An Iowa farm boy, John Burke came to Dakota Territory as a penniless graduate lawyer. He began as a harvest hand in Traill County, then moved to Rolette County where he taught school, practiced law, and helped publish the town newspaper. In 1889 he became Rolette County judge.During Governor Burke's administration, many changes were made to state law. Some of these changes included a corrupt practices act; a "short weights" law; pure seed, food, and sanitation laws; public utilities control laws; child labor regulations; and prohibition of personal lobbying except before legislative committees. The state tax commission, state employee compensation commission and public health laboratory were created during his administration. He also established juvenile courts. Burke's terms marked the height of the progressive era in state legislation and the end of the McKenzie machine control of the Republican party. After serving as United State treasurer, John Burke was asked by some North Dakota citizens to run for president of the United States, but he requested that his name be withdrawn at the Baltimore convention.
John Burke acquired the nickname "Honest John Burke" because of his forthrightness in business dealings. As governor he crusaded against corrupt business practices.
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