Hear Tracy Briggs narrate this story:
WING, N.D. — The old black and white photos tell the story. The man with a strong jawline but even kinder eyes. George Piepkorn was a World War I era veteran, a man who almost single-handedly thwarted a bank robbery and who maybe even played baseball against Babe Ruth.
But in the tiny town of Wing, North Dakota he is honored and remembered as the first deputy in Burleigh County to lose his life in the line of duty. The Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department Employee Council held remembrance ceremony for Piepkorn at the Wing cemetery on Friday, May 14, 2021, where a new headstone for Piepkorn was unveiled.
The project is the brain child of Deputy Tom Schroeder who saw a photo of Piepkorn's worn tombstone and couldn't get it out of his mind. He slept on it, talked to the sheriff, then "decided to make it my mission to contact descendants of George Piepkorn and seek their permission to allow our department to replace the stone."
The Sheriff’s department said while they’ve always remembered Deputy Piepkorn, until very recently, not much was known about the events surrounding his death or the people he left behind. Thanks to new technology, they were able to reach out to several relatives who were able to help fill in the details about Piepkorn and what happened to him that unseasonably warm November night in 1930.
An Oshkosh teen comes to Wing
George Piepkorn was born on a farm in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1894 before making the 700 mile journey to Wing, North Dakota when he was just 19 years old in 1913. It’s unclear why he’d choose the tiny town 46 miles northeast of Bismarck, but once there, he dove right in, holding a few different jobs that first year alone.
It’s also likely that first year when he wasn’t working, he was playing baseball. According to local legend, his team in Wing once played against a team with George Herman Ruth Jr. on the roster. “Babe” Ruth started with the New York Yankees in 1914, so if this local legend is true, the encounter would have had to have happened during Piepkorn’s earliest days in Wing.
The town hero
But that wouldn’t be Piepkorn’s last brush with greatness. After serving a stint in the army, he was just 26 years old in 1920 and was working as a night watchman at a bank in Wing when he was given credit for stopping an armed robbery. According to The Grand Forks Herald on Nov. 9, 1920, Piepkorn discovered the bandits threatening to break into the Burleigh County State Bank and also a general store. He rang the church bell and rounded up a posse of citizens to respond with guns blazing, to force the would-be robbers out of town.
According to The Herald, “The bandits re-entered town about 4 o’clock this morning and were again discovered by Watchman Piepkorn, who fired shots and they fled to the west.”
Just over 10 years later, almost to the date, Piepkorn’s luck would run out, as he attempted to stop another crime.
1930 Armistice Day in Wing far from peaceful
Trouble was brewing in Wing, N.D. (pop. 237) on the night Americans were celebrating the 12th anniversary of the end of World War I. However, a blacksmith named John Holmes wasn’t in a celebratory mood.
According to reports of the time, Holmes had been complaining that day about his stepson Charles Frazer living off of him. One newspaper article from that night claimed Holmes was “crazed by liquor” when he started arguing with his wife (seemingly about her son and her whereabouts that day). He took her to a neighbor’s house so they could back up her story that she had been home all afternoon. Holmes had a gun with him, but Mrs. Holmes was able to get it away from him, staying at the neighbor’s house for protection.
But then Holmes went to another neighbor’s house to get a revolver he had left with him. The neighbor, Gus Anderson, had the revolver because he was a harness maker and was going to make a holster for Holmes. But the more violent Holmes got, the more Anderson refused to give him anything. That’s when Holmes shot Anderson in the shoulder with another gun in his possession.
The melee continued when townspeople who found out what was happening showed up at Holmes' house either to confront him or subdue him. But at that point, the stepson, Charles Frazer, got involved. He was accused of stabbing a member of the posse named Ben McClusky in the shoulder. He was arrested and taken away. But for whatever reason, Holmes was allowed to stay in his home.
Deputy Piepkorn was sent to Holmes’ house to arrest him. A newspaper account says when Piepkorn was standing behind a shed trying to catch a glimpse of Holmes' whereabouts, Holmes jumped him from behind.
A Bismarck Tribune story from Nov. 12, 1930 said, “A heavy skinning knife penetrated his abdomen with such force that two left lower ribs were cut through, his intestines were perforated and the diaphragm apparently gashed.”
He was taken to a Bismarck hospital for surgery and given, at best, a 50% chance of survival.
But the evening’s bloodshed was not over. After Piepkorn’s injury, a member of the posse, Grant Hubbel, shot Holmes in the knee.
Holmes survived. But Piepkorn succumbed to his injuries one week later. He was just 36 years old.
Holmes defended by a future governor
Following Piepkorn’s death, Holmes was charged with first degree murder for stabbing Piepkorn. He was also accused in the shooting of Gus Anderson, and it was later suspected that it was Holmes, not Frazer, who stabbed Ben McClusky. However, Frazer was held for assisting Holmes.
William Langer, better known in later years as “Wild Bill” Langer, two-time North Dakota Governor and long-serving U.S. Senator, served as Holmes attorney. Langer successfully petitioned the court for a change in venue, claiming Holmes could not get a fair trial in Burleigh County.
The trial was moved to Jamestown, North Dakota. But it would never be concluded. According to newspaper accounts from July 1931, Holmes had died by suicide, apparently distraught over the death of Piepkorn.
“He didn't realize that it was Piepkorn until after he was arrested, and he was good friends with him, so he carried a lot of guilt,” Lt. Jeff Olson from the Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department said he had heard about the death.
A proud legacy
At the time of his death, Piepkorn had worked as a sheriff’s deputy for three and a half years. He was a member of the Linden school board and a town marshal in Wing and a grain buyer for the Monarch elevator.
He left behind his widow, Lucy Lutgens, and four children.
Lucy lived another 52 years, dying in California in 1982. Lucy and George's last child died in 2019.
Many in the family stayed in California. Others are spread throughout the country.
Descendent Heather Woodlee planned to make the trip in from Texas for the ceremony in Wing.
"It is honestly bringing tears to my eyes thinking about all that Officer Schroeder has done putting this together," Woodlee said. "And for someone he doesn’t even know, who has been gone a long time...just because he knew the condition of the stone of a fellow officer in a small town, way out in North Dakota. I know there were others involved and definitely a huge thank you to (sponsor) First Western Bank. I know those headstones aren't cheap, and you should see the one they have made for him. It's incredible."
Even family who won't make it to the ceremony say they are extremely touched by the effort to remember their patriarch.
“A big thank you to Tom Schroeder and the other officers involved in the ceremony,” said Sherry Piepkorn of Clovis, California. She is the widow of George’s grandson Randy. “It's such an honor to have George memorialized after so many years.”
Sidenote: For those reading this story in the Fargo, N.D. area, according to Woodlee, who has done the most research of the Piepkorn family history, Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn and North Dakota State Senator Merrill Piepkorn are distantly related to the George Piepkorn family, and while the North Dakota and Minnesota relatives pronounce the last name Piepkorn as "PepKorn" or "PipeKorn," George's direct descendants, many in California, pronounce it "PeepKorn."
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