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 actually weigh?

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 music.

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 1894.

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," someone quipped.

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 by posterity.

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 prairie upbringing.

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 hundred years.

Reprinted with permission of the North Dakota REC/RTC Magazine.

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