written by Sarah Walker
June 28, 2019 — Performers have long been lifting morale and entertaining the troops. For some, like Bob Hope, this was a career-long process. Called “America’s No. 1 Soldier in Greasepaint,” Hope remained dedicated to the troops in both war and peace.
One young army captain from Fargo, “Ronnie” Severson, saw Hope perform during a War Bond show. Severson had a habit of impersonating individuals. When he was later introduced to Hope, he impersonated the entertainer’s own style during their conversation. Hope liked this, and told Severson to contact him when he left the service.
Several years later, on this date in 1946, Severson signed on to accompany “G.I. Bob” on a cross-country tour!
San Juan Hill
written by Merry Helm
July 1, 2019 — It was on this date in 1898 that Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders stormed Kettle Hill in Cuba, and then helped capture San Juan Hill.
Four and a half months earlier, the Spanish had sunk the U.S.S. Maine in the Havana harbor, killing 260 American sailors, which led to the U.S. cry, “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!”
The Rough Riders’ first battle in the Spanish-American War took place a week earlier on June 24. Author Stephen Crane said that “Teddy’s Terrors” were full of adventure as they set out that morning. “They wound along this narrow winding path,” Crane wrote, “babbling joyously, arguing, recanting, and laughing; making more noise than a train going through a tunnel.”
The laughter ended near Las Guasimas, where sudden Spanish gunfire led to a fierce engagement that lasted for more than two hours. It was the first land battle of the Spanish-American war. The cavalry had no horses, because there wasn’t enough room on the transport ship. Jessie Langdon, 17-year-old Rough Rider from North Dakota said, “These were the first shots fired in anger that most of us had ever heard, and so were the ones we fired back.”
When the shooting stopped, the troops bivouacked in steaming mud to wait for supplies and the order to advance. For the first time, Roosevelt learned that war was not as romantic as he had dreamed. Of 964 men, 16 were killed and 52 wounded. Others were getting sick.
General Shafter and his advisors decided to mount a full-scale attack on Santiago a week later, on July 1. The Rough Riders, along with the regulars led by Colonel Leonard Wood, were to advance to Santiago through a well-fortified area consisting of Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill.
As Santiago was bombarded, two divisions of 8,000 men, led by the Rough Riders, advanced on Kettle Hill. During the opening hours, Teddy’s men became sitting ducks for the Spanish sharpshooters above. With 100 degree heat and mounting casualties, the men were pinned down until noon, when the order to advance finally came. Waving his hat from atop his horse, Little Texas, Roosevelt led the advance to the base of the hill. When no further orders came, he took the bull by the horns and charged upward.
Jessie Langdon wrote that it was “… open grass all the way, it was wide open… We’d run a ways and then stop… We didn’t run in a regular line. One part of the line would be lying down, and another part would be going up. It was just like a mob going there. Roosevelt went on and overran the trenches, and he was maybe 75 yards ahead of us – he was always ahead of us.”
With the Spanish now on the run, Roosevelt had what he called a “splendid view” of the frontal assault taking place on San Juan Hill to the south. As the American infantry approached its crest, T.R. dismounted and, on foot, led his troops through the valley to join them. By 2:30 that afternoon, the Americans controlled the San Juan Heights – 216 were dead and 1,169 wounded. Two days later, the American Navy destroyed the Spanish fleet. The war was over. Roosevelt later said, “I’ve had a bully time and bully fight. I feel as big and strong as a bull moose.”
But the dying wasn’t over. The toll from disease during the following month rose at an alarming rate and, horrified, Roosevelt led a campaign for their earliest possible return to the U.S. The War Department was reluctant to agree, but merchant steamers finally began transporting the Rough Riders and a squadron of regulars to Camp Wykoff, Long Island, on August 7, 1898.
General Harold K. Johnson
written by Merry Helm
July 2, 2019 — It was on this date in 1968 that General Harold K. Johnson finished his tenure as Army Chief of Staff, a position he held under President Johnson during the build-up of the Vietnam War.
Dr. Lewis Sorley’s biography of Johnson describes him as hard working, determined, religious, intelligent and honorable – all traits that raised him to a position that was, at one point, out of the question, because his prisoner of war experience disqualified him for career-enhancing assignments. Johnson’s early years were in North Dakota.
Harold was born in Bowesmont in 1912 to parents who were both born in Dakota Territory. With a name like Johnson, you’d think they came from Scandinavia, but their ancestral heritage was Scottish and Irish by way of Canada. Johnson’s mother, Edna, was a direct descendent of Myles Standish, the leader of the military who guarded the folks of the Plymouth Rock Colony during the early 1600s. Edna passed on her love for music and drama to her son.
Johnson’s father, Harold Cecil, was a religious leader, a Mason, and when Harold was eight, he moved the family to Grafton, where he managed the lumberyard. Harold’s maternal grandfather farmed, and his father’s father was a postmaster, a car salesman, implement dealer and the owner of a general store that also served as a funeral parlor – all at the same time.
Every summer, young Harold spent time at one of his relatives’ homes. His maternal grandmother made a particularly deep impression on him. Sorley writes, “Johnson’s grandfather milked twenty-five cows morning and night, and his grandmother could handle more than that.
The youngster tried to do his share. ‘I got along where I could keep up and maybe get four done while she was doing ten,’ he remembered.”
Harold seems to have been fearless. At six, he was allowed to help a neighbor by driving a team of horses pulling a wagon-load of goods; the farmer followed on horseback, herding his dairy cows and a couple of sheep. A mechanical potato digger startled Harold’s team and they took off. Three-quarters of a mile later, the wagon was flashing past Mrs. Johnson just as the farmer caught up and brought the team under control. Once Edna was convinced that her son was okay, she let him continue his job. When about 10 years old, he was picked out of a ditch by the town doctor. He had been driving his grandfather’s Ford pickup when he ran into a horse and buggy.
In high school, Johnson was known as “Curly.” He had three jobs – janitor of the post office, gas-pumper at Roy’s Teapot Dome, and carrier of special delivery letters. He was also in the drama program and played basketball and football, but he said he had no athletic gifts, recalling one basketball game that his team lost … the score was 6-5.
Johnson particularly admired 3 of his teachers: Cora Lykken taught him discipline, “steadfastness of purpose and kindness to others”; 7th grade teacher Alice Holt introduced him to the possibility of attending West Point and helped him get an appointment through the local congressman; Ellen Carlson agreed that if he could find eight students to enroll, she would teach an additional advanced-math class that he needed for acceptance to the Military Academy.
In 1929, he became the first person from Grafton to attend the prestigious school.
Gene Autry and His Colt
written by Merry Helm
July 3, 2019 — On this day in 1949, singer and actor Gene Autry was in North Dakota to perform at the annual Mandan Rodeo with his backup band, the Cass County Boys – that’s Cass County, Texas, not North Dakota.
The western movie star also collected a black colt from Mandan rancher Frank Wetzstein, which he bought the year before based on a photograph. The colt’s white blaze and four stockings were nearly identical to those of Autry’s on-screen costar, Champion Jr., who was soon due to retire.
A few days later, Autry spent time with 70 handicapped children at Camp Grassick, giving him a chance to also visit the camp’s director, Edward Agre. During WWII, Autry was in a special unit on the West Coast, and Agre drove Autry from camp to camp in a station wagon.
Autry returned to the Mandan rodeo again in ‘50 and ‘51 with his famous group, the Sons of the Pioneers.
Rodeo in Sanish
written by Merry Helm
July 4, 2019 — When the waters of Lake Sakakawea are down, the former townsite of Sanish sometimes resurfaces. Back in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Sanish was the place to be for rodeo fans.
A group of enthusiasts held a meeting at the Sanish Fire Hall in April 1947, and their brainchild – the Sanish Rodeo – quickly took shape.
By July 3, the newly formed association had constructed a covered grandstand, corrals and chutes. The three-day premiere of the Sanish Rodeo was a hit, with around 8,000 people flocking to the rodeo grounds to watch 80 contestants from all over the nation vie for over $2,000 in prize money.
In the shadow of Mt. Crow Flies High, the location was ideal, with easy access to the water, plenty of trees for camping and picnicking and open pasture for parking. The campgrounds were peppered with a wide variety of camper trailers, tents and authentic teepees.
The Sanish event was a salute to the old west; festivities opened with a Grand Parade featuring Hidatsas, Mandans and Arikaras dressed in their finest regalia – some on horses, others dancing and singing. Next came an old-fashioned chuck wagon followed by fiddlers and ‘homesteaders.’
Rodeo events included bronco riding, horse races, bulldogging, calf roping, relays, wild cow milking, and a Shetland pony race.
Local bands and specialty acts provided entertainment between events; included were nationally acclaimed rodeo acts, cowboy singers, rodeo clowns and movie stars from popular western films of the day.
The first year, a skydiver made two jumps onto the rodeo grounds. There was also a carnival, a nightly bowery dance and concession stands.
As word spread, attendance and participation in the Sanish Rodeo grew, with an estimated 18-20,000 visitors by 1950. One report read, “Three hours before the afternoon program, there was a 2-mile long line of cars waiting to get through the gate.”
The grandstand held only 2,500 people, so most of the audience gathered on the sidelines on blankets and lawn chairs.
The prize money grew to nearly $4,000, and the Sanish Rodeo was soon drawing the largest number of contestants in the state. Winners were awarded silver belt buckles donated by area businesses, and the grand champion of the rodeo was presented with a handmade saddle, produced by an area resident and valued at over $250.
The rodeo became one of the highlights of the year, and folks from all corners of the state looked forward to spending their 4th of July holiday in Sanish.
Kaye Nelson, of Grassy Butte, attended the Sanish rodeo as a child, and remembers, “It was huge. It was absolutely fantastic! … The people in Sanish and the surrounding area worked like crazy on it. When you’d go to Sanish near rodeo time there’d be signs in the store windows saying ‘Down at the arena.’ They were all down there working. Brooks Keogh was a fabulous organizer and promoter.”
In 1953, just days prior to the seventh Annual Sanish Rodeo, the ninth pier of the Four Bears Bridge was completed, and the rodeo grounds were soon to be under water. Fifteen thousand attended that year, and most supported the idea of finding a new location for the event. But conditions as favorable as those in Sanish weren’t available elsewhere, and the association was finally forced to sell the rodeo equipment and disbanded.
The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame inducted the Sanish Rodeo as a ‘Special Achievement Honoree’ in 2001, commending it as an “entity that helped foster western character.” North Dakotans who remember the Sanish Rodeo would probably agree.
“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, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.