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Women of Hatton, Part 1

1/9/2006:

This week in the year 1890 would have been an interesting time to visit Hatton, North Dakota. Front row seats for the action could be had on bar stools in saloons owned by Oscar Brandon, Charlie Gunderson, and L.O. Fisk. But then, for your own safety, you might not want front row seats. A secluded table some distance from anything made of glass—that is whiskey bottles, beer glasses and mirrors—would have been advisable.

In January 1890, the State of North Dakota was just a few months old. The Hatton area was more populous than it is today; and if you were walking about town you might overhear conversations in Norwegian or English. Without a doubt, the topics of those conversations would be the same things talked about today—the weather, recent holiday celebrations, the price of wheat or butter, a birth or death, and school or church activities.

We can be pretty sure people weren’t talking about the price of natural gas, or health insurance, or smoking bans. But they were definitely talking about another kind of ban—liquor. In fact, the people of North Dakota had recently voted in favor of prohibition, at the same time they approved the new constitution. The Hatton saloons would be legal only until July of 1890, but some members of the community were not willing to wait for the law to take effect.

In some communities, groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union – or W-C-T-U – organized, paraded, and worked through proper channels to get prohibition laws passed. But west of Hatton, the brewing storm was unrelated to the W-C-T-U. Tomorrow’s event, for example, would not involve ranks of well-dressed women marching peacefully down Main Street. The women of Hatton were not forming a typical temperance society. They were too busy for regular meetings, parades, and lobbying. They planned to make their point on a single afternoon.

In a way, this was more of a personal fight. We have some insight into the motivations of one of the participants thanks to her daughter, North Dakota teacher and author Aagot Raaen (AH-gut RAHN). Aagot was seventeen at the time. She and her parents, Thomas and Ragnhild Raaen, as well as Aagot’s three younger siblings, were 16 years into their homestead life in the Goose River Valley. Aagot’s book, "Grass of the Earth: Immigrant Life in the Dakota Country" (first published in 1950) is a richly detailed and frank telling of their story.

Thomas was well educated and had been an officer in the Norwegian army before coming to America. He disliked hard physical labor, but he cared for books and nature. Thomas no doubt had some fine qualities, but he was an alcoholic. He had developed a habit of hauling the year’s grain crop to town and instead of making a payment on the mortgage, he would spend the proceeds in the saloon before returning home empty-handed weeks later. Then he would sell some livestock, intending to purchase needed supplies, and again came home with nothing.

It was left to his wife Ragnhild to sustain the family by taking care of the cooking, cleaning, gardening, milking cows, making butter, pulling calves, pitching hay, chopping wood, and endless other chores.

The Raaen family was not alone in their struggle. Others in the close-knit Norwegian settlement were having similar problems. Down on the farm, there was growing resentment of the town’s saloons.

Tune in tomorrow for part two, on the anniversary of the day the women of Hatton let the men of Hatton know just how they felt about saloons.

Sources:

Raaen, Aagot Grass of the Earth: Immigrant Life in the Dakota Country. Northfield, MN: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1950.

Handy-Marchello, Barbara. (1992). Land, Liquor, and the Women of Hatton, North Dakota. In Lysengen, J., & Rathke, A., (Eds.), The Centennial Anthology of North Dakota History (pp. 223-231). Bismarck: State Historical Society of North Dakota.