There is nothing so exciting as seeing the world through the eyes of a child. One of the great losses to the world is that people who have forgotten their childhood perspectives write most of the history.
This was not the case with George Alfred Reishus (1886-1972) whose Norwegian family moved from Minnesota to Minot, N.D., in 1887 when the “Magic City” was just beginning. It was cowboy country in those days and Reishus has left us a vivid description of in his book Gone Are The Days published in 1954.
The Reishus family was among the earliest of Norwegian families to settle in midwestern North Dakota. George’s uncle, Torjus, came to Minot in 1886 and became the first pastor of First Lutheran Church. He was born in Koshkonong, Wis., near Madison, in 1847. This was one of the earliest Norse settlements in America.
George was an uncle to my long time friend, Dr. Roy Harrisville, retired professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. Roy shared some reflections with me for this story. His daughter, Carol Reishus Lund, was a classmate at Concordia College in Moorhead.
George’s early remembrance of Minot was as a city of cowboys, gunslingers, Indians, hunters, trappers, gamblers, construction crews, fist fights, scouts, saloons, “fancy girls,” merchants and farmers.
He recalled that there were two places he was forbidden to go near. One was the row of houses near the railroad tracks where the “fancy girls” lived with their red lamps burning night and day. The other was the coulees in the southwest part of the city because Indians encamped on what is now known as “South Hill” where we lived for 17 years (1974-1991).
He told the story how his new cap was swished from his head one day when he ventured too close to the forbidden coulees. It took a trip with his father to the teepees to recover it.
He remembered the courage of the frontier women. His mother, Astrid, known for her gentleness, took a butcher knife one day when two strolling squaws snatched some loaves of bread cooking in her window. The loaves were recovered.
It could be dangerous for a woman to be home alone when her husband was away from the farm. One brave woman carried on a conversation with an imaginary man, supposedly cleaning his rifle, until the eavesdropping marauders were frightened away.
Worst of all were the winters. Those three-day blizzards, followed by intense cold, were death to travelers and to homes caught without their supply of firewood hauled from the river. I remember that my dad went to the Wild Rice River east of Colfax, North Dakota, to bring wood home for heating our house every year.
In such storms, oxen were the surest guides to find the way home through blinding snowstorms. Reishus told the story about when his sister became severely ill and the doctor in Minot was not available. Oxen were dispatched during a storm with a message tied to their horns to uncle Torjus, the pastor, to come. He arrived to pray before she died.
Like all boys (and I was no exception), he admired the cowboys. One of his most interesting stories was when three unbranded calves were missing from the farm. They had strayed off to a large cattle ranch just in time for the branding party. Young George decided that this was his opportunity to get to know some real cowboys and have some man-talk with them.
While there, he decided to see if the missing calves were in the herd. But how could he tell? This would seem to be an impossible task, but not for George.
He called out in Norwegian, “Kom Kjyra, Kom Kjyre,” from the song “Seterjenten Sondag” (the Chalet Girl’s Sunday”), made popular by Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale.” Sure enough, the three calves came bounding out of the herd and were released to him by the ranchers, despite their new brands. The calves understood Norwegian!
Education was irregular but critical to the pioneers. They realized that their lack of education was a great handicap. A group of 20 farmers organized in the winter of 1898 to start a school for themselves and hired George’s father, Gunder, to be their teacher. They paid him $40 a month and helped with his chores on Saturdays.
English was the top priority and the “King’s English” at that. History and citizenship also received top billing.
He told of waiting for hunting season at age 10. All summer long he had watched and protected a covey of prairie chickens. But when the hunting season opened, he had to shock grain. In desperation, he smuggled a shotgun and some shells into the field. Then he saw a buckboard coming with hunters directly to his protected game.
George met the invaders, took a bead on one of their dogs and threatened to blow its head off if they went after his chickens. They backed off after calling him some abusive names, including a “white-haired Swede.” That was a nasty lie! He didn’t have white hair and he was 100 percent Norwegian!
George got his revenge years later when he cast the deciding vote against the man who maligned him at the election for the presidency of an oil company.
There is a moral to this story. Treat children with respect. They could grow up to be your best friends. I count many of them as mine.
George grew up to be city auditor, a state legislator and active in selling insurance, machinery and clothing. His recollections are cleverly written with a good dose of humor. I wish I had known him.
Next week: “Vikings in the Turtle Mountains”