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The News from Guelph

She was reluctant at first--to go live, reading her own writing to strangers, at a public celebration--but when the time came, Rose Sell, the country correspondent from Guelph, North Dakota, nailed her part.

If you follow Plains Folk, then “country correspondent” is now a familiar term to you. On the journalistic frontier of the prairies, newspaper editors enlisted volunteers, country correspondents, to write the news from their rural communities. Some country correspondents became personae in their own right; most labored in obscurity, in service to their neighbors, honoring their everyday lives.

The heyday of the country correspondent was the early twentieth century, when the countryside was populated and the country press was robust. The country correspondents in those days were both numerous and, well, virile--the voice of their dispatches is, to my ear, distinctly male. This includes quite a bit of joshing of the backslapping variety, such as when in 1915 the correspondent from Dresden wrote for the Langdon Courier-Democrat,

M. Biewer informs us that his young scion is coming along like a ten-year-old, and a good authority on the laws of heredity tells us that this young prodigy is a born orator even to the holding out of the index finger like his progenitor.

Within the mock-formality of this passage there lurks the jocular familiarity of male friends: Mr. Biewer’s son, we infer, is full of hot air, just like his old man, and he even has his mannerisms!

Sometime in mid-twentieth century, the voice changes. Perhaps this had to do with the wartime service of men. Perhaps it was a feminist undercurrent in the rural parts of the prairies. For whatever reason, women took over roles as country correspondents. I think--and I believe the evidence will bear this out--the tone of correspondence thus began to lose its occasional tone of braggadocio and assume one of service.

As Rose Sell says, “I do it for the community,” and on that basis, she was willing to read the news from Guelph (unincorporated, Dickey County) into our microphone. It has been such a pleasure to get to know Rose. She says she can name all the country correspondents from Guelph for the past fifty years, and all were women. Her notes from Guelph appear in both the Dickey County Leader and the Oakes Times.

I have written a ballad, “To Tell Our Stories,” about country correspondents such as Rose. A couple of weeks ago, then, I prepared to sing the ballad on a special occasion--the celebration of a successful fundraising campaign for the historic Opera House in Ellendale. I was to sing from the auditorium stage, livestreaming a session of the Willow Creek Folk School.

So, I invited Rose to come on-stage and, interspersed with the verses of the ballad, read some of her reports from Guelph. There she was, wearing a coat of many colors she made herself, beautifully limned in the dark house, a picture of modest grace. She answered questions about her writing and her community in a way that must have made the neighbors proud.

I sang a chorus, “I love to tell the stories / They rise like morning glories / Each morning’s blush of stories / Blooms only for a day

And Rose read, “Just because so many of you have been asking, we served over 400 at our Turkey BBQ on Sunday. Luckily, it was a beautiful day and we were able to sell tickets under the shade. . . . We sold a lot of pie (some of it with ice cream).”

I did not know Rose when I wrote the ballad, but every performance of it hereafter is dedicated to her, with thanks.

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