Erhard woman became a member of Minnesota legislature in 1922

Hannah Kempfer

By Tom Hintgen

Otter Tail County Correspondent

A shining example of great leadership was exhibited by Hannah Kempfer of Erhard who became a member of the Minnesota State Legislature in 1922.

This extraordinary woman immigrated from Norway to Minnesota about 1885, eventually settling with her family near Erhard, in western Otter Tail County. In 1903 she married a local farmer, Charles Kempfer. 

She is an example of Minnesota resilience.

“My admiration for Hannah Kempfer goes beyond her political career,” said Missy Hermes of the Otter Tail County Historical Society who wrote an article for the Minnesota Historical Society for their online encyclopedia.

“I especially love that she worked as a public school educator while at the same time farming and writing a column for the local newspaper,” Hermes added.

“Her goal to become a teacher began during Hannah’s difficult childhood. Forced to work at age 7, she survived desperate circumstances. Hannah decided early on to help other children.”

Hermes says it’s important to remember that Kempfer was an immigrant girl. 

“Her foster father did not come here with the skills needed to survive, especially as a farmer, and no one in the family spoke English.” 

Kempfer attended Park Region Luther College, now Hillcrest Lutheran Academy, after graduating from Fergus Falls High School.

She had a strong connection to the Fergus Falls State Hospital, later referred to as the Regional Treatment Center. 

“Hannah had picnics for the nurses working there, including her niece. Those living in the nurse’s cottage at the state hospital were a long ways from home.”

Kempfer served as a legislator on the Minnesota State Board of Control which oversaw institutions in the state. This was a forerunner to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Her interest in child welfare led to an appointment by President Herbert Hoover to attend a conference in Washington, D.C. 

“Hannah took her niece, Peggy, with her,” Hermes said. “Peggy’s son, Bard Miller, was CEO of Pelican Rapids-based Lake Region Electric Cooperative.”

Kempfer was one of the elected leaders pushing for legislation, eventually passed, that required public school teachers to take the Mantoux Test for tuberculosis. This ensured that they did not infect students with the disease.

“Hannah really was an amazing lady and we should be proud of the fact that she came from our part of the state,” Hermes says. “Voters recognized her leadership and re-elected her many times. She ran as an Independent, not representing a certain political party.” 

Teaching was part of the Kempfer family. Two of Hannah’s descendants, Lynette Ringquist and Ally Ringquist, both taught in Fergus Falls.

Kempfer lived close enough to Maine Township while growing up that she more than once babysat a little boy named Billy Douglas, whose father was the pastor at the Maine Presbyterian Church. 

“That little boy,” notes Hermes, “would grow up to become U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas He was appointed to the bench in 1939 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR).

(Photo #825 from the collections of the Otter Tail County Historical Society)