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A Dering Christmas


John Dering was in dire straits in the fall of 1916. Four months earlier, his two sons had been drafted to fight in what one reporter called “America’s Little War” down on the Mexican border.

Mrs. Dering – John’s wife of 50 years – was a bed-ridden invalid, too afflicted to care for herself. With the boys gone, Mr. Dering was trying to care for her alone, but the nearly 80-year-old man was himself crippled with rheumatism and nearly blind.

One story read, “But John Dering, descended from a race of warriors, did not hesitate to bid his sons go when their country called, and the deprivations which the family has suffered during the last four months form one instance of real heroism...”

Although the Derings lived within Bismarck’s city limits, they were isolated by their inability to speak English. When their sons were taken, the county agreed to pay their rent of $12 a month and buy them coal for heat. To cover their remaining expenses, such as food, the county supplied the couple with only $3 per month.

Mr. Dering – who didn’t like charity – swallowed his pride and decided to ask for help on November 3rd. The Bismarck Tribune reported, “Yesterday John Dering tottered up to the state house for an interview with Governor Hanna. The aged father had not changed his mind as to the claims of his country upon his sons when the boys’ services were needed. But after months of waiting he could not discover that there existed any emergency which should keep his sons on the border, [while] in the humble Dering home on the east side there does exist a very grave emergency.”

Inside the capital building, Mr. Dering told his story to John Schlosser, who worked in the secretary of state’s office. Schlosser then took the weary father to Governor Hanna’s office, where he interpreted for Dering.

“...spurred by desperation,” the story read, “Dering called upon Governor Hanna to see if there was not some way in which he could induce Uncle Sam to return to him the boys who stand between their parents and starvation. The governor was unable to advise immediately as to the possibility of procuring the release of the young men. He does not know...under the circumstances, that it can be done. The chief executive, however, is of the opinion that the Derings’ is a case which comes under the provisions of the federal relief act which congress adopted when the troops were first called to the front, and that Uncle Sam can be prevailed upon to appropriate something each month for the support of the aged couple, or that the dependency of the parents may be so clearly established as to procure the release of the guardsmen.”

Schlosser then took Mr. Dering to speak with county officials. “The county commission has been more or less [aware] of conditions through the poor officer, Dr. F. R. Smyth,” the story read, “but it has been giving its maximum allowance to the old couple...” During the meeting, however, the county agreed to temporarily raise the old couple’s food allowance to $8 per month.

Spurred by the Dering’s unhappy circumstances, the city of Bismarck rallied in the next few weeks to help them. On this date in 1916, the Tribune reported, “...their boys were not restored to them, nor can they reach Bismarck within a month at the least. And it would prove a very cheerless Christmas for these old people but for the thoughtfulness of kind-hearted Bismarck people...who are making up for the Derings baskets containing everything that goes with the Christmas dinner, together with several weeks’ supplies, clothing and necessities.”

Source: The Bismarck Tribune. 11 Nov and 23 Dec, 1916.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm