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Harriet Beckert, Part One


Today we bring you part one of Henryetta Teresa Beckert’s story. She died at the age of 100 on this date in 1978.

Beckert was born in Ellington, WI. Her parents were European aristocrats – her father was an Austrian prince who had lived in a castle in Odessa, and her mother was the daughter of Judge Smolka, a well-known political figure in Poland. Both families lost nearly everything due to political upheaval and moved to America.

When she was still a young girl, Henryetta contracted consumption. The doctor prescribed singing lessons to strengthen her lungs, and soon Henryetta dreamed of becoming an opera singer. As an adolescent, was worked for a banker and his family in Oshkosh; there, she attended school, learned about finances and continued with her singing lessons. She also started investing in real estate, including 160 acres she bought sight unseen in western North Dakota. When asked about this purchase, she replied she “wanted to own a piece of the prairie before the frontier was gone.”

Henryetta became known for her independent spirit. For example, she caused quite a stir when she bought the first Model T in town. During her 13 years in Oshkosh, she graduated from the Normal School. Then, she moved to Chicago, changed her name to Harriet, and enrolled in the Balatka School of Music.

Beckert’s vocal instructors recognized her talent and encouraged her to study in Europe. So, Harriet went to Italy, where her cousin, Count Josef Orlowski, was a personal aide to the Pope. In addition to meeting the Pope himself, Beckert was also introduced to the French Consul General, the royal family of Monaco, and the Polish physicist Madame Marie Curie.

Upon her return to the States, the Chicago Opera Company gave Harriet the role of the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel. Her magnificent voice soon had people comparing her to Nellie Melba, an Australian considered to be one of the greatest opera singers of all time.

She had a string of leading roles, including her favorite – Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor. One night, while reaching for the highest notes, she felt a pressure behind her eyes and ears, and blood began to spurt from her eyes, ears, and mouth. She collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.

Beckert was crushed when doctors said her singing career was over. They prescribed fresh air and open spaces.

Harriet’s family assumed she’d go to California, as most patients did at that time. But, she decided it was time to take a look at her land investment out west, and, in 1917, she and her older brother, Ed, set out by rail for North Dakota. They spent the night at Mandan and learned the history of the fort, and the next day they headed off to Killdeer. Beckert was amazed at the refreshing air and simple beauty of the land. In the faces of her new neighbors, she saw equal surprise – they had always assumed H. T. Beckert was a man, not a woman.

Harriet and Ed ran off some squatters, built a two-room shack, and put in a crop. Then, they sent for his wife and children. Unfortunately, Ed passed away in the flu epidemic the following year. Harriet accompanied her brother’s family back to Wisconsin for his burial, but she came back to her ranch the following spring. Tune in tomorrow for part two of our story on Harriet Beckert, who became known to folks around Killdeer as “the crazy lady from Chicago.”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm