North Dakota Schoolteacher, Winter of 1949

New Leipzig, ND, 1950 Kids on their way to school

    While searching for another document on my computer, I came across this story, sent to me in the winter of 2008-2009 by my mother’s cousin, Ursula Wunderlich, of Voltaire, ND. Since then, Ursula has finished her time here on earth so I can’t ask permission to use this, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind. She wrote it originally for her home-town newspaper, and I know there are many mid-westerners who can identify right now with the weather she describes:

    “This bad winter weather brings to mind a time in this writer’s life,
60 years ago, to be exact. It was January 1949, and I was teaching a rural
school in McLean County, Otis Township, in the Strawberry Lake vicinity.
Fresh out of high school, I was asked to take on the job, as teachers
were hard to come by. Having no college degree, or practice teaching to lean on, this was quite a challenge, to say the least. I had 11 students in
all grades except the second & sixth grades. Patron families represented
were Alvir Anderson, Ervin Golly, Miles Harmon, Palmer Madsen, and Henry Sheelar. [The Andersons were also cousins.] I was my own janitor, hot lunch cook, and custodian of whatever needed to be done. This included carrying coal from the shed near the school house, storm or no storm.
     I stayed at the school during the week, if possible. Didn’t think of it at the time, but I should have had a rope strung from the school building to the shed, so as not to lose my way, as there were times when one could not see one building from the other. I firmly believe that the good Lord had angels watching overtime, or I wouldn’t be here today.

    That January, we had full-fledged blizzards every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. No one came to school, except teacher and her pals– mice! Thursday & Friday as many of the students as could, arrived. On Friday I would ride home with either of two families to spend the weekend. This arrangement was designed to save the precious coal supply, as the weekend coal then could be on hand for [school] days.
    Sundays were usually calm, & I’d either walk the mile from one family to the school late Sunday afternoon, or the patron would take me there with horses & sleigh, depending on where I spent that particular weekend.
    Monday morning..another storm [moved in], no kids. Since the teacher was on the grounds and as long as the students got their work accomplished, we did not have to make up all those days. Good thing, as Don Wunderlich and I had our wedding date set for June 7th, and I fully intended to be married, not teaching until mid-July!

    One Sunday in late January, a neighbor flew south to the
Anderson farm with a visitor from out of state. (I still wonder how he
got to this area, as nothing we knew of was moving, no mail service, and we didn’t have phones, although we did have electricity.) I asked the
gentleman if he knew whether Don Wunderlich was back from a trip to Michigan, where he’d gone during the holidays, [to] bring back a new car. He responded, ‘Yes, and I’m going to the Wunderlich farm from here, want to go along?’ If I had had a few more minutes to decide, I probably would have declined the offer, but I said ‘Okay, let’s go!’

    What a sight  from that little plane! There was no bare ground to see anywhere from the time we got in the air until we landed on a field near the Wunderlich farm. Every thing was WHITE!

    Made it back to the Anderson’s and of course, the next day–no kids due to another storm. We were blocked in till the 4th of March, when the Army plowed us and the entire area out. That evening Chuck Sheelar’s Mom sent him to the school and we drove to Kongsberg for needed supplies. The next day it stormed so bad and really blocked everything, rock hard. The Army couldn’t come back a second time so we had to wait until spring when Mother Nature took over and melted all that snow!

    Yes, this winter of 2008-09  brings back memories and also reminds us that this is North Dakota, and winters can be open or they can come with a vengeance. So, stay warm, close to home, and be prepared!”

 More About Ursula:

Ursula did marry Don Wunderlich. They lived all their lives on a farm near Kongsberg and raised their family there. Ursula was active in the little German Lutheran church at Kongsberg until her recent death, but nothing is left today of that busy little town except the church. Most of the people buried in its cemetery are Ursula’s relatives.

Grandma and the Prairie Fire

A steam-powered threshing machine at work on the prairie

My father’s sister, Alma, told this story, one her mother often repeated to her. Alma was third in a family of seven siblings. In the early 1900s, her parents, Thomas and Ethel Rawlins, migrated from Illinois to North Dakota. Traveling by train with their livestock and meager household goods to the broad, rolling grasslands near Williston, they staked a claim to a homestead.

Thomas purchased one of the new-fangled threshing machines on credit. The salesman had persuaded him that he could make good money by hiring out his machine and labor to neighboring homesteaders. But that meant he had to stay away from home during harvest time, leaving Ethel alone with two small children on the vast, empty prairie.

One day in late fall, Ethel spied smoke rising from beyond the horizon. It was a prairie fire, dreaded by all homesteaders! Their two-room tar-paper shack could never survive the flames. There was no place to go, no way to get help. As the column of smoke grew bigger and closer, her eyes fell on the square of bare dirt left when she and Thomas had moved the barn to a new location just weeks ago. It was her only hope. She hauled buckets of water from the well, filled containers, and with the help of four-year-old Freddie, lugged them to the square of dirt. She piled the quilts from the beds next to the water, thinking she would soak them and wrap herself and the children in them for protection from the flames. Then she snatched baby Amy from her cradle, ready to take her and Freddie to the only place of possible safety. Oh, and the cow! She had to try to save the cow, too.

As Ethel hurried outside with the children, she glanced again at the oncoming smoke. Was that a horse and rider, racing ahead of the fire? Yes. It was Thomas! Seeing the fire, he’d borrowed a horse and come to save his family.

Telling Freddie to stay with his baby sister, Ethel ran to help. Neighbors appeared. Everyone was so busy fighting the fire, no one noticed the sky until snow began to fall, heavy, wet flakes that filled the air. The flames sputtered and died down. In a matter of minutes the prairie fire flickered out. Ethel later told her daughter, my aunt Alma, that this was the only time in her life she’d loved a snow.