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Memories of Streeter, North Dakota

Presentation by Gertrude de Dobay

Talk given in Manitowoc to woman's group at a Presbyterian church, invited by friend Verna Rudolph, 1960.

Prepared by Carol de Dobay Rifelj, Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont


. . .[Beginning of talk - thanks for the invitation, experience teaching in Manitwoc, reflections on how the Evangelical and Reformed church is close to Presbyterian, report of attendance at national conference] . . .

Verna has told me that in you woman's group you have in the past year been studying the rural church, its problems and challenges, and that I should tell you a little of my experiences as the wife of a pastor in a rural community. We spent 5 years, from 1951-56, in a pastorate in Streeter, North Dakota, a small town of less than 700, in the midst of the vast prairie and wheat country of the northern plains. To describe at all adequately all the reactions, impressions, problems, and challenges of such an experience confronts me with a formidable task. I am faced with what has been called the poverty of plenty-there would be so much to say, so many facets to be considered that it is difficult to compress it all into a talk such as this. I hope, however, to present some of the highlights, and you will bear with me if my account is intensely personal and deals not only with church matters but with the whole adjustment which my family and I had to make.

I'd like to tell you first how we happened to go to Streeter. We had been serving two Hungarian miss[ion] churches in Milwaukee and Racine when my husband was asked to accept the North Dakota charge, because it was felt that these remote and widely scattered congregations should be brought into closer fellowship with the church at large and the greater [?] work. In our whole section of North Dakota there are only 5 pastorates - there are a few more west of the Mississippi River, but they belong to another Synod - and Streeter had been without a pastor for three years. My husband had been active on denominational matters, had taught in C.E. Workshops and in Youth and LT camps. His main qualification, however, was that he could preach in German as well as English - and when we came to Streeter at least one-half of the services were conducted in German - and much of our pastoral work, especially among the older fold was carried out in that language. We were gradually - very gradually - to get the congregation to take a greater part in the total program of the church.

And it was a tremendous change and a challenge for us all. My husband, with his European background, had lived only in large cities-Budapest, Berlin, Vienna. I was born, raised, went to school and college in Milwaukee-all my teaching experiences had been in larger cities, mainly in Milwaukee, and I was a big city gal if there ever was one. Our children - Tom 8, Carol 4 ½ -- had known only big city life. We were moving almost 800 miles away, where we knew no one, when the nearest neighboring pastor of our church was over 40 miles away, over bad roads. I would be deceiving you if I did not admit that we were filled with some misgivings as to our adequacy to meet the challenge and our ability to make the necessary adjustments.

My husband had gone up to Streeter in January of 1951 to preach a trial sermon and to look over the field. He cam back satisfied that he could undertake the work, but with the meagerest information for me of the town, the parsonage, the schools and the general aspects of the situation. So when we set out at the end of June - my mother accompanied us and spent the first summer with us-it was really like setting out into the wild blue yonder. But we were filled with a spirit of adventure almost as if we were just leaving for a long vacation. But when we headed westward from Minnesota and were nearing our destination, when there were no longer the familiar trees and woods, the lakes and hills, the little winding roads and all the other things which are so much a part of the Wisconsin landscape, I must admit my spirits sank. Ahead were the long, endless stretches of almost treeless plains. Those of you who have traveled to the Northwest-to Washington or Oregon-over U.S. highway 10 know a little of what I felt. As some travelers have said, it's just a stretch that you have to get through as fast as possible. About 130 miles west of Fargo, which is on the Minnesota line, we headed south for 18 miles-and there was Streeter. The approach over a rather poor road was unimpressive - the rather shabby dwellings on the outskirts, the one main street with its unimposing frame business buildings-and I remember turning to my husband with tears in my eyes and asking "If we stay only one year, will we be letting the M.B. {Mission Board?] down? As it turned out, we stayed 5 years and when we left it was with sincere regret and a feeling of leaving a real home. In fact our daughter felt so lost and homesick for North Dakota after we left that the following summer after our return to Milwaukee, at the age of 10, she headed back all alone - an 18 hour trip with 3 bus changes-and spent the whole summer on a farm near Streeter, at the home of one of our parishioners there. Beneath the seeming nothingness of the landscape there is a beauty and a peace that grows on you. And even now, after 4 years back in Milwaukee, we often thing back nostalgically to the wide view of the open spaces, to the gorgeous sunsets, and to the immense glory of the night sky-and t the friendliness and real Christian devotion we found there. I would not want to spend the rest of my life in Streeter, away from family and life-long friends, and all the advantages and opportunities the big city offers our maturing children-but I would not want to have missed those 5 years-for all of us they were a deepening and broadening experience.

And now a word about the town and its surroundings. As I said there was the one main street, unpaved, muddy when it rained, dusty when it was dry and the wind blew, as it does so persistently in those parts. May I digress here to comment on the climate and weather. Generally the winters are long and severe and windy, and the summers often hot and dry and windy, as you no doubt know from weather reports on TV or radio. But I use the word generally advisedly, because betwixt and between we had some beautiful days and stretches of really fine weather. To get back to the winters-our first and last were the most severe. It seemed as if it was not [?] There was one period of 3 weeks when the temperature never got above -15° day or night-and our children thought nothing of it to play outside for hours in -20° weather. I recall that one night before Xmas when our Women's Guild went caroling for the shut-ins, at one home the porch light shone on the outdoor thermometer, which stood at -30°. But it was a still starlight night - and our women (and there were older women among us) would not think of letting a little cold deter them. And when I hear people hereabout calling a snow storm with some wind a "blizzard", I just shake my head indulgently and think to myself "You ain't seen nothing yet". In our first winter we could not get out to our country church - just 9 miles west of town - from right after Xmas until Easter. The country roads are poor and narrow and as the snow keeps piling up - there are generally no thaw periods - the snows of fall are still there in spring-the winds blow the roads shut again, and even the plows cannot throw the snow over the mountainous heaps on both sides. Just one more memory about the weather. With God's help and the labor and sacrifice of our people we were able to build a new church in Streeter which was completed during our last year up there. Our dedication service was on the last Sunday of November, 1955. Winter had set in early that year - cold and lots of snow. The day before, more snow began to fall and the temperature was below 0. When my husband drove to Jamestown 49 miles away to call for our festival preacher, Chairman of the Board of N.M. - who came by train from Saint Louis, it was no easy trip and they got back hours late. Sunday morning dawned cold, snowy, wintry-and as I began frying my chickens for the meals we were to serve, I wondered who would get there to eat them. As it turned out we fed 200 people at noon and again at night-and had 2 wonderful services of dedication and gratitude to God.

To get back to where we lived. Our parsonage was near the edge of town and although not at all pretentious, was much nicer than I had hoped for-with most modern conveniences. Above all it kept us snug, warm, and protected. It was situated on about ½ acre of land, allowed room for a large garden and plenty of room for the children to play. In the rear was a large old red barn- ½ of which had been converted into a garage. The rest still had the hay loft, harkening back to the days when the minister used the horse and buggy to carry on his pastoral work. What a wonderful place for the children, as was the cluster of old gnarled fruit trees, which didn' t produce, but were grand for climbing, tree houses, and swings.

Our street was very nice and even tree-lined. The trees are not as luxuriant as here, and look pretty weather beaten, but after that first winter, with its extreme cold and wind, I had a real respect for their hardihood and endurance. Across the street from us lived the banker of the town, who was at the same time one of the deacons of our church and the Sunday School superintendent. He and his wife were of inestimable help to us in so many ways in our adjustment and work in the church. Mrs. Graf was the daughter of a former pastor of the church, had lived in the parsonage as a child for 8 years. She was a wonderful friend to us, especially me, and her advice and help were of great value in our task. Thus, in so many ways we were aware of God's care and goodness and accepted it with thankful hearts. School.

And now a word about the people among whom we came to live. About 90% of them were of German-Russian origin-that is they were descendents of South German - [?} stock who in the 18th century had been encouraged in the reign of Empress Catherine the Great to colonize in South Russia, to farm the rich wheat lands there. They had thru the 100's of years taken on none of the Russian culture and kept intact their German language and culture. It was most interesting for me, in talking to them, to hear the same South German dialect I had heard and known from child[hood], being of South German ancestry myself. When we first came we were amazed how generally German was spoken-in the stores, on the street, and even among the children.

In 1955 the 50th anniversary of Streeter was celebrated - you see how relatively recent is the development of that area-and in connection therewith a Golden Anniversary book was gotten out. It was my assignment to interview the pioneers of the town and farms-and to write up their stories. And what a fascinating assignment that was-to hear at first hand about the experiences and the hardships of those early days-how the hardier souls moved northward from South Dakota, which many had first settled upon their arrival from Europe - to take up homesteads in the more rugged territory of those north plains, how they cleared the land, built with their own hands the first sod houses, somehow endured all the hazards of climate and of nature. I came to have a tremendous respect for these people-their hardihood and faith in the Almighty - especially in the terrible 30's, the bad dust bowl period when for 5 years there was no crop at all, when many farmers gave up and moved to California.

And since beside the townspeople, most of our parishioners were farmers, just a word about the farms there. As you know, most of them are much larger than our Wisconsin farms - they ranged in size from 120 acres to 1200 acres. Not all of this was put into cultivation but left as prairie for the beef cattle which are an important part of the economy. The greater part of the cultivated land was in wheat, and at harvest time .

But since as you know, wheat surpluses caused many problems, low prices in recent years, flax and soy beans are produced more and more as cash crops. Most of the farmers keep a few cows for milking, for personal use and for selling. They separate the milk, and on Saturday nights -the big night in town - the cream stations are very busy places - there it is tested and weighed, and the farmers receive their milk checks - which is their food money and money for current expenses between harvests.

And now finally a few words of our life in the ministry to our people. There were seven churches in Streeter when we came, 5 with resident pastors, serving not only the town people but the rural population for a radius of 10-15 miles around. German and English were preached in all the churches. Ours was the 3rd largest in membership, the Lutherans and E.U.B being some[what] bigger. Our charge consisted of the congregation in town, Hope Church, and a smaller one 9 miles west, which I mentioned earlier, Zion Church. Both buildings were plain white frame structures with only one room - the sanctuary, and a tiny vestibule. In the town church there was only a partial basement for the heating unit. The country church, much smaller, was heated by a pot-bellied stove. It was . right out in the midst of the prairie, ½ mile from the nearest farmhouse. So much for the physical plant. One of the aims which we had to face was to get the membership of Zion Church to consent to give up their separate existence and to join forces with Hope Church in town - for financial saving and for much more effective work. With the cars and roads of today, there is no longer any real reason for these small churches so near to town. This was not as easy as it might appear and we had to go about it very gradually. The members - only about 15 families remained-were stubbornly loyal to the place where their parents had worshipped and where their departed loved ones were buried in the little church yard. Even while the new town church was a-building they still did not commit themselves - although they helped with their labor and money gifts. So it was a great moment for all, when at the dedication service the elder of Zion Church rose and declared the resolution of his church to unite with Hope Church.

In the field of C.E. [Christian Education?] there was much to be done. With just the one-room sanctuary the teaching could not be graded according to age, but all, from tots to adults, had the same instruction. The realization by all of this drawback was one of the prime reasons that the decision to erect a new house of God was made. Although we engaged an architect and a builder, at least 3/4ths of the actual building was done by our members, men and women, on their off seasons. Part of the lumber was obtained from their razing of 3 country churches which had once made up the Streeter charge. So the result was a building valued at $50,000 which was built for less than $25,000. It is not a pretentious structure - it is simple, but attractive and very usable, and it made it possible for us to departmentalize our Sunday School. So during our last months in Streeter we were busy in the training of teachers in the use of our CE materials and in re-organizing the whole set-up. CE workshops.

As a rural pastor one develops a very keen weather eye because one realizes how much of the welfare of one's flock is dependent upon a good harvest. In one's whole planning one considers the problems of the farmer. When wheat or cattle prices went down or when hail or drought reduced the crop we had to lower our budget accordingly. At plowing or harvest time one does not make pastoral visits-the farmers much utilize every daylight hour. One does not schedule meetings, extra services, or choir rehearsals in those busy times.

One of the most gratifying phases of our work in Streeter was in the field of women's work. There was no women's group at all when we came-there was even some opposition to such an organization on the part of some of the older and more fundamentalist-minded men who held literally to St Paul's 1 Tim 11-12. [Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence]. So we were grateful and delighted with the response we met when we organized our Women's Guild. It was [a] slow uphill pull, but we gradually developed a very active group of about 25 members who began taking more and more part in the conducting of the worship, study, and business of the meetings and even in the use of our national W.G. materials and projects. One of the highlights I like to recall is our first T.O. service - the dedication of our T.O. gifts to the larger [kdg?] work - which was planned and conducted entirely by the women themselves - the liturgical service, the choir, and even the spiritual messages-and we had an overflow crown who attended the worship service.

So many other phases of our work crowd into my mind, little episodes which might interest or amuse you, but I've held you a captive audience for too long already.

Our apprecation is extended to Carol Rifelj for sharing this information.

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