Vagabond in the Middle:
An Expedition into the Heart of the Middle West
Tom Montag, P.O. Box 8, Fairwater, WI 53931
Home: 920.346.5235
Excerpts from the Vagabond Newsletter

To receive a hard copy by mail of each issue of the complete Vagabond newsletter for the life of this project, make a contribution of $20 or more towards the Vagabond's success; send your contributions to: Tom Montag, PO Box 8, Fairwater, WI 53931. The newsletter is issued irregularly as new material is collected and progress on the project warrants.

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 me.

"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 below zero.

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 farm.
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 Rabbit."

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 bear...."

"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 it...."

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 a dime."

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 does it.


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 it.

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 either.

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 originally.

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 them.

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.



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.

Vagabond Journal: October 17, 2002

[from Vagabond #1, December 2002]

Grey sky. A line of clouds that could almost be a bank of hills. Corn and soybeans, alfalfa and pasture, feedlots full of cattle north of here along Highway 9. Enough Nebraska hill to require downshifting once in a while as I headed south from Sioux City to West Point along Highway 35, Highway 9, then Highway 275 the last mile into town.

Entering from the north, I have the sense that West Point may be prosperous - a warehouse foods store, a big Ford dealership, wide street. A crow with one white feather in its right wing. It lifts itself off the roadway in front of me, it lifts its feet only high enough to keep from dragging its toes. One white feather in the otherwise black bird. A metaphor for my task - find those few key attributes which explain who we are, and why.

Main Street in the business district is cobble-stone, old-fashioned and well-kept. I make a couple passes through the downtown area before I notice there are a couple empty storefronts, only a couple that I see upon cursory examination. Certainly West Point is more prosperous than some of the towns I visited recently in north-western Iowa. Emmetsburg, for instance, seems to have more empty buildings.

I have stopped at the West Point park to use the restroom. When I see I've parked where the sign says "No Parking" I move the car, even though there is only one other vehicle in the half acre parking area. An old man has stopped here to walk his little dog. The fellow circles the graveled area, the little dog leads, follows, goes astray, gets straight. The walk, I suppose, is as much for the old man as for the dog.

Some leaves on the big old cottonwood at the edge of the park have turned yellow; some leaves are still green. There is a little wind in all of them. The trunk of the tree grabs the earth like a claw, the tree has got a good hold on things.

There is water standing in a crease in the gravel of the parking lot, grey water reflecting a grey sky, ripples in the surface of it; the wind can't leave it alone, it has to keep teasing.

The most extraordinary thing about the moment is how ordinary it is. I'm about to embark on my Vagabond expedition and there is nothing special about the day, the sky - it is what it is. The one white feather of crow suggests I'll have to poke and keep poking; suggests, too, that I shall be rewarded.


[from Vagabond #1 - December 2002]
My first contact with folks in West Point, Nebraska, came with a message on my answering machine this past September from Stacey Jensen, director of the West Point Chamber of Commerce, who offered help on the Vagabond project and introductions to local contacts. As I'd be driving from Sioux City to Omaha on my book tour in October, when I called Stacey back I suggested a visit to West Point in October. Unfortunately Stacey would be out of town during the time-frame I had available, so she put me in contact with Diane White at the Senior Center. Diane and I arranged that I'd do a short talk about my project to senior citizens gathered for a meal at the center, and to any other residents of West Point who could attend.

My visit to West Point could not have been more lovely. Diane introduced me to Louis and Mabel Heineman, both active in the historical society. Mary Jo Mack of the West Point Library stopped at the center to meet me and hear my talk. Bob Flittie of KTIC-AM/KWPN-FM radio invited me to the station to record an interview. Diane mentioned that someone from the West Point News was interested in talking with me too, but I ran out of time before I was able to get to the newspaper.

I told the seniors I'd talk for 10 or 15 minutes, then take questions. I didn't watch the clock, I'm afraid. Those who know me will say "Ten or fifteen minutes? Tom's just getting warmed up." There were some questions, then I had dinner with these patient and attentive folks. We had time to talk informally as well. On one of the tables, Diane laid out copies I'd sent her earlier of my books, Curlew:Home and Kissing Poetry's Sister, so that people could get a sense of who I am and feel a little more comfortable when they see me coming to talk to them. As it was, I got the names and phone numbers of several people I'd met, to do interviews with them on a return trip.

By the time dishes were done and the seniors were scattering to the four winds, it was time for me to head to the radio station for the interview with Bob Flittie. He'd use it for the local news and for his program on "the Arts in Northeast Nebraska." Bob thought we'd do a 15-minute interview. When he looked at the clock, we'd been talking 25 minutes.

Before the interview, I had a chance to see Bob at work on the air. People in radio always astound me - they seem able to do 12 very complicated tasks at once. It's a knack I admire from a distance, as I find it interesting just trying to walk and chew gum at the same time.
Bob and I talked off-mic about a couple things I want to pursue further. KTIC and KWPN are "farmer-owned" radio stations, part of a network owned by farm organizations and devoted entirely to farmers' needs, especially regarding markets and weather information. I'd like to delve a bit into the story of farmer-owned radio in Nebraska since its inception in the late 1940s.

Further, Bob - who has been at KTIC/KWPN for 5 years - said the West Point area has a different character than the part of South Dakota where he'd previously worked. He said he'd told a Norwegian joke in West Point and nobody laughed - they didn't know what lefse is, so the punchline didn't make any sense. I'd like to talk further with Bob about this difference in areas that are geographically approximate, but culturally not the same.

Done with the interview, Bob walked me from the studio to the front door of the station. I wished him good luck trying to get my rambling interview to fit his program's format (shouldn't be a problem - he's a professional.) Bob wished me luck with my Vagabond project. Then I was out the door, I was driving south out of West Point on Highway 275, I was headed for my book-signing in Omaha.