Dakota Datebook



Finding Fen-Phen

written by Merry Helm
July 8, 2019 — It was on this date in 1997 that CNN broke the news that the miracle combination of diet drugs known as fen-phen was causing leakage in users’ heart valves. What many don’t know is that the first person to figure it out was a cardiac sonographer at Fargo’s MeritCare named Pam Ruff.
According to an article for Science News, Ruff noted two unusual echocardiograms in December 1994.
Among the heart-structure images she created, she found leaky valves for two relatively young women – a disorder that was rare for anyone under the age of 50. She also noted that both women were using the fen-phen diet regimen.
Following a gut feeling, she pulled one patient, Donna Prochniak, aside and whispered, “I think it’s those pills.”
Ruff approached MeritCare cardiologists about a possible link between fen-phen and valvular heart disease, but they felt that what she had found was probably a coincidence; there hadn’t been any previous reports that would cause them to believe otherwise.
But Ruff wasn’t entirely convinced.
“We continued to see patients come through that had been on this combination of diet drugs,” she said, “(and) these patients had valves that were remarkably similar to the ones (I’d) seen.”
Over the next two years, Ruff put together twenty files of women, most in their 30s or 40s, who had leaky heart valves and were using fen-phen.
None of them had a history of rheumatic fever, an infection that could have caused heart damage such as this.
Over time, cardiologist Jack Crary became more convinced that Ruff’s suspicions showed merit and should be investigated.
A woman he was treating was using fen-phen, and he knew that previously, nobody had diagnosed her with a heart murmur. Yet now she had a murmur that he could hear very clearly. In fact, she was showing signs of heart failure.
“I became quite concerned as I was sitting there talking to her,” Dr. Crary told Science News.
He knew that if a connection between fen-phen and valvular heart disease truly existed, millions of people were possibly being affected.
“I went back and reviewed the cases that Pam had collected,” he said. “It was the same story over and over.”
Dr. Crary put in a call to researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Something clicked for Mayo cardiologist, Heidi Connolly, who remembered an odd glistening white substance in the heart of a 41 year-old patient she’d operated on.
The woman had been using fen-phen.
Connolly, Crary, and their colleagues soon compiled 24 cases of women who had taken the diet regimen – most were in their 30s and 40s – who now exhibited the telltale symptoms of valvular heart disease.
When CNN broke the story, an interview with Donna Prochniak was included – she was the woman to whom Pam Ruff said, “I think it’s those pills.”
Prochniak had since undergone heart surgery and had almost died. She was scared, and she was angry. And she wanted to live long enough to see her granddaughter grow up.
Convinced by mounting medical evidence, the FDA took the unusual step, two months later, of asking drug companies to pull the diet regimen off the market. The companies complied, but unfortunately, more than six million people had already used fen-phen by then.
“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.

Eric Sevareid
written by Merry Helm
July 9, 2019 — It was on this date in 1992 that one of the greatest newsmen of the 20th century died. Eric Sevareid’s career spanned 38 years, during which he shared the CBS Evening News with another broadcasting icon, Walter Cronkite.
Sevareid was born in 1912 and grew up in Velva. He wanted to be a journalist and worked as a typesetter for the local paper. After graduating from high school, he wrote what one reviewer called, “a surprisingly good book about his hair-raising 2,000-mile canoe-trip to Hudson Bay.”
While attending the U of M, Sevareid wrote for the school paper and two Minneapolis city papers. At one point he posed as a room-service waiter to get himself an interview with actress Katherine Hepburn. But Sevareid also gained enemies by leading a fight against the “U” for making ROTC compulsory. When Sevareid won that battle, President Lotus Coffman saw to it that the young man lost the editorship of the school’s paper, The Daily.
“For the first time,” Sevareid later wrote, “I tasted the ashes of bitterness.”
In 1936, Sevareid started getting his work on the front page when he wrote a series for the Minneapolis Journal about the SilverShirts, subtitled, “Weird Order Beset by Unbelievable Fears and Hatreds, Claims Six Thousand Members in Minnesota.”
Sevareid wrote, “You probably won’t believe this story. It concerns an organization now active in Minneapolis – known as the SilverShirts. It concerns secret meetings, whispers of dark plots against the nation and the SilverShirts’ incredible credo. Members of this organization talk about ideas and goals so fantastic that anyone who has heard them in meetings, as I have, goes away wondering if he still lives in America in 1936.’”
The group’s founder, William Dudley Pelley, organized the SilverShirts the day after Hitler took power in Germany. The year that Sevareid wrote the series, Pelley ran for president as a candidate of what he called the Christian Party. His intent was to stop Jews and Communists from taking over America. Sevareid wrote, “I was astounded that such childish reasoning could exist in a brain of a man so mature.”
Sevareid was unhappy with how the Journal played the story – as though the SilverShirts were simple whackos rather than dangerous right-wing survivalists. Little did they know that within a few short years, such anti-Semitic reasoning would claim the lives of six million Jews.
After his Silvershirts series ran in Minneapolis, Sevareid’s personal life became a living hell, with many people firing vicious verbal attacks at him. The following year, he and his wife moved to Paris, where he wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. Two years later Edward R. Murrow recognized Sevareid’s talent and offered him a radio job with CBS. Sevareid was reluctant to switch over to broadcasting, but he had a baby on the way and the pay was good – $250 a month. Good thing he took it. The baby turned out to be twin boys.
When Sevareid later wrote about his boyhood in North Dakota, he said there was “no roof to the sky, no border to the land … Wheat was the sole source and meaning of our lives … it was rarely long outside the conversation.” While remembering the democracy within his hometown, he asked, “Why can’t the rest of the world be like us?”


Frog Point
written by Tessa Sandstrom
July 10, 2019 — Although the railroads are credited for bringing growth and prosperity to many small North Dakota towns in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was the steamboats that first served as the major Red River lifelines.
From the 1870’s to about 1885, the steamboat companies platted many communities along the Red River and contributed to the development of the valley. Perhaps no two towns became more prosperous during that time than Frog Point and Caledonia.
Even before it was incorporated as a town, Frog Point served as an important docking station because of its location at the foot of the Goose River Rapids. Its unusual name came from steamboat captain Samuel Painter when his boat was stranded on the point in 1860. He went ashore, and was surprised to find hundreds of sunbathing frogs. He painted Frog Point on a board and nailed it to a tree and remained the name of the place until 1875 when it was renamed Belmont.
Frog Point owes its early prosperity to its location. As Captain Painter found, low water made it difficult to pass the sandbars and rocks at the foot of the rapids. Boats had to dock at the point and transfer cargo from the boat to wagons to be hauled further up river. Walter S. Traill of the Hudson’s Bay Company recognized the opportunity in the location and built a trading post at Frog Point. The post was constantly filled with settlers, trappers, boatmen, traders and Metis.
Traill also recognized the need—and opportunity—for a post at the head of the rapids. First known as Goose River, because of its location at the confluence of the Goose and Red Rivers, it was later changed to Caledonia by Asa Sargeant. Caledonia was not only frequented by boats on the river, but it also became a station for a stagecoach line that traveled to Fort Garry in Canada. When Traill County was incorporated in 1875, Caledonia became its county seat. By that time, however, the end was already near.
The Hudson’s Bay Company closed its U.S. posts in 1875, but Frog Point remained a major grain market until it was destroyed completely by a fire in 1912.
When Jim Hill began building in the Red River Valley, the railroad was built through Hillsboro, bypassing both Frog Point and Caledonia. The steamboat industry floundered in the wake of the railroads, and the stagecoach line was also abandoned for the faster, more efficient railroads. Caledonia’s golden era fully faded when the county seat was moved to Hillsboro in June of 1896.
Caledonia continued to survive as a small village for several more years, though today nothing remains of it or of Frog Point. While Caledonia completely disappeared, the Belmont Old Settler’s Association reincarnated Frog Point as a park, complete with a bandstand, picnic shelters, and a monument dedicated to the old settlers of the Red River Valley.


Mail Carrier

written by Sarah Walker

July 11, 2019 — On this date in 1951, a breath of history entered the city of Fargo in the person of pioneer O.A. Vangsness. Vangsness lived in Milwaukee then, but he once served as the mail carrier in Kindred. He had retired twenty years prior, so he wasn’t carrying mail; he was carrying memories of the early development of the state and the postal system. And, he was going to bring these memories to the convention of the North Dakota Rural Mail Carriers association in Minot.

Vangsness was one of six founders of the association in 1906, five years after he started working as a mail carrier, and by 1951, at age 76, he was the last one still living. And neither snow nor sleet nor wind-nor heat-would keep him from the convention.


Fanny Kelly, Prisoner

written by Merry Helm

July 12, 2019 — On May 17, 1864, a party of six people began journeying from southeastern Kansas to the promising gold fields of Idaho. Among them were a young bachelor, Gardner Wakefield, and the Kelly family, which included Josiah, his wife Fanny and Fanny’s young niece, Mary, whom the couple had adopted. Also with them were two servants, Andy and Franklin. A Methodist preacher joined them few days later, and a few weeks after that, William Larimer, his wife Sarah and their young son joined the train, which now had five wagons. Also joining them was Noah Taylor, who left his wife and eight children behind on their homestead.

The little group was both part of the problem and part of an approaching tragedy. It was a time of great anger and frustration among the Plains Indians. As a result of the Minnesota Uprising two years earlier, Generals Alfred Sully and Henry Sibley had been searching northern Dakota to punish some Santees who had revolted and killed hundreds of white settlers in Minnesota. With revenge fueling both sides, violence had been spiraling out of control. In fact, Sully’s retaliatory attack on hundreds of mostly Yanktonais—not Santees—at Whitestone Hill had taken place less than nine months before the Kellys began their overland journey.

There was another issue, as well. With gold having been found in several western regions, whites were encroaching more and more on land set aside for plains tribes under the Laramie Treaty. As the situation became more threatening to the Indians, skirmishes and raids on wagon trains escalated—especially if the groups were small, like the one in which Fanny Kelly was traveling.

Fanny was no stranger to hardship. Her father died while he was moving the family from Ontario to Kansas; in accordance with his wishes, the family finished the journey without him. Eleven-year-old Fanny, her widowed mother and her siblings had settled in Geneva, Kansas, where they learned to cope with the harsh conditions of homesteading.

Fanny’s current move to Idaho had a much different tone—more like an adventurous vacation. “The hours of noon and evening rest,” she wrote, “were spent in preparing our frugal meals, gathering flowers with our children, picking berries, hunting curiosities, or gazing in rapt wonder and admiration at the beauties of this strange, bewildering country.”

After several weeks, the little wagon train had made it across Nebraska to southeastern Wyoming. They had foregone opportunities to join larger wagon trains, because they could make better time traveling by themselves. Not that they hadn’t considered the danger—Fanny wrote, “…at Fort Laramie, where information that should have been reliable was given us, we had renewed assurances of the safety of the road and friendliness of the Indians. At Horseshoe Creek, which we had just left, and where there was a telegraph station, our inquiries had elicited similar assurances…”

It was at sunset, on this date in 1864, that everything changed for Fanny and her 10 companions. Suddenly, Fanny wrote, “the bluffs before us were covered with a party of about two hundred and fifty Indians, painted and equipped for war…” The group allowed the war party to take whatever they wanted, but the situation soon fell apart. Five men were killed, two escaped, and Fanny, Sarah Larimer, and their two children were taken prisoner.

The Kelly-Larimer party didn’t know that horrifying news had reached the Hunkpapas. Two weeks earlier, it’s alleged that one of General Sully’s men was killed by three Indians, who then fled. Sully’s men chased them down, then decapitated them and mounted their heads on poles near their camp. This atrocity just further ignited hatred toward whites.

Fanny Kelly was to witness Sully clash with the Sioux again at Killdeer Mountain. She would also be the guest of Sitting Bull and his wife – but these are stories for another day.


“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.

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