History of a Pure Sort

Jan 23, 2018

 


There came a lovely letter from Mrs. Betty Lehman, of Holtville, California. She seems to have been moved to post by the write-up in the most recent NDSU alumni magazine about the volunteer efforts of my students repainting Zeeland Hall, the WPA-funded, National Register-listed property in Zeeland, North Dakota.

"I was only 7 years old when Zeeland Hall was built," Mrs. Lehman recounts, so, "I have no memory of it [being built]." Her father was a depot agent in Lidgerwood and later in other places, but every summer of her girlhood she traveled by train to Zeeland to stay with her maternal grandmother, Eva Trautman. “My mother and I used to ride the hot, dusty train to Zeeland every summer to see my Grandmother Trautman, Uncle & Aunt Carl and Christine Huber and girls Irma and Alice.

“Here are some of my memories,” Mrs. Lehman continues.

“The hordes of grasshoppers on the sidewalk between Grandma’s house and the Hubers.

“Aunt Christine had a ‘summer kitchen’ away from the main house to keep it cooler.

“Grandma had this device on the front lawn to bring water up from an underground well [there is a sketch]. Inside was a chain with little buckets attached. When you turned the handle the chain & buckets went down into the well and brought up water.

“Grandma had a living room with plush purple sofas etc. It must have been for special company. We never sat there.

“I went to a store in Zeeland to buy some jacks and a ball to play with. Everyone spoke German. I tried to demonstrate how I played the game but they didn’t understand and I didn’t get my jacks and ball.

“My favorite memory was when my cousin, Irma, a high school student, took me to the auditorium [Zeeland Hall] to hear her ‘glee club’ practice. I remember one song, ‘Johnny So Long at the Fair.’”

Here’s the thing about this menu of memories: they are not a story. They are images, fragments.

Mrs. Lehman also encloses a page from a local history recounting the memories of her grandmother, who had come from Russia to Nebraska, thence by wagon to McIntosh County--where despite meager beginnings, her grandfather accumulated seven sections of land.

These memories, too, are episodic. There is the hard, first winter in Dakota Territory, 1886--an extended nightmare of snow that buried the sod house repeatedly. There is the Indian scare of 1890, with the local German-Russian settlers fleeing to Eureka. There is the coming of the railroad and the founding of Zeeland.

And there are the deaths of eight of the seventeen Trautman children due to scarlet fever, including three children taken away in three months.

The episodic memories differ greatly between the pioneer generation and that of the grandchildren. What they have in common is their cinematic ephemerality. Are they history, then? Yes they are, history of a pure sort, to be savored bite by bite.