The Shame of Noah
The name Bertha Rachael Palmer has an ambiguous resonance in our history on the northern plains. I have written in admiration of her 1928 book, Beauty Spots in North Dakota, indeed, have offered metaphorically to carry her bags for a tour of the Flickertail State. On the other hand, Bertha Rachael Palmer represents some ideas and habits that make many of us today uncomfortable.
For instance, she stands for old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon dominance to the tacit neglect, if not outright exclusion, of other ethnic stocks, meaning the ancestors of most all of us in North Dakota. Palmer’s family roots are spread through the nineteenth-century religious revival movement known as the Second Great Awakening, giving her a zealous outlook on the world, but they also go deeper into colonial origins.
She was an enthusiastic member of the Daughters of the American Revolution - which is fine, it’s good to take pride in your antecedents - but the importance to her of multiple organizations emphasizing an ancestral elite indicates an inability to recognize and appreciate the richness of the ethnic landscape.
Re-examining Beauty Spots of North Dakota, I see that you could read it cover to cover and remain innocent of the immigrant heritage of the place - no foreigners to be found. Well, maybe a few Norwegians, if they had artistic attainments.
Then, there are the causes to which Palmer devoted her life following her public service in North Dakota. A graduate of Mayville Normal School, she was an outstanding educator, to be sure, and a feminist of the classic type for her generation. She served as deputy to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Minnie Nielson in the 1920s and won election to that post for herself in 1926. She spent her life after 1933 in service to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She wrote bulletins and did educational work for the WCTU.
Let us not, in this era of legalization and liberalization, fall into the trap of stereotyping temperance and prohibition people of the past as benighted curmudgeons. Prohibition was not a farce; it worked pretty well in many parts of the country. And prohibitionists were right when they pointed to the disastrous effects of alcohol on individuals and families.
Still, I’m looking now at one of Palmer’s bulletins, A Syllabus in Alcohol Education, 1933. Sure, the language is updated: it speaks of the “Danger of Alcoholic Intoxication” instead of the “Horrors of Drunkenness” and dispenses “Lessons in Alcohol Education” instead of “Temperance Lectures.” Too, Palmer makes some good, scientific points about the deleterious physiological effects, at the cell level, of alcohol use.
On the other hand she still hearkens back to “the shame of Noah, Lot, Ahasuerus; the disasters of Nabal, Nebuchadnezzer, Belshassar,-- because of strong drink.” She argues that alcohol somehow “makes the bed for tuberculosis” and is “responsible for from 76 per cent to 90 percent of venereal infection.”
So the Bertha Rachael Palmer with whom I am willing to travel is the one who wrote Beauty Spots in North Dakota, not the one who wrote the syllabus in “alcohol education.” As we drive around North Dakota, I would like to introduce her to the glories of German-Russian cuisine and to the virtues of some our landscapes, such as the Missouri Coteau, that are perhaps not sublime, but are nevertheless a balm to the soul. I hope she packs light and brings sensible walking shoes.