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Mcleod’s one-room schoolhouse

Written by Merry Helm

May 24, 2021 - When school let out on this date in 1986, People magazine had already been to McLeod, in Ransom County, to cover the story. There were only 14 one-room schoolhouses still operating in the state, and McLeod’s was closing its doors. Of the three students still attending in 1986, two would be moving up to seventh grade, and there was no way to keep the school running for the youngest remaining child.

The story of the Salund School was used as the lead “Up Front” story in People and was ten pages long. It was the first time the magazine led an issue with a feature story told only through photographs and captions. That was probably due to extra care taken by photographer, Barry Staver, who considered the assignment one of his most personally rewarding. He recalled visiting the classroom in February – it was 18 below when the kids went outside for recess.

The title of the People article was “Lowest Paid Teacher in America.” Janice Herbranson had taught kindergarten through sixth grade at the school since the death of her husband in a plane crash in 1970. At the time of the school’s closing, her salary was only $6,800 a year, the lowest of any teacher in the country.

In addition to teaching, Herbranson also prepared two hot meals a day for her students. Arriving early each morning, she cooked a hot breakfast, and throughout the morning, she would periodically check the lunch simmering on the stove. After school was out for the day, she also cleaned, swept the floor and worked on the paperwork needed to obtain grants to keep the school open. The only thing that allowed her to work at such a low salary was her income from co-owning of the Sand Dune Saloon in McLeod.

In an article for the Fargo Forum, Kevin Murphy wrote, “As each student left Friday, clutching paper bags to protect just-made scrapbooks from a light spring rain, Herbranson handed them their report cards and an ice cream bar.”

“In a way, it was a blessing to have the media here,” she said. “If we were all alone, we’d have to dwell on this being the last day. This is a day the kids will remember. I don’t want them to remember it with tears.”

Two preschoolers who attended the school two afternoons a week joined the three students for a picture in front of their desks. Then she let each of them pick out a book to call their own. As they walked out the door, she leaned over each one and said, “I love you.”

When the door closed, she retreated to a corner of the room and cried. “You spend so many hours of so many days of so many years in one building. It becomes part of you.”

Herbranson planned to move to Alaska to teach after the school closed. Since then, we’ve learned that she took college courses the following year, then spent a year teaching kindergarten in Texas. The McLeod school board had two years to either reopen the school or disband; in 1988 they elected to reopen. They gave Herbranson a call, and she came back to McLeod to pick up where she left off. Two years ago, there were four students when the school closed again – this time for good.

A monkey in the cookies

Written by Merry Helm

May 25, 2021 - On this day in 1963, it was reported that a monkey had come to Fargo. A ring-tailed monkey named Charlie.

Irvin Knutson, a semi driver for Midwest Motor Express, had arrived at the Red Owl warehouse in Fargo with 2,800 cases of cookies, which he’d picked up on Wednesday at the Banner Biscuit Company in Carrolton, MO.

It wasn’t until Friday morning that Knutson unlocked and opened the back doors of his truck. On top of the cases inside sat a monkey, but it somehow didn’t register. Knutson told Chet Gebert of the Fargo Forum that he said to himself, “Chee, that’s a lot of cookies,” and then got into the truck to back it up to the loading dock. It wasn’t until the truck was moving that he said to himself, “Son-of-a-gun! That was a monkey!”

Soon, the warehouse employees were gathered around Knutson trying to get a look at Charlie, but the monkey had hidden between some cases up in front. Every so often, he would peek out to see what all the ruckus was about, but he wouldn’t come out far enough to get caught. The only thing to do was unload the truck.

By 3:15 that afternoon, Victor Klassen, the forklift operator, was down to the last cases when the monkey finally darted out. Klassen was ready. With a quick swish, he caught Charlie with his fish landing net.

Charlie screeched, but he wasn’t harmed. He was dehydrated and hungry – despite traveling three days with nothing but cookies, he hadn’t eaten any of them.

Someone put Charlie inside a wooden fruit crate and gave him some water. He took a couple sips, but he wouldn’t eat the banana they tried to give him. He was too scared. Charlie was taken to the truck terminal office, where it was decided he should be taken to the Valley Veterinary Clinic. There, he was fed and allowed to relax.

Meanwhile, Midwest terminal manager Nels Roswick got in touch with the Banner Biscuit Company in Missouri. Boswick told the Forum, “We asked them if anyone was missing a monkey. They said they didn’t know of any lost monkey, and then they called us back and asked if we were drinking up here.”

The Carrollton police and sheriff’s department were contacted, and sure enough, there was an ad in the local paper’s lost and found section. A monkey named Charlie was missing.

About an hour later, Mrs. Betty Boothe called from her home in Missouri and described Charlie, saying he was a family pet she’d gotten three months earlier. Her description of the monkey fit, so Boswick agreed to send Charlie back to Boothe and her daughter just as soon as he was fit to travel. He would be shipped express.

Mrs. Boothe was baffled about how Charlie had gotten into the truck. But she was glad he was OK and would soon be coming back home.

It was never reported whether or not Charlie got a cookie when it was all over.

Peggy Lee

Written by Merry Helm

May 26, 2021 - Today is the birthday of Norma Egstrom, who was the seventh of eight children born into a Jamestown Scandinavian family in 1920. Her father worked for the Midland Continental Railroad.

By some reports, Egstrom’s childhood was less than ideal. Her mother died when Norma was only four, and there was little love lost between Norma and her stepmother.

However, she had a good voice and excelled in choir, so after graduating from Wimbledon High School in 1938, she headed for California; she had only $18 and a railroad pass borrowed from her father.

She landed a short singing engagement at a Hollywood supper club called the Jade Room, but she didn’t make much of an impression. Pretty soon, she was doing what most talented young people do in Hollywood; she worked as a waitress. She also was a carnival barker at a midway in Balboa.

After a time, Norma got tired of the frustration and headed for Fargo, where she worked in a bakery as a bread slicer. She also got a job singing on WDAY radio, where manager Ken Kennedy got her to change her name to Peggy Lee. After a later stint in Minneapolis, she headed back to California, but now had some experience to back her up.

At the Doll House in Palm Springs, Peggy developed the sultry husky style that became her trademark. The Doll House audience was a loud one – one that Peggy couldn’t overpower, so she tried lowering her voice so the audience would have to listen harder. She soon learned that the quieter she sang, the more the audience paid attention. One of those audience members was Frank Bering, the owner of the Ambassador West Hotel in Chicago; he invited Peggy to sing there in the Buttery Room, where bandleader Benny Goodman discovered her while seeking a replacement for one of his singers.

In July 1941, Peggy joined Goodman’s group, the most famous swing band of the day. The group was at the height of its popularity. “I learned more about music from the men I worked with in bands than I’ve learned anywhere else,” Peggy said. “They taught me discipline and the value of rehearsing and even how to train. Band singing taught us the importance of interplay with musicians. And we had to work close to the arrangement.”

One year after joining Benny Goodman, Peggy recorded her first smash hit, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” which sold over 1,000,000 copies. The following year, she married Dave Barbour, the guitarist of the band. Soon after, she became pregnant and left the band.

After her daughter, Nicki, was born, Lee and Barbour settled on the West Coast, where Peggy recorded for Capitol Records, including “Golden Earrings,” which sold over 1,000,000 copies. Lee and her husband also produced a string of hits they wrote themselves, including “You Was Right, Baby,” “It’s a Good Day,” “What More Can a Woman Do?” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You.” Her hit, “Mañana,” sold over 2,000,000 records.

Altogether, she’s credited with writing more than 500 songs. It was her song, “Fever,” that earned her her first Grammy nominations for best female vocalist and record of the year.

Banana possum

Written by Merry Helm

May 27, 2021 - In the news this week in 1895 was the following article:

“When George Freeman was taking down a bunch of bananas at his father’s store in Fargo, he noticed a nest tightly fastened to the stock of the bunch. On prying the nest away, he found it to be a banana possum, and now the biggest wonder is how the possum ever survived when the ship was being loaded, as the natives of South America handle bananas pretty roughly.

“In appearance,” the article continued, “the little animal resembles a rat, only that his tail is about a foot long. His head resembles that of a wolf, except in size.”

A search for banana opossums came up blank, but here’s some trivia for you: there are more than 80 types of opossums in the Western Hemisphere; opossums are marsupials – meaning they raise their young in a pouch like a kangaroo; and they’ve been around since the time of the dinosaurs.

Rosie the Avon Lady

Written by Merry Helm

May 28, 2021 - On this evening in 1986, a 90-year-old Avon lady appeared on NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. She was Rosie Gries of Goodrich, ND, and she called it the second biggest highlight of her life. Her best biggest highlight was when she got to travel free of charge to the national Avon convention in Morton Grove, Ill.

Rosie made her first sale in 1938 when she sold a 10-cent tube of hand cream.

She brought her sales pitch with her to the show, but when she got Johnny to buy out her entire stock for $100, she was unruffled. She said, “I’ve had bigger doings than that.”

Rosie was cool and collected before the audience of 465 people. The Fargo Forum reported that she said, “I wasn’t nervous. Not a speck. It was just like talkin’ to my cousin,” she said. “I made up my mind that he’s just a human. Singing at a church for a wedding is worse than that.”

During the show, Carson rolled a film clip of Rosie driving on her sales route. Carson asked about her car, which was a 1950 Chevy with a “slow vehicle” warning sign tacked onto the rear. The 90 year-old said that the car was “slow but sure,” and that she bought it for $150 that she earned from her sales. She also told Carson that her job helped her remodel her home, add steel siding, install running water and also build a garage.

Carson asked, of course, about North Dakota’s weather. She acknowledged that it gets cold, but told him it warms up in the summer. She had lived in the state since 1905 and told him, “I like my state, North Dakota. The state that feeds you, you should stick up for.”

Gries gave Carson several presents while she was there: a North Dakota map, a letter from Governor George Sinner and a cap direct from Goodrich. And when Carson gave back all of her Avon products after the show, she made him keep a bottle of cologne.

Rosie’s daughter, her daughter-in-law and her granddaughter were in the audience that night. “They were clapping every other word,” Rosie said. She thought that her appearance was a success.

When asked if she hated to go home, she implied she wasn’t all that impressed with Hollywood glamour, and that even if she didn’t have to catch a plane back the next day, she wouldn’t want to stick around. “No, no, no, no. I don’t want to,” she said. “I want to go home and sell Avon. My (latest) shipment is waiting.”

Rosie made the news again ten years later. On her 100th birthday, she said, “I feel like I did when I was 16. I don’t feel my age. I can’t believe it.” She was now Avon’s oldest salesperson and had, by then, hired a driver to take her on her twice-a-month rounds. She also couldn’t see or hear as well as she once had. But, she was determined to sell Avon “as long as I can walk.”

She not only did that ... she went back to the “Tonight Show,” this time with host Jay Leno. It was June 28, 1996, and Leno’s other guests were Richard Lewis and Dennis Rodman.

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