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

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

Fairview Cemetery

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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

Two Room Schoolhouse

Grace is in the back row, third from the left.

Grace is in the back row, third from the left.

The changes over the last one hundred years amaze me. Then this letter shows up and twists my understanding even further up the amazement scale. A general observation that things change is pretty banal. Once I hear about a specific change  in detail, in a way that I can relate to, it gets personal. In this letter Grace tells us about the one room school-house on the prairie. They were all over North Dakota in the nineteen thirties. Did I say one room?

Then there was the school-house Grace went to. Two rooms. Maybe you can detect a little pride in her description of the school building and grounds. That school yard had everything a school girl would want, including the flowers that Grace described in another letter.

She didn’t describe the interior of the classroom. That’s something I’d love to hear more about. Last summer during the local Irish Fest at the History Center Judy and I attended a talk about bodhráns. The talk was in the one room school-house on the center grounds. Wooden desks nailed to the floor. A world/USA map hanging from the wall. A chalk board on the front wall, next to the American flag. A pot-bellied stove and a table in the front for the teacher and you’ve got it covered.

Compare that to school rooms today, with smart boards and iPads everywhere. The kids have a cafeteria, gymnasium, library and much more. And we still think it’s not enough!

Grandpa Guy Havelick

 


 

Grace  writes:

Our schoolhouse was probably one of the biggest in N. Dak. The pioneers from two townships had gone together and built one with two rooms instead of the conventional one room you see all over the midwest. Continue reading

Another Tornado

Grace on the farm

Grace on the farm

When a storm rolls through the North Dakota prairie, a couple of things happen. Buildings are destroyed. Memories are made. Although I’ve never seen a building flattened, storms certainly hold a special place in my memory.

There wasn’t much that scared my Grandma. The storm Grace describes must have come very close for her to hightail it to the house. Neither Grace nor I were ever afraid of storms. Perhaps I learned from those old farm gals?

Grandpa Guy Havelick

 


 

Grace writes:

My dear ones,

When I was about three or four years old there was a tornado that nearly blew us away. Continue reading

Indians on the Dawson Trail

Kunkle House

Kunkle House

There’s something special about meeting someone nice for the first time. If that spark is in the air, you want to know everything about the other person. By the end of the evening you know all sorts of things about the new someone. Those stories become the foundation for a new, wonderful, relationship.

That sharing of stories didn’t happen between my mother and me until I was over forty years old. So many things seemed more important for those first forty years. I needed my allowance a day early, or it was time to get a driver’s license, or my own life filled my brain. Then I met Judy and stories about the past no longer mattered. Stories about Judy became my goal.

Since Grace died twenty years ago we’ve visited the Kunkel farm where she grew up a couple of times, and I’ve often visited the Fairview Cemetery where she’s buried. In the summer of 2015 the extended family gathered at the Luehr plots in Fairview to bury Grace’s older sister. The wind blew off our hats, and swept our words onto the wheat fields. Grace and her parents experienced that same wind, on those same hills in the first half of the twentieth century.

As much as the climate was similar, just about everything else was different.
Grandpa Guy Havelick

 


Grace writes:

To my four dear sons, their wives + children,

I want to start this story with some events that shaped my life before I was born

The story I’m enclosing was told to my sister-in-law Elaine. It’s about the farm where we lived in Buckeye township south of Lake Williams, North Dakota. Continue reading