By Sue Roesler, The Herald, Jan. 11, 2002
In 1909, Van H. Crane began a law practice in Mott and built his frame office building in 1910. Since that time the Crane Law Office building has moved at least three times in Mott but the library room in the present office looks much the same as it did in the old office. The same bookcases which contain law books cover two entire walls of the room and two of the original wooden chairs grace the inside.
One of the few differences between the first office and the present office is that the bright brass spittoons are now missing. Nearly all clients who came in to use Van Crane's services in the early 1900s used tobacco. “you really didn't belong until you had a brass spittoon handy for your clients,” Charles Crane says.
For over 92 years and three generations, member of the Crane family have practiced law in Mott. Charles E. Crane joined his father's practice in 1946 and Charles' son David joined the firm in 1982.
Van Crane came to Mott from Fargo where he worked as a district court reporter and studied law under a judge. “As an ambitious court reporter, he learned the rules of evidence and trial practices by being around lawyers and observing lawyers all the time.” Charles said. “Dad was one his own at the age of 16 as his mother was a widow and had a large family of children to raise by herself. In general, it can be truthfully stated that V.H. Crane graduated from the school of hard knocks.”
Van passed the Bar in 1904. He continued as a court reporter for a time, but was not satisfied in the big city of Fargo. “Dad said he would have been small frog in a large pond,” Charles said, so he headed west.
“Everybody was going West in those days,” Charles said. Mott, the county seat of Hettinger County, was a branch railroad town with two railroads opening up, and Van Crane set up practice in a town that was sparse and spread out in 1909.
Much of his law business and law clients was from farmers who were homesteading in Hettinger County. Farmers came in to settle their land titles and to have abstracts examined, all of which kept the young lawyer, V.H. Crane, busy. “The general law practice in those early days was much busier than it is now,” Charles says. The homesteaders set up farms comprising as small as one or two quarter sections of land. “There were all sorts of disputes and civil actions to get all of those land titles settled and to find out who owned what in those early homesteading days,” Charles says.
Van would go to work early every winter morning to get the coal stove started. Then he would sit down and being work still in his hat and coat until the office warmed up. In the summer months, he tolerated the heat, and many years later, he teased his son, Charles, for wanting air conditioning.
In those days a lawyer worked without much of the law books lawyers have today because “much of the laws we have today had not been enacted or decided in the courts,” says Charles. “Law books are compiled after cases are decided and statutes are construed in the Supreme Court. Today a great body of law has accumulated over the years since those early days and attorneys now resort to computers and information contained in disks which has taken the place of law books from prior years.”
In the early years, judges came in the spring and again in the fall to hear cases, and Van was known as an “impeccably ethical trial lawyer.” He worked one term as state's attorney but ha d a bit of trouble when Prohibition laws went into the books. Since many of the homesteaders brought their home brew recipes from the old country, they didn't care for laws that forbid making or selling their favorite beverage.
Charles said his father scrambled to enforce the law of the land, but became a victim of prohibition. He was voted out of office after one term. Other than that, his practice thrived and prospered. A poem which defined his philosophy was framed and hung near his desk. Charles said it still hangs on the office today. Part of it reads, “Did you tackle the trouble that came your way with a resolute heart and cheerful? Or hide your face from the light of day with a craven soul and fearful? And it isn't the fact that you're hurt that counts, but only, how did you take it?”
The life of a lawyer was ingrained in Charles as he was growing up in Mott, but his father pushed him toward medicine. He tried, but found the world of science did not agree with him. “I couldn't stand the smell of formaldehyde,” and he began to study law.
In the late 1930s, with the Depression in full bloom, times were tough at the University of North Dakota Law School. “There probably weren't half a dozen autos at the university. No one had money, there wasn't any in circulation,” said Charles, adding “the law students often didn't have enough extra money to get into trouble.”
He graduated in 1938 and was recruited to run for Billings County State's Attorney. He won the election and worked in the old County Courthouse located in Medora until March, 1941 when he went off to war.
He was assigned to the Corps of Engineers, a unit which designed and built infrastructure such as buildings and roads, but because of his law degree, he was often chosen to court martial errant soldiers and perform other court duties. Charles says he was not a valuable asset to his unit as an engineer, but he did get to hone his trial skills in England. For three days he defended an accused killer. “I put up a good defense, but the verdict came out against the defendant and he was sentenced to die by hanging. In my heart, I knew he was guilty,” he said.
After returning from the service in March, 1946, Charles joined his father's law practice in Mott. “I had always wanted to come home to Mott, just as my kids would love to live here,” Charles said. He met and married his wife, Shirley, in Mott.
The Depression had started to ease during World War II, and Charles returned to Mott just as land values began to rise. “The first $100 per acre land was sold through the office,” Charles said. The young lawyer soon learned to draw up deed, mortgages and to examine titles.
“A lot of our work here is real estate,” Charles said. While working for his father, he ran for Hettinger County state's attorney and served in that position for 20 years.
Van H. Crane received his 50-year certificate from the North Dakota Bar Association on August 6, 1955, an award honoring his 50 years as a lawyer. He died in the fall of 1955. More than 30 years later in 1988, Van's son, Charles, received the same award from the State Bar Association.
Meanwhile, Charles' son, David, grew up in Mott and attended UND, receiving a bachelor's degree in Honors in 1975, and a master's degree in sociology in 1977. David worked as a consultant at Technical Planning Inc. in Bismarck until 1979. Then he attended law school at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore., graduating in 1982.
David returned to Mott and practices law with his father, the third generation of Crane lawyers and something the city points to with pride. “There was just a kind of calling to come back to North Dakota. The law practice needed help but it was kind of hard transporting a Billings girl here, but we managed,” says David. He and his wife, Peggy, returned to Mott in 1982. He followed in his father's footsteps also by serving as Hettinger County State's Attorney from 1987 to 1990.
Law in small cities has changed somewhat, says David. “For a lawyer to be successful now, he has to expand to diversify, just as farmers, ranchers and other business people do.” He has diversified into financial planning and specializes in tax preparation and estate planning. He is a Certified Financial Planner, a Series 7 broker since 1996 and a representative of Investment Centers of America. The practice has expanded and David serves clients in Perkins and Corson Counties in South Dakota. David has learned to drive, drive and drive. “We're so close to those counties, it helps to be licensed to practice there,” he says.
He is deeply involved in economic development for Mott and spends considerable time volunteering to help on boards and committees.
David says he has a passion for small town life and has no desire to leave. He and his wife enjoy Mott and all it has to offer as a good place to raise children.
June 24, 2014