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Proper Amusements


There was some talk about it in 1885, but it was November 1886 before folks in Williamsport, Emmons County, organized a meeting to consider forming a literary society. Literary societies--often just referred to as “the literary,” as in, I picked up my sweetheart and took her to the literary last night--were common across the country, but tough to get going in the hardscrabble earliest days of prairie settlement. Before long, though, every community came to the point when people decided, we should have a literary.


The first effort in Linton County in 1886 failed; attendance was sparse; the local editor thought it best to defer, remarking, “A co-operation of all the literary talent in the community is necessary to keep alive and interesting a literary society.”


A literary, which was, what, exactly? A literary was an organized meeting of adult citizens, commonly in the schoolhouse, to enjoy the company of neighbors and to seek the things which are above--literature, debate, drama, music--all in do-it-yourself fashion. Schoolteachers played important roles as coordinators and hosts, but the drivers were citizens who hungered for culture.


Over in Elbridge, Stutsman County, in March 1891, it was evident that the literary impulse had emerged, for the press reported a meeting of an established literary society “with the usual varied musical and declamatory attachments.” (This is the first record of a functioning schoolhouse literary I have uncovered so far in North Dakota.)


There was to be a debate on women’s suffrage, but the pro-suffrage advocates did not show up, so parties in attendance agreed to debate, impromptu, the question of country life versus city life, country life being designated the affirmative. The affirmative prevailed, to general satisfaction of those in attendance, who agreed the next month to take on “the third party question”--the matter of the People’s Party that was challenging the two old parties in the cause of farmer’s rights.


Literaries sprang up during the 1890s, as evidenced by a multi-district effort organized at Greenview, Steele County, in 1894, boasting officers, constitution, bylaws, and a seven-piece band. The band is a hint that literary meetings sometimes devolved into dances that lasted to near-dawn. The Greenview literati took up a collection of three dollars to buy a hanging lamp, a necessity for literary readings--a common purchase by emerging literaries.


A fine example of literary activity was the report of a meeting at Cooperstown in March 1898, “a glorious success from every point of view,” the editor of the Griggs Courier declared. People drove in from as far as fifteen miles for a literary program that lasted from 8:30 to 11:00, “with dialogues, tableaux, music, pantomimes, recitations, and speeches,” followed by a “palatable lunch”--and then some attendees refused to depart until time for milking the next morning!


Literaries evolved into general community organizations, handling things like holiday celebrations. The Cooperstown Courier, for instance, reported the literary “had a Christmas tree” in the schoolhouse on Christmas night, with a packed house of 150. Not yet having enough of neighborliness, literary citizens returned on New Year’s Eve for a “literary society and watch meeting to watch the passing of 1904 and the birth of 1905.”


Country folk witnessed a literary crescendo that first decade of the new century, as over at Fluto Bridge, the first regular Friday night literary of January 1905 was a corker. A lawyer named A. M. Baldwin agreed to debate two preachers, Revs. Bachelor and Harris, on the question whether “dancing and card playing are proper amusements for young people.” The decision is not disclosed. I’d like to know, wouldn’t you?


-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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