RUGBY: THE FIRST VISIT
Vagabond Journal: January, 2003
[from Vagabond #2, February 2003]
January 15 &16, 2003
Of course the poet believes the world is as he says it is. The poet
names, and in naming he creates the world as it will be. He also observes
and thinks what he sees is what the world is. I have set forth now as
the Vagabond - naming and seeing, hoping to paint the world as it will
be for me, as it is, the middle western part of it.
I am struck again: how this journey is process, not product; more expedition
and exploration than destination and explanation. A way of knowing rather
than the knowledge gained.
A lot of what I'll have to say will be about light, I
suppose; about how light owns us, guides us, marks us; about how light
lays on things, on the roughness of that field, on the smoothness of
this court house; about how light comes and goes morning and night,
marking our days and our years, and the generations.
I stop for supplies at the grocery store in downtown Rugby,
then I cross the street to DK's shop: "Barber and Styling"
it says in the window. DK is 44, a woman with dark hair put up ("it
would be turning grey if I let it"); she is finishing a trim for
an older gentleman whose hair might have had a red tinge once, now it's
more the color of an old man gone grey. "She'll just have to comb
it out if she doesn't like it," DK says of a cowlick on the back
of the fellow's head, a turn of hair that doesn't want to lay down properly
and she can't make it. Haircut done, she and the old fellow are looking
at a collection of black and white photos. From where I sit, the people
in the photos look like they're dressed for the 1950s, and it's real,
not retro. DK and the old fellow talk familiarly of the people in the
pictures. DK has a charm and a tenderness that's not necessarily apparent
on the surface.
Soon enough she turns and says to me, "Well, come
on..." and she ushers me into her barber's chair. "How do
you want it cut?" she asks. I think she recognizes that my style
is no style. "Do you want it trimmed up over your ears?"
"I tell the woman back home to make me look like
a well-groomed mountain man - not that she listens," I say.
DK gives me a look and starts to work. "I have to
like the haircuts I give before I'm done with them," she says by
way of re-assurance.
DK was a farm girl who had an itch to see what was out
there in the big wide world. She couldn't be satisfied doing what everybody
else did. As soon as she finished high school in Rugby, she spent some
time in the National Guard in Georgia and the Carolinas. She headed
out to California for ten years, to Florida, to the state of Wash-ington.
"I don't know why all the men I ever ran into were losers,"
she says without bitterness. You get the sense that if she'd found a
good man out there, she'd never have returned to Rugby.
"Why did you come back?" I wonder.
"Family," she says. She is one of eight kids. "I'm sort
of the black sheep, you know. I had to get out of here and see the world.
My brothers and sisters were happy staying here." What's the difference
between her and her siblings that she had to get out of North Dakota?
"I don't know," she says, "I couldn't tell you."
Later DK says her youngest brother is 23, he's an electrician, and he
built his own house. "You've got to start young and get yourself
settled," she says, with - I think - admiration.
I point out that she wouldn't have been to California, Florida, and
Washington state if she'd have followed her own advice about staying
put and starting young. "You're right," she says. "I
had to get out of here for awhile."
Yeah, DK's siblings stayed in Rugby. One of her brothers farms with
her father. A couple others farm, too. A sister married a farmer, a
brother loads trucks for a trucking company in town, another works at
the hospital in Rugby, DK cuts hair, her youngest brother is the electrician.
"What's the average price for a house in Rugby?" I ask. The
fellow who runs the Rugby stockyards has come in now and is waiting
patiently while DK clips and re-clips my beard trying to get it to look
decent. DK looks over at the fellow from the stockyards, asks him "What
is the average price for a house?"
"$50,000" is what they agree on. "Not that all the houses
in Rugby cost that much," DK says. "I bought one for $15,000."
DK might be done with my trim. "What do you think?" she asks
"If you're happy with it, I'm happy," I say. I know just from
talking to her that she doesn't let her customers out of the barber
chair until she's satisfied. "I'm proud of every hair cut I give,"
I think she'd say again if I let her.
January 17, 2003
Yesterday I decided to go to breakfast at the Cornerstone Cafe and as
I stepped out of my room, so did the fellow from next door. He had a
piece of lathe with orange paint on one end of it, he used it as a walking
stick. He had on a pair of insulated cover-alls. He was going to walk
the several blocks to the Rugby sale barn for breakfast at the cafe
there, as he often did on sale day, Thursdays. He said if I liked good
food in a place that wasn't very fancy, I should have breakfast at the
sale barn too. Turns out the fellow's name is Clayton Olson, turns out
he's nearly 80 years old, turns out he's the father of Therese Rocheleau,
the woman who co-owns the Oakwood Inn motel with her husband Jim. I
cleaned out the front passenger seat of my car and gave Clayton a ride
to the sale barn. He seemed a little reluctant to take the ride, almost
as if it is less than moral to accept a ride from the new fellow in
town when you could just as well walk in a temperature of twelve degrees
Clayton is from the Brookings, SD, area originally but bought a farm
and re-settled somewhat east of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, where he still
lives. He is staying in Room 31 at the Oakwood this winter at the urging
of his daughter. The room has a kitchenette and when it became available
Therese invited him to stay the winter there so he didn't have to be
cutting and splitting wood all winter to keep himself warm on the Minnesota
So Clayton is in Rugby, I'm giving him a ride to the sale barn for breakfast,
we're talking about books. He likes to read, especially Louis L'Amour
novels. There's a fellow from northeastern North Dakota who also writes
westerns, Clayton tells me, "I can't remember his name, but he's
no Louis L'Amour...."
The biscuits and gravy that Clayton wanted to order have been all sold
out so he settles for hashbrowns and toast and sausage or bacon. I order
my usual - two eggs, two pancakes, two sausage patties. I end up giving
Clayton a copy of my memoir, Curlew:Home, then later in the afternoon
as I'm talking to Therese Rocheleau she says "Dad must be reading
your book already. He said that this morning you ordered the same breakfast
that you ordered on page 13 of the book...."
We talked over breakfast, Clayton and I did, about the project that
brought me to Rugby. He enlisted the help of our waitress and others
in the cafe to start a list of the people I should talk to. When we
pushed our empty plates away, Clayton insisted on paying for my breakfast.
I didn't want to try arm-wrestling the tab away from him because I know
that, while these old fellows no longer have the strength they used
to, slyness trumps strength every time. (When he bought me breakfast,
that's when I knew for sure I had to give him a copy of my book.)
We stepped into the hallway of the sale barn and Clayton introduced
me to the main auctioneer at the place, Ron Torgerson. I may have to
do a piece on the sale barn, and Ron Torgerson would be at the center
of it. I got his phone number. Clayton introduced me to a cattle buyer
and farmer ("I'm a farmer first"), Ken Mattern, who gave me
his phone number and his cell-phone number. Clayton and I watched cattle
sell for a few minutes. A younger fellow was doing the auctioneering
early in the day, selling the less desirable cattle, the old cows and
those not properly finished.
"Watch those two buyers standing there at the edge of the ring,
off to the side," Clayton told me. "When one of them makes
a bid, he barely moves his hand." I watched. I saw a hand make
just the flicker of a movement, he'd bid on the cattle in the ring.
Another buyer sitting front and center with a little bit of plank table
in front of him just barely nodded his head; he was bidding too. It
was flicker of hand versus the slightest nod of head til one of the
fellows looked away - the bidding was over - "SOLD!"
I gave Clayton a ride back to the motel, he invited me into the office
to meet his daughter, and I had to sign my book for him.
I arrived a few minutes late to interview Richard Lavik,
who'd been a school superintendent in several places in North Dakota
from very shortly after he graduated from college until he retired two
years ago. "In North Dakota you can retire when your age and years
of service total 85," Lavik told me. "You can stay longer
but your retirement benefits don't get noticeably better. Teachers pensions
aren't the best pensions in the world."
I'd been told Lavik has "a dry sense of humor."
After spending four hours talking with him, I'd say instead that he
has a sly sense of humor. "This is my Norwegian grandfather,"
Lavik said just as straight-faced and sincere as you can imagine. What
he'd handed me was a very old photo of an Indian, dark as the earth,
holding his pony at attention, a dog in the background.
"That might be your grandfather," I said, "but he's not
Norwegian." On the back of the photo it said in pencil: "Running
I got three hours of conversation with Lavik on tape. He is especially
knowledgeable about the history of the schools and churches in Rugby
and throughout Pierce County. His real Norwegian grandfather came to
Rugby about 1919 and started the Rugby Tailoring Company. His father
ran a dry-cleaning business on Main Street, where Lavik helped out as
he was growing up. "We dumped our spent chemicals in the alley
back of the building," Lavik said. "The alley was dirt, not
paved. You didn't think anything about it back then. You couldn't get
away with that these days."
One story Lavik told that I didn't get on tape was about the 1963 murder
of a Rugby policeman. (I hate it how people seem to wait to tell the
really good stuff once I've got the tape recorder packed away.) The
murder occurred in a back alley downtown. Big Louie and his crime partner
had pulled up behind one of the buildings along Main Street. The way
the buildings were set, Louie's car was in a "box canyon"
and when the policeman saw the car back there, he knew it was trouble.
Big Louie had been in trouble before, he'd always been a bully and a
petty criminal. "Yoo-hoo, boys," the cop reportedly called
out, "come on out." Big Louie and the other fellow came out
and when they saw the cop car had them boxed in one or the other of
them shot the cop and shot him again and again. The criminals emptied
one gun into the body on the ground, then took the cop's own piece and
shot him again and again with that gun, a total of fifteen times. Then
for good measure they shot up the buildings around them. They moved
the cop car out of their way and took off. Road blocks were set up.
Big Louie ran into a road block trying to enter Minot, west of Rugby.
Louie's car had the back seat taken out and that made a cop suspicious
enough that he took down the make and color of Louie's car and the number
on his license plate. ("If you're going to steal merchandise,"
Lavik informed me, "you take the back seat out of your car so you
can get more stuff in it.") A dentist who had been getting ready
for work as Louie and his partner were shooting up the buildings had
seen Louie's car. He hadn't had his glasses on, still he could see that
it was a small car, reddish or pink in color. Big Louie drove a car
of similar description and soon enough the cops put two and two together.
When they arrested him, Big Louie broke into tears: "I can't go
without my teddy bear," he told the cops. "Let me get my teddy
"How many bullets do you think you have to put into one cop before
you get locked up for good?" Lavik asked me. "Big Louie went
to prison. He got paroled, and later he died in a house fire. His buddy
got paroled too, I don't know what happened to him."
The murder was written up in one of the "true crime" magazines,
Lavik told me. A secretary at the Rugby school has a copy of the magazine.
"You know I always thought they embellished those crime stories
when they wrote them up," Lavik said, "but this one was word-for-word
a true account of what had actually happened." I asked Lavik to
get me a photocopy of the article for my reference. What he wants is
a copy for himself of the actual magazine, but he isn't optimistic that
he's going to find one.
Then Lavik remembers: "A few years before this murder, a bunch
of us kids were out playing softball in the park. Big Louie's car drove
up. Out came one big tree of a leg, then the other. Big Louie was walking
towards us and we were trying to pretend that we didn't see him. Ha.
We knew he was trouble. He wanted to play ball with us and what choice
did we have. He batted and we chased the balls he hit, that's how he
played ball. When he got tired of it he thanked us and drove off. Whew.
You know I was worried the whole time I'd never get to grow up and become
a school superintendent."
January 18, 2003
At 9:30 a.m. yesterday I was at Richard Blessum's door to interview
him, and he was at his door to let me in.
As I put in a blank tape to start recording the fourth hour of conversation,
I told Blessum that my interview with him was now longer than than one
I'd recorded with Richard Lavik the day before.
"Should I call Lavik and tell him I beat him?" Blessum wondered.
My full interview with Blessum runs to nearly five hours, not counting
the times he put his hand over the microphone or when we shut off the
tape to talk about stuff he didn't want "on the record."
Blessum was born in 1926; with the exception of his service in the Navy,
he has lived all his life in the Rugby area. When this North Dakota
farm boy first saw the ocean, he said to a more experienced Navy fellow:
"Would you look at all that water...."
The other fellow said: "Yeah, and you're only seeing the top of
When he returned from service, Blessum married a high school sweetheart
and took over his father's farm north of Rugby. Blessum and his wife
have three sons, all of them living now in Washington state. Blessum's
wife died a few years ago.
Blessum became heavily involved in the Geographic Center and Prairie
Village Museum when he moved off the farm in the 1970s. He has been
on the board of directors of the organization ever since, and until
a few years ago he was "curator" of the museum, a job which
put him in charge of day-to-day operations.
You can't imagine sitting with a fellow who can recall from memory all
thirty-one buildings in the Prairie Village, in their proper order and
with highlights of their contents. Blessum has had plenty of opportunity
to see the buildings over the years, including helping with school tours
in May when as many as 800 kids will tour the museum.
"I remember one of those kids was opening and closing drawers in
a cabinet at the general store," Blessum said. "I thought
he'd open and close every drawer in the place. I said 'Say, did you
find the one with the mouse in it yet?' Well, that stopped it. He didn't
open another drawer."
Before I left him, I asked Blessum what he would identify as the characteristics
of the people of Rugby. "Friendly" is the first trait he listed.
He said visitors to the museum have told him they couldn't believe how
friendly the people of Rugby are.
The second characteristic: "The people here are willing to do most
anything for you." I have to agree: Blessum let me pick at his
brain for six hours. It was 3:30 p.m. when I left.
I stopped at the motel office on my way back to my room
yesterday afternoon. I was talking with Therese and Teddy the maintenance
man when Big Jim's truck rolled into the parking lot - the tractor part
of the tractor-trailer, at least. He was just back from his run to Nebraska
and Iowa hauling rocks. "In Nebraska, they've got to get their
rocks from Montana," Jim observed. "Nebraska rocks aren't
good enough. In Montana, they haul their rocks from Nebraska. That's
job security for me."
You might talk to Jim Rocheleau only five minutes before you recognize
you'll need a bull-dozer if you're going to keep yourself dug out from
under his stories. He hadn't even kissed his wife hello yet and already
he'd told three jokes. He did kiss his wife, we did get introduced,
I got invited to a surprise party Jim's mother would be throwing on
Sunday for Jim's uncle's 81st birthday. "It'll be lunch and supper,"
Jim predicted, "there'll be plenty of food. On the farm my mom
cooked for four big hungry farm boys and all the hired help and she
hasn't learned to make small recipes yet."
Characteristics of middle westerners? I don't ask, but Jim offers this:
"My mother is so tight she can squeeze a nickel and end up with
Jim and Teddy started talking about the work they'd done tearing out
a piece of concrete in the Rocheleau's house across the street from
the motel, a place where Jim bumped his head when going to the basement.
"The fellow who had the house before us started tearing it out,"
Jim said, "but he stopped when he ran into the concrete re-inforcement."
Jim and Teddy wanted me to see that it was a great adventure getting
that concrete out of there; Therese wanted me to know how much grey
dust settled onto everything on the first and second floors of the house
while Jim and Teddy were banging on the concrete. I think she wanted
me to know how much dust they stirred up and wanted to make Big Jim
feel guilty about it, but I don't think he did.
Jim and I talked about making hay and about hauling hay. In Iowa when
I was growing up, we put up high quality alfalfa for our cattle. Here
in North Dakota, they harvest grass out of the sloughs and feed that
all winter. One slough that Jim and his father and brothers harvested
was fifteen miles from the home farm. Another - harvested only once,
during a drought - was thirty miles away. "When we were working
in the fields," Jim recalled, "my mother would bring meals
out to us, otherwise we'd waste half an hour driving back and forth."
Jim told me about the custom-built truck his father bought to haul the
loads of hay home. "The fellow who built it spent $200 on telephone
calls just to get all the transmission and gear ratios exactly right,"
Jim said. You could engage the PTO to start the chain that pulled the
load of hay onto the tilted flat-bed and at the same time put the truck
in reverse: the truck would back under the load of hay at the same speed
the hay was being pulled onto the truck. The Rocheleaus could haul a
lot more hay with this truck than their neighbors could with their rigs
for tractors, so they hauled hay for the neighbors, too. "The driver's
seat in that rig was sweet," Jim remembered. "The passenger
seat was just a foam pad and the front end suspension was real tight
like it was in trucks back in those days. When we hauled hay for the
neighbors, they'd want to ride along. There I'd be driving along just
as nice as you please and in the passenger seat the fellow would be
bouncing up and down, up and down. It got so they'd just ride out and
show us where their hay was and when we got the first load home they'd
jump out of the truck and let us haul the rest of the hay on our own.
They'd had all the bouncing around they could stand."
"I really loved that truck," Jim said. "I really hated
it when it caught fire and burned up on us."
4:30 p.m. I spent from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. this afternoon
with Duane Baillie, talking about Baillie's Drug Store and the pharmacy
business. I got about an hour and fifteen minutes of our conversation
on tape, it should be good material.
It's interesting: when I asked Duane about the characteristics of the
people in Rugby, he said "hard-working" and "progressive,"
but he didn't say "modest." However, he didn't tell me on
tape about the important award he'd won this past year for service to
the community, which is presented to only one pharmacist in each state
or Canadian province in a year. The list of his contributions to the
community takes quite a long time to recite, but he waited until the
tape recorder was off to tell me! So - modesty is a trait. Baillie thinks
this kind of service is what good citizens do when they are in a position
to. He says he didn't do these things out of "duty" but because
they needed doing. I suggested that he may be like a fish in water,
which no longer perceives the water as something separate from itself;
that perhaps he is no longer in a position to see what duty is, he just
January 20, 2003
I went to Edna Rocheleau's house yesterday at 2 p.m. for a surprise
81st birthday party for Jim Rocheleau's uncle, Richard Rocheleau. I
got on tape four hours of conversation with Richard Rocheleau, Big Jim,
and Big Jim's brother Jerry, who farms north of Rugby.
It was a family experience not unlike what I'm used to - grown children
and grandchildren intermingling, a great pot of scalloped potatoes with
ham and ground meat, a tuna and macaroni hot dish, salads like you'd
see at an Iowa picnic.
As Richard Rocheleau was Jim's dad's brother, his experience of the
world would be similar to that of Jim's dad. Rocheleau (Richard) talked
of growing up in those hard days, of serving in the Navy during World
War II. He was on board his vessel as far as Hawaii where he and several
other sailors whose names began with "R-O" received strict
orders to get off and stay in Hawaii while the ship and everyone else
on it went off to battle. Rocheleau spent most of his Navy career not
far from Waikiki Beach.
When he returned to North Dakota, he was home only a week when he realized
how lonely his existence was - in the Navy he'd grown used to the hustle
and bustle of humanity around him. Yet his father talked him out of
re-enlisting. Rocheleau thinks he missed his moment to break free of
North Dakota right after the war, and he might regret having missed
the opportunity. Once you start putting down roots in a place, once
family has its hold on you, Rocheleau thinks, that's where you'll stay,
you can't get away.
Rocheleau served three terms in the North Dakota state legislature.
He was an auctioneer and an inventor, he farmed, ran a tree moving business,
removed stumps. He removed stumps right up until last year and thinks
the hard work and exercise kept him fit. He pats his tummy and says:
"Now I've gone soft."
One of Rocheleau's stand-out moments in the legislature was during debate
on a bill about auctioneering that he was opposed to. When it came his
turn to speak, he rose up and said his piece entirely in the chant of
an auctioneer. Nearly thirty years later he could repeat the chant for
me. The words rolled off his tongue rhythmically, punctuated by the
auctioneer's up and down and pause and burst. When he finished for the
legislature, there was absolute silence in the chamber. No one knew
what to say - time stood still for that moment. Then a thunder of applause
from all corners of the room. "Even so," Rocheleau said, "everyone
voted 'Green,' I was the only 'Red' vote." A few days later the
Governor waved him over from across the street - "Oh now I'm going
to get it," Rocheleau thought. He walked across traffic to take
his licking. "I want to commend you on that speech," the Governor
said. He praised Rocheleau's chant and Rocheleau wondered how the Governor
could be talking about it as if he'd heard it. "I was on the phone
with a legislator," the Governor said. "The fellow held up
his phone when you started so I heard the whole thing."
Jim and Jerry Rocheleau talked also - the afternoon wasn't an interview
so much as it was a discussion, family talking over Sunday dinner, over
cake and ice cream. Jim and Jerry brought my sense of the family's life
on the farm forward a generation. They are only slightly younger than
I am, so I was hearing the North Dakota version of my childhood.
One thing that Jerry said which stands out: "There are no trees
out here, we are used to seeing the horizon, so we are wide-open and
a little untamed. When we go east and end up among all those trees,
we feel confined. When a fellow from the east comes out to North Dakota
and sees our horizon, he feels naked."
January 21, 2003
I met Dale and Marilyn Niewoehner yesterday afternoon at their apartment
above the funeral home. They live in a museum - quite a collection of
elephants of various sorts which belong to Marilyn; of ocean-liners,
which belong to Dale; and various other obsessions sprinkled in, including
a collection of most of the translations of Gone With the Wind. Dale
and Marilyn salvage architectural features from old buildings, so you'll
see stained glass windows from a church, doors from a school, etc.
I interviewed Dale in his capacity as the most vocal advocate for keeping
Amtrak alive and well in Rugby; in his capacity as mayor of the city;
and to talk about his family's story in North Dakota.
Marilyn prepared a wonderful supper for us, chicken baked with rice,
broccoli, salad, ice cream and a Rippin' Good cookie for dessert. The
salesman for one of Dale's suppliers lives in Ripon, Wisconsin, and
brings the Niewoehners cookies from the cookie factory there, just eight
miles from my home.
Dale has his obsessions - Amtrak service to Rugby, ocean-liners, old
bells, old fountain pens. Marilyn has her obsessions - sewing, a collection
of sewing machines, reproductions of women's clothing from 1860-1907
that she sewed herself, elephants, Gone With the Wind. The Niewoehrners
showed me their apartment, Dale showed me the funeral parlor on the
first floor, both of them took me to the old Presbyterian church next
door where Marilyn runs her business selling embroidered goods, "Embroideries."
She also has the Victorian Dress Museum in the former Episcopal church
the Niewoehners own, where she displays the forty dresses she has sewn,
some of them award-winning reproductions. At one time the Niewoehners
also owned the Methodist church in Pleasant Lake but they've since sold
When I return to Rugby I will interview Marilyn for her perspective
on life in Rugby, for she comes to the topic as an outsider and one
who doesn't seem to accept the accepted wisdom. Dale introduces himself
to new people in town as Rugby's "trouble-maker." Both Dale
and Marilyn appear to bring passion to whatever they do, enthusiasm
for what Rugby has to offer, and - having come into the community from
outside - perhaps a bit of distance that those born and bred in the
city can't manage.
Dale offered, on tape, that sometimes Rugby can be a hard place to come
into - it can appear closed to outsiders, a little cliquish, which is
a complaint similar to what I've heard in Ripon, Wisconsin, from outsiders
coming to live in the city. In addition to not having grown up in Rugby,
when Dale started his funeral home in the 1970s, he was setting himself
squarely in competition with the Anderson Funeral Home, which advertises
"Quality Care with Quiet Dignity Since 1921."
Dale and I talked some about the need to say Thank You in both our business
and our personal lives - he thinks this has become something of a lost
art. We talked about the need to create and maintain relationships with
those who have power over the things that are important to you - in
his case, keeping Amtrak service in Rugby. He recalls that a fellow
called him for help when Amtrak was ready to discontinue service to
Devil's Lake, some fifty-six miles east of Rugby along Highway 2. Dale
had to tell him: "It's too late. This isn't something you can do
anything about now, you needed to be working on it five years ago."
Dale has served sixteen years on the Park Board and sixteen years on
the City Council, in addition to his time as mayor. He is not only an
advocate of keeping Amtrak healthy in Rugby, but also of keeping Rugby
healthy. He admits, however, that if he had the answer to the problems
of small towns in rural America, he'd be in big demand. He thinks that
if it is to succeed in the future, Rugby needs to do a better job of
marketing the wonderful resources it has. The intersection of Highways
2 & 3 where Rugby sits is a prime location that has yet to be taken
full advantage of.
You come away from a visit with the Niewoehners full of enthusiasm for
Rugby, yet with an understanding that there is much to be done as the
city heads into the uncertain future that is promised rural America.
January 22, 2003
Yesterday at 8:15 a.m., as planned, I met Wanda Nielsen at her house.
She greeted me with coffee and warm crumb cake. I think that in Rugby,
as across much of the middle west, food is love. Wanda is a widow. She
is wise and she is giving. I'd been told she is Rugby's "bird lady,"
and so she is. You can see the bird feeding stations just outside the
window of her breakfast nook, and a bird bath with heated water that
stays open even in the below-zero temperatures of Rugby's winters. Soon
enough three bossy blue jays appeared at the feeders, all of them wanting
to be in charge of business, then came a chickadee feeding upside down.
As we talked of her interest in birds, Wanda mentioned that in spring
Baltimore orioles come through Rugby; when she hears of their first
appearance she'll put quarters of an orange in the back yard. If she
has six or eight pieces of orange out there, she'll have six or eight
Baltimore orioles feeding at them. Wanda has taught a lot of Rugby people
about birds - Boy Scouts and school children and senior groups and just
about anybody who asks her. Her interest spills out and she has to share
it. The American Birding Association lists Wanda's phone number for
its members looking for more information about birds that summer in
Rugby or that pass through in spring and fall migrations. People can
call her with questions and sometimes they can get her to lead them
on bird-watching expeditions to the J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife
Refuge north of Rugby.
Wanda is a transplant to Rugby from Iowa. She was born in Des Moines.
Her father was a sheriff there, he was killed in the line of duty when
Wanda was four years old. Wanda attended Iowa State University, which
is where she met her husband. He was studying in the Food Sciences program.
They married and she followed him to Rugby. They raised a family in
Rugby while her husband operated the Rugby Creamery. The business had
been owned by the Nielsen family since 1915. When it was sold in the
latter part of the last century, that was the end of the independent
dairy in North Dakota - Rugby Creamery was the last of them.
Wanda seems to be a wise, a sophisticated, a humble woman. Of being
widowed, she says the first year is the toughest: "We are not prepared
to be alone." Friends and neighbors, she notes, are quick to offer
support, but it lasts only for two weeks or so, then they go on to help
the next person who needs it and you are left to wrestle your own grief.
When her husband died suddenly some twenty years ago - he was not yet
sixty - she asked the doctors for a moment alone with his body in the
hospital room. "I told him I'd be along shortly," she said.
"But that's not how it has turned out." She continues to live
and give in Rugby. And she was not content to tell me her story only,
so Wanda called her next door neighbor, Tammy Fossum, and invited her
over for coffee and conversation with me.
Tammy was the impetus behind the founding of a Moms' Club in Rugby.
She met her husband Randy through her work in the trucking industry
when she was living in Grand Forks. Discussion over the phone and via
fax turned from business to things more personal and romantic and soon
enough they married. When Tammy moved to Rugby, it wasn't long before
she found that the Rugby natives in her circumstances - the stay-at-home
moms with small children - already had support systems in place, family
and friends, and they had little time left to welcome a newcomer who
felt awfully alone in her new community. Convinced she couldn't possibly
be the only one in Rugby in her predicament, she wondered what to do.
On the internet she found information about the Moms' Club and got instructions
from the national organization on how to go about founding a chapter
in Rugby. She scheduled a meeting for interested moms at the library
and found plenty of interest. Soon the group had a charter and bylaws
and a president - Tammy herself. Soon they were meeting in the basement
of Tammy's house because there was no other space available in Rugby
where the noise of all the women's children would be welcome. For the
safety of its members, the national organization has a rule against
chapters meeting in private homes, a rule Wanda felt she could bend
because "I haven't met anyone in Rugby I wouldn't be comfortable
inviting into my house."
Each year the Moms' Club has to do one public service project in the
community. One project was gathering winter coats from the community
and dispersing them to those in need. The group has established its
own once-a-week pre-school using the various expertises of the moms
in the group to enrich their children's learning experience. The most
recent project involved putting together "overnight bags"
for children taken from their parents and placed in foster homes. Businesses
in Rugby were "overwhelmingly generous" in helping fill the
overnight bags with necessities such as tooth brush and tooth paste,
comb, soap, etc. The Land's End Company donated forty bags. When prepared,
the overnight bags were turned over to the county's social services
department to dispense as the need arose. For its efforts, the Rugby
Moms' Club recently won its organization's "Most Outstanding Chapter"
award. Tammy served a year and a half as the chapter's president and
has now let go of the reins and works as a member of the group rather
than as its leader. "It's hard to let go of control," Tammy
said, "but I'm learning."
As Tammy didn't grow up in Rugby, she brings an outsiders view to the
discussion of the issues facing the community. She doesn't wear the
blinders that the rest of us have when we live all our lives in a community.
Yet sometimes because she is not native she is not privy to why things
are the way they are. This is a tension - between accepting and being
accepted, knowing and not knowing - that may be common in all the Vagabond
focus communities, and indeed across all of rural America generally.
In the afternoon Jim Rocheleau and I drove north out of
Rugby to see Jim Schmaltz on land he's farmed all his adult life. Schmaltz
helped to found the Germans from Russia organization in North Dakota,
and the chapter in Rugby (which has recently disbanded). Schmaltz is
a man with a large voice and expansive gestures. Though he speaks German,
you wouldn't say he speaks it with a German accent; rather his is the
high, tight speech of his fellow North Dakotans: they don't talk like
Canadians here, exactly, but you sure wouldn't confuse them with Texans
Schmaltz talked to me about the migration of Germans from Germany to
Russia in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and about their migration
from Russia to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s when
the rights promised by Catherine the Great to the German immigrants
started to be revoked by Czar Alexander and open persecution followed.
Perhaps the fortunate of these Germans from Russia migrated to the United
States; of those who didn't, some were shot, some were exiled to Siberia,
most traces of them were erased from the Black Sea area they'd settled
Schmaltz's grandfather ended up farming south of Rugby; his father farmed
south of Rugby too. Life was not easy for those who immigrated to the
extremes of the North Dakota winter. Schmaltz told a variation of the
story I'd read in the Rugby Centennial book, about his grandfather and
the local priest traveling by sleigh on a clear day when a fierce blizzard
suddenly blew up. Schmaltz said they freed the horses, turned the sleigh
box over, and took refuge in its protection. Next day neighbors or relatives
saw the tongue of the sleigh sticking out above the snow and freed the
men who had been singing hymns all night and praying to keep from falling
to sleep, falling into the sleep that would mean death by freezing.
In the bright light of the following afternoon, they were freed from
the snow that had buried them, that had imprisoned them, that had protected
Schmaltz's father helped him get established well north of Rugby among
the French and Norwegians there. "I had a friend among the Norwegians,"
Schmaltz said, "a fellow who was half French. He told me one of
the leaders in the community said when I moved up here: 'Well, we've
got to be careful now, we've got a German from Russia up here amongst
us.'" Schmaltz farmed the place anyway, and now his son Jeff works
the land. Schmaltz still helps out: "I don't know if he needs me
but I have to do it, I can't sit in the house and watch him work...."
We sat in the house drinking coffee and talking with Schmaltz for three
hours. His family's story will be important for me in understanding
the life of Rugby and Pierce County. Like so many others in Rugby, Schmaltz
opened his house to me, opened his heart, his life, and shared his understanding.
How do you say Thank You for such a gift? I don't know. I suppose that
the best I can do is write the truest account possible of the Germans
from Russia in Pierce County.
LEAVING NORTH DAKOTA: JANUARY 2003
A dirty tooth of snow, heartbeat, frozen
sound. The approaching headlights are so far
away. The early morning sky is like
an airplane with wheels set for landing,
lights on, hung like a planet in the east.
Invest nothing, you lose nothing. If you
lose, lose big. There are ghosts on the landscape
behind me, like a flash of blizzard snow,
like the fog of one's own breathing - enough
to make us grieve for what we've lost, for what's
been taken, been taken and not put back.