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Murder at the Cook Car

Early October of 1906, the sheriff of Emmons County came out to a threshing site near Milton and arrested William Smith, a member of the crew, resulting in thirty days in jail for Smith. According to press reports, Smith had “threatened a woman in charge of the cook car with death if she didn’t drink out of a cup he offered her.”

This was no small tear in the fabric of rural society. As I have been recounting, the women who staffed the cook cars of threshing outfits were essential laborers in an essential process. They worked out in the country among rough crews of men. They had to be respected and protected. Nevertheless, there were dangers.

Some of which had to do with the physical hazards of the job. In October 1906 some of Tom Hegle’s crewmen, using a team of oxen, were moving the cook car along a hilly stretch of road south of Minot when it overturned--with a fire lit in the cookstove. Two of the men were bruised and burned, while the cook, named Mary - no last name given - was badly burned and scalded.

“The hungry threshers were at the Campbell home waiting for the arrival of the cook car and saw the accident,” says a press report. “They ran out and assisted the unfortunates from the ruins.”

Still worse was the fate of Miss Oarfor, a local girl, cook’s assistant for the Andrew Anderson outfit near Milnor the fall of 1907. She and the cook were preparing a meal in the car while it was being drawn across country by the engine. Miss Oarfor opened the door, emerged onto the step, and fell under the wheels of a sleeping car that was hitched behind. Taken to the farm home of a local woman, she died of internal injuries.

Mrs. Phil Cook was cleaning the gasoline stove of a cook car near Beach when it burst into flame. A reporter, in the florid style of the times, writes, “When her husband arrived in the car she was a mass of fire from head to foot.”

Predictably, however, some of the most serious and lurid tragedies involved, as you might surmise - men. The fall of 1906 Ernest Mabbitt was working on Jake Wagar’s crew near Denbigh and his wife - never named in reports - was the cook. They were saving wages to buy a restaurant and establish a homestead claim.

Another crewman, Lew Smith, got in the habit of hanging around the cook car while others were working. Mabbit confronted him and, so a reporter says, “thought the incident closed. It was not. While her husband was scouting for a claim, Mrs. Mabbit and Smith rented a team at the livery, drove to Towner, and boarded a train, leaving an unpaid livery bill and taking the Mabbit family savings with them. The reporter discloses Smith had an unsavory reputation as a blind-pigger.

The Mabbit-Smith case pales in comparison with one about the same time in Rolette County. There the threshing crew of Albine Riendeau was working for a man named Robideau. Several policemen from Turtle Mountain, the instigator being one named Alex Poitras, showed up and the cook car with liquor. They demanded to be fed, so the cook, not named, gave them food, then sneaked out to the farmhouse. The intruders thereupon trashed the cook car.

Poitras was a big man, and he had cronies with him, so before going to the car to confront him, thresherman Riendeau ran to a nearby farm and borrowed a rifle. When Riendeau caught up with Poitras, he appeared to reach for a gun, so Riendeau shot him dead. Charged with murder, Riendeau retained as counsel none other than the Democratic candidate for governor, John Burke. A one-day trial resulted in acquittal, a decision that reportedly enjoyed “popular approval.” Evidently, a man who messes with the cook car needs killing.

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