My grandmother Daisy Potter reaches her hand to me from across time, from the beginnings of her life. She has unbelievably left a carefully packed cardboard box from Andover, South Dakota, that goes back to her birth year, 1883, when she became the first white child born in the new township of Andover, South Dakota. It’s mysterious enough: as we move my mother’s house after fifty years, we discover this long cardboard box in the rafters of my mother’s house, one of the last places we are clearing out.
My mom can’t remember, either, how she got them or why she has them. But it’s my father’s mother, alright, because I know her handwriting from my childhood—careful block letters all in uppercase, with the normally lower-case letters written half size, but still capitals.
The papers are separated by 1950’s era shiny posters, advertisements which many have come from the grocery store they had. It’s hard to know. But why save random papers that go back from to your birth year? Was this a gift, then, also from my great grandmother, Jennie, who must have saved them at first? They lived in a sod house when Daisy was born. I try to imagine but can’t.
My mom, once again, tells me that no one wants them anymore—everythings is stored with new technology, and no one will want these, not libraries, not museums. “Her refrain: Just toss them appears again.” But I don’t. I just can’t.
In a year, my mom will be gone from my life, and I will have the oddest, deepest consolation: These papers, these times, my grandmother’s life. I took them, at the time, and stowed them in a big duffle bag, and take them home to Taos. When my mother dies a year later, I have this strange consolation of ancient newspapers. There’s something about the everyday existence that my grandmother was part of, which helps. It’s perspective over time.
At first, there’s nothing special. It’s just the humdrum existence of people getting through the day: The weather report, the price of wheat, gossip about town, advertising—always a big front-page ad for my great grandfather J. C. Herpel’s farm implements, ads for tonics, like Lydia Pinkham’s, or Indian liver tonic (no nasty chemicals), and legal announcements about who had “proved up” on the land they settled. There are ads for those lovely and plodding French Pedigreed Percheron horses, which more or less made the farms what they were. I remember them, too, as a small child, those huge horses and came to identify with them, as if I were just a steady plodding but beautiful Percheron myself in a former life.
There is even family news from both sides of her family—the Herpels, Daisy’s family, and the Potter family, which Daisy would marry into. There are weddings. There’s funerals. There’s everything from the global to the national to the personal—visiting relatives and such. Paper newspapers—like paper letters, are disappearing, but these remain in my possession, like a secret gift, just for me, passed down, something to be passed on. But how? I’m trying to do my part here, hoping to pass on this glimpse into life in the past.
These days I still, on Thursdays, get the Taos News from the local street sellers and walk to Albertsons’s for the Sunday New York Times: my worldview. In past days, when I lived in Germany, my worldview came from getting, every day, the International Herald Tribune.
When I was perhaps eleven, I started a neighborhood daily paper in Aberdeen called the Lloyd Street News. I could indulge my innate curiosity and boss my friends, the Francis girls, around for the summer. We printed it on both toy and real typewriters with carbon papers stuck between the pages and delivered it up and down the street. They, too, included weather reports, news of visiting relations, bowling and baseball scores, and on Friday, admonishments to visit the church of your choice this Sunday, along with crosses drawn in with colored pencils. On Fridays, we sold popcorn and collected the weekly subscription rate. Even if you’re Katherine Graham at the Washington Post, or me, the kid editor of the Lloyd Street News, or the Andover Gazette editor, it’s still a matter of trying to put your ear to the tracks and hear not just the trains which changed the nation, but a human heartbeat.
If journalism is the first draft of history, we are seeing it here. I offer these excerpts:
On Friday, January 30, 1885, the editor writes.
Mud knee deep in Illinois. Come West, ye poor sufferers.
When it comes to masquerade balls, grand balls, and the like Andover is in the foremost ranks…. It would be sad —sad indeed, if one week should expire without a wedding in Andover.
Students are required by law to attend school at least twelve weeks in each year.Editor, Andover Gazette. January 30th 1885
U.S. Senate: The day was mostly devoted to the Indian appropriation bill. The proviso for the payment of claims for Indian depredations was struck out.
U.S. Senate: The bill authorizing the sale of part of the Winnebago reservation in Nebraska passed.
It’s not looking good for the Indians, I think. They are, by 1888 in that part of the country, drifting through like vagabonds, they who had been once called “Lords of the Prairie.” They are no longer hunters and warriors. It’s the settlers who are on the move—migrating, and the Indians who must stay still on their new sad reservation homes.
I escape into history. I read the philosophy, news, gossip, and political meanderings of the 1880s.
Here’s an excerpt from the section titled “Washington Letter.” It’s ironic that in Dakota, it is the Indians and whites who are learning, strangely enough, to live alone together, not the Blacks and whites.
The colored people of the District celebrated the anniversary of their emancipation with a long procession, much music, much enthusiasm, and many spectators… President Cleveland stood on the portico of the white house and reviewed the line as it passed. The days’ festivities were closed by speeches and Frederick Douglass and other colored orators.”
May 1, 1885
The editor finds a lost journal in which some one left, someone who had left it behind at the Andover depot. The train had come from Minneapolis, eleven hours away, and had been discovered the next morning at the depot. Some of it gets published in the paper:
This prairie country is the grandest sight I ever saw… The farmers are finishing their seeding now… I will never live east of the Mississippi again.
Other stories are just random and ironic:
A bullfight took place in Havana on Easter Day in honor of the resurrection of the Savior.
How will I ever know what happened to Ole, who was probably my grandfather’s age then but is at this time the age of my youngest son? Ole tears at my heartstrings. The report is a short story of an immigrant, just like my own mother’s family, whose parents came from Norway and Sweden and immigrated to the Dakotas. Here’s the entire story:
Ole Johnson, a young Norwegian, twenty-six years of age, pleaded guilty in the municipal court to placing a railway tie across the Milwaukee and St. Paul company’s track on April 28 near Stoughton and was sentenced to state prison for six years. He claimed to be drunk at the time and placed the rail on the track to form a cot for himself.
Charles Martin was frozen to death Christmas night while going from Bismarck to Mandan. He was drunk.
Long forgotten memories bubble up, like one Christmas. As every holiday, we drove from Aberdeen to my Scandinavian grandparents in Langford, passing Andover in deep snow. The rest of the family in the car, the engine running in the bitter cold, my brother and I went in so Dad could give his uncle a bottle of whiskey. Someone probably had given it to him because I never saw liquor in the house. He was drunk once, and as far as I can figure, my mother got him to promise her one thing and one thing only — that he would never drink again. But the distant relative in the nursing home must gotten very drunk because two days later, he was dead, apparently because “some damn fool” had given him a bottle of liquor, according to my uncle Art. The culprit, my father, was never found.
I think of my own family, too, because my great-great-grandmother did not want to leave Norway but eventually did because her husband and daughters left. In this case, in the 1885 paper, a story is this:
Mrs. Guru Rodning of Northwood was adjudged insane by the board of insanity commissioners at grand Forks. The woman is forty years of age and has four children. She came to this country with her husband ten years ago, and grief at leaving her home is thought to have been the cause of her derangement. She was sent to the asylum at Jamestown.
Some reports provide some humor and social commentary:
Andover, Day County, is a town of something less than four hundred inhabitants and supports five different church denominations, and yet it is said to be the worst town in the territory. It is reported that it has a greater share of the young men who indulge in fishing and hunting on Sundays,
There’s a section called Groton Gossip, from the next town over:
There seems to be a new society formed in our city. Quite a few of our prominent citizens are on the list. It is a secret society as all theirs is supposed to be done in secret. I have not learned what the name of the society is, will try and find out and inform you.
This proves there’s news everywhere, even when you don’t know what it is. The Gazette brags about its 400 Andover citizens, whose backgrounds were apparently not at all like my mother’s family, immigrants primarily from Norway and Sweden, who lived ten miles down the tracks: No, in Andover, the paper reports this:
The inhabitants are principally American born, and made up of the best element of society from the older eastern states.
And in the Dakotas, there’s always crops and the weather (interchangeable). This is from January 1888:
It is forty degrees below zero. The price of wheat: Wheat—No. 1 hard 59; No. 1 Northern 57; No. 2 Northern 55; No. 3, 52, Flax, 62; Barley 09. Also:
The fame of the Jim River Valley as an agricultural country has become a household word throughout the broad extent of two continents, and to the traveler journeying westward for the first time through this great [land] of the northwest, Andover must possess a peculiar interest, as being the portal to a region that stands without a parallel perhaps in the civilized world.”
Boosterism extends to local businessmen like my Grandfather J.C. Herpel, who reportedly has “20 mowers, 46 wagons, and 37 seeders.” (He ran a large front-page ad every week.)
An article about Susan B. Anthony offers a treatise on style, but nothing on substance: The editor writes in April: “A friend from Dakota recently attended a Women’s Suffrage meeting held in Chicago and sends us the following unique account of the remarks of that “tireless worker, Susan B. Anthony”:
Susan B. was there in her glory, she ranted, pranced and danced like a young colt out to pasture! But when she cooled off, she was quiet as my old mare Fanny. When she kicked she was in earnest and she made remarks as impressive as the footprints in the side of the barn made by my old mule…”
Apparently, terrorism existed back in the day, as this report from London, February 13, 1888, reveals, in which there was a dynamite explosion:
Members of parliament in future will not be allowed to introduce strangers into the galleries and lobbies… Police and detectives will be posted at each turnstile.
January 2, 1885:
Notwithstanding the still and freezing night, the thermometer indicating 40 degrees below zero, quite a large concourse of people gathered at Mill’s hall to partake of the famous New England supper.
The Chicago Weekly News and the Andover Gazette will be sent for $2.75 per year in advance.
Theatrical business is nonpaying this winter, and actors attribute the fact to the demoralizing influence of skating rinks which are numbered in the south as well as in the north. …for twenty-five cents any one, good or bad, can gain entry in the rink and mingle with the sons and daughters of the best citizens.
The board of trustees of Columbian University, at a special meeting, upon the unanimous recommendation of the faculty of its medical department, decided to admit women to study medicine in the institution, with all privileges and instruction accorded male students.