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DAKOTA DATEBOOK – Aug. 15-19

Swedish soap

Aug. 15 — In 1892, The Daily Argus’ “Fargo Town Talk” section covered small news stories generated from the local rumor mill. Business news, visitors to town, and jokes added light entertainment to the paper. One news-clip featured a tale told by the traveling salesman C.E. Runy.

Runy, like many traveling salesmen of the time, stayed at the Columbia Hotel in downtown Fargo. There in the lobby fellow travelers would congregate and socialize. Runy performed what could be understood as an 1892 comedy sketch, telling a tale about two Swedish train-hoppers and a bar of soap.

According to Runy, on this day in 1892 he boarded a Northern Pacific freight train from Hancock to Breckenridge, Minnesota. Also on board were 40-some transients illegally riding in the boxcars free of charge. The Northern Pacific brakemen expected to get some compensation for their surplus cargo and Runy volunteered to help them do so.

In the last car inspected Runy and the brakemen discovered two Swedish immigrants hiding behind some cases of lime. They asked the men to pay their fare or get off the train. The response was memorable to Runy, who thought “the Swedes handled the American language in the most humorous manner.” Runy’s colorful attempt to recapture their accents was printed in the Argus’ article, stating “vwe got no muny; vwe baane oom frum Nort Dacote und vork purty hard and gats no muny”

The brakemen were not satisfied with this explanation and insisted that they pay for their ride. Upon greater questioning Runy noticed that the two men were carrying a bar of soap. Thinking he could at least get some form of compensation he asked the men for the soap. They refused, stating the soap was very important and they would need it when they reached Minneapolis, where they planned to look for jobs. Confused at the profuse importance of one bar of soap Runy persisted. He asked for at least half of the bar of soap, breaking it in two. Surprised, Runy found a $20 gold piece. Upon greater inspection a total of $200 was found stored in that single bar of soap.

Runy concluded his story saying that from that day forward the two Swedes vowed to sever any future connection with soap. Whether or not it is to be believed, soap was a novel way to secure one’s funds before traveler’s checks.

Maj. Marcus Reno’s honor restored

Aug. 16 — When Maj. Marcus Reno died in March of 1889, he was quietly buried in an unmarked grave in Washington, D.C.

Although officially cleared of accusations that he could have rescued Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Reno failed to escape unrelated charges of conduct unbecoming an officer. Court-martialed at Fort Meade by an officer whose son had died at the Little Bighorn, Reno was stripped of his rank and dismissed from service in 1880.

Eighty-seven years later, a military Board of Review revised Reno’s Army records to an honorable discharge as a major. With this order, Reno’s remains were disinterred on this day in 1967 and transported from Washington D.C., to the Custer Battlefield National Cemetery in Montana. Reburied with full military honors on Sept. 9, 1967, guests at the ceremony included Reno’s great-grandnephew and representatives from the Cheyenne and Lakota tribes.

The frontier scout

Aug. 17 — In July of 1864 two men of the Wisconsin Infantry stationed at Fort Union, Robert Winegar and Ira Goodwin published the first recorded newspaper in present-day North Dakota, the Frontier Scout. At a cost of $3 for a yearly subscription, and advertised as a weekly, only four editions of the Frontier Scout were published between July and its last publication on this date, Aug. 17, 1864. Less than a year later, the Frontier Scout once again began publication; this time by two officers stationed at Fort Rice, Lieutenant Champney and Captain Adams.

Over the last century and a half, most copies of the Frontier Scout were lost or destroyed. However, the few editions of North Dakota’s first newspaper that do survive are currently held by the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Hilaire du Berrier

Aug. 18 — Today’s story is about one of the most daring people North Dakota has ever produced: Hilaire du Berrier — soldier, daredevil, artist, stunt pilot, writer and spy. His parents were among the founders of Flasher, where, in November 1906, he became the first white child born in that town. His Huguenot parents gave him the name Harold — a name he hated; he went by Hal.

Albert Wind-Did-Blow and his wife were friends of the Berriers, and at Harold’s birth, Mrs. Wind-Did-Blow put a pair of tiny beaded moccasins on him and uttered a prayer that the boy would grow to be a great warrior. Whether it can be attributed to that prayer or not, Hal became quite a handful. His many escapades included selling coyote pups as “baby police dogs.”

When he was only 11, Hal’s parents sent him to military school to get straightened out. He lasted until a month before graduation. Aviation had captured his imagination, and the only thing he wanted to do was fly. But his mother sent him to art school instead.

He complied and worked as a commercial artist in Chicago for a while, but one day when he was 20, he threw it all away and joined a group of barnstormers.

So daring was he that he performed a loop-de-loop before he learned how to land his plane. Soon, he formed “Du Berrier’s Flying Circus” and traveled the country, performing audacious feats high above the ground — walking out on plane wings, jumping from one plane to another and hanging by his toes from a rope ladder. But even this wasn’t adventurous enough for him.

In the late 1920s, Berrier’s uncle, Charles Burke, became a U.S. representative to a commission in Paris, and Hal went along. He needed a resident’s permit, something he was entitled to because of his French name; but officials wanted to know if his father was born in France. If so, they could draft Berrier into the French military. Hal, who wanted to fly for France in Morocco, had to say no, his father was born in Iowa. When the permit was issued, the original form of his last name, du Berrier, was reinstated. The name Hal, however, had to go. By law, French children had to be named after saints — and St. Hal, well….

They changed his name to Hilaire, which suited him fine. Berrier was a fan of Napoleon, and St. Hilaire was one of Napoleon’s generals.

Du Berrier’s three-months abroad stretched into 16 years and included four wars. It started when he learned Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie needed aviators to fend off an invasion by Mussolini’s Italian forces. Du Berrier had loved the idea of monarchies since the age of nine and was eager to help His Majesty any way he could.

Unfortunately, Selassie’s air force consisted of only four planes, and in 1936, du Berrier found himself a prisoner on board an Italian truck entering Addis Abba, Ethiopia. Luckily, the newsreel-filmmakers had trouble with their camera shots, and the victorious Italians had to reenter the capital three times. In the midst of all the commotion, du Berrier escaped and hopped a train back in Europe, and learned the Spanish military was organizing to restore to the throne another of his heroes, King Alfonso XIII.

Du Berrier hopped onto another train and ran straight into trouble. Gen. Francisco Franco was getting help from the Italians, who had put escaped prisoner, Hilaire du Berrier, on their bad-guy list.

Undaunted, du Berrier signed a one-month contract to spy for the loyalists. Flying secret missions, he made notes on the various aircraft being supplied by the Soviet Union. Again he was caught, and this time he was to be shot. But when his name was called, officers decided it was a bad idea to shoot an American, and he was allowed to escape on the overnight train.

Hay meadows

Aug. 19 — From the hay meadows of Painted Woods and lake near present-day Mandan, a Mr. “Hay Baler” sent a joyful greeting to the editor of the Bismarck Tribune in 1874. The name of the letter-writer is likely a pseudonym, but the sentiments were authentic, filled with exuberant and thoughtful description. There must be something in the air when the last golden days of summer leisurely languish that makes a person want to wax poetic.

On Aug. 19, 134 years ago today, Baler wrote:

“Well, here we are, as jolly, hard-working, earnest a crew of men as ever put a sickle into the long, waving grass, or that ever pitched a ton of hay. Our camp is situated in the middle of the meadows…on the north of us lie the Painted Woods, and Mandan Lake — a lake possessing clear, pure water, abounding in fish. On the west the “Big Muddy” rushes restlessly along…”

Baler further describes his life as an early settler on the plains, enumerating the many animals that did “abound profusely” in the Missouri River Valley, some good for eating. After living too long on woodchuck, he and his fellow settlers longed for meat. Elk or cow would have met their needs, but according to Baler “one of the boys laid low the antlered monarch of this part of God’s domain,” a deer. “To be sure, he was a beauty,” Baler writes, “weighing 600 pounds and carrying a magnificent pair of antlers, fully in velvet…it was a pity to kill the noble denizen of the forest.”

In the letter, Baler’s poetics continue as he describes his day:

“This season of the year, to one unaccustomed to its healthy, bracing, life-giving properties, would seem a cause for wonderment. I am every night sleeping in the open air, with the canopy of Heaven for a roof, and the bright, twinkling stars scintillating and winking at us in a manner that carries our thoughts … soothing one to sweet balmy, sleep that is only to be broken into by the approach of bright dawn.”

It is not hard to relate to this early settler’s love of the land, especially in the kinder months of the year. Most North Dakotans savor these summer months as best they can, because they are fleeting. All too soon we will once again be trudging through snow, and braving freezing wind, dreaming of the days in the hay meadows.

“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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