Dakota Datebook

Mustache Maud

written by Merry Helm
September 12, 2019 — Clara Belle Rose was a tough and tender saloon-keeper from a wild little town known as Devil’s Colony, then Winona, across the Missouri from Ft. Yates. Frank Fiske described Clara Belle as: “A contemporary of Calamity Jane and Poker Alice of Deadwood fame; known to cowboys and frequenters of the glittering palaces of frontier towns as Mustache Maude*, this woman was as fearless as the wildest gunman and was able to ‘hold her own’ in any company.”
Clara Belle left home at 15 and saved enough to open her own saloon by age 23. She became known for wearing men’s clothes, except for her skirts, which were scandalously short for the day. Dangling from her pocket was a Bull Durham tobacco tag, and on her hip was a 6-shooter.
In 1898, Mustache Maud married one of her customers, a colorful cowpoke named Ott Black.
The military abandoned Ft. Yates soon after, and the arrival of the railroad drew business away to the nearby towns of Linton and Strasburg.
So, after a few years, the Blacks closed their saloon and eventually started ranching.
Author May Hinton writes, “[Mrs. Black] did the work of a man as well as a man could, always acting as foreman on their ranches even when extra men were there to help in roundup, branding etc.
At a time when women rode side saddle, she rode astride a horse like a man…
She was definitely the executive type and did well when she was bossing men doing the work of a ranch.”
There was also another side to Mustache Maud. While yet a teenager, she worked in a hospital, which, for many, qualified her to be the local doctor.
A 1932 story in the Selfridge Journal read, “Mrs. Black always found time to assist the needy in times of illness and distress, and was the only woman in those days who could be called on when sickness and death came… An instance is recalled when Mrs. Black heard of a sick lady 25 miles from Lemmon, and immediately took her saddle horse over the prairie and down into the valley, with the thermometer registering 28 [below] and a northwest blizzard raging, to take care of the sick woman. Soon after her arrival the lady died, and Mrs. Black took care of the remains and saw that she was given a burial.”
Hinton writes that as a midwife, Mustache Maud “was fond of stating that she had spanked half the bottoms in the area.
She was sure to appear on her horse with food, clothing or whatever was needed when there was distress in a family.
If chores needed to be done, she did them, as well as doing the housework and the nursing.
She might well have been known as the Florence Nightingale of the Dakota prairies.”
After 20 years of marriage, the Blacks separated.
Ott went into the horse business, while Mustache Maud stayed on the ranch.
It was noticed, from time to time, that her cattle herds mysteriously increased in size, and in 1927, she was arrested for cattle rustling and accused of butchering a cow and calf belonging to a neighbor.
The cow was a government issued animal with an Indian number brand.
Maud was the original owner, and it came back to her ranch after she sold it. She had wintered the cow with her herd, but had, as accused, butchered the calf.
This wasn’t the big news during the trial, however.
On the day she was cross examined, Mustache Maud showed up in a feminine blue dress and crocheted lace while on the witness stand.
She received no sentence, but she is attributed the dubious honor of being the only woman in the United States who’s been convicted of cattle rustling.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of Mustache Maud’s death.
She passed away in 1932 and is buried in the Golden Wealth cemetery near Selfridge.

(* variously spelled Maud and Maude)


The Lost and Found

written by Merry Helm
September 13, 2019 — Today’s stories are about the lost being found.
The first one takes place in McLean County in a little town called Dogden, founded along the Soo Line Railroad in 1906.
On this date in 1923, an eighteen-month old girl named Lillian Disapenko wandered away from her parents’ home, and after some amount of time, she apparently laid down and fell asleep. Unfortunately, the place she chose for her nap was on the railroad tracks.
The engineer of an oncoming Soo Line passenger train spotted Lillian, but by the time he managed to stop the train, the locomotive, two baggage cars and part of a passenger car had already passed over her.
Lillian was rushed to a Bismarck hospital but was found to have only a few bumps and bruises – which she possibly sustained before ever reaching the tracks.
Now here’s a bit of trivia about Dogden.
The town was named for nearby Dog Den Butte, an area preferred by wolves.
Previously, it was named for another type of dog – when Verendrye passed through on an exploratory mission, he named the area Maison de Chein, or Prairie Dog’s Home.
Four years after Lillian Disapenko survived her railroad tracks adventure, the town’s name changed to the one it currently holds – Butte.
Our second lost and found story took place on the same day as the first and concerns a “traveling man” who brought a 16 year-old girl to Valley City.
He got her a job, set her up with room and board and told people he met her and another man trudging along the road near Jamestown. When he stopped, she appealed to him for help, and he obliged.
Goldie Schumacker was from Wisconsin, and it was from her hometown of Prairie du Chien that she said she’d been kidnapped six months earlier. Since then, she had been traveling with the perpetrator, an employee from a garage back home. By the time her Good Samaritan ran off her kidnaper, Goldie was ragged and worn out.
The local police checked out Goldie’s story with authorities in Prairie du Chien, who confirmed the girl was indeed kidnapped the previous May. But, other than the housing and job the stranger secured for her, Goldie appears to have remained destitute.
She appealed to the Salvation Army for help, and they, in turn, asked Valley City businessmen for contributions.
When all was said and done, the fund was sufficient to get Goldie safely back to her home.
Our third story springs forward 30 years to this date in 1953.
The Korean War had resulted in a large number of missing U.S. soldiers, and for three years, Allied Intelligence had compiled a list of men the enemy was believed to have captured. It was estimated some 7,000 servicemen had become prisoners of war, and horror stories about their treatment at the hands of their Korean and Chinese captors caused great anguish during the final months of the war.
Between April 21st and May 3rd, Operation Little Switch returned 149 U.S. prisoners who were most in need of immediate medical treatment.
Operation Big Switch began on August 4th and continued until September 6th.
During that exchange, 3,596 American prisoners were returned.
But, that left thousands of POWs unaccounted for. During this week in 1953, freed POWs from North Dakota started trickling back home.
But as of September 9th, 944 American families were still anxiously waiting for news of their missing loved ones.
“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.

Rachel Calof

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.”


“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.



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