written by Merry Helm
September 16, 2019 — A significant Jewish colony began forming around Devils Lake in 1881, when the assassination of Tsar Alexander II led to increased religious intolerance in the Russian Empire. As with Germans from Russia, many Jews fled to America to escape persecution, but unlike the German-Russians, many Jewish immigrants were unprepared for the transition to life as a prairie farmer.
In 1895, 19-year-old Rachel Bella Kahn had endured an abundant series of misfortunes in her Russian homeland. Orphaned, physically abused, and separated from her siblings, she was forced to work as a maid for a rich aunt who treated her as little more than a nuisance. A girl was expected to marry by age 18, but when Rachel fell for the butcher’s son, the family was scandalized. The possibility that one of their own – no matter how desperate or lowly – might marry beneath their social level, was unacceptable, and the relationship was cut off.
Rachel’s only chance to escape her circumstances came when she discovered an opportunity to impersonate a woman who backed out of an arranged marriage to a man who had left for America three years earlier. When Abraham Calof accepted the exchange, Rachel’s rich relatives begrudgingly gave her fifty dollars to make the strenuous trip across Russia and Poland to the ship that would take her to the United States. For 20 of the 22 days at sea, Rachel was violently seasick. When she arrived at Ellis Island, her betrothed fetched her, and they set out to join his family on their adjoining homesteads about 30 miles from Devil’s Lake.
In her memoirs, she wrote, “After a long ride across the limitless prairie we arrived there, where I met…my future mother-in-law. As we climbed down from the wagon I looked again at this assembled group and my heart sank still lower. The two brothers were so dirty and unkempt. They had wild unshaven faces. Their skin was broken out in big pimples and they wore rags wrapped around their feet in place of shoes. I learned that the women had no shoes at all but were wearing the men’s shoes this day in my honor.
“Even this dismal spectacle was inadequate to prepare me for the scene inside the miserable shack which was this woman’s home. As we entered, my heart turned to ice at what greeted my eyes. This was my first sight of what awaited me as a pioneer woman. The furniture consisted of a bed, a rough table made of wood slats, and two benches. The place was divided up into two sections, the other being the kitchen which held a stove and beside it a heap of dried cow dung. I was told that this was the only fuel this household had… I silently vowed that my home would be heated by firewood and that no animal waste would litter my floor. How little I knew. How, innocent I was…”
The young couple made for Abraham’s little house. But the roof had blown off in a windstorm, and they had to stay with his parents. Rachel and Abraham were promised a private space within the shack, but it was merely a pit scooped from the center of the 12’ by 14’ dirt floor. The family’s only lamp was useless, because there was no kerosene, so at dusk, everyone went to bed.
“The arrangements called for me and the mother to occupy the bed,” she wrote, “while the (three men) were to sleep on the earthen floor. Charlie and Faga’s youngest, a boy of two and a half years, had remained…when the others left. The old woman stated that the boy would also occupy (our) bed – conditions at Charlie’s place were so foul the child might not long survive there…
“In the fading light,” she continued, “I surveyed my dreary surroundings. How could these people, unwashed, with little to eat, dressed in tatters, coarse and illiterate, escape the doom which already held them by the throat? The holes in the walls and roof…were stuffed with bits of paper in hopes of keeping some of the flies out. How could they expect to last out the coming winter in this structure, I wondered. Had there been revealed to me at that moment my involvement in the solution of this particular problem, I would have run screaming into the night.
“Quickly, the darkness became total,” Rachel wrote, “and I had no choice but to retire. The boards of the bed, without mattress or spring, were covered with straw which pricked my skin at the least movement but did little to ease the hardness of the bare boards. Still what bothered me the most was occupying the same bed with the old lady, a person whom I had never even known until a few hours ago. I lay as stiff and unmoving as I could while the sound of snoring rose to an ever higher crescendo until it seemed that the very walls shook.
“Suddenly I began to feel quite warm. The little boy had emptied his bladder and quickly followed with a healthy bowel movement. I removed myself as far as possible…and gave myself up to utter despair… The people, the overwhelming prairie, America itself, seemed strange and terrible. I had no place to turn. There were no other homes to be seen on the vast expanse of the great plain.”
The McClellan Saddle
written by Merry Helm
September 17, 2019 — The saddle issued to the 7th Cavalry – the one to which Custer belonged – was developed by General George McClellan during the period of the Civil War. His design was unique in that the saddleback was open in the center, allowing for a sort of air conditioning between horse and rider. The design was also useful in winter – cavalry riders wore heavy woolen greatcoats that draped down over their legs and the horse’s sides. Warmth from the horse’s back transferred through the opening in the saddle and was captured under this coat, helping horse and rider stay warm.
The McClellan Saddle was used by the U.S. government throughout the First World War and is now duplicated by modern saddle makers.
Purity and Chewing Gum
written by Merry Helm
September 18, 2019 — On this date in 1913, the Bismarck Daily Tribune reported Governor Hanna had issued a proclamation calling for a “Purity Sunday” to be observed. “As earnest and sincere men and women,” Hanna wrote, “let us give serious consideration to the discussion of the problems that shall make for the uplift to manhood and womanhood; ever remembering that the greatest asset of any commonwealth consists, not of its cattle, horses and lands, but of its good men and women.”
Also on this date, but in 1891, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union met in Grand Forks, where a resolution was proposed to denounce chewing gum. A delegate objected, saying it would make the WCTU appear “needlessly ridiculous.”
Beer on the Military Frontier
written by Merry Helm
September 19, 2019 — Soldiers stationed on the military frontier brought with them a taste for malt beverages like beer and ale. This was sometimes satisfied by ale imported from England, Scotland, or Ireland, which could be bought at the post trader’s store – if the fort was located on or near a railroad or navigable river. In the days prior to pasteurization, ale’s heady character permitted shipment over long distances because of its relatively high alcohol content.
Artifacts from Fort Rice and Fort Abraham Lincoln indicate soldiers there were drinking a lot of the precursors to modern-day Bass and Guiness products, including India Pale Ale. However, some posts were too remote and had to brew their own, mostly with less-than-great results. Army surgeon J.N.T. King sampled some locally brewed “common ale” at Fort Totten in 1869. He pronounced it “a miserable article & not fit to drink.”
written by Merry Helm
September 20, 2019 — Two murders happened on this date in 1920. The crime took place two miles from Armourdale, a tiny village that no longer exists.
The Turtle Mountain Star reported the story as follows: “Between one and two o’clock Monday afternoon, a report reached Rolla that the bodies of two murdered men were discovered near the Peter Johnson schoolhouse nine miles east of Rolla in Mount View Township, Towner County.
“The news spread rapidly and citizens from all directions hurried to the scene of the tragedy. During the afternoon hundreds of people viewed the remains of the victims of one of the most dastardly crimes ever committed in the northern part of the state.
“The bodies were first seen by Henry Carlson, a young man about eighteen years of age, who lives about half a mile from the school house. One body was lying a few rods north of the school house in a stubble field. He was lying face downward, his feet about two feet apart, his coat pulled up over his back and with one of his hip pockets turned inside out. His head showed signs of heavy blows with a blunt instrument and his hair was matted with blood. A few feet away there was a spot about three feet long and eight inches wide stained with blood.
“Two caps were lying about two rods away, one made of checkered cloth, and the other of green material. Near the caps was a leather holster and a few rods away an automobile hammer with the rounded head covered with blood.
“The other body was lying near the trail of a slightly traveled highway, about 200 yards north of the other body. The man was flat on his back, the back of the head showing wounds from a blunt instrument and his sweater having two bloodstains on the breast. He was neatly dressed. Both men were clean shaven and had recent haircuts and both wore tan shoes with English soles. The smaller man, lying near the schoolhouse had a small black moustache.”
From there, the article went on to describe fresh car tracks in the stubble, and a coroner’s jury was impaneled within hours. An autopsy revealed that both men were shot before being finished off with blows. The victims were strangers, but it was learned they had gotten haircuts, shaves and baths at a barbershop in Rolla the previous Saturday. They spent that night at the Munro Garage, sleeping in their car – an old Ford with an Iowa or Minnesota tag.
The victims were photographed at Bisbee then buried in the town cemetery. Sheriff Oakland found a young man, from the nearby town of Calvin, who recognized the men from their photo. He said that they – plus another man – had come from Iowa to work as harvesters. The last time he saw them, they were headed back home. Their names were Archie and Earl Fletcher.
The third man, William Bass, was picked up at Minnewaukan when the car was spotted and a gun was found inside. The article read, “(Bass is a) tough character and claims to have committed the crimes in self defense, but from indications it looks as though the murder had been committed for the young men’s money, as it is stated that they had considerable in their possession.” A different report, from Rolla, speculated that Bass, whose real name was Sylvester Snyder, was after the victims’ car. Then, Snyder confessed and said the trouble was actually … over a woman.
Lewis and Clark Return
September 23, 2019 — On this day in 1806, Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery with representatives of the Mandan nation arrived at St. Louis. The historic expedition was officially over. From the time they had left Camp Dubois (across the Mississippi River from St. Louis) in May of 1804, to their return on September 23, 1806, they had logged more than 8,000 miles, and opened a door to the West that could not be shut.
In the final week of the journey, while moving swiftly down the Missouri, they had met numerous groups of traders and trappers heading upriver. The corps was greeted with astonishment and informed that the people of the U.S. had generally given up on the expedition long ago—assuming they had perished.
On September 23, 1806, William Clark wrote in his journal, “we rose early…took the Chief to the public store & furnished him with some clothes etc. … descended to the Mississippi and down that river to St. Louis at which place we arrived about 12 o’clock. We suffered the party to fire off their pieces as a salute to the town. We were met by all the village and received a hearty welcome from its inhabitants…”
Patrick Gass wrote of the day, “We arrived on the 23rd and were received with great kindness and marks of friendship by the inhabitants, after an absence of two years, four months and ten days.”
And John Ordway noted, “…a wet disagreeable morning. We set out after breakfast and proceeded on…Soon arrived at the Mouth of the Missouri, entered the Mississippi River and landed at River Dubois where we wintered in 1804…we delayed a short time…about 12 o’clock we arrived in sight of St. Louis…fired three rounds as we approached the town and landed opposite the center of the town, the people gathered on the shore and [gave] three cheers. We unloaded the canoes and carried the baggage all up to a store house in town…drew out the canoes…then the party all considerable much rejoiced that we have the expedition completed…and now we look for boarding in town and wait for our settlement…and then we intend to return to our native homes to see our parents once more as we have been so long from them.”
Meriwether Lewis had not been writing much since he had been wounded in Montana. But on this day he dispatched a letter to President Jefferson, saying, “Sir, It is with pleasure that I announce to you the safe arrival of myself and party at 12 o’clock today at this place with our papers and baggage. In obedience to your orders we have penetrated the continent of North America to the Pacific Ocean, and sufficiently explored the interior of the country to affirm with confidence that we have discovered the most practicable route which dose exist across the continent by means of the navigable branches of the Missouri and Columbia rivers.”
In other words—mission accomplished—without a doubt. Captains Lewis and Clark were soon national heroes. On their return to Washington later that fall, a Senator told Lewis “it’s as if he had just returned from the moon.”
Church and Politics
written by Merry Helm
September 24, 2019 — On this date in 1917, Grand Forks Police Chief J. W. Lave banned automobiles from parking “in the immediate vicinity of churches” when worship services were being held. Clergymen had been protesting their services were being drowned out “by the noises of the machines.”
Also on this date, Richard M. Nixon came to Bismarck in 1968 to campaign for the U. S. Presidency. He had previously run against John Kennedy and lost. Interestingly, President Kennedy, himself, was in North Dakota 42 years ago tomorrow. He spoke at a UND convocation, at which he was awarded an honorary degree. President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX, just two months later.
September 25, 2019 — On this date in 1914, the Hansboro News reported: “Several farms and members of a threshing crew claim to have seen what appeared to be a flying machine in the sky a couple of miles north of town last Saturday afternoon. They claim the object was high in the air and came from the north and passed out of sight to the east. Eyewitnesses claim that what they saw resembled pictures they have seen of flying machines, and when asked if the object they saw couldn’t have been a ring of smoke from a nearby threshing engine, they answered emphatically that it could not.”
A week later, the paper reported, “The airship story [from] last week has been [published] on the front page of the Minneapolis Journal, the northwest’s greatest newspaper.”
September 26, 2019 — Kenneth Charging, a 1946 Elbowoods graduate, entered the military in late 1950 or early 1951. Following five or six weeks of training, he spent a short furlough with his family and was then shipped to the front lines in Korea. Serving with the 19th Infantry Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division, Charging disappeared during battle on April 26th, 1951. Back home, Charging’s family learned he was listed as missing in action on June 6. The family remained in limbo until right before Christmas, when Charging’s name appeared on a list of prisoners being held by Chinese Communists in the Chiangyong POW camp.
Arnie Charging, of Roseglen, ND, says they later learned his brother and a few others managed to escape soon after they were caught. They headed toward friendly lines by traveling at night and eating stolen chickens, but after only a few days, they were recaptured and imprisoned.
In February 1952, the Charging family received a surprise letter from Kenneth. Arnie says it was censored and written on what looked like a piece of paper bag. The young prisoner reported he “was getting along fine” and asked his family “not to worry.” He said the “committee” had given them food and clothing. In reality, Arnie says, his brother’s Native Hidatsa upbringing had prepared him to survive in ways many other men couldn’t; many prisoners starved to death.
Charging’s father, George, never lost faith that Kenneth would survive. In fact, he planned a rodeo to celebrate his son’s homecoming and started building huge corrals on his ranch for the event. Sadly, a few months later, on July 8, the 59-year-old father took a rest while branding cattle, and a short time later, he was found dead of an apparent heart attack.
Arnie says he and others decided to fulfill his father’s vision. They completed the rodeo grounds, not knowing if they would ever be used for their intended purpose.
More than a year later, after 390 days in captivity, Kenneth Charging was released in a prisoner exchange. On August 26, 1953, he sent a telegram to his family from Tokyo, stating he was leaving for the States. He didn’t learn of his father’s death until arriving in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, the McClean County Independent reported Mrs. Charging was ecstatic that her boy was coming home, and although she had recently suffered a heart attack, she was supervising the plans and finishing touches that would bring her husband’s dream to fruition.
The Kenneth Charging homecoming rodeo, with shows and traditional dancing, began on this date in 1953. The Montrail County Record reported, “Indians came from the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota, from Fort Peck and Wolf Point, in Montana, from other reservations in North Dakota, as well as various other places to attend the three-day event.”
In the midst of the celebration, a large crowd coaxed Kenneth to try his hand at his former specialty, calf-roping. The Montrail County Record reported, “Although a little rusty with the lariat, he showed that he was still a good horseman.”
Bungled Train Robbery
September 27, 2019 — This date in 1897 was an inglorious day for a young group of would-be train robbers. The previous night at about midnight, westbound Train No. 1 was late in arriving in Fargo. The Bismarck Tribune reported: “The delay was due to the special request of a number of highwaymen and was unavoidable under the circumstances, as the highwaymen were temporarily masters of the situation. It was a surprising event, considering the locality, as it has always been supposed that the holdup line was a good deal farther west.”
Engineer Hooker was just a few miles east of Moorhead when he noticed a man on the mail car. A few minutes later, he was confronted with two revolvers and, as the Tribune put it, “requested to very good and very obedient in his handling of the engine. Within a few minutes, other masked men appeared with Conductor Corcoran and his brakeman, who were also left on the engine, under guard, with an injunction to behave themselves.”
The robbers seemed to know what they were doing. They unhitched the passenger cars and what they thought was the baggage car, all of which coasted to a stop in the distance. Then, they took charge of the engine, the mail car and what they thought was the “express car,” in which would be a safe filled with money.
A distance down the tracks, the train was brought to a halt, and all the trainmen were put under guard. “[It] is stated,” reads the story, “that one helper who was asleep when the raid began was
forced to stand out on the grade during the time the men were at work inside, attired in his night dress, and [wondering] what the wild waves were about.”
The robbers started first with the mail car – “to make their selections of property.” The story reads, “They took a number of loose registers, opened a number of letters looking for money, and left them torn and scattered about the floor of the car, and made away with what valuables they ran across. But their work was very incomplete, for they left a dozen registered pouches on the rack, all of them filled with registered letters and parcels – a valuable haul, had they secured it.
“The conductor of the train was also relieved of $25 in cash, but was left his watch. The other trainmen contributed as liberally as they were able, and the engine and car were allowed to proceed to Fargo, where it was discovered that they were short the balance of the train.”
The story went on to say an engine was sent out to retrieve the missing cars, including the passenger coaches. “Some of the passengers were well heeled,” the story reports. “It is said that one man had $6,000, and another $1,000, all of which will be grief to the robbers, when they learn of it. There were three or four of the robbers, and when the stop was made to rifle the mail car, one of the men exclaimed: ‘Where in [heck] is the express car,’ showing that they had intended to cut that off and go through it also.
“The men are said to have been young, cool headed and apparently adept at the business, although their rifling of the mail car, overlooking the articles of real value, and failing to land the boodle in the express car would indicate that they were a cheap brand of highway robbers.”
Investigators found the robbers left behind 20 sticks of dynamite – doubtless for use in blowing up the safe in the missing express car. “It was a solid piece of work,” the Tribune reported, “but as far as a successful looting of the train is concerned, it was much of a fiasco…”
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.