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Dakota Datebook — Aug. 1-5

Let There Be Light

By JILL WHITCOMB

Aug. 1 — In northeast North Dakota, in the tiny town of Olga, a life-changing event happened to the Monette family. For the first time in 31 years, they had electricity. According to an August 1973 article in the Benson County Press, the Monettes are bowing to the progress of electricity — not out of want, but out of need.

Return to 1973. Ernie Monette, who is 72 years of age, and his wife Agnes, who is 58, live a simple and unhurried existence — the scent of Agnes’ homemade soup bubbling on the cook stove, the kitchen aglow with kerosene lamps, the 80-year-old grandfather clock chiming in the background. The scene harkens back to Colonial times. But for Ernie and Agnes, it was a life of bliss. The Monettes raised six children in their unspoiled home with no telephone, no TV, no washing machine and no electricity. Their only link to the outside world was a small transistor radio. Their 28-year-old son still lived at home, working at one of the local missile silos.

Agnes washed the family’s clothes in an old wooden barrel of a washing machine. Hand-operated levers were pushed and pulled to agitate the clothes. Agnes wrang the freshly washed clothes using an old- fashioned hand wringer. The water source was their local well, water that Agnes hauled to fill the washer. Will having electricity change the way Agnes does the family’s laundry? According to Mrs. Monette, the answer was “No.” She felt the old wooden washing machine had worked fine all those years, and there was no need to change things now that they had electricity. Agnes didn’t mind “one bit” doing things the old-fashioned way.

Ernie recalled when REA came to Cavalier County years ago. “I was the only guy who didn’t take it. I just figured it cost too much. Besides, with a pack radio, good wood and kerosene, who needed it?” But times had changed. In 1973, with the energy crisis in full swing, Ernie had a difficult time finding kerosene. In his soft-spoken voice, he simply said, “Hell, I don’t need it — but I have to light the place and all that is left is electricity”

Chaska

By CHRISTINA SUNWALL

Aug.2 — Chaska was a well-respected Indian scout for the 1863 Sibley military expedition, highly regarded for his daring rescue of the army’s beef contractor during an Indian attack that year.

However, when Chaska died on this day in 1863, he left behind a mystery regarding his full identity. Evidence suggests Chaska may also have been a ranking lieutenant of Little Crow, a leader in the Dakota Conflict of 1862.

According to trial records following the conflict, one defendant named Chaska had escaped execution based on the word of George Spencer, a fur trader who testified that Chaska had risked his own life to rescue Spencer from a Dakota raiding party.

Was Chaska, who saved the life of George Spenser during the Dakota Conflict of 1862, also the Indian scout who rescued the U.S. Army’s beef contractor in 1863? It may never be known.

Margaret Calhoun’s Loss

By CHRISTINA SUNWALL

Aug. 3 — When Margaret Custer Calhoun buried her husband in his final resting place at Fort Leavenworth on this day in 1877, she perhaps felt the magnitude of the 7th Cavalry’s loss at the Battle of the Bighorn more keenly than anyone else.

Known as “Maggie” to her family, she was the sister of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. While visiting her brother and Libbie Custer at their Kansas post, she met and later married James Calhoun, an officer in the 7th Cavalry. Like many officers’ wives, Maggie followed her husband to each of his duty stations, including Fort Abraham Lincoln.

When news of the Battle of the Little Bighorn reached the Dakota Territory fort in July of 1876, Maggie learned that she had lost five members of her family: her husband, her three brothers George, Tom and Boston, and a nephew Autie Reed.

The Old Town Pump

By JIM DAVIS

Aug. 4 — Today the tentacles of the rural water pipelines are reaching out to more remote areas to ensure a supply of drinking and domestic water. For most urban dwellers, drinking water from the tap is taken for granted, but that was not always the case.

For many towns and cities there was a domestic supply of water to the home but the drinking water had to be hauled from another source. These artesian, underground pools did not contain potable water in large enough quantities to provide a larger community with its full water needs, so less desirable water was provided for domestic use and the drinking water was purchased from a supplier, if income permitted, or it had to be obtained from the town pump.

Shortly after 1900, the City of Devils Lake established a pump alongside the county jail and residents obtained their drinking water from this source. Most often this chore belonged to the oldest son. With his little red wagon full of galvanized cans with lids, the trek began to the little 6 by 6-foot clapboard shed with its 2-foot square window and a hanging dim light bulb, where the ordeal with the old-fashioned pump handle began.

Older people would often have to rest a few times before they could manage to fill their cans, and the younger patrons would find their feet in the air as they struggled to bring the handle down. If the young man was lucky, his return trip with the loaded cans was downhill so he could hop on the wagon and ride the rest of the way. Care had to be taken against hitting bumps and curbs, which could mean another trip back to the pump, in soggy clothes, to start all over again. In the winter, sleds were used to haul the cans of water.

Thousands of gallons of water were laboriously pumped from the well in this manner, but on this date in 1954, the old pump gave way to progress. An electric motor was placed which enabled patrons to push a button and a flow of water would commence, making the job much easier. But for over a half a century, the squeaking of the pump handle could be heard from the little shed in the courtyard of the jail, and many an older resident can recall the weekly pilgrimage to the Old Town Pump.

Footraces

By MARIA WITHAM

Aug. 5 — In the mid 19th century amateur footraces became popular and were held on cinder and dirt roads with estimated distances. It was common entertainment to gamble on these footraces, but unfortunately they were very easy to fix. “Under the table” deals would be made with the runners. Athletes would get a cut of the swindler’s profit when they purposefully lost, and the trusting spectators were conned, or grifted. Later gangs of “grifters” would make a living staging all kinds of sporting events, from horse races to boxing matches.

In August of 1892, Fargo’s “Daily Argus” printed an article highlighting a sprinter who had recently moved into the Bismarck area and who was “engaged in an endeavor to arrange a footrace there.” Leon Lozier was the sprinter. He had been one of the fastest 300-meter runners in the nation, but now, glory-tarnished, he made his living as a con artist. The article does not bluntly say that Lozier had fixed footraces before, but intimates his questionable character by highlighting his shady past. The article states that, previously, in Sioux Falls, Lozier was nearly killed, beaten until “his face looked like a piece of beefsteak,” for pulling up early in a footrace.

On this day in 1911, an article in the Washington, D.C. Post was set for the presses, declaring “Fleeced a Town of $750,000.” The fleecer was J.C. Mabray, “the magnate of the con game trust,” and Lozier was implicated as his associate. Mabray had gangs working all over the Midwest. The most popular grift for Mabray’s gang was fixing a sporting event, getting a rich businessman to get in on the hustle, and then taking his money by turning the con on him. With the staged race set, the fixed winner would apparently drop dead in the middle of the race, and in the commotion Mabray’s gang would make off with all the money. Mabray thought this con ethically sound, stating he only took money from those who were willing to con others.

Later, gambling on amateur sporting events was banned in North Dakota.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from Humanities North Dakota.

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