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The Famous Character of Hamilton

The tone was neighborly, but the competition was fierce on Friday night, January 21, 1910, at the Cotton schoolhouse, over at Black Butte, as reported in the Dickinson Press. The box social was so congenial that everyone was asking when the next one would be. The “old fashioned spelling school” after supper was spirited, to the delight of spectators, who held their breath as Mrs. O. C. Belt and J. C. Newkirk went down in the same round, on the same word.

Over the past few weeks my Plains Folk essays have described how that great American social custom, the box social, got established in Dakota Territory during the 1880s, beginning with the Anglo-American elites in the towns. Originally called a basket social, the custom was appropriated by immigrant cultures and made to serve their own agenda, as with the German Catholics and their beer-garden box social at Mt. Carmel.

In time, the box socials of North Dakota came to resemble those of other parts of the country, taking up residence in country schoolhouses, secularizing, democratizing, and, I suspect, having more fun. The folks in Stark County described in my first paragraph above had a good time watching adults distinguish or embarrass themselves in a spelling bee.

There remained some religious associations with the box socials, as often church groups organized the functions taking place in schoolhouses. More and more, however, the social custom was of the school, not just in the school. Box socials would be announced to take place in a particular country school, and the female schoolteacher would be named as the host. The Baldwin correspondent of the Hope Pioneer reported in early December, 1911, “A few of the young people of this vicinity attended the program at Miss Ida Nelson’s school at Grand Prairie, Wednesday evening.”

The same correspondent wrote, “A splendid Thanksgiving program and basket social was given last Tuesday evening at Miss Badger’s school. A very large crowd attended and the proceeds amounted to about $50.”

So people were traveling point to point across the countryside to take in box socials in other communities--especially young people. These folks were looking for love, and the ritual of the box social by definition brought potential matches together. Plus, there was that long ride by buggy or cutter across country, certainly a romantic opportunity.

And then we consider the situations of Miss Nelson and Miss Badger, who themselves were single women, always objects of curiosity in a frontier society. Moreover, schoolteachers seldom stayed long at one school; they moved from one to another; and so box socials, properly publicized in county seat newspapers, offered opportunity to renew  friendships across school district lines.

Box socials did not pay the teacher’s salary or build the school, but they enhanced educational functions. Commonly box social revenues were designated to establish or augment a school library, or in a few cases, build a barn on school grounds for horses. Other community causes were served by schoolhouse-based events. Two box socials in Surrey early in 1915 defrayed medical expenses for two citizens afflicted with tuberculosis. Numerous communities organized schoolhouse box socials to finance the equipment and travels of their local baseball teams.

Having now read hundreds of reports of box socials, my favorites are the ones carrying the freight of mystery or inside humor. The Carlisle correspondent of the Pembina Pioneer Express wrote in December, 1921, “Peter Oski, the famous character of Hamilton neighborhood, dropped in at the box social and livened things up considerable for a while.” Who was Peter Oski? Why was he famous? How did he liven up the box social that night in 1921? I don’t need to know. I take this story the way a hopeful gentleman might buy a box at a country school social. I know it’s a good one.

-Tom Isern

Prairie Public Broadcasting provides quality radio, television, and public media services that educate, involve, and inspire the people of the prairie region.
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