The Wachters are a prominent Bismarck family that have made a tremendous impact on many of the city’s most important developments, most notably Kirkwood Mall and the Bismarck Civic Center. Two schools have been named for the Wachters, including the current Wachter Middle School, and another, Dorothy Moses Elementary, was built on land donated by the Wachters.
At one time, the Wachters owned most of the land south of the railroad, including the land that now holds the Bismarck Civic Center and Kirkwood Mall.
Initially, the Wachters were heavily engaged in farming and ranching, as well as transportation and warehousing operations. The Wachter Dray and Transfer Company was founded by Gottlieb Charles Wachter in 1885 and grew into one of the city’s most profitable enterprises. The Wachter Warehouse was built in 1929, on the corner of Front Avenue & 5th Street, to support its growing Dray and Transfer business and the building remains standing today.
The Wachter’s business interests began to shift following the completion of the Garrison Dam in the 1950s, when the flood-prone land owned by the Wachters became useful for other purposes.
Beginning with the development of Kirkwood Plaza in 1970, the Wachters’ family business ultimately evolved into a vast portfolio of real estate and business investments, much of it through its Wachter Real Estate Trust arm.
Gottlieb Charles Wachter arrived in Bismarck as a butcher in 1881. Immigrating with his family from Germany when he was 16, Charles, as he was known, was born in 1866 and previously lived in Pennsylvania before moving to Bismarck.
In 1885, Charles founded the footings of the family’s business empire… the Wachter Dray and Transfer Company. With the successes of his draying business, Charles later expanded operations, including farming and ranching. Charles also owned a long-standing ice business and held stake in First National Bank.
Charles and his descendants eventually acquired expansive real estate holdings, owning most of the land south of Front Avenue between Washington Street and 12th Street. It was here that the Wachter Family found incomparable prosperity, first as farmers and ranchers, later as developers.
The Wachters also held significant land holdings in north Bismarck, Morton County, Oliver County, and Sheridan County.
Multifaceted Business Empire
The completion of Garrison Dam in 1953 presented new opportunities for the Wachter family. For the first time, its significant land holdings in southern Bismarck could be permanently developed. Previously, the land was previously susceptible to large-scale flooding.
In 1968, ground was broken on what would seal the family’s fate as multi-million dollar investors. Kirkwood Plaza was a decade-long dream for Paul H., who developed the mall alongside brother James P.
When it officially opened in 1971, Kirkwood Plaza was the state’s largest shopping center. The immediately surrounding area, much of it then-owned by the Wachters, soon-after became the region’s primary commerce hub, a distinction that still holds true today.
An expansion completed in 1980 more than doubled Kirkwood’s footprint. The Wachter Family sold Kirkwood Mall in 1981 to Prudential Life Insurance for a reported $40 million. The Wachters continued managing and leasing the mall until 1984.
Bismarck Civic Center
The Wachters gifted land to the city for construction of the Bismarck Civic Center, which was completed in 1969. Land for the Center itself was sold at a heavy discount, while land for parking was 100% donated. Its development adjacent to Kirkwood Plaza aided in the family’s successes.
The deal included a restrictive covenant agreement that stated part of the land could only be used only for parking. The city bought out this agreement in 2005 for $600,000 to gain full control of the land.
Kirkwood Bank & Trust
In 1973, the Wachters were principals in establishing Bank of Kirkwood (now Kirkwood Bank & Trust). Coinciding the bank’s formation was Kirkwood Office Tower, erected directly across from Kirkwood Plaza.
Kirkwood Motor Inn
In 1974, the Wachters developed Kirkwood Motor Inn across from its booming shopping mall. At the time, Kirkwood Motor Inn had the largest banquet hall in Bismarck.
A $3 million addition commenced in 1976.
The Wachter’s fortunes began to change in the mid 1980s, originating from internal conflict that split the family’s holdings.
Friction involving the family’s enterprises began in the late-1960s, with a lawsuit filed by Camille (Wachter) Homme alleged mismanagement.
A more significant lawsuit was filed in 1985, and privately settled in 1986, which split the Wachter family into two factions and divided its assets. Its plaintiffs were Paul C. Wachter and his brother, Lance, against their uncle, James P., and his son, Patrick. A countersuit followed.
The original suit alleged mismanagement and lack of cooperation of the defendants. It also requested their removal from the family Trust, and to replace new trustees. It required the defendants to account for and relinquish all trust finances and assets in their control.
The countersuit essentially requested the same from the other party.
As an outcome of the suit, some of the assets held in the Trust were split into their own limited partnerships, including Kirkwood Motor Inn and Hardware Hank.
Lawsuits and Foreclosures
With its assets divided, the former properties of the Trust quickly could no longer leverage the assets once contained in its vast portfolio and ultimately fell on hard times, resulting in several lawsuits. One creditor, as cited in a Bismarck Tribune article from April 16, 1986, even alleged that the Trust breakup may have been an effort to “hinder, delay and defraud creditors.”
The first came from Prudential Life, owner of Kirkwood Mall, who sued after the Wachters shuttering W.W. Noodles at the center. The suit sought $99,458 in unpaid back rent, plus $19,074 in additional rent and $7,104 per month after.
The Wachters’ Kirkwood Motor Inn would soon follow, beginning with a $2.5-million lawsuit filed by Ford Motor Credit Company. The suit claimed the hotel’s owners had defaulted in December 1985 and January 1986, at which point Ford issued a notice of acceleration for the entire debt owed.
Kirkwood Motor Inn, whose primary owner was Paul C. Wachter, was foreclosed on in 1987. The hotel’s owners faced litigation for outstanding liabilities of roughly $9.4 million involving two creditors: Equitable Life Assurance and the aforementioned Ford Motor Credit Company.
1988 then saw the foreclosure of the 30,000-acre Wachter Ranch.
In 1989, three banks filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against Paul C. Wachter, who was then residing in Scottsdale, Arizona. The petition alleged nearly $30 million in outstanding debt.
Despite the family’s struggles of the 1980s, the Wachters continue to be one of the city’s primary investors to this day. The Wachters also still hold interest in Kirkwood Bank & Trust.
In 1992, the Wachters donated 80 acres of land for the development of Pebble Creek Golf Course, which complimented the Wachters’ adjacent Pebble Creek Addition.
The Wachters have left a lasting legacy on the region. Kirkwood Mall, the Bismarck Civic Center, Ramkota Hotel (originally Kirkwood Motor Inn), Wachter Aquatics Center, Kirkwood Office Tower, and Wachter Middle School are all prominent structures within the city that the Watchers either developed directly or were otherwise affiliated to.
Wachter Middle School was named the Wachter Family after they donated 10 acres of land for its construction in 1967, as well as land housing Dorothy Moses Elementary. The first school named for the Wachter Family was constructed in 1918, named for Gottlieb Charles Wachter, who was a member of the Bismarck School Board at the time.
Also donations include 12 acres for the Wachter Aquatics Center and Schaumberg Ice Arena, and 3.5 acres for the Bismarck Police Department’s headquarters.
Even today, the Wachters continue to be involved in various business and community projects.
At least three Bismarck subdivisions also contain the Wachter name.
List of Businesses and Developments
This is an inconclusive list of businesses in which the Wachters currently have, or once had, an ownership stake within.
- Dakota Sand and Gravel
- Wachter Dray and Transfer Company
- Kirkwood Plaza
- House of Bottles
- Kirkwood Bank & Trust
- Kirkwood Motor Inn
- Kirkwood Hardware Hank
- Towne and Country Liquor
- W.W. Noodles
- Big Boy
- Cottonwood Lake and Cottonwood Lake Addition
- Pebble Creek Addition
Gottlieb Charles Wachter
Gottlieb Charles Wachter, known as Charles, was the family patriarch. He was born in 1866 in Germany. He immigrated to America at age 16, settling in Pennsylvania before moving to Bismarck.
Charles was a butcher by trade until 1885 when he founded the Wachter Dray and Transfer Company, which involved transportation and storage of goods. At one point, the business operated 50-60 teams of horses.
In 1921, Charles expanded operations into farming and ranching. He also owned a long-standing ice business.
Charles also served in the city commission and on the Bismarck Board of Education, and was a board member for First National Bank.
Charles died in 1928.
Notable members of the Wacther family include
Paul H. Wachter
Paul H. Wachter is arguably one of the, if not the, most influential members of the Wachter family. It was Paul H. who evolved the family business into a real estate and business investment empire, beginning with the development of Kirkwood Plaza in 1970.
Paul H. was born in on May 25, 1918. He was the only son of Paul A. and Edna K, and the grandson of Gottlieb Charles Wachter, the patriarch who founded the Wachter Dray and Transfer Company.
Paul H. married Charlotte Sathre in August 1941 and they had three sons: Paul C., Jeffrey, and Lance.
Paul H. was also an inventor, owning at least one patent for a “combined strainer, chopper, spatula, beater, knife, and turning fork”. In fact, it was the first patented spatula.
- Gottlieb Charles Wachter (founder of Wachter Dray and Transfer, family patriarch, grandfather of Paul H.)
- Paul A.
- Paul H. (established Kirkwood Plaza in 1970)
- James P. (brother of Paul H., grandson of Gottlieb Charles Wachter)
- Ann E.
- Kathleen Jane
- Paul C. (Cipstan) “Kip” (son of Paul H., grandson of Gottlieb Charles Wachter)
- Lance (son of Paul H., grandson of Gottlieb Charles Wachter)
- Jeffrey (son of Paul H., grandson of Gottlieb Charles Wachter)
- Chad A. (son of Lance)