Thursday, October 3, 2013

Dateline Govert, South Dakota: Truth in Storytelling (Part 3)

Here we are, back in Govert, South Dakota, where last week I told you about Peter Vogt, one of my family's epic storytellers. Peter was the father of four Goverites. His oldest daughter, Emma Vogt Van der Boom, lived at the epicenter of Govert, South Dakota, where the Govert Store and the Van der Boom residence stood side by side. The rumble of daily social activity in this rural area was concentrated in the Govert Store. Next door, in the residence, Emma shared a pillow with the man whose name was on the store, the post office, the newspaper, and the town. The storytelling skills of Emma's father, Peter Vogt, added a fable to the family narrative that became the family's truth for over 100 years. Now we're going to explore what happens when the truth becomes a fable for another epic storyteller.

To do that we will travel across the Missouri River from West River to East River. In the area of Letcher, South Dakota, my family's other epic storyteller, Adolf Zoss, told a story that was the truth, but no one believed him. Adolf Zoss's relationship to Govert, South Dakota, is more tenuous than that of Peter Vogt. However, Adolf's story is important to make my point about the value of all kinds of family stories ... and, yes, I can conjure a connection. Adolf Zoss was two degrees of separation from Govert, South Dakota. Adolf was the grandfather of the woman who was to share the marital pillow with Emma's youngest son. That woman would be my mother, Christene Volzke, an East River girl. Emma's youngest son, Roger, spent his earliest years running through the prairie grass in Govert, South Dakota, on the West River side of the Missouri.

What is Adolf's story? Adolf Zoss and his wife, Amelia, lived on a farm outside of Letcher, South Dakota. Adolf climbed out of bed one fall morning in 1945, with no reason to believe the day he woke into would be any different from any other day. Amelia cooked up a farmer's breakfast on the wood stove just like she did yesterday and all the other mornings of their 50 year marriage. Amelia deftly threw together Adolf's customary breakfast of bacon with eggs fried in the bacon fat, toast, oatmeal or cold cereal, juice. And, of course, coffee with a spot of milk. Adolf poured his coffee into the deep saucer and drank from the saucer in the way his family did in Switzerland.

Nothing was amiss and neither Adolf nor Amelia had a clue how the day would unroll. The day started cool and warmed up with the sun. Conditions were perfect for pheasant hunting. After breakfast Adolf reached for his shotgun, his dog perked at the signal, and the two headed for the fields. Adolf wasn't sure what he enjoyed most, the challenge of the hunt, a leisurely fall day with his dog beside him, or the beauty of pheasant taking flight over the South Dakota fields he loved so much.

Adding to Adolf's assurance that all was right in the world was the Zoss family's recent jubilation in celebration of the end of World War II. Adolf's son, Fred, would be coming home soon, if he was not already back in South Dakota by that time. Victory in Europe was declared a few months ago on 8 May 1945, and the Japanese surrendered on 2 September. Already things were looking up in America and in South Dakota, and in Adolf's farm fields outside of Letcher.

The day was peaceful out in the fields ... until that blasted automobile came rumbling down the road a bit too fast, shooing the pheasant into flight. An old Ford, was it? No new cars around this close to the war. In the automobile were Lawrence Welk of "Champagne Music" fame, singers Jayne Walton and Bobby Beers, and trombonist Lauren Brown. Someone else was there, too, and that someone had a camera. We may never know whether this trip out into the South Dakota corn fields was a planned photo opportunity or whether the already well-known Lawrence Welk was taking a much needed break between bookings. Perhaps both. From rural North Dakota himself, Lawrence Welk had the strongest kind of connection with the Dakotas, one that defined his character. However long this interlude in the field outside of Letcher lasted, and however many shotgun shells were fired, all the parties defined this part of that day in 1945 as pheasant hunting, and the picture supports this conclusion.

Adolf returned to the farmhouse from the fields that day in 1945, and told Amelia he had been hunting pheasant with Lawrence Welk. Of course, the Zosses all were fans of Lawrence Welk and his big band sound, and felt a special kinship with this famous fellow Dakotan. Well, Amelia didn't believe Adolf that day. And none of his 11 children living in 1945 believed Adolf either. Not Nellie. Not Mary. Not Albert. Not Elsie. Not Jake. Not Adolf. Not Ann. Not Charlie. Not Mildred. Not Fred. Not John.

Sometime after 1968, Ann Zoss told her father's story in an undated letter, quoting her older sister Nellie. According to Ann, this is what Nell said: “In 1945 we came down to Letcher [from Herreid] for Thanksgiving. Ma said some hunters came and Pa said it was Lawrence Welk and some fellows and a girl. Pa took them out to the shelter belt to hunt. Ma said Pa said they took his picture. She said she thinks Pa is fibbing. [...] [Then] one time in 1954 when Ma and I went with Pa in the car to go out to look at the corn field he was telling that once Lawrence Welk came and ask him for a good place to hunt pheasants. Ma said she didn’t believe it was Lawrence Welk and Pa said he told him he was Lawrence Welk.” Don't be fooled by the folksy language, as Nell could be as ladylike and demure as can be when that suited her.

Pa wasn't fibbing, but he was dead in the water all the same, the victim of being a good ol' storyteller. According to Adolf's Granddaughter Christene, Adolf had a reputation of "embroidering the facts". Adolf was a known fibber, and his tale-telling finally caught up with him. The occasional retelling of the Lawrence Welk story over the next 12 years preceding Amelia's death brought her - and their 11 children - no closer to believing Adolf's story. Amelia died in March 1957 and, seven months later, Adolf died with his truth still unbelieved.

Then, after the photograph ... the one Adolf claimed was taken ... was published in the Lawrence Welk magazine in 1968, Adolf's close brush with fame changed history as the family knew it. For Lawrence Welk, Jayne Walton, Bobby Beers, Lauren Brown, and their photographer, this fall day in 1945 was just a blip in time. For Adolf Zoss the day may have been life defining. Do we have this photograph? You betcha. The photograph is copyright protected, but the Welk Group kindly gave me permission to reproduce the photograph for non-commercial genealogy purposes only.

Jayne Walton is on the left, then Bobby Beers, Lauren Brown, a younger Lawrence Welk, and the older man on the right with the shotgun and generous mustache, looking slightly star struck, is Adolf Zoss. Adolf was probably already planning how he was going to tell this story to Amelia.

If I could conjure a closer connection to my blog charter of Govert, South Dakota, I would tell you what was in store for Lawrence, Jayne, Bobby and Brownie. However, Lawrence and his merry Music Makers are three degrees of separation from Govert, South Dakota, so next week we will move on to something else. I will tell you that another 10 years would pass before The Lawrence Welk Show would leave its mark on national TV. For now, though, I hope you will be as charmed as I was when I listened to Bobby Beers sing "Cleanin' My Rifle". Bobby recorded this in 1944, a war ditty. Still, I wonder whether his smile a year later in the 1945 picture of two Dakotans bearing arms was accompanied by the tune of Cleanin' My Rifle and Dreamin' of You. Go ahead and click on the link. Yes, now.

What is Truth in Storytelling? Adolf Zoss told the truth and Peter Vogt created a fable. Adolf's truth was disregarded, Peter's fable was accepted as family history. As family historians, what are we supposed to do with that? You do exactly what I did. Tell all of the stories, every single story, but distinguish what is factual and what is a tale. It's as simple as that. Every family story should be preserved. What is a little more complicated is our responsibility as family historians to discern the truth, and then to create a story based on the facts, a story that bears retelling. With that, we do the best we can, knowing we will encounter good ol' storytellers the likes of Peter Vogt and Adolf Zoss, both wonderful men who left the legacy of a story and a smile.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to Becky Zoss, Christy Volzke, and the Welk Group]


  1. Wow! very very interesting!! and you have the picture to prove it. I think a lot of families have a story teller, one who relates with gusto and a twinkle in the eye, leaving us to wonder if it really is all true or if there's a little bit of "artistic license" in there, making it more interesting. Whether it is or it isn't, it's all entertainment as these last two examples certainly are. Well done.
    Your cuz,

  2. Very interesting, even if I heard this story, many times, and then to find it really was the truth, with a picture to prove it. Love, Mamacita

  3. As Lawrence might say, "ah one, ah two, ah three...wunnerful, wunnerful"... this is another "wonderful" blog entry, dear!

    The photograph is great and the music link adds so much depth and richness to what you've written. The music link is especially innovative and clever. The recording certainly sounds like the Lawrence Welk that I remember from his TV days.

    Your blog posting this week is another very interesting and entertaining one. I agree with Elaine...well usual!!

  4. What an absolute delightful story! A story to be jealous of. And with such a wonderfull picture that indeed "paints a thousand" words. But having said that, don't stop putting down those words, dear cousin, because we're enjoying them hugely. First mention of Roger and Christy, a mentioning that brings back fond memories of their visit to Holland.



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