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Letters of a Dakota Winter

 

As a writer married to an editor, I am familiar with the fantasies of literary ambition. Turn over any rock and there’s likely a would-be author underneath it, thrusting into your face a memoir that the whole world is dying to read, he thinks.

Once in a while the stuff really is worth reading. So, during the hard winter of 1944, in western South Dakota, near the little post office and general store outpost of Opal, there lived two schoolteachers who believed among themselves they were writing a book—in the form of a series of letters to a third sister in Kansas City. The letters never became a book. One of the writing sisters, though, Margaret, better known as Muggs, rediscovered the trove of letters in 2006, and shared them with the other writer-sister, Clarice, better known as Kay. As Margaret’s daughter, Peggy Froelich, who subsequently edited the letters for publication, recounts, Muggs and Kay “relived the winter of 1944.” Wouldn’t I love to have sat with them when they had that conversation!

The winter letters of Muggs and Kay Swenson are now available as an article in the fine state journal, South Dakota History. So we, too, can relive that hard winter with the two young schoolteachers.

As today we face the prospect of another northern plains winter, likely another hard one, I often think about how strenuous was life on the prairies, not just in the days of the pioneers, but in mid-twentieth century. The technologies of snow removal were simply lacking. When truck-mounted plows no longer had a place to push the snow to, the roads were closed for the duration. Until 1950 or so, rare was the rural home with electrical service, telephone service, or indoor plumbing.

Muggs and Kay went home from the teacherage to the Swenson ranch house whenever they could, but the isolation of winter there, too, was severe. Their mother had a chicken house, dug into a slope, with south-facing windows, so her flock laid all winter, but she couldn’t get the eggs to town. At one point the girls came home and found their mother had 130 dozen eggs on hand. Fortunately, they loved angel food cake!

We easily imagine the larger logistical difficulties of winter-bound life in 1944, but it is the details that bring the experience home to us. Muggs writes how the two girls dressed themselves for the cold, horseback ride from the teacherage to the ranch.

The dressing was some job. Kay made me put on my goon suit (pajamas with feet) to supplement my scanty undies. Then I put on my slacks, snowsuit, a wool gabardine shirt, a sweater and my coat. Kay rummaged around and found that I had three kerchiefs which she ordered me to tie alternately around my head and face. Polaroids shielded my eyes. So much for me.

Kay was a duplicate in bunglesomeness, with all the sweaters I had to spare plus her regular outdoor garb. She had on two hoods and two kerchiefs but the crowning glory was Grandma Nelson’s old bathrobe. With that hanging a foot and a half below her coat and her green hood coming to a peak and her weird aviation goggles she looked like a cross between something from Mars and a biblical prophet. I laughed but she just grunted and said something about checking with a mirror before I lost control.

A pall cast on the winter experience was the telegram from the secretary of war informing Kay that her husband, Glenn Weiss, was missing in action. Fortunately, he turned up in a prison camp and survived the war. And so Muggs was able to write at spring thaw, “No kidding. I’ve enjoyed this winter on the range. Wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

I hereby resolve to follow Muggs’s example and keep in good spirits this winter. Somebody remind me of that come March.

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