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