Promise of the Prairie

Promise of the Prairie

The Kunkel House

The Kunkel House

Grandpa Ted caught North Dakota Fever in 1919.

According to other stories about Ted and Fanny, Ted had spent a summer in the Red River Valley working on a farm, fell in love with the land, and decided that’s where he wanted to start his own farm. Thousands of other people caught that same fever. The 1920 federal census shows almost eight thousand residents in Kidder County, compared to less than two thousand just twenty years earlier.

Can you imagine the excitement of those years, as hundreds of people thronged the real estate offices and railroad stations? Every train from the east dropped off new residents looking for farmland or a place to open a store. Greenhorns and shysters everywhere. Continue reading

Grandpa Guy’s Aunt Esther

Grandpa Guy’s Aunt Esther

Back in the nineties, when Esther heard about my family story project, she decided to write a few stories of her own. This upcoming series of eight posts includes her thoughts on her parents’ lives on a farm in North Dakota. Esther was my mother’s older sister, born on the North Dakota prairie early in the 20th century, raised during the Great Depression, and lived the good life from Montana to Arizona to Oregon.


Esther on the farm in North Dakota

Esther shared my interest in family history. In the early 2000’s my brother Linn and I spent a couple of days with Esther at her home in Oregon, looking at old picture albums and hearing her stories. I’ve used notes from that time to augment Esther’s own words and highlight some of the more interesting parts of the stories. For each story, I’ve tried to include some of her pictures and some from Grace’s photo album.

If you’ve read Grandpa Guy’s Stories, especially the stories from my mother Grace, you are familiar with most of the events Esther describes. In some of Esther’s stories, I’ve added links to Grace’s recollection of the same story. Reading the two versions, and trying to reconcile the differences between them and the same stories that Grandma Fanny told me, makes me wonder about other historical stories where multiple versions exist.

Esther during one of Linn and Guy's visits

Esther during one of our visits in 2005

Everyone has their own version of history. Esther (my aunt), her sister Grace (my mother) and their mother (my Grandma Luehr, who Esther calls Mama) shaped my view of family stories. Though their stories are not the same, the essence remains consistent. You can read Grace’s stories in the letters and commentary I’ve added to them. (Grace’s Stories)

After reading Esther’s stories I hope you can imagine life on a farm in Kidder County, North Dakota.

Grandpa Guy Havelick



Lake Williams Horses

Abandoned Lumberyard in Lake Williams ND

Abandoned lumberyard in Lake Williams ND

My brothers and I took several trips together in the late eighties and early nineties. The memories we built on those trips are among my most valued. On one of the trips we stopped to visit our Uncle Henry. Henry was an eccentric old man, and my favorite uncle. While we were visiting him this time, he took us on a tour of the country side. The five of us piled into his big GM sedan and hit the road; gravel roads, driving well over the limit, taking his half out of the middle.

Suddenly he hits the brakes and stops in the middle of the road, in the middle of nowhere, halfway between Pettibone and Woodworth. He throws open the door and jumps out, saying “Here’s the town of Marstonmoor.” We look quizzically at each other, wonder if it’s OK to park in the middle of the road, climb out and look around. There’s nothing there. Well, there’s grass and the road.

Henry says “Look over there … see that cement sticking out of the grass?” We crane our necks for a better view, realize the railroad tracks (abandoned?) are just a few feet beyond, and yes, indeed! There is an old concrete foundation there. Overgrown, crumbled, and not all that big to start with.

Henry gave us a quick history of the town. It was a railroad invention, they had to have stations every couple of miles along the rail line to support farmers who had only horse and wagon to deliver milk and cream to the railroad. Towns grew up around some of the stations, but not around others. This town was not one where dreamers succeeded.

Lake Williams fared a little better, there are still houses and buildings around where the rail station used to be. Not much else remains. Uncle Henry owned one of the old buildings in town. He used it to store his collection of cars and things. He wasn’t a car collector like my friends in the AACA, Henry just never bothered to ever sell a car. Ever. His place was just down the block from the lumberyard in the picture.

In this letter, Grace recounts the dreams of a rancher who thought he could get rich on fancy horses in Kidder County. That plan just didn’t work. Neither did my grand father’s plan of raising Herefords on the north forty. Not much remains in that area these days. If you listen to the wind and stare at the prairie grass long enough you can almost hear and see dreams floating by.

They’re gone now.

Grandpa Guy Havelick



Grace writes:

Summer always seemed hot + long + the cool water in Lake Williams was a nice place to swim and fish and boat. Sometimes we would have a picnic there under the trees.

Continue reading

The Race Horse and Piano

Grace with the schoolteaher's horse.

Grace with the schoolteacher’s horse.

I’m going to focus on the musical “talent” Grace focused on in this letter. The horse makes a good story, and her sister Esther has a wonderful story about another horse they owned on the farm by the name of Topsy.

One important difference between my life as a child and my life now as a parent and grand parent is the presence of music. As Grace writes in this letter, she wasn’t much of a singer. There wasn’t much music in the household. She passed that missing music trait down to me as a total and complete lack of musical ability. I like to tell people the only musical instrument I’ve mastered is a CD player.

In the seventh grade all the kids in our junior high school class had to take part in at least one music class. Mine was the “Glee Club,” which I loved. We had a lot of fun learning old favorites. Every now and then I catch myself singing the Caisson Song, or the Happy Wanderer. Try and get that ear worm out of your head now. I’ll wait.

To get into the Glee Club, each of us had to spend a few minutes with the director to figure out which part we could sing. I failed miserably. He played a scale and all I had to do was sing along. I thought he was going down the scale. I was wrong.

Not long after that I got the music bug and tried to learn, but the raw talent just wasn’t there. I’ve had to console myself with the ability to play a CD or Pandora. We have a beautiful old piano played by the grand kids, and Judy’s Irish band practices in the living room regularly. There’s almost always some sort of music happening here.

Grandpa Guy Havelick



Grace writes:

Dear ones,

The year I was in sixth grade two very exciting things happened. The lady who had been teaching our school needed a place to store her piano and board her horse. What kind of a deal Mama made with her I don’t know but we had the horse several years and then had her colt to keep. Continue reading

Skippy the Dog

Every now and then we get to hear more about a story. One year, long after Grandma Fanny and my mother Grace had passed away, my brother Linn and I traveled to Oregon with Grace’s photo album to learn more about the family history. It was an incredibly satisfying trip. Esther, Linn and I sat with the album for days looking at each picture. Esther would start talking, Linn would ask some questions, and I’d do my best to capture what they were talking about.



One photo was of Skippy the dog. Esther had fond memories of this little dog, just like Grace did. Here’s what I wrote down that day, capturing the story from Esther’s point of view.

I don’t remember where he came from or exactly when he showed up on the farm, but he was a pretty puppy. He weighed in at about sixty pounds in his prime. He was a solid, muscular dog, mostly terrier and some bulldog. He could be aggressive if he didn’t like you, and nasty when necessary. He didn’t like the guy from the farm to the west. Whenever he came to the property we had to restrain Skippy, tie him up.

One winter Grace made a fur collar coat for Skippy. He was a short-haired dog and got cold in the North Dakota winters. She started with a woman’s medium blue wool coat. She measured the front legs, fit it over the back and to the tail. It had buttons and a collar that fastened under his chin. The dog liked the coat and asked for it when it was time to go outside during the winter.

That’s one version of the “Skippy Story” and it’s completely different, but exactly the same as the one Grace tells below. I’d love to hear Grace’s version of how she made the coat for Skippy, but that one is lost to time. How many stories do we need to hear before the complete truth comes to light?

Grandpa Guy Havelick



Grace writes:

Skippy came to live with us when I was ten. He was the first dog Mama ever allowed in the house. Guess she couldn’t resist that cute little golden tan + white puppy. It may have been in the winter, too – otherwise I can’t imagine why she would have let us keep him in the house. He grew up being loved dearly by the whole family. Henry made a little harness for him so he could pull the sled. He would get so excited when we’d put our skates on the sled + harness him up to go skating down on the lake.

One time in the spring … Continue reading

Dandy the Cat and other animals

Grace and Dandy

Grace and Dandy

I’ve always been a cat person, and for most of her life Grace was, too. This story focuses on a cat that lived on the farm for a long time. Dandy was the animal that Grandma Luehr told us about many times. There are a lot more stories about Dandy that I just don’t remember. When I was a kid we had several cats that looked a lot like Dandy, but they weren’t quite as friendly as Dandy appears to be in this story. The pet’s name that comes to mind is Mr Jinx. Sadly, I don’t remember any stories about him.

Grandpa Guy Havelick



Grace writes:

Dear ones,

I remember one time when I was a little kid there was so many toads. There must have been thousands of them as they were everywhere. Most years we would see one or two in the garden but this time was something else. Continue reading

Fairview Cemetery

Pic 040a

Fairview Cemetery, Kidder County, ND

We recently celebrated the life of my favorite aunt, Esther. We left her ashes at the Fairview Cemetery, next to my mother (Esther’s little sister) and her mother and father. Fairview remains one of my favorite places.

If you have read this blog lately, you know that I’m a product of the North Dakota prairie. Fairview Cemetery, just south and west of Lake Williams, ND, demonstrates the stark beauty of the prairie. If you stand in the middle of the cemetery and look in any direction you won’t see much human activity outside the cemetery fence. No buildings, few fences, fewer roads (all dirt), no cell phone or power line towers. It’s quiet. Almost eerie. Relaxing. The solitude encourages communion with those resting there. I love the place. Continue reading