Thursday, September 26, 2013

Dateline Govert, South Dakota: Truth in Storytelling (Part 2)

Meet Peter Vogt, storyteller extraordinaire. He was a good ol' storyteller and his story of being born at sea was recorded thereafter as one of the family truths. But it wasn't true.

First, let's establish Peter Vogt's connection to Govert, South Dakota. Peter Vogt was Emma Vogt's father. Emma married Govert Van der Boom, one of the founders of Govert, South Dakota. Peter Vogt's other children also found their way to Govert township. Daughter Lydia married Walter Gee and together Lydia and Walter bought land and raised their two sons in Govert. Peter's son Theodore homesteaded in Govert. Son Ernest worked on the various family land holdings in Govert. That little crossroads town of Govert, South Dakota, in southeastern Harding County was something of a family affair for the Vogts.

Peter Vogt, himself, farmed in Minnesota, and Minnesota is where he raised Emma, Lydia, Theodore, and Ernest. When his children were young, Peter must have entertained them with stories. Once upon a time ... everyone had a story to tell. No radio, no TV, no computer, what was a family to do to fill an evening in front of the fireplace or beside the coal stove? If you couldn't wind a tale out of elves and jujuberry trees, you could tell the stories of what you knew best ... stories of family, stories of your own experiences. How did storyteller extraordinaire Peter Vogt respond to the plea of one of his children: "Tell me a story, Papa"? Maybe the plea was: "Papa, tell me the story again, the one of how you came to America." Here is a photograph of Peter Vogt and his wife Mathilda Tobolt about the time Peter created a new story about his birth.

Peter Vogt was born at sea. Or was he? A regional history book from Minnesota says he most certainly was born at sea. The records of the Lutheran Church in Mecklenburg say most certainly not. Ditto the manifest for the sailing ship Genesee in 1855. The earlier US census records support the German birthright. When did it change and why?

Of Peter's two daughters, Emma was practical and discerning. Lydia, who was younger, was more impulsive. Emma was born in 1885, Lydia in 1887. Then Theodore was born in 1889. Sometime between the 1895 Minnesota Census and the 1900 US Federal Census, Peter's birthplace changed from Germany to a dramatic birth at sea. The story changed about the time Theodore would have reached the age of 7, and was old enough to plead, "Papa tell me the story of how you came to America!"

Census records through the years show that no-nonsense Emma knew better than to accept her father's birth at sea. Lydia and Theodore left home before 1920 and their census records for that year show they were drawn in hook, line, and sinker. After Theodore died in 1923 at the age of 34, his father, Peter, abandoned the story of being born at sea and once again began telling the census taker that he was born in Germany. Could it possibly be that the story was created and perpetuated for Theodore? Theodore's death created great sorrow in the family, enough for Peter to relinquish a much loved tradition. And still, even after Peter re-claimed Germany as his birthplace, the story of Peter being born at sea was lovingly preserved by Theodore's descendants.

It was a great story, too, with the drama of a big storm and the ship repeatedly approaching the American shore and being washed back to sea. Not all the "facts" survived the years, but the story must have gone something like this.

"A long time ago ... 45 years past ... my father, my mother, and my sister, Marie, boarded a big ship to come to America. The trip from Alt Buckow, the village where they lived, to Hamburg, where they found the ship, had been long, slow and bumpy. They were tired and nervous, but they were excited, too. Marie was only two years old and I was already in my mother's belly. My father was a cooper. He made barrels. He made good barrels, but the times were bad in Mecklenburg. Everyone was poor. Father was certain that if he could find a piece of land to farm he could support two children. If you owned land, you were somebody. But there was no land to be had in Mecklenburg. Poor people talk and poor people dream. In Mecklenburg, the poor people were talking and dreaming about America.

"And that's why your grandfather, your grandmother, and your Aunt Marie were in Hamburg. They were on their way to America. Hamburg was a big city, and people were scurrying everywhere, carrying trunks and boxes with rope tied around them. Alt Buckow was small and quiet and familiar. All they saw now was unfamiliar and uncertain, but there was no turning back. The ship was called the Genesee. She was a sailing ship and she had 3 masts. Father and Mother wondered how they would ever be able to stay on that ship for weeks squeezed in with all the other people crowding around them on the pier.

"They were on the sea for days and weeks and more days. They brought their own food but sometimes they were hungry. And sick? The ocean is not so quiet, you know, and we weren't seafaring people. Many people emptied their stomachs in a bucket or over the side of the ship. The trip was very difficult for your grandfather and your poor grandmother with me still in her belly. Your Aunt Marie clung to Mother's skirts or played with the other small children. Their only choice now was to go forward.

"As the ship approached the coast of America, a great storm arose, washing the ship back to sea. The ship was tossed to and fro by the enormous waves and the frightful wind. The waves towered as high as a building in the city and washed over the deck, nearly sinking the ship. Time after time the ship neared the shore, but always the ship was forced back to the deep waters of the sea. Whether the Vogts of Alt Buckow would live in America or die at sea, after suffering through weeks of hunger and seasickness, would be decided by this one storm. While this great storm raged, my mother's time came. My birth could not be delayed, and I was born there at sea on the sailing ship Genesee during this great storm. The day was 17 September 1854. On that day, if not for the raging storm, I would have been born in America."

That is a great story, isn't it? Peter was born 17 September 1854. That's the truth. But the Genesee docked in New York on 25 August 1855. Among those disembarking from the Genesee in August 1855 were Peter's father, his mother, his two-year-old sister, Marie, and a near one-year-old Peter.

I don't think my Great-grandfather Peter intended to forever change history. I don't think he was the least bit concerned about being found-out. Peter probably never anticipated that he would one day have a great-granddaughter who would want to know more about him. And he certainly never anticipated that I would find on microfilm the words written in the baptismal register, or that I would find his arrival in America on what would one day be called the Internet.

Peter must have thought this the best joke in the world, perpetuating the story of his birth at sea through the years, even to promoting, or at least accepting, the solemnization of the fiction in a regional history book. In this way, the story Peter told ... well, his fable ... tells me about Peter himself. I have a deeper affection for this Peter than the Peter who was merely a line entry on the microfilm of a church baptismal register. Look at the picture of Peter again. Look into his eyes. Look at the slight smile half-hidden behind his mustache. Now you know, too.

I hold this story dear simply because Peter Vogt told the story. Truth in Storytelling does not require we forfeit any of the stories that become part of our family narrative. The truth, the fiction, the stories that fall somewhere between truth and fiction ... all the stories are important and all become family history. We should preserve ... and honor ... these stories for what they are. The important thing is to distinguish, in the telling of the story, between what is true and what is not. In the case of Peter Vogt, the story should be prefaced with "your Great-great-great-grandfather Peter Vogt was a good ol' storyteller, and this time he told a whopper." Being born at sea is a good story, but being born in Mecklenburg and coming to America as an infant is a good story, too ... a better story, because it is true.

Do Theodore's grandchildren and great-grandchildren prefer the story Theodore loved so much? Will his descendants through the years continue the fiction as truth? Will they disregard the evidence? Perhaps they will. The truth may rest in the eye of the beholder.

Can a family fable become the family's truth? Peter Vogt tells us it can. Let's go one step further. Can the truth become a lie? That, too, can happen. Stay tuned, and next Thursday I will tell you how the truth became a lie for another epic storyteller whose audience would not believe him.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to Joanne Becker who interviewed Theodore Vogt's daughter, Elinor Vogt Grantz, 21 May 2008 in Jackson, Minnesota, and to Fritz Kruse who discovered the Vogt ship manifest. Photograph of Peter and Mathilda Tobolt Vogt used with permission of Linda Van der Boom Lavagnino.]

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Dateline Govert, South Dakota: Truth in Storytelling (Part 1)

History is a kit bag full of stories. Some stories are factual and some would be shredded in the courtroom of history. If genealogy or family history has any standards at all, perhaps that standard should be called "Truth in Storytelling". The family history stories we tell our children should not be confused with such creative bedtime greats as "Winnie the Poo and Tigger Too".

In family history we tell the stories of mostly everyday people. We gather the facts the best we can, we compose the story the best we can. We also adhere to the truth the best we can. Back in August, I wrote a story around Thrall Academy, a high school near Sorum, South Dakota. In winding my story, I re-wrote history. Not intentionally, mind you. Today we are going to set history straight.

In the posting for 29 August, I credited Gus Toble with moving the Thrall Academy buildings, joining them together to form an attractive home, and then planting a virtual forest of trees to create the perfect prairie abode for his wife, Elizabeth Byers Toble, near Bison, South Dakota. The man who accomplished this logistical feat was Elizabeth's first husband, Dyson Byers. Dyson died in 1927 after 20 years of marriage, leaving Elizabeth a 38-year-old widow. Dyson, himself, was only in his early 60s.

Dyson's story is good. We know where two of the Thrall Academy buildings ended their days and maybe the question was raised in your mind as to the simplicity (or the complexity) of the technology of moving them. What more do we know now? Thrall Academy closed its doors for the last time as a high school after the 1921 spring term. Financial support was always an issue, an issue that could no longer be overcome. Dyson Byers was at the auction sale on 10 September 1921. About three years later in 1924, and about 20 miles away, Dyson's youngest child, Dorothy, was born right there in that house Dyson built out of Thrall Academy.

Gus's story is good, too. He raised two families. Gus and his first wife, Amy Birdie Hinton, brought up four children together. Their youngest was 17 when Amy Birdie died in Govert, South Dakota. Then, a widower for almost four years, Gus married the Widow Byers. Elizabeth Byers already had the perfect prairie abode, so why should they live anywhere else? Together with Elizabeth, Gus parented his second family, Elizabeth and Dyson's youngest children, outside of Bison, South Dakota.

Dorothy, the youngest of the Byers children, was only two years old when Dyson died; she was nine when her mother married Gus in 1935. Dorothy, who will be 89 next month, remembers Gus with great fondness. Gus was kind to her and became the only father she really knew. Both of Dorothy's fathers were good men. Dyson and Gus never met and they were called to play different roles at different times in the lives of Elizabeth and her children.

Ralph, Dorothy, and Lloyd Byers (back); Florence Byers, Elizabeth Byers Toble, Gus Toble, Evelyn Byers (front) [Photo used with the permission of Linda Shelton]
Linda Shelton, who inspired the story, and who now assures the story will be preserved in the most correct form, also gives us additional information about her grandmother to fill in the story. Linda tells us that her Grandmother Elizabeth had a good mind for business and owned quite a bit of land. In fact, Elizabeth had at least two U.S. land patents dating to 1911, held along with additional land she purchased. Some men in the early 1900s must have appreciated an intelligent woman with good business sense, and her own land holdings. Dyson must have. Gus must have. Likewise, Govert Van der Boom of Govert, South Dakota, married a woman with a business degree and her own homestead. That would be Emma Vogt, who just happened to be Gus's niece.

The story gets even better. The Thrall Academy buildings that Dyson moved? They sat on Elizabeth's homestead. And that was where he planted 100 trees.

But wait. What about the people who have memories of attending Thrall Academy later in the 1920s, or the 1930s, or even 1940, 1941, and 1942? Some people may have a mental image of what the high school at Sorum looked like during these later years. Reconciling that mental image with the picture of the school before 1921 in my earlier posting may have left them biting the inside of their cheek. The only way the image can be reconciled is to realize the successor school looked much different than the original Thrall Academy.

What does Truth in Storytelling really mean in family history? Diligence and integrity would be a good baseline for any enterprise. That includes correcting a story where we can. Sometimes a family may have changed its narrative history on purpose, sometimes family history finds new words through the retelling, and sometimes, as in my story about Gus Toble, Elizabeth Byers and the Thrall Academy, the storyteller misunderstands the facts. This is now a story of Gus, Elizabeth, and the Thrall Academy ... and Dyson Byers ... and Dyson's daughter, Dorothy Byers, who was Gus's daughter, too. As for Truth in Storytelling, we represent the very best truth we can uncover.

Maybe in a future posting I'll tell you the story Emma Vogt Van der Boom's father created out of nothing more than fluff and air, which became a family truth for more than 100 years. No, I think I'll do that next week. Then the week after that I'll tell you another story that was true ... but no one believed it ... until the truth was revealed more than a decade after the death of the storyteller.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[The 29 August 2013 post is edited for new readers entering Thru the Prairie Grass on that post.]

[Written with gratitude to Linda Shelton and South Dakota State Historical Society Archives]

Thursday, September 12, 2013

!! Lydia Arrives in Govert, South Dakota !!

Lydia is in town! No one really knows for sure when Lydia arrived in Govert, South Dakota. She didn't arrive by buckboard or on horseback with any of the original homesteaders, back when the roads were little more than trails. One of those early homesteaders was a widower and the other men were bachelors. Lydia must have cut a striking figure, even though she was the mother of grown children. She was tall and slim, had reddish hair. She was a suffragist, anti-slavery, and pro-temperance. You'd think Lydia's arrival would have created a stir, if not for her appearance, at least for her unapologetic politics. How could anyone have missed her entrance in Govert, South Dakota?

No parade. No banners. No staring men. No fanfare at all. Lydia's introduction to Govert, South Dakota, was modest. Not even a hawdooyawdoo. Lydia probably arrived in 1911, about the same time the earliest homesteading bachelors grew tired of their own cooking and took wives. Or maybe Lydia arrived in 1913, riding in the wagon with Lora Giese and Lora's married sister, Clara Hafner. The women traveled to Govert from Presho, South Dakota, accompanied by Clara's husband, Pete Hafner, and his brother, Bill, the Hafner children, and a herd of horses and another herd of cattle. Lora was to marry Bill and become the Govert midwife and the town's primary medical practitioner. Both Lora and red-headed Lydia were concerned about women's health.

Just who was this Lydia? Lydia became a friend to the women who would settle in Govert. Lydia Pinkham arrived in Govert, South Dakota, as a picture on the cardboard box containing a bottle of patent medicine. This was the one medicine bottle you might find in every homestead shack in the neighborhood of Govert, South Dakota. At least every homestead shack tended by a woman.

Perhaps the reason for the modesty of Lydia's arrival was the private ... perhaps even mysterious ... nature of the conditions she treated. Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound most assuredly cured every female ailment relating to m-e-n-s-t-r-u-a-t-i-o-n at the beginning of womanhood to the complete absence thereof at the further end of life. Lydia Pinkham was in the medicine basket of millions of women in America. One tablespoon every four hours in the privacy of your own home.

The recipe for Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound is not a secret.
8 ounces unicorn root (Aletris farinosa L.)
6 ounces life root (Senecio aureus L.)
6 ounces black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa L. Nutt.)
6 ounces pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa L.)
12 ounces fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum L.)
18% alcohol for 100 pints

What was Lydia Pinkham thinking? Eighteen percent alcohol? Lydia was a Quaker, for Pete's sake, and she supported temperance. Get over it, as Lydia was thinking quite clearly. The goal of temperance was to remove alcohol as an agitator of violence in families, not to eliminate medicinal use. Alcohol was used, and is still used, as a preservative and to hold in suspension ingredients that would not normally mix. A tablespoon of Lydia's compound had less of a wallop than some of our favorite cough syrups of recent years past.

Any issue of alcohol content fades when you consider the surprisingly accurate choice of herbs. Lydia really was on to something when it came to the herbs she was using. The herbs had an anti-spasmodic and anti-inflammatory effect, and black cohosh remains a respected and commonly relied upon herbal remedy today.

Whether Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound worked or not, and evidence suggests it did, the early advertising claims (here from 1880) would not have passed the scrutiny of the US Food and Drug Administration today:
The advertising vocabulary changed as the years passed, only to cast a wider net to include women who were tired and overworked, an apparent epidemic condition that marked the times and, by definition, included every woman who lived on the prairie. A fatigue epidemic may only have increased demand for Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound in Govert Van der Boom's store in Govert, South Dakota.

Lydia Pinkham had benevolent intentions when she started manufacturing her vegetable compound. No one but women much cared about women's problems, certainly not the male medical establishment. So women chose to self-medicate, mixing their own herbal remedies. Lydia's remedy worked and, with the encouragement of the friends Lydia supplied with her remedy, Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound reached the mass market in 1875. The practice of medicine would improve in the 35 years before Govert, South Dakota, was founded, but the women of Govert would still have cause to self-medicate as no doctor set up an office in that community.

The claims may have been puffery, the alcohol content may have raised eyebrows, but what Lydia sold gave women relief, equally when formulated as pills. Although Lydia Pinkham's is not stocked by my corner drugstore, NuMark laboratories sells both tablets and the liquid formulation on-line ... making this a respectable 138 year run. Lydia Pinkham's formulation has changed somewhat, but the pleurisy root and black cohosh are still there ... so is the picture on the box of the woman with reddish hair. Maybe it's worth a try.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to Harding County History Book (2013) Hafner Family submissions]

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Emma Van der Boom and the Parable of Unexpected Expectations

Emma Vogt Van der Boom, wife of the Govert, South Dakota, storekeeper, and storekeeper herself, told me a parable when I was ten years old. I call Emma's story a parable because the narrative was short, illustrated a truth and, as often is the case with parables, the story line was somehow not entirely satisfying.

"One morning two couples were eating breakfast in a restaurant. The remaining tables were empty. The couple over there [Emma motioned to the left with her crochet hook] was well-dressed. The man was tall and handsome, the woman proportionately smaller, pretty, with a good figure and her hair and makeup were expertly done. If you saw them walking along the street, you would notice how nice they looked together.

"The second couple [motioning to the right], well, she was tall and square, he was short and lean. And maybe they weren't so stylish. [Emma paused and then continued].

"The handsome man was silent sitting there in the restaurant. He held his newspaper high, creating a barrier between himself and his companion, as he read what news there was to read. The pretty woman sat quietly in the chair on the other side of his newspaper, looking sad and sullen as she picked at the food on her plate, stirring the eggs without eating.

"The newspaper purchased by the mismatched couple lay unopened on their table. The too tall woman and the too short man were in their own little world, chatting about this and chatting about that. You couldn't hear what they were saying but their words were animated and their laughter rang true."

Or words to that effect.

Emma continued her crocheting through the telling of the parable but, with the last word, she stopped abruptly. She looked up at me expectantly, eyes wide, eyebrows raised, lips pursed, wise and knowing as grandmothers are supposed to be. But then she said not a word more about the two couples in the restaurant. Not a single word.

OK, Gram, I'm not sure what motivated your parable, but I get your point. Appearances are not important, only what's on the inside counts. Blah. Blah. Blah. So I'm stuck kissing frogs while the other girls get the princes. At the age of ten, I was already the tallest in my class at school. I wonder now whether Jesus had as much trouble sinking a point with the Israelites.

But there's more. For years, a nuance of the story remained hidden. How many years had to pass before I realized that, in the parable, my grandmother was talking about herself and my grandfather. They were not the handsome-is-as-handsome-does couple. Like the second couple in the parable, Emma was tall and square, Govert was short and lean.

Few people remember my grandmother as tall; she grew shorter with age. On the other hand, the fact that Govert was not a tall man has been recorded in history by people who met him at the store in Govert, South Dakota, the town named after him. They remember a small man with a foreign accent and abounding enthusiasm. Imagine what it would have been like for a child whose chin reached the countertop in the Govert store, just tall enough to admire the candy jars ... what would it have been like for that child to discover this not so tall man peering from behind the store counter with an engaging smile and sparkling blue eyes, and then when the man spoke his voice was musical. Is it true that Govert Van der Boom never forgot what it was like to be a child?

I don't have to tell you, Emma was right about the gold we wear inside of us, the interior riches that find a way out, maybe even as a sparkle leaping from deep blue eyes. Emma and Govert may have been a mismatched package, but they were a package deal in the town of Govert, South Dakota. Even though the town carried Govert Van der Boom's name, Emma became her husband's partner in marriage and in business. Emma and Govert were good companions through homesteading, running businesses, raising sons. They were life partners.

Do you suppose Emma told me the parable because she saw a younger Emma in me? I would like that. I'm probably now near in age to my grandmother when she told me her parable. Sometimes it takes wisdom to meet wisdom. Gram found her prince. Yes, so did I.

Now, let me ask you this. Did you realize you were reading a parable within a parable ... the latter being a genealogical parable? Emma's point was time-tested and true, but I was trying to make a point, too. I was trying to point out that history - whether that be the history of a nation, or the history of a county or town, or family history - is about people. People. Tall people, short people, fat people, skinny people, happy people, sad people. People, lots of people. Facts are important because they anchor people in time and space, but we should never divert our focus from the people, not even those who lived their lives quietly day to day. History is what happened just yesterday ... to you.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate