Dakota Datebook

To be an American

Monday, November 3, 2008


In November of 1896, Marie Ketterling was born in a sod house, just south of Streeter, North Dakota. She was raised in a traditional household where girls were expected to do housework and boys were expected to farm.

But Marie wanted more. She wanted to be an American. And she wanted an education. In her personal notes, Marie wrote, “Here was I, living in a community as truly foreign in thought, customs, dress, manner, and speech as though it were a foreign country. And I wanted an education. I had an unquenchable desire to know something else besides the life I knew in a fifteen mile radius.” Marie continued her story, “County school terms were only as long as the law demanded. There was no library and no reference books to be had. How to acquire an education under these terms was my problem. By education, I do not mean only book knowledge. I wanted to learn to talk, act, dress, in short, live like an American.”

As the story continued, Marie said, “I could not see a streak of light to guide me. At the age of 12 my school days came to an abrupt end. I had to stay home and help my mother who was sickly and over burdened with a large family.”

Marie continued, ”Surrounded by a fog of ignorance as to the outside world, I was delighted at going to see the dentist in a town about 50 miles away. I was then eighteen and that was my first train ride. True, I was of age now and could have left home, but a sense of duty to Mother kept me there.”

Her notes continued to say, “Barely able to speak the American language, I left home when I was 22 and entered the eighth grade in a public school. The next spring, I enrolled in high school for the summer term at the North Dakota Agricultural College in Fargo. There, I found the students to be more of my age.”

Marie continued with, “Four years from the time I entered the eighth grade, I had finished high school. I worked for my room and board while attending school, and earned most of the money for tuition and books during summer vacation. It was all uphill work, but looking back, I do not regret the effort.”

Marie Ketterling’s story reminds us that it is never too late to pursue your dreams, and never too late to get an education.

References: Personal notes from Marie Ketterling
Some Memories of My First Eighty Years- John L. Whitcomb

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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