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Interview with Alvin Welk (AW)

Conducted by Bob Dambach (BD)
7 September 2001, Linton, North Dakota

Transcription by Beth Freeman
Editing and proofreading by Peter Eberle and Reverend Marvin Hartmann

Prairie Public Collection


BD: Ok, Al, why don’t you tell us your name and where you live?

AW: Alvin Welk at 610 Crumb Creek Road in Broomall, Pennsylvania.

BD: Where is that near?

AW: It’s about ten miles west of Philadelphia.

BD: Where did you grow up?

AW: In North Dakota, Emmons County. Hague, North Dakota.

BD: Did you grow up on a farm?

AW: Yes I did.

BD: How large was your family?

AW: I’m the oldest of nine. Five boys, four girls.

BD: And your family still seems to get together and enjoy being with each other.

AW: That is probably one of the major priorities in our lives. So we manage not only once a year at least, but probably twice and sometimes even more then that. Even though we live many thousands of miles apart.

BD: When you get together, what do you talk about mainly?

AW: “How are you?” “I’m ok.” I mean, that’s a good start. But eventually we reminisce…what happened, not only in our own immediate family, but our cousins who lived in kind of a rectangular form, very close together here in Emmons County. Sundays, at least once a week we’d all get together.

BD: And do you still see some of them?

AW: Absolutely. Um, a real catch-all for that get together is the family reunion every fifth year in Bismarck.

BD: People come from all over?

AW: Yes, wherever they might reside.

BD: Now, when you get together with your brothers and sisters and you talk about your own family members, what are some of the stories that come up?

AW: Oh, they usually involve some of the more dramatic incidents, for example, getting together on a Sunday afternoon, incidents that probably all of us remember. And usually those - you wonder if your memory’s playing tricks on you, so you confirm what you think happened with somebody else. And if agreement occurs, then you know it’s true. And that’s probably what most of it boils down to.

BD: What are your memories of your mother? Tell me about your mother.

AW: She was a lady, who probably, generally speaking - she always came last. It was the family. It was friends. Always somebody else mattered more then her welfare mattered, her interest mattered. And calm, very, very compassionate, and just oozing with love, yes indeed. And basically happy.

BD: How about your dad?

AW: Well, he was a - maybe I shouldn’t say this, but it’s the truth, he was a taskmaster. When it was harvest season, the rush-rush-rush. Uh, rest didn’t matter. Get that crop in before it disappears on you. And he was a good organizer and an excellent mathematician, although his schooling was minimal.

BD: When we were talking earlier today, we were talking about how you had some memories of being on the farm during the Depression. Why don’t you tell a little bit about that?

AW: Those days left vivid, vivid impressions. The fierce wind. The absolutely no grain for this duration of seven or eight years. Constant winds, high heat temperature, swarming grasshoppers. It was very, very frustrating. Feed for livestock, you had to improvise. The only plants that grew were thistles - I think we called them Russian thistles. Maybe that was a name that we devised locally. But at any rate, you found a way; you had to survive, absolutely. But everything you ate had sand in it. Every bed you slept in, whether it was at home or away, had sand. Every room, every inch, wherever you went. And to protect your face you had to have a bandit - a handkerchief to protect from draft of the strong winds, of the sand blasts.

BD: So you’d have to wear that walking to school?

AW: Absolutely. Any time you were outdoors, you had to wear it. Otherwise you paid the price.

BD: What would you do with the thistles? How would you handle the thistles?

AW: Well, we would cut them into piles with whatever machinery was available. And the loading part of it, of course by the time we got to all the thistles to haul them into a stack and so on, they had all dried, and somebody had to climb onboard the wagon hauling it, the hay wagon. That, by the way, was my job. You packed them down so you could load a reasonable amount of thistles. So after about an hour’s work of that, you were covered with thorns, each little branch had a thorn on it that would somehow find its way through your clothes into your skin. It was a horrible experience, never to forget. And then there were the welfare lines. I probably the other day forgot to mention about those. The dry milk, the eggs, the grapefruit, those were the three basics. And don’t forget those lines. They were long, tedious, and hot wind and blowing sand.

BD: Where would you go for the welfare?

AW: They’d probably be in the nearest local city, but sometimes they were at some local stores in the area. John Fischer, for example, and near the St. Aloysius Church would set up a stand and you could get it from them.

BD: So you would - would you have to go there as a child?

AW: Well, I would accompany my father. I went to keep him company. But otherwise, it was a volunteer trip on my part. But it was a vital necessity of his.

BD: Now would they have to show any documentation, or?

AW: I don’t remember that, I was just a little shaver at the time. Since I was going in 1927, that would be early adolescence.

BD: So you were the oldest child?

AW: Yes, yes.

BD: And I need you to say something to the effect of, “During the Depression it was a very rough time,” something like that.

AW: Yes, yes.

BD: You just say that for me.

AW: During the Depression it was a very rough time.

BD: So how did your family survive the Depression?

AW: Well, we did with what we had, so the animals weren’t that many, you just couldn’t afford to have a large herd to feed. So, loans, yes, there were some government loans that helped, and of course the welfare lines. So it was a tough existence, but as far as I know, we all survived. I don’t remember any moment of hunger, to put it literally.

BD: Did you still have gardens growing up?

AW: That’s an interesting question. In our immediate farming area, there wasn’t any water available. But we had an uncle, [Valentine Mastel B67] who lived over in McIntosh County about five miles away. He had some land that was in a low area. Now I’m not sure if this was a segment of Beaver Creek or not, but there was water available. And that might have been spring-fed. It provided enough water, enough moisture from that that we did grow quite of bit of garden. And that provided a lot of hay, too, in the immediate area.

BD: That creek by your house was dry?

AW: Yes, that was dry. And that was - that’s all pasture and still is. I saw it this morning, it’s still in the same location and there’s no cultivated land nearby at all. So that didn’t really help us.

BD: Now on a little bit lighter note, when you were a kid growing up, what sorts of games and sports did you play?

AW: We improvised, but we did play a lot of baseball. Matter of fact my dad loved the game of baseball. As much as the top priority involved the work routine, and Paul loved to tell the story. At that time I had already married and left home, and he was working late on the farm. Dad comes out and he waves a white flag and says, “That’s it, you’ve got baseball practice tonight, stop that machine.” Giving you some idea as to how much emphasis he placed on baseball, although he loved all sports. Baseball was his priority.

BD: Now, when you were growing up on the farm, when did you guys switch from horses to mechanized?

AW: Um, that was probably shortly after the Depression. I’m guessing at this now. Some of these dates are a blur. We went to rubber tractors - well, we had one tractor for the four uncles. The 1530 McCormick Deering which was on steel, and we switched that back and forth. We had that for years, but used it mostly - the pulley-power - for threshing. And what, and then from one farmer to the next for heavy work. Disking, plowing, and so on. Physically, it was horses. Then we gradually eased in the rubber-tired tractors. Starting with smaller tractors because of the price of the machinery. Especially tractors. But to ease the blow, the purchase price to lower it, we traded in one of our horses. At the dealer, the tractor - it was an Allis Chalmers by the way. And that’s how we kept the price of the tractor down. It was a small - I forget the - I think it was a Model B and it had the power to pull a two-bottom, I believe it was 14 inch, rather then 12 inch bottom, but the problem was, it didn’t have enough weight. So after the winds stopped blowing and the rains came, what had happened, the strong wind current, especially the higher levels of the field would take all that ground and deposit it in lower areas. Those were nothing short of sand dunes. Well, I remember many times with that little Allis Chalmers pulling that little two-bottom plow, I’d get in the middle of that deep and it’d just sink down there and I had to disconnect the plow and drive onto strong traction dirt with a long chain to pull that plow back out. There was no traction because it was sand. But then those sand dunes provided a lot of fertilizer energy. And we had tremendous crops, especially the first year after the rains came and the winds stopped.

BD: What was the feeling, the first year?

AW: Of the bumper crop? Sheer ecstasy. Absolutely marvelous. Those are memories that you like to retain, unfortunately you retain them all, whether they’re good or bad. But that was great. And then of course the payoff was the bushels per acres, seeing them come down that threshing machine was great.

BD: So was there elation in your family, when you saw your parents were feeling better?

AW: Marvelous feeling. To see them so depressed for years was not only depressing for yourself, but demoralizing. It was an awful…feeling. An awful experience.

BD: Why don’t you tell me about going to school in a one-room schoolhouse?

AW: Well, we had a lot of fun, and we had teachers who were very effective. We were very extremely lucky to have top-notch teachers. Who, by the way, couldn’t speak German, and none of us could speak English when we started grade school. And how they managed, I don’t have the answer for that. But they had one standing rule. If I catch you speaking German during school hours, you will lose your recesses for whatever length of time. That was very effective. We rated recesses pretty high.

BD: Now when you were done with your grammar school, where did you go after that?

AW: Then on to high school. Hague High School.

BD: How big of class was that?

AW: To give you an idea, my graduating senior class was two boys, five girls.

BD: After the kids graduated from high school, what happened then?

AW: After I graduated from high school, well, a very unusual thing happened. I was thinking about college, but I thought, well, somehow I need to earn some money. And the opportunity just fell in my lap, although it wasn’t my idea. There was a one-room schoolhouse that was available nearby, couldn’t get a certified teacher. Those years had an extreme shortage of teachers in North Dakota. So some of the parents approached me and said, “We know you’re a high school graduate and nothing beyond that, but we think you could teach our school.” I said, “All grades?” “All grades.” “People coming for first grade who can’t speak English?” “Yes, we have a mixture of all those.” And that’s what happened, I undertook the job.

BD: And what year was that?

AW: That was - I believe it was 1947. It was a year after high school graduation.

BD: But then you did go into college.

AW: Yes I did. I was asked on bended knee by the parents of these same children of the year before, that “We’re having the same problem again, please come back.” But I think, probably, what persuaded me not to come back was that although I enjoyed teaching, was the fact that I didn’t really feel, well, I couldn’t be qualified, I hadn’t gone to school for that, and the children deserved better. That was my reasoning to the parents. And then Uncle Sam - am I leading you too much here? - Uncle Sam said, “We Want YOU.” Pointing his finger, it was the height of the Korean campaign. And I approached the Emmons County draft board in Linton, and I said to one of four or five members on the board that “I feel if you gentleman defer my drafting for the next four years, I’ll go and get a college degree, and in essence, I’ll be able to provide something more for the army then I would only as a high school graduate.” They went along with my reasoning, and deferred me, and on I went to St. Thomas. I was convinced by the end of my college tenure that my name will have fallen through the cracks. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My draft notice was waiting for me on the kitchen table when I returned from Great Lakes, where I was released after two years in the army. I didn’t mind it at all. I looked at it as another level of education, and that’s indeed what happened. I decided that maybe if I apply for special schooling, military intelligence and what have you, join the Intelligence Corp, or the fact that I speak German fluently, instead of going to Korea - I’d be assigned to duty in Germany. This was now at the World War II occupation era. And I got the assignment. And I enjoyed my tour of duty in Germany very, very much.

BD: Getting back to the farm, what sort of things did you do as a boy on the farm?

AW: What sort of chores? Whatever it demanded. Before tractors came along, it was five horses hitched together plowing, and the daily duties with the animals on the farm. Winter of course, keeping the premises clean, etc. And supplied with whatever necessities they needed. And then the tractors came along. We had a small tractor. We had a good-sized farm. We decided that we’d run the tractor 24 hours a day, and I volunteered to take the night shift. So I said, "I have no problem with that." And we had good machinery and we needed to run it as many hours per day as possible to get our crops in on time and go on with haying, [swathing B166] usually followed that, and on the heels of that would be harvesting. And then threshing and so on down the line. Very busy schedule.

BD: A little bit earlier today you were telling us a story about waiting in St. Aloysius Church for the priest to come, could you tell us about that?

AW: Oh, the priest of course, who was the parish priest at St. Aloysius, was also signed on a mission basis to Rosenthal. So we would purposely come to church just a little bit early, an hour - maybe not an hour, but at least a half an hour, - and our two-fold purpose was to first of all, be on time, that’s one of the rituals that we as Germans have very top priority…promptness - there’s just nothing more important. And visiting with the neighbors that maybe we hadn’t seen since last Sunday. And when the hour of eleven o’clock when Mass was designed to start, when it didn’t we got a little bit, I should say impatient, and the Father coming along, waving his arms, and come on, lets go, it’s time to go. But it was short-lived, so everything worked out well.

BD: I thought you said something earlier in German - remember?

AW: I remember saying something in German, but I don’t remember specifically something - [Vie Gehts, vie ver ster B182]. Something very short, I’m sure.

BD: I was wondering, your brother Tom said to ask you about your brother who died - he said you could tell the story the best.

AW: Yes. Brother Lucas was born with an obstruction of the opening of the stomach. Medical science in those days was not progressed to the point where they could diagnose it and just know why. Poor little Luke was unable to get food in his system. So in two weeks, with no food, he passed away. And that was pretty well it. And later years, anything today, medical science - that is a very common malady, which means that it’s easily corrected. It’s usually among male boys. Male babies.

BD: Another thing is there probably wasn’t a lot of access to a doctor when you were growing up.

AW: Oh that’s true. That’s true. Dr. Felix [Bonnegat B195] in Hague, that’s where he started, that was the only one available, there wasn’t any dentist, no specialties of any kind, and he was, you might say, doctor of all trades.

BD: Would it have taken a lot for your parents to take you to the doctor?

AW: Well, of course, if a tragedy occurred when the roads were snow-bound, there was no means available except horse and sleigh - four-runner sleigh. And that happened to me, I happened to break my leg right in the middle of winter, at the height of the snow blocked roads, so I laid there with my fractured leg for the duration of the evening, the night, and the next morning, put a good solid bedding of straw in the four-runner sleigh, and made me comfortable as much as possible, a couple of strong horses, over snow drifts and so on, twelve miles to Hague we went.

BD: How long did that trip take you?

AW: Probably, that’s eleven miles, and with that we could go about five miles an hour, if that - yeah, that’s probably was right, so it took a good two hours, two and a half hours, maybe three. Depending on how much, how deep the snow was, and how strong the animals were. I think for that round trip we might have changed horses. I don’t remember the way back.

BD: Now do you remember when the family would have gotten your first automobile?

AW: I remember the Model T, I owned one as a matter of fact, when I taught school, it was an older model. A Model A, and on down the line.

BD: Would your family have had a car when you were a young boy?

AW: Yeah, I was fairly young, yes. We shared a car with the family - Uncle Gabriel and Aunt Mary - for years, and that was only two door, but we managed to get where we wanted to.

BD: Families were pretty close, your dad and his brothers were...

AW: Very close. We did a lot of work together, in fact all of the rush season work such as harvesting and so on, we always hooked our horses together and went from one farm to the next. And we were very efficient at it, and when our neighbors noticed that we were finishing early, they contracted with us, and we’d clean up their fields for them. We did that, maybe not every year, but we did that quite often.

BD: Now did your mom have a doctor with her when her babies were born?

AW: Uh - I know that Father Tom doesn’t agree with me on this, but I might go back a little further then he did, but rush calls, of course in those days we did not have phones, so the only way to notify a doctor or whoever, the nearest town was Zeeland and Hague were the two closest. So it was a matter of rushing down after the labor was signaling, “Here I come.” Well anyway, I know Father Tom and I were discussing that this morning, and he didn’t think that at any time were the deliveries by doctor or a midwife or one of our aunts nearby. But the doctor would arrive - I’m not so sure about the timing, at what level the birth was occurring, if it had starting at all, but he did make it at times, you know for follow up. Of course, we the children were not allowed in that bedroom. But we knew very well what was going on. The doctors did arrive in most instances.

BD: As you think back, your life growing up, what’s your favorite memory of growing up as a child?

AW: I think it’s growing up with my brothers and my sisters - they’re the closest. The family. Our religion was very important; of course Father Tom becoming a priest was probably our highlight. But there’s a tragedy in a sense involved of the LORD’s will in all things as it were. Father, our Father, my dad wanted very much to see the ordination. But he passed away two years prior to his ordination. Sort of tough to handle. It was mentioned by one of our parish priests at the Mass of Ordination. But then he said, “It happened to me when I became a priest, exactly, so it’s something that you must accept, and life goes on.”

BD: Is there anything else you’d like to tell?

AW: I don’t believe so. I enjoyed the interview.

BD: Ok, nice talking to you.

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