By Rita Maisel
From time to time there are people who ask me to write about getting old, and to tell the truth, getting old is easier to do than to write about. However, a situation came up this year which might mirror age-related hurdles in your own lives.
To begin with, my grandmother loved to write letters, and I am told that sending out the “penny post cards” with Christmas greetings was one of her pleasures. Many of these cards went to friends and relatives far and near. Much later I learned she had begun the practice when she came from Ontario to Dakota Territory as a teenager or around twenty years old. She already had brothers in the Cavalier area plus many cousins so it was not necessarily homesickness just that she liked to keep in touch. Later two other sisters and a niece would follow them to North Dakota.
Growing up, my mother and her six older sisters were encouraged to follow in Grandma’s footsteps and help with sending Christmas letters to keep open the lines of communication whether they went to Ontario, California, Milwaukee or even during World War I to France. Later it was expected that I would help as well. By that time Grandma had died, but the habit had become ingrained at our home. After my mother’s death her sisters wanted my help, and when they died there were older cousins, neighbors and so on who would invite me over for coffee and then set a box of cards and an address book on the table before asking for help.
This year the cards were purchased quite near to Halloween and all but the first box are still in their original wrappings. Other projects surfaced like the little pocket prayer shawls which I intended to add to the cards that went out. Being a time-consuming project I set a goal of at least one or two in the mail each day, and many days no cards at all got to the post office. An additional problem, like the fact that my handwriting is often not legible any more, slowed down the process. By the time the holiday arrived some of the early cards and packages were returned requesting a better address or more postage. For the last few weeks I have thought often of the late Ila Murie and imagined her by my side. Years ago Ila would ask me to type up her Christmas letter because she felt her writing had deteriorated. As we worked together she would talk about having only a year or two more that she would need to send cards. Her theory was that once you turn 80, Christmas cards were no longer a pleasure or an obligation. With that birthday not only behind me, but behind some of my younger cousins, 2018 and overlapping into 2019 might be my last Christmas card attempt. Some of the people at the receiving end may be grateful when I stop because asking younger members of their family to read the handwritten notes may now be a lost cause. Schools no longer teach cursive writing – the only penmanship classes I ever had. There is a positive not to that current fact – any secrets you may have written in a long ago diary may never be deciphered by your descendents.
On the plus side, Christmas 2018 had all the really important features- beautiful decorations, angelic music, candle lights, visits with people we have not seen for possibly more than a year, gifts under the trees, delicious treats, cards and letters from near and far, pictures of relatives who are new or who we have not seen for many years and this year even a couple of addresses from some who have not been heard from for a long time. A surprise was in using up some yarn given to me a while back. I realized that the original gift had come in the summer months and still had a note with it saying the sender had encountered a yarn sale and thought this could be an early (or late) Christmas gift. Both the yarn and good memories of the sender, who is no longer with us, helped to make this a joyful Christmas.
On December 14, 2018, Renae McGauvran from Langdon graduated from UND’s School of Education summa cum laude. She described this event as entering the grown-up world and will be doing a second round of student teaching this winter to qualify for an additional credential. In part because I always enjoy hearing good news like this about students from our area, her mom brought me a copy of the graduation program to see if there were other area students in the large group accepting their degrees that day.
One who was pointed out was the daughter of Bill Sand and granddaughter of Harvey and Eleanor Sand who now live in Mandan, Katherine Sand who received her law degree. While paging through there were other familiar names, but Taylor Henry Sand sounded like he might also be a possible cousin or descendant of the original Sands who lived in Langdon. Also on the listing was Matthew Alexander Ramage. Several members of the Ramage family who lived at Langdon had Matthew as a first or middle name, and while they may live far away today I believe some of them are still in the Grand Forks area.
With graduation of students having local ties still in my mind, there was a recent article on architecture in Grand Forks featuring a building on the UND campus known as Babcock Hall slated for refurbishing. The man this building is named for was part of UND in its earliest years, and those who have read the very early newspapers printed in Langdon would also find his name on the now fragile existing copies. Born in 1865, Babcock had just turned 24 when he was hired to teach chemistry and other subjects at UND in 1889. Working with Webster Merrifield, President of UND for a number of years, Babcock set up “testing rooms” which later became laboratories and took his students on field trips to nearby localities to search and map clay and coal deposits. On one trip they spotted a small lode of gold in the Pembina Hills plus coal near Numendahl. More lucrative findings were the clay deposits for the mine at Concrete and the Fremont Twp. deposits which became the Brick Mine. Both President Merrifield and some of the early students became investors in projects resulting from these field trips.
While in this area the red-haired enthusiastic young man appears to have encouraged several bright young students to return to UND with him or to enroll there when they finished whatever level of schooling they were in at the time. This colorful and noteworthy group of students is said to have included at various times Vilhjalmer Steffansson from Mountain (later an explorer in the Arctic), Judge Grimson from Milton who became famous as states attorney in Cavalier County and later served on the North Dakota Supreme Court, an older sister of Magnus Snowfield (homesteader at Mountain and Hannah) who may have descendants here today, an uncle of the Sturlaugson family on the Liefer side of their heritage who would later write a textbook read by “all eighth graders in North Dakota,” Dan Bull whose father invented Cream of Wheat cereal, Usher L. Burdick, Neil C. Macdonald who was later county superintendent in Cavalier County and in the state of North Dakota as well as a teacher at UND, Tom Campbell who became known as “the world’s largest wheat farmer” and many others.
One of Babcock’s goals was to establish UND as North Dakota’s School of Mines. Devils Lake became the center of a biological laboratory, and his work on coal deposits and lignite earned him the title of the Father of Lignite when he set up a briquetting plant at Hebron in 1909. The briquettes of lignite were commonly used in North Dakota because they were cheaper to mine and replaced other coal deposits which had to be shipped to our area. Most homes had a coal skuttle filled with them next to a space heater or an iron range.
There was a building boom at UND in the pre-World War I era with the Carnegie Library built in 1907 and Babcock Hall in 1908. Webster Merrifield was followed in the presidency in 1909 by Frank McVey who left UND in 1917, and Babcock became acting president in addition to leading the engineering and mining divisions at the school. The United States entered World War I in 1917. Students were drafted or had dropped out of school to enlist so money to operate the university was in short supply. In 1918 another president was hired who had previously been fired by other universities and trouble brewed as this new man took to name calling and snide remarks to undermine the faculty. Four or five of the long-time professors and deans of their departments were on his list for elimination. Along with Babcock these professors attempted to work with the new president, but the controversy did a great deal of harm to the university in terms of faculty retention, students and general morale which would take decades to recover. Like many university professors, doctors and wealthy residents of early Grand Forks, Babcock and his family had a home in the better part of town and a summer home at Bemidji, Minn. Groups of young ladies rode the train to Grand Forks with two or three of my aunts among them and found employment at these homes with occasional side trips to Bemidji along with their employers. As a result, I grew up hearing them talk about Professor Babcock, who was well-liked and remembered by the people in that tightly knit community. Their stories ended with the day Professor Babcock went out for an early morning swim at Bemidji and drowned in 1925.