holes, the Three Orphans Saloon closed amid fireworks and a rousing civic farewell. The partners promptly sold the building to one of their bartenders, Amund Thorson, and a partner who renamed it “The Silver Moon Cafe.” While ostensibly dealing with only with food and cigars, the new owners were not averse to some bootlegging. Moorhead court records list multiple arrests for the pair.
No evidence exists that Tom Curran dabbled in illicit alcohol. The 1920 census found him age 53 living in Moorhead at 211 Seventh St. With him were his wife, Bridget; daughter Lucy, a teacher in the public schools, and son William, later to be sheriff of Clay County. A family photo shows Tom and Bridget with a son-in-law. Curran’s occupation was given as farmer. Tom’s residence in town suggests he may have been a “gentleman farmer,” owning the land and leasing to tenants.
Curran lived to witness World War I, the Spanish flu epidemic, National Prohibition, the onset of the Great Depression, and Repeal. He might well have taken some joy from the last. The Silver Moon Cafe began serving beer legally, although hard liquor for a time was still forbidden. Thomas Curran died in 1939 at the age of 76 and was buried in Moorhead’s St. Joseph Cemetery. His headstone is shown below.
In time the building that was the Three Orphans Saloon was razed. The place where it stood, shown right, is now a protected archeological site because of artifacts from the Three Orphans Saloon some have found at low tide. Where the river was shallow people were digging in the muck hoping to find saloon artifacts. An intact jug would be a bonanza. The Curran home still stands in Moorhead, shown below as it looks today.
Two mysteries remain: Why did Curran not add his name formally to ownership of the saloon? As bartender and rectifier he was an essential part of the operation. My thought is that he might have been content to have one Irishman and one Norwegian identified up front and concerned about possible negative effects of a second Irish name. Second, were the three owners really orphans? The record is inconclusive. On genealogical sites, the parents of each man are unlisted as “unknown” but that fails to establish orphanhood. Clearly more research is needed to establish the validity of the claim.
Notes: This post was occasioned when an old friend, Jack Hamilton, sent me a newspaper clipping on Thomas Curran, his great grandfather. I had already done some research on Moorhead MN (see post of March 13, 2020) and Curran and the Three Orphans Saloon intrigued me. This post has been drawn from two key sources, an Internet article (undated, unsigned) from the Minnesota Historical Society, and photos and research by Mark Peihl, Clay County archivist. Family photos were contributed by Dr. Hamilton.