Radios on the Prairie

Reading diaries 90-100 years old is a journey to a world most of us have never experienced. While readers may not want to know all the details, some explanation will help to set the stage. Each day’s entry begins with the time my aunt got up and her routine for the day which included making fire in the kitchen stove, a trip to the barn to help with the milking, back to the house to make breakfast, and a listing of the chores for the day which often included washing clothes, ironing (if the weather cooperated and the clothes dried), baking bread, pies (named by filling contents), baking angel cakes if they had the required eggs, and cookie recipes listed by names. She favored Sally Ann’s, Aunt Mary’s white cookies, oatmeal, or drop cookies. To the end of her life, she used the extra-large pans from the cook car which would bake a single recipe in one pan. Adeline always seemed to be in charge of the baking, but long ago when Grandma was still alive and various sisters were part of the household , everyone had their special jobs.

Anyone who dropped in to see them got a listing in her diary, often with the name misspelled so you had to study it a while to figure out who she meant. With a lot of people having the same first names, she had her own code to keep them separate. Family members had no initial letters behind their name, but if you were familiar with the neighborhood - you knew that “S” meant Schrader, “B meant Balsdon or Bowles, and “K” stood for Kaercher. Aunts and uncles had that title in front of their names, and adult neighbors were not known by first names if they were the age of her parents and many were. Those people were formally identified as Mr. or Mrs. Apparently, they had a different telephone line than the neighbors because many entries list a neighbor coming to use the phone before the family was up in the morning. The line was possibly just within the township and did not, at that time, go all the way to Osnabrock. Another early line in that area was called the Norwegian line, and as a child I remember reaching up out of the high chair (stored below the phone) and calling to anyone nearby that the phone talked funny.

In abbreviated form Adeline lists where the men were working each day, who went to town with a load of grain (plus the town), who hauled stones or plowed, and details of the frequent butchering days. Butchering kettles, saws, and other items were often shared with neighbors and first Grandma and then Adeline were on hand to help make the sausage and the casings.

Visitors were listed, usually by name, but sometimes as “man and two boys” indicating they were strangers. If they came during a storm and stayed a few days, their names might appear later in the diary. As I wrote before, there was company every day with most staying for meals or a night or two. Girls away from home working or going to school were expected to come home for holidays and with their families after they were married. Because we lived in Minnesota we spent only one Christmas at Grandma’s although she made time to visit us more often.

Any activities at the Zion Church were noted. Several of the neighbors had attended an earlier Zion Church in Ontario, and others had belonged to an earlier Zion Church east of Cavalier so the first pastors were circuit riders from Pembina County and stayed at this home, handily located along the side of a road that would later be Highway 5. When a full-time pastor was assigned, he and his family lived with the Wenzel family until a small parsonage was built west of their house in 1895. The early pastors depended on their neighbors for milk, meat, and help in times of emergency. Grandma was not only a long time Sunday School teacher but also cleaned the church each week and decorated it with flowers from her garden. The early church was not heated except on Sundays and had gas lamps before an arrangement was made for electricity in the 1940s. The heavy wooden chairs were replaced by pews around the same time lights became available from the highline which bordered the highway. Her youngest daughter-in-law inherited her custodial and decorating tasks in more modern times.

What I really wanted to write about this week were the things they did for fun, and there were picnics anywhere they had trees, programs at the church and the nearby school (Hay #3) as well as all the holidays that were celebrated year after year. One of the older sons, Milton Wenzel, had worked in Langdon and Sheboygan, WI, as a young man and was actually helping a Kaercher cousin with harvest in Montana when his draft notice for World War I arrived. Uncle Milt reported for duty and was sent to France where he worked on a new type of equipment – airplanes. As it happened, he was sent to Alsace-Lorraine where his own grandparents had lived before immigrating to Canada in 1831. No, he did not meet unknown relatives. Coming home brought or made a radio. Pictures of the early ham radio sets had parts similar to what we were told was Milt’s radio although it was replaced after a few years and possibly again in 1931 by a newer “floor model”. Milt’s radio must have had some phonographic components because when the house at the farm was no longer used by all of the Dan Wenzel family, some early “records” were given to me to pass on to the Museum at Dresden. These “records” looked like a tin can, and I have no idea how they were used to provide music or programming. If someone knows, the Museum might welcome your expertise.

It would be 1922 before the more popular stations in North Dakota were available, but short wave had existed in Langdon since 1917 or earlier. Owners of those sets were the Opie family (parents and their son, Ross, who enjoyed trying to reach other nations on his radio), lawyer Tom Devaney who lived across the street from the Opie family, and Mr. Arnold who came to Langdon to install the city water system. Radios of that era ran on batteries, and readers may remember a Delco plant which was usually in the basement and had to be started before the radio would operate. The diaries tell us that neighbors and relatives came often to the Wenzel home to listen to the radio with the visits in the evening or on Sundays to hear special programs. There are frequent mentions of low batteries (the operation might be spacey or non-existent) and how happy they were when the new batteries (obtained from catalogs) came in the mail. There are notes about getting WDAY in the early 1920s, and this was a longtime favorite station.

About this same time politics was heating up – maybe it had always been around. Some in Hay Township liked Taft. My grandfather was a Teddy Roosevelt man. Later the Bull Moose party joined the Non-Partisan League which at times was Republican and later Democrat. One diary entry tells about listening to KFYR when later well-known politicians were speaking. The Farmers Union was active as well during this period of time and invited former and future governors, senators, and representatives to speak at their conventions. There are a number of diary references to Alex Haaven (still has family in Cavalier County), who at various times was a leader in Republican, Non-Partisan, and Farmers Union groups.

When church was not held, the family got up early on Sunday to listen to services from Fargo. This was especially handy in the 1930s when they had a city-born pastor who drove an Essex and made unusual requests. He did not mind them having Zion Church but felt the parsonage should be located in town! That would not happen for many years. The people who came to listen to the radio were not all interested in church services or politics. One program featured Clara, Lou, and Em who went all the way to Washington, DC, and provided a jigsaw puzzle of them on the Capitol steps to all who had the right coupons and possibly 50 cents. Another evening they listened to Seven Nights in a Bar Room which might have been a musical. It was enjoyed by all. There were also fans of Amos and Andy who came to listen to them, and as a small child I remember Sunday evenings as special since One Man’s Family would be on. By that time, they had a new radio which was a floor model. My memory of it is that it may have been a Philco. It sat on the west wall of the living room and had an aerial that went outside. The radio was taller than I was at that time and might have been purchased from Ross Opie or a Mr. Harwood as both dealt in radios in Langdon – maybe not at the same time. Somehow there is a memory of Earl Brown from Cavalier, who also sold radios and later television sets in addition to helping build wind chargers on farms. Those pre-REA towers brought radio to many homes for years. In school, rural students would mention listening to Lux Radio Theatre which was on every Monday night and ran the soundtrack from movies which might or might not have reached the Roxy.

If you did not grow up having your name announced on the Birthday Train from Devils Lake or spending part of Saturday morning listening to Art Tweet (“Let’s all sing like the birdies sing, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet…..”), it is possible you spent noon hours eating lunch at home and listening to Ma Perkins and her friends or maybe the polkas of Whoopee John. The radio was on from morning till night at our house, so I associate many of the voices with mealtimes. News with H. V. Kaltenbourn was frequent as were the broadcasts from London during the war. The Lone Ranger and Tonto rode through our evening meals, and if you were home in the evening, you could hear Bob Hope, Red Skeleton, and sometimes a spooky show like “Only the Shadow Knows”.

My aunt, Pearl, was crippled and spent much of the last thirty years of her life on the couch listening to the radio and was more in touch with the world we live in than many others. To her the radio was a lifeline to anywhere and everywhere.

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