Plains Folk

Celebrating Zeeland Hall

 

In my life in North Dakota, I have been privileged to take part in some deeply affecting heritage events—events significant to me as a historian, but more than that, meaningful to communities on the ground. I think back a few weeks ago to the rededication of the Ashley Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery, where I was asked to channel the scholarship of Father Bill Sherman among a crowd of descendants of the original homesteaders gathered on the windy prairie.

Likewise I think back just a few years to when I was asked to reflect on the meaning of the Dakota War with the people of Standing Rock, at Sitting Bull College, in Fort Yates. Young Fred McLaughlin – do you remember, Fred, how I asked you that day, Who won this war, anyway? – and you replied, Well, now I’m thinking about it. Well, so have I been, too, ever since.

And now this past Sunday, there was the celebration of Zeeland Hall, in the hall, in Zeeland, that resilient town of eighty-five souls in the historic heart of German-Russian Country. Last fall the Department of the Interior listed Zeeland Hall on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a WPA building, dating from 1936.

The initiative to nominate the hall to the National Register was local. A remarkable woman named Joyce Scherr was the driving force, for sure, and Mayor Pius Lacher was a solid supporter. The State Historical Society of North Dakota was a force for good, providing not only a grant to assist with re-roofing the Colonial Revival hall but also counsel in composing the nomination.

I wrote the nomination, but had some good help, particularly that of my colleague and friend in Architecture, Heather Fischer. And of course, the help of Zeeland citizens who told me the stories that lent significance to the nomination.

So, we gathered, along with about 250 close friends, to celebrate with sausage and Knoephle and memories on Sunday. Arriving early, we found a skilled kitchen crew at work getting ready to feed the multitude; the crew included the legendary sausage-maker himself, Frank Meier, and Vicki Meyer, and Joyce, and Gloria Lacher, and other competent hands.

Joyce told me she and Gloria used forty pounds of flour to make the Knoephle. An hour later Gloria told me it was forty-five. I’m pretty sure that in a few years, the legend will be they consumed two hundred pounds of flour or more and turned out bushels of tender dough.

The people streamed in after mass, ate heartily, conversed warmly, and awaited the program, Mayor Lacher presiding. I said a few words, dwelling on the history and significance of the property. Then we brought on a hometown hero: Kyle “Bubba” Schweigert, head football coach of the UND Fighting Hawks—whose grandfather, John Schweigert, happens to have been the foreman of the WPA project that build the hall.

Bubba got about five minutes into his remarks of remembrance when he had to pause to collect himself. Scores of attendees joined him in tearful, quiet reflection. And then laughed with abandon as he told embarrassing stories about them and about himself. It was just perfect.

I thought we might have to sound a fire alarm to clear the crowd out afterwards, but eventually people drifted home. I ducked into the kitchen to say farewell, and what did I find there? Another celebration of the kitchen hands, into which they issued a kind invitation, which was accepted. Let’s just say this celebration was one that could not have taken place on state property, but was wholly appropriate for conclusion of a great public event in German-Russian Country.

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