More Than a Celebration:
Centennials Bring Revelry, Reverie
By Ron Vossler
North Dakota REC/RTC
Magazine, Mandan, North Dakota, August 1999, pages 14-16.
There's much more to a North Dakota centennial celebration
than music and merrymaking, as author Ron Vossler found out when
he attended his hometown of Wishek's centennial last summer:
My hometown of Wishek is a sleepy prairie town of 1,400 nestled
in the Beaver Valley of south central North Dakota. But for five
days in July of last year, its population swelled into the thousands,
and the quiet streets rocked with the activity and excitement of
an urban center.
So what was going on? At the tail end of the last century, in
1898, that town was first hewn from the prairie frontier. To commemorate
that fact, the Wishek locals put on a centennial bash that will
not soon be forgotten.
Festivities began with a classic pioneer "train," with hooped
covered wagons pulled by muscular horses, which trundled into Wishek
mid-morning of July 1, 1998--about the time I arrived in town.
The celebration culminated four days later in an old-fashioned
Sunday under the cottonwoods and elms of Wishek's city park, with
an ecumenical church service, area bands and baseball games.
And in between, there was something for everyone.
A parade of memories
Perhaps you'd have to be a native Wishekite, or from a town like
it, to understand the intimate connection one can have with a hometown,
a landscape, or even the vehicles of that place. Daily centennial
parades featured a variety of entries to remind people of the town's
history. In one parade the chugging 1941 Plymouth--driven by my
cousin who keeps cars in repair for occasions like this--startled
me into mid-century memories of riding to church on quiet summer
Sundays with my Grandfather Fetzer.
And the veneered buggies, pulled by horses in colorful harnesses,
evoked memories of the other side of my family, the Vosslers, Bessarabian
horsemen who'd brought their love of those animals to America.
In buggies like those my immigrant relatives rode from their farms
into Wishek for a Saturday night of revelry, their cowboy hats cocked
back, their crisp bandannas clasped around their necks by polished
brass horse-rein rings.
No doubt others made similar Associations. But you didn't need
to be of German-Russian ancestry--for it was this ethnic group which,
primarily, shaped Wishek's history--to enjoy yourself.
You could admire the artistry of Del Iron Cloud's panoramic centennial
mural, with historic scenes--from an Indian encampment, to images
of the earliest pioneers--covering the entire side of a building
which faced the main highway through town.
There were also a variety of stage shows, singing groups, a centennial
play, a threshing bee on the south edge of town, beer gardens, a
carnival midway encompassing several blocks of main street, fireworks
displays, and comedic entertainment such as the "Afon Girls," whose
polyglot parodies must have made a few heavily accented locals in
the audience squirm in recognition.
You didn't have to be of that stolid German-Russian ancestry to
enjoy the food, either. All you needed was a robust appetite for
that ethnic cuisine, arrayed across the concession counters--everything
from fleishkechla, to glazed kuchen desserts, to the spiced German
fry sausage that some of the locals still call, in dialect, "vascht."
Uprooted rock a symbol
Granted, only locals might understand the deeper significance
of the contest to guess the weight of a huge rock, stationed near
the intersection of main street and the highway. How much did it
The immigrants came from the steppes of Russia, where there were
few, if any, rocks. Around Wishek, they had to devote many hours
of backbreaking labor to clearing away the debris left by the glaciers.
As a result, more than a few people in the Wishek area, myself
included, grew up hauling rocks. So I was more than interested when
a few elderly folks drifted toward that huge rock, as though drawn
like a magnet by memories of the rocks they'd hauled.
They nodded. They hemmed and hawed. They circled the rock. Then,
as though patting down the flanks of a spirited horse, they ran
their crabbed hands over the smooth, cool surface. They wanted,
I suppose, to get a feel for the rock's weight. My guess? 17,321
pounds. Probably too high. I never learned who won the contest,
or the rock's actual weight.
From polkas to the 'pony'
No doubt about it, the town had changed since I'd lived there.
Houses were larger, many remodeled; businesses relocated to the
edge of town. And there was a bustling steel manufacturing plant
to boost the local economy. Never before, I realized a day into
the centennial, had so many people crowded town before.
There were campers and RVs everywhere, in empty lots, alleys,
driveways and along the fringes of town. Yet never again would each
street bustle like that Saturday night main street of my childhood,
when farm families came to town to sell cream and eggs, to shop,
to visit with neighbors.
There was music for everyone, too, local or not. One night Bobby
Vee played his '50s and '60s tunes in the Wishek Civic Center. The
next night, as I overheard one young person express it, there was
"oompah" music, polkas and waltzes for the oldsters.
At the same time--under a canopy of the main highway through town--there
were street dances for the younger crowd where you could listen
or dance to everything from rock, to pop, to what sounded like rap
One evening I met up with an acquaintance--a woman roughly my
own age. She'd been headed to the Civic Center, where the Chimelewski
Fun Time Band was playing. But then she turned abruptly on her heel
and went in the direction of the rock band blaring near main street.
Her behavior exemplified much of what the centennial represented
to some of us: the mixture of the old and the new, of the ethnic
and the purely American, with some generations, like my own, occasionally
caught between. "I don't know what I should do," she complained
as she passed me. "Waltz at the Civic Center, or do the pony at
the street dance.
From history to humor
That was the outward, celebratory part of the centennial. There
was also, in the town armory, for the more meditative souls, long
tables of tools, memorabilia, photos and heritage displays. One
display featured the elaborate handiwork of family quilts, another
a heavy pelz coat of coonskin brought from Russia by an immigrant
In the armory there was also an NDSU (North Dakota State University)
Libraries booth, which offered books and genealogical materials
for sale, for anyone interested in tracing their ethnic background.
One favorite book that people consulted contained a long list of
all the deaths between 1833-1900 in the Glueckstal Colonies in Russia,
where most of the people who'd settled Wishek originated.
What was even more interesting to me, though, were the subtle
outcroppings of the Germans from Russia culture that could be glimpsed
during the centennial.
Some people joked about how, following at the tail end of each
day's parade, and at the tail end of the horses, there always rolled
the bulky town street sweeper machine--to clean up the dung from
the horses pulling the wagons. "Only Germans would clean up so fast,"
But for me the most poignant part of the centennial was the conversations.
Though thoroughly Americanized, some people in Wishek still remember
their history. One of my relatives told about how he locates, records
and marks all the early graves of the pioneers in the area, lest
farmers accidentally plow them up--or worse, lest they be forgotten
And my dear cousin L.--bless her tender heart--could hardly choke
out the words, as though it had happened yesterday, of how two family
babies on our great-grandparents' immigrant passage to America,
had died and been buried in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.
Yet another relative, over coffee one morning, his eyes brimming
with tears, showed me a "starvation letter" that he carries in his
billfold. It's a heartbreaking appeal, in German, from my grandmother's
cousin who remained behind in Russia, who--when Stalin purposefully
starved Ukraine--penned her America relatives for help. Her only
wish, she said, was that she'd meet everyone again in the next world.
These conversations reminded me of the deeply emotional nature
of some of Germans from Russia descent--a nature most keep hidden
and private. But in some conversations I also glimpsed the outcroppings
of a rich vein of ethnic humor.
Wishek was, someone informed me, the "home of the one-liner."
During my four days there I heard more than my share of short jokes
and wittily turned phrases, in both English and German, which included
everything from advice on marriage ("The first mate is from man,
the second from God, the third from the Devil.."), to what one elderly
fellow spouted when he learned that I'd gotten a fellowship to study
and collect German-Russian jokes ("We can't get anything for a bushel
of wheat. And they give you money to collect dirty jokes?").
Thunder dredges up rocks, reflections
The centennial helped me understand, again, how dense and labyrinthine
is the thicket of family relations. Sometimes it seems like everyone
is related, one way or another. Many of the first families into
the area west of Wishek, my own ancestors included, settled together,
worshiped together, married together. So it was hard for me to get
anywhere during that centennial celebration without bumping into
relatives. But it was easy to find a place to stay each night!
One night I slept in a camper parked in an alley; another night
in my aunt's home, in my grandfather's bed, where family members
had been born and died. The third night I slept far out in the country,
in an isolated farmhouse that a friend shared with me.
For several days the weather had been perfect: sunny and warm
during the day, cooling off at night. But that third night, out
in that farmhouse, I jerked awake. Percussive thunder pealed over
the prairie, and I remembered the old-folk belief of my uncle who
said that it was thunder which shook the earth, bringing rocks from
deep in the ground to the surface of his fields.
That's how I felt that night in the farmhouse. The many conversations
I'd had in the past days rose up on my memory, like those rocks,
rising to the surface of those fields. Though my heart swelled from
the many conversations, I'd also felt--in the midst of the celebration--an
edge of resentment in some people's voices as they spoke about their
Not directly, but if you listened closely you could hear that
some felt there'd been little or no affection from parents, that
in their childhoods there'd often been too much heavy labor. Like
one fellow who shook his head sadly about the 60 cows he'd milked
in a drafty barn during 40-below weather.
There are valid historical and cultural reasons for why people
felt that way. At least one scholar has suggested that many of German-Russian
background struggle to claim such a difficult ethnic past because
it is so rife with bad associations. The Norwegian novelist O.E.
Rolvaag wrote about the great price of immigration and prairie settlement,
which even later generations ended up paying.
But during the centennial I'd also spoken with young people, some
still in high school or just out of college, children and grandchildren
of relatives and friends and acquaintances. Few of those young people
lived in Wishek. Fewer still knew much of the ethnic group's or
the town's history.
But if anything could redeem the suffering or broken lives of
the earliest settlers, or the disappointment of the later generations,
it was those children, whose calm, pleasant faces told me they felt
loved, that they had been well parented, that a century after settlement
they still carried German-Russian values--now American cultural
values, too: industriousness, honesty, frugality, respect for authority.
A fond farewell
After another day of events, of friends and conversations, and
another night in that farmhouse, it was time to leave. That Sunday
morning, the last of the centennial, as ecumenical church services
were held in the city park, I drove from town.
A circle of soft-sculptured hills rose up before me. There were
thronging wheat fields, where deer bounded fluidly away from my
car, their heads held high, like dogs wading a creek.
The rural beauty of Wishek was, I realized, still a well-kept
secret--as was so much else about this town, beginning now its second
Reprinted with permission of the North
Dakota REC/RTC Magazine.