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Loneliness of a McKenzie County Preacher

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Today is another part of the story of a young preacher called to McKenzie County in North Dakota a century ago. The Rev. Richard C. Jahn was 20 years old, fresh from seminary in St. Louis when he arrived by train in Watford City. He lodged with a bachelor homesteader in a cabin east of Watford City, and traveled around the McKenzie County area giving sermons in English and German. Jahn lived near Schafer, the former McKenzie County seat.

 On this date in 1915, Jahn had been in McKenzie County for only a week, and already had dealt with eight inches of snowfall, two-foot drifts and extreme darkness, in which he became lost on his way back to Schafer. A fierce wind blew all night and all morning on this date. Jahn built a good fire, chatted with a visiting neighbor and ate hot wienies for supper. He had “hardly enough covers” at bedtime, it was so chilly.

 The next day he wrote that a sense of loneliness never left him, admitting he sometimes wished he had never come. He had sought out his bachelor neighbor to board with, rather than live alone. Jahn would get another taste of the North Dakota winter when his left cheek froze. He hardly slept that night due to his loneliness, and went to a neighbor with his dirty linens the next day. She was talkative, and they got to visiting until 8 o’clock at night.

 Jahn befriended neighbors and eventually came to enjoy “the free and wild life of McKenzie County.” He baptized, confirmed and buried residents. He wrote letters, kept a journal and contributed obituaries to the local newspaper. He helped with chores, shot wild game and made good friends during his 10-month stay.

Jahn’s journals were discovered in an old shoebox in 2002 accompanied by a treasure trove of photographs of the people, places and events he wrote about. It was published in 2014, enhanced by extensive footnotes for historical reference. The book is titled "Called to the Prairie: Life in McKenzie County, North Dakota, 1915-1916."

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

“Called to the Prairie: Life in McKenzie County, North Dakota, 1915-1916, From the Journals of the Rev. Richard C. Jahn.” Edited by Richard P. Jahn Jr., Jan Dodge and Dennis E. Johnson, 2014, Catlinberg Publishing.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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