OLD TIMES & NEW BEGINNINGS
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Donna's First Steps
My life began with doting uncles, a beautiful aunt, and a grandfather with strong, steady arms who carried me about the farm yard, showing me the sights and smells of North Dakota before I learned prejudice, the limitations of poverty, or experienced the taunts of classmates.
I was born in St. Alexius hospital in Bismarck on Saturday, 3 February 1934. My mother was Irene Larson and my birth certificate read "Baby Larson." The attending physician was Dr. Arneson.
My mother was staying with friends, the Axelstines, in Bismarck, awaiting my birth. Her labor began shortly after midnight, and after a relatively easy labor, I was delivered about 6 A.M. We remained in the hospital two weeks with my mother confined to bed without even bathroom privileges. It was the way of the times. She had one roommate in the semi-private room. I was breast-fed then and until I was about one year old. There were no visitors. It was my mother's wish, and considering the unpredictability of the North Dakota winters, it was just as well, for no one traveled far that February unless it was absolutely necessary. Most of my layette including blankets was made up of gifts from the Methodist Church's ladies' group in Washburn, where my mother's older sister, Lulah Carvell, was a member and where my mother had been attending Sunday School. My mother was particularly proud of a kimono with French seams, her first sewing project for the layette. Later she made some of the flannel diapers.
On the way home from the hospital, we stopped at Clayton and Lulah Carvell's farm home, which they were renting. Lulah was in bed ill, troubled with lung congestion. We visited there for two hours with Lulah holding me much of the time. Many years later, I learned that Lulah and Clayton Carvell had offered to raise me as their own child, when my mother had anguished over her dilemma as an unmarried pregnant woman--a significant stigma in 1934.
On Thursday, 22 February, my mother heard the phone ring for the John Ecklunds (on a party line) and picked up the receiver to rubberneck. She heard someone say that Mildred Carvell had died. Although the name was incorrect, my mother realized with horror that they were talking about her sister, Lulah (Lu Lu) Carvell. In shock, she waited for Ellen Ecklund to call her with the tragic news. My mother had never realized that her sister was so seriously ill, let alone near death.
The day of Lulah's funeral in Washburn, Margaret and Carl Reimers cared for me at the Louis Larson home at Elm Point while my mother, Grandpa Louis, and uncles, Walter and Chester, traveled to Washburn in Art and Adeline Kost's Model A Ford to attend the funeral.
Alfred Carvell, now a motherless baby of 18 months, would be raised by Adeline and Art Kost, who had been married only two months before suddenly undertaking the full-time care of Adeline's nephew. Adeline and Art would never have children of their own and subsequently made Alfred their legal heir.
Irene and Adeline had lost their own mother, Hattie of a heart attack at 42 years of age, in 1929, then their sister, Alice of diabetes, in 1932, and Lulah in 1934. I imagine my mother's loneliness and despair during those sad days as she tried to adjust to all the tragic losses as well as the responsibility of raising a daughter alone, without a husband-father or provider.
My bassinet was a clothes basket. I was covered by receiving blankets made from a torn flannel sheet and my great-grandmother's, Mari's, woolen shawl. At night I usually slept with my mother in the southeast bedroom of their Elm Point home; my uncles, Walter and Chester, sleeping in the attic, my grandfather, Louis, sleeping in the northeast bedroom. Certainly, I never lacked attention. Grandpa Larson carried me about, giving me bottles of water or juice and changing my diapers. He was the adoring grandfather. I adored him as well. My uncle Dave was another of the doting relatives. Although he did not live at home, (he lived away while he was working at the Jacobson ferry site north of us riprapping), he visited often, traveling about in his 1928 Model T touring car (bought from George Swanson, a banker in Falkirk).
My first photograph shows me at about five months of age, supported in a barely sitting position outdoors, looking down toward the ground while a spotted puppy, also supported, appears anguished and uncertain. My beautiful aunt, Adeline Kost, was also in the picture. She was slender, and dressed in a light-colored dress. In later years, I often studied that photograph with its familiar scene and occupants and tried to recall the moment. I seemed to remember the feeling of my aunt's arms holding me and her wonderful scent and beauty. There were other impressions as well: the sights and smells of summer and the trees by the house where it was cool and inviting during the long stifling summer days of July and August. At the time the photograph was taken, the trees were young boxelders grown from seeds (volunteers) along the irrigation-drainage ditch beside the road, where melting snows or rains could create a rushing torrent of water near the house, sometimes within minutes following a cloudburst. Already the trees were creating a nuisance with the messy and invasive box elder bugs that gathered there. They were everywhere in the house, staining clothing when one sat on them, staining printed pages when their bodies were inadvertently smashed in a closed book, and finding their way into food and subsequently into mouths when the menu could not exclude them.
It was funny how the winters in North Dakota could be as treacherously cold as the summers were miserably hot. But my earliest memories were of summer rather than winter, perhaps because I was kept snug and warm, protected from the blizzards and icy wind blasts until I was old enough to play outdoors.
The Larson house was on the former John/Mari Ecklund homestead, where John Ecklund in September 1885 brought his bride, Mari, to live in a dugout (a cave-like dwelling built into a hill where my grandmother, Hattie, was born). A few yards away from the cave was the log house built in the autumn of 1887 with the help of neighbors and friends, not unlike the typical frontier cabin-raising event, followed by dancing on an earthen floor. The house in 1934 was that same log cabin but then expanded and covered by white painted siding and a shingled roof, with a front door entered through an open porch surrounded by trellises for climbing roses and vines. That homestead was one of several located in the region along the Missouri River called, Elm Point.
Late, in the summer of 1934, my mother went to work for the William Allen family, taking me along with my clothes basket bassinet. It was August and the days and nights were hot and sticky. My mother remembers working long days cooking for threshers, scrubbing pots, canning, and helping with the care of the Allen children. Mrs. Allen was blind and pregnant when my mother began working there; Mr. Allen was deaf. My mother slept in the same bed as the Allen's two older children. She was determined to protect her baby from insects and rodents; so she would place me in my clothes-basket bed in the middle of the dining-room table. (I must add here that rodents and bed bugs were common with most rural families at that time, with fumigations done, and bed springs put out into the yards every spring for kerosene treatments.)
My mother was amazed by Mrs. Allen's ability to care for her children and home. It was difficult, hard work. My mother and the blind Mrs. Allen shared the work but without modern electrical appliances or disposable diapers. The diapers and other laundry were scrubbed on a board with lye soap and then boiled in a boiler on the wood-burning stove. The wooden floors were scrubbed on hands and knees with brush and lye soap.
With Mr. and Mrs. Allen's handicaps, it was understandable that there were communication difficulties! The Allen baby developed a bad rash and Doctor Gordon tried to tell them to leave off the woolen clothing. Even during the hottest days, Mr. Allen believed the baby should be swathed in the usual layers of woolen garments. Mr. Allen admired my first pair of shoes of a black soft oilcloth-like material with buckles, purchased from Holtan's Mercantile for less than one dollar. He wanted a similar pair for his baby. By then, I was creeping about everywhere. I can imagine the things that must have found their way into my mouth. Surely my stockings must have been worn and blackened with soil and grime from rubbing across the rough wooden floors.
My mother never received pay for those months of work. Times were hard for the Allens. But they offered her some old roosters. Grandpa Larson said, "No, we have plenty of old roosters at home already." She went on to work for other farm wives, helping with the threshing chores. But the pay was always meager.
After we returned to Elm Point, I did my creeping about on the wooden floors there. Grandpa would hold and cuddle me and worry about my health and safety. Grandpa got a number of weekly papers. There was the Swedish paper, "Cappers"; "Stanton News"; "Washburn Leader"; and Nebraska farm paper that came weekly. The mail was picked up at Hancock daily if someone made the three-mile trip to the mailboxes. There was little to do during the long winter months other than read because we had no radio.
I was always thought of as a "good" baby. In the early weeks, I had little colic or crying episodes. Once when Grandpa was emptying ashes and had left his gloves on the floor, I crawled to the gloves and began sweeping residue ashes with one of them. Grandpa said, "That's my Grandma Ecklund all over." (meaning, I was like my deceased great-grandmother Mari, who was reportedly always cleaning!)
My mother, Irene, and Godtfred Reimers were no more than friends until 1935 when Margaret and Carl Reimers arranged for Godtfred to call on Irene. At the time, Irene recalled that her mother had encouraged her to be attentive to Godtfred because she believed he had been in love with her for a long time, and thought that Godtfred was a man Irene could both trust and respect. As a child, Irene had become acquainted with Godtfred when he occasionally visited her home, bringing her bunnies and owls for her animal zoo. It was on such an occasion that she had told Godtfred she would marry him when she grew up.
In March, 1935, Godtfred called on Irene with the expressed hope that she would keep house for him. Irene accepted the job offer.
Irene had not been at Godtfreds's farm home long when she received another job offer by way of a letter. She remembers that she was washing clothes at a scrub board when Godtfred brought the letter from her Uncle, Emanuel Tjenstrom, wanting her to care for his aged mother, (Irene's grandmother, Martha Tjenstrom, her father's mother). Irene thought that perhaps it was the answer to her prayers and she said as much. (Later, it was suggested that the letter with its job offer had been a ploy to remove Irene from a compromising situation or to force Godtfred to make a marriage proposal! Whatever the reason, it worked!) Godtfred suggested marriage and Irene laughed and said that the sight of her standing at the wash board had inspired the proposal, when he considered what it would be like to do his own laundry again. He reminded Irene of her statement to him as a child that she would marry him when she got big. And he said, "Well, I waited until you grew up . . . now I'm asking you to be my wife."
Irene had wondered if Godtfred was really willing to take on the responsibility of a wife, let alone, the added responsibility of her child. She soon realized that his desire to marry her was based on more than pity or the need for a housekeeper. He genuinely cared about both Irene and her little girl. He was a quiet and serious person, just the kind that all mothers and grandmothers would describe as a really nice guy. He was warm and likeable, sympathetic and understanding. Irene felt affection for him. And she was glad that Margaret had set up her employment with Godtfred, and thought perhaps Carl's and Margaret's plan had always been for them to marry.
I was baptized Donna Lou by Rev. Oscar Swenson that spring at the Methodist parsonage in Washburn with Adeline and Art Kost my God-parents. On Easter Sunday, 21 April 1935, my mother and Godtfred Ernest Reimers were married at the same place by the same pastor. Their witnesses were Godtfred's sister, Agnes Reimers, and my mother's brother, David Larson. The bride was 22 years old, born Monday, 13 May 1912. The groom was 35 years old, born Tuesday, 4 July 1899. Following the marriage ceremony there was a dinner at the Adeline and Art Kost home. Crocuses made up the table centerpiece.
Godtfred's and Irene's marriage was a surprise to everyone except the Larsons and Adolph and Agnes Reimers. Soon after the wedding ceremony, Agnes and Dave went their separate ways spreading the news. The word spread quickly. A large crowd gathered in their yard that night for a charivari or shivaree (a noisy and frequently mischievous ceremony with refreshments served by the bride and groom). Later, Godtfred told Irene that getting married was the wisest thing he had ever done. And, from then on Godtfred was known to me only as "Daddy."
There are photographs presumably taken the day of their marriage with Daddy holding me and standing beside Mama on top of a big steam engine. There is a photograph of Adeline and Art, locked in an embrace beside their prized model A Ford. Mama and Daddy posed beside the same car. There were pictures of Alfred and me with several kittens. Already Alfred and I were great playmates as well as first cousins. That special bond would continue through a lifetime of the good and bad years.
Shortly after Mama and Daddy's marriage, my fourteen-year-old uncle, Chester, ran away from home. He had rebelled from his father's strict and sometimes perceived cruel disciplinarian ways. He had graduated from the 8th grade that spring. A big boy, probably already close to 6 feet, he looked more man than boy. We have a photograph of him from 1934 where he stood near the back door of the house licking a pie plate, while my mother with her back turned to the camera was entering the house behind him.
Chester had made himself a raft and crossed the river near what is called the Acropolis, not far from the original Louis Larson homestead and house (a two-room shack where Grandpa and Grandma Larson lived with their seven children before moving to the Ecklund homestead, my future home). From Stanton, Chester had hopped a freight train to Minnesota. Later, Chester moved to Montana where he worked at a variety of jobs, and probably learned that his father wasn't the worst taskmaster that ever lived! He was working as a ranch hand for the Sheltons in Montana during the summer of 1941 when we visited the area.
Mama's and Daddy's and my first summer together on the rented Carlson farm was a time of fighting mosquitoes. Many years later, my mother wrote, "Men working in the fields looked like bandits with their big bandanna kerchiefs draped over their heads to protect themselves from the big, blood-thirsty insects. They wore straw hats over the kerchiefs."
I have been told I was eighteen months old the day I got stuck under the porch of the house at the Carlson place. We had a white dog called "Tippi" who had puppies late the summer of 1935. Apparently I was curious and determined to get to those puppies that Tippi was keeping cool and presumably safe from prying eyes and fingers, far beneath the long kitchen porch. I decided to crawl under the porch to visit them. I remember seeing the puppies' eyes glowing in the dark. I don't remember Tippi's presence or any sounds from me or the dogs. I do recall the feeling of being stuck, with dirt and dust in my nose and throat and no way to turn around or retreat. The floor of the porch had seemed tight across my head and shoulders. I must have cried. Mama and Daddy were alerted by Tippi's loud barking and anxious trips back and forth from them to where I was imprisoned. Shortly, Daddy had gotten a spade and dug me out, pulling me feet first from beneath the porch. I remember the sensation of being pulled with face trailing in the dirt! Later, my description of the event as memory was thought merely an impression after the many recountings of the afternoon by my parents. But my claustrophobic fears today perhaps originated under that porch many years ago with the frightening impressions or memories that just don't go away.
Later on, I had two favorite playmates, Tommy Carlson and Janice Peterson. They were both a year or so younger than me. Our families were near-neighbors as small farm neighborhoods go. Tommy lived a couple of miles away straight west--beside the same straight road that ran beside our house. Janice lived a little farther away--unless one took a shortcut across a couple of pastures to the north.
When I was 4 or 5 years old I decided to visit Janice by the most direct route. I remember a big pasture and a bull and being scared, but I don't recall if I actually got to Janice's. I think I got a spanking.
Another time I remember walking down the road to Tommy's place and getting spanked in front of Tommy. That caused me a great deal of anguish because I was embarrassed and angry at my folks for all the fuss. I couldn't see that I had done anything bad enough to warrant such humiliation!
The road to Tommy's went by the Birka Lutheran Church and its cemetery (a half mile away). I was told that the very same summer I had gotten marooned under the porch I had also walked down the road to do some exploring. My folks had been frantic with worry when they discovered I was missing. Someone phoned to report I was seen playing among the tombstones! I remember playing alone in the cemetery at some time, but whether that was the same year--we'll never know. I suspect I visited those tombstones on more than one occasion. I never could understand why my trips down the road caused so much concern. I suppose my folks were worried that I'd get lost or hit by a car or whatever. The road traffic wasn't too bad in those days, however. Sometimes a solitary car went by all day--sometimes none. And of course I wasn't going to get lost because I could see Tommy's house from ours. But they were being typically anxious parents, particularly since they didn't know what I might attempt next! Reportedly, I was a barefooted relentless explorer much of the time.
I was considered fearless--at least I was good at giving that impression--no screams of boogie man or needing to sleep with a light on. The latter would have been ridiculous anyhow. Who would keep a kerosine lamp burning all night--or a candle? Sometimes I would go outside into the pitch black night to retrieve toys I had left somewhere during my day of play. My folks wondered how I could remember where I'd left the toys, let alone find them in the dark. Yes, I went barefoot a lot. I remember the hot summer days and my feet on the warm soil of the yard where there was little car traffic during the dry summer days of 1936-38, but enough to keep the ground free of vegetation, even weeds. I was told I didn't have a single pair of shoes for an entire year. It was the time of the Depression.
There were many days when the hours were heavy with the sounds of clicking grasshoppers. In the evenings and nights, we were serenaded by chirping crickets. I remember our floors as bare of rugs. et, the house seemed spacious. Perhaps that was because there was little furniture. I know I loved to run from room to room and watch Mama sweeping those bare dusty floors.
There was a tree claim beside the house where I played all sorts of imaginary games--all by myself except for my dog and cats and insects. It was a time of joy and innocence for me. I was the center of attention. I was an only child, the first granddaughter, etc. My mother's oldest brother, Dave Larson, was my favorite person! I think the feeling was mutual until he fell in love--with Marian Scholl. I then became a jealous child. Uncle Dave would try to appease me with midnight excursions to the pantry for raisin raids after his dates. He was living with us at the time. I can still feel the magic of his arms and the delicious mischief of those nights. Uncle Dave was the world's best story teller. He could regale child and adult alike with his stories about the good old days. It must have been in the Larson genes. All three of my uncles could tell a good yarn, but none as well as Uncle Dave!
There was a windmill and water tank on the farm. I was fascinated by the heights of the windmill and its ladder. I was tempted by the water tank and its wetness. But I felt fear and apprehension and never considered challenging the dangers of either.
I remember summer days when I accompanied Mama to the fields when she brought Daddy hot noon meals, called "dinners." In my mind's eye, I can still see Tippi romping about in plowed acreage among the furrows, or chasing a rabbit or child or thistle across the stubbled land. Later, Tippi number one died when she got in the way of some piece of machinery. I think it was a combine or mower. I don't think I knew about the accident at the time. I'm sure it was much later before I learned the truth about Tippi's demise.
We were friends with the Freilo Peterson family. Mabel was a dear lady whose birthday was 3 December 1893. For many years she kept a daily diary recounting the weather, daily births and deaths, butcherings, visits, church socials, prairie fires, baptisms, blizzards, ice breakups, and harvest memorabilia notes. She died the fall before her 90th birthday in 1983. She and Freilo had two sons, Donald and Roger. I got my first crush on Roger in maybe 1937, when he was perhaps 5 or 6 years old. I saw little of Roger until I started first grade where we both attended the same one-room school. Roger would be the love of my life until I began confirmation classes in 7th grade. I remember him riding his pony home from school, with me walking beside him. But soon my attentions were to be diverted to a confirmation student, who was two years older than me.
Apparently, the first Christmas I recall was when I was two years old. My grandfather, Louis Larson, bought me a doll almost as big as me. She looked lifelike and she was the hit of that Christmas for all of us! Grandpa had walked across the frozen river from his homestead next to the Missouri River to the town of Stanton where he had originally purchased an even larger doll. He had walked back to Stanton to replace it with the final doll because he didn't think the doll should be larger than me. That angelic-looking doll had blonde hair and a wardrobe designed and made by Mom with her treadle sewing machine. I vaguely remember that first Christmas tree with all its hand-made ornaments and candles. I also remember being very interested in my cousin's, Alfred's, toys. I always loved boy's toys, especially the trucks and tractors. I'm sure we celebrated that Christmas at the Art Kost home.
I remember my first Santa. It was perhaps 1937 or 1938, when I was three or four years old. It was in Washburn, North Dakota where we traveled by horses and sleigh over a frozen road, the runners making a crackling sound in the crisp air as they passed over the hard-packed snow.
Santa arrived by a sleigh also, pulled by horses not reindeer; and I remember his arrival with bells and cheery greeting and big bag of goodies. Everyone was singing "Jingle Bells," and each of us got a gift from that "bag" of an orange and hard candy. We sang other songs too, like "Up On The Housetop" and "Jolly Old St. Nicholas."
Later, we awaited another visit from Santa at home. I went to sleep full of anticipation, believing Santa would come down the chimney during the night. Of course, our tiny chimney was attached to narrow, hot pipes and a coal and wood-burning stove. But I believed!
On 10 August 1937, I got a real live doll to play with. My sister Noreen Lavyrl was born in Washburn at the Wilson home (the maternity center for the area). She weighed over eight pounds and always had a cuddly, cherubic look. I remember seeing her for the first time at the Wilson home. There are black and white photographs of poor quality, from those earliest days, showing Mama in a rocker holding "Tula" while I looked on.
By the summer of 1938 Tula was receiving much of my attentions. I pushed her about in a carriage, played with her in a clothes basket, pulled her in a wagon, or helped her feed herself insects and twigs while she discovered the warm North Dakota soil. And by the summer of 1939, she was becoming an even more active participant in our laundry-making endeavors.
Laundry day was a major production, with water heated in big, copper boilers in the house on the wood-burning stove, then lugged outside. Of course, that only made the summer heat more intolerable. One need remember that the water was first hauled from the windmill and pump into the house to fill those boilers. Mama made many of her bars of soap from lye, lard, and ashes. I remember seeing her toiling away at a scrub board. Later, she had a gas-driven washer, which was located out in the yard, in the shade somewhere. Most of the time, the clean laundry was hung on outside lines to dry. But, in the winter there were many times Mama combatted frozen sheets in the wind and cold. It was a fun time for Tula and me when the wash was strung on lines throughout the house. We played tag between the legs of denim overalls and gray long-johns.
We were destined to leave the Carlson place, which I loved for its symbolism as my first real home and domain of a first borne, as well as its proximity to my playmates. We moved to the Reimers' shack in the Elm Point area. There we moved in with Adolph Reimers to raise hogs on the lands adjacent to the Missouri River and Louis Larson homestead.
My grandfather, Louis Larson, owned land where it was said Hidatsa Indians camped in the days of the the Lewis and Clark expedition. It has been suggested that some of his land might have been the site of a former Hidatsa village, now unaccounted for. Much of the land in the area was washed away by spring flooding and ersosion. It was in the Hidatsa camps where Lewis and Clark wintered in 1804-05 and acquired the services of Sacajawea or Sakakawea (depending upon your linguistic leanings) and her husband, Carbondeau, as their guides to the Pacific Ocean.
( To be continued)