Plains Folk


A great crowd on a gray day. That was the scene for the dedication of the Midland Continental Railroad Depot Transportation Museum Featuring Peggy Lee.

Really, that’s the name of the place, the Midland Continental Railroad Depot Transportation Museum Featuring Peggy Lee, and there are reasons for all of it. The museum, in Wimbledon, is a restored depot, the last one that remained of the ill-fated Midland Continental Railroad. The restoration received significant funding from transportation enhancement monies of the department of transportation, hence the “transportation museum” part of the name. And the museum acquires its cachet through it historic association with Peggy Lee, the torch singer of all torch singers.

The Midland Continental Railroad was one of the mighty dreams of the Second Dakota Boom days of the early 1900s—a dream of a railroad linking Winnipeg to Galveston, Canada to the Gulf. On the face of it, this lacks logic. There just isn’t, and wasn’t, the need for such a north-south line. So only 69 miles got built, Edgeley to Wimbledon. That stretch served effectively as a branch line until a disastrous flood in 1969, and the Wimbledon Midland depot closed in 1970.

The ground floor of the museum, that is, the restored depot, tells the story of the Midland Continental, and the upstairs of the two-story building is devoted to its famous occupant, Peggy Lee, then Norma Egstrom. Her grand dreams, unlike those of the Midland Continental, were realized.

I’m thinking about all this and shivering a little bit, like everyone else in the crowd, on the unseasonably chilly day of dedication in Wimbledon. The ceremony was impressive, as is the museum—splendid exhibits professionally done. Kate Stevenson of Jamestown, a well-known historian, spoke and sang, and Stacy Sullivan, a popular performer who interprets Miss Peggy’s songs, sang, too. The crowd murmured, then guffawed with delight as, during Kate’s rendition of “Waitin’ for the Train to Come In,” a CPR train passed through town and drowned out the music with its horn.

Certain themes kept recurring during the ceremony, and I think they are worth commenting on. Foremost is the Cinderella theme in Norma Egstrom’s life narrative. Her father, Marvin Egstrom, was a depot agent, which would have been a good job, but he was an alcoholic. Her mother died when she was little, and Marvin Egstrom remarried to a German woman everyone keeps calling a “mean old stepmother.”

I have to say, this perception comes mainly from the recollections of Peggy Lee herself, and we never hear from Min Egstrom, her stepmother. Talented young Norma was a popular girl in Wimbledon High School, and there was and is a tendency to take her side in what may have been a more complicated relationship. In retrospect, the Cinderella trope is irresistible.

The song Miss Lee wrote about Wimbledon, “The folks back home”—it’s just a little too smug, with its references to how folks knew she was not going to hang around here, and the people here always remain the same.

I like another Cinderella story better—the story of how the town of Wimbedon worked twelve years to restore this depot and use it to revitalize their town. State Representative Phil Mueller’s remarks were spot on. The restoration is important for tourism, as well as for history, but most of all for community identity—so that people retain and revive that “sense of place and time that identifies who we are”—those were his words, wonderfully well said.


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