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Dave Kolpack, Associated Press
Fargo residents, from left, Louis Schneider,Ann Zavoral and Ardis Haaland look at portraits of Fargo mayors on a city hall wall, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012, in Fargo, N.D.

FARGO, N.D. — The missing portrait of the Father of Fargo has led to the mother of all searches.

Three women who routinely walk the skyways and byways of downtown Fargo for exercise noticed recently that a popular mayor is omitted from a display of leaders in city hall, near the spot on the indoor trail where Lois Schneider, Ann Zavoral and Ardis Haaland turn around.

When city officials began doing their homework on Jasper B. Chapin, the city's fourth mayor, in hopes of finding an image from which to commission a painting, they discovered that at least seven other mayors are missing from the wall.

What began as a shallow search has become a deep dive into the 140-year-old city's archives, said City Administrator Pat Zavoral, Ann's husband.

"They really opened up a can of worms," Pat said.

"I think he probably thinks we're a bunch of busy-bodies," Ann countered.

Joking aside, the three women said the city has been eager to set the record straight.

"This is history, and history is pretty important now as Fargo grows," Schneider said. "I think Jasper did so many important things and his story was so good."

It was a story of rags to riches to rags.

Chapin reportedly lived in a tent when he first moved to the Red River Valley. Documents show he rose to become one of the richest men in the city, where he served as mayor from 1880 to 1882. He lost everything in the depression of 1883. His wife died soon after. He lapsed into depression and poor health and killed himself on Jan. 26, 1896, at age 74.

It's not clear who dubbed him the Father of Fargo.

The mystery of the missing portrait began to unravel when the three women became curious about a buffalo robe that's displayed in the window of a downtown western collectibles store. Chapin's name is stenciled on the inside of the robe.

Chapin's buffalo robe has a price tag of $700 at Frontier Americana. One of the store's owners, Pete Erickson, received it from a fellow trader in Thermopolis, Wyo., a couple of years ago. Erickson has become attached to the collector's item.

"It's an old buffalo hide. It's been patched two or three times," Erickson said. "You can't get a buffalo hide for less than 700 bucks. I haven't had anybody step up to want to buy it, but that hasn't exactly broken my heart, either. He was such a colorful character."

Erickson's display included a biography of Chapin, which the women found fascinating.

Chapin was born on Jan. 7, 1822, in Genesee County, New York. He lived in Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Montana before moving to Moorhead, Minn., in 1871, to operate a hotel. He moved across the river to Fargo in 1873.

Chapin operated the Headquarters Hotel in Fargo and began buying up prime farmland in Cass County. He built the Continental Hotel and Opera House, the latter that was known as Chapin Hall. He also threw parties with his own money for the denizens of Fargo, Pat Zavoral said.

"We think that's a tradition that the mayor should start again," he said, chuckling.

The city's research raised some confusion about Chapin's term. One of the portraits on the display is of Gordon Keeney, who's listed as mayor in 1882, believed to be Chapin's first year on the job. Keeney was an attorney who eventually became the city's first postmaster.

"We're digging into it," Pat Zavoral said.

The city had already made plans to solicit bids from local artists to create a portrait of Chapin based on an engraved image found at North Dakota State University. Now the city is looking to add William Kindred, Woodford Yerxa, John Johnson, Charles Scott, Seth Newman, Wilbur F. Ball and William Smith to the wall of mayors.

Said Schenider, who doubts the omissions were intentional, "I bet they couldn't find the pictures. Even with Jasper, there was just a little sketch."