Late in life, Mabel Bettenhausen Larson, then living in Cooperstown, wrote down her memories of growing up in a big German-Russian family in McIntosh County, North Dakota. She especially recalled how as a teenager she played hymns in the Beaver Creek Baptist Church.
“We had a [pump] organ at home where I taught myself to play,” Mabel recalls. “The first song I could play with both hands was ‘Jesus, Lover of My Soul.’ My mother would let me know if it sounded right. She was in the kitchen cooking, baking, or doing something else. I loved to play that organ, and spent every spare moment practicing.”
These are warm and vital memories, captured in verbal snapshots, but the difference between these and so many other prairie memoirs is that they happen to have been captured, also, by a documentary photogapher of a government agency, the Farm Security Administration, in 1940. The photographer, John Vachon, took at least six wonderfully evocative photographs of Emma Grace Kramer Bettenhausen, the mother of Mabel. The negatives repose in the Library of Congress. There, as in Mabel’s memoir, Emma Bettenhausen remains forever the German-Russian mother of timeless remembrance.
The photographers of the Farm Security Administration have a checkered reputation, historically. In 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression, the FSA sent them out to take as many photographs of human misery as they could, thereby to bolster public support for the assistance programs offered by President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The negative public reaction to this propaganda program caused the FSA to redirect its photographers, such as Vachon, into a different line of work, seeking to document the continuing vitality of American life at the grassroots. Somehow, Vachon decided McIntosh County, North Dakota, was a good place to do this, and somehow, he was led to the Bettenhausen farmhouse southwest of Wishek.
So here we see Mrs. Bettenhausen laboring at her impressive cast-iron range; filling the stove with corncobs; ironing, with her flatirons heating atop the stove; inspecting, with evident pride, the canned goods, cabbages, and potato bin in her root cellar; checking a batch of bread dough in a big washpan. And here, too, we see a girl in a print dress, playing a grand pump organ, sitting on a thick book to reach the keyboard. To view the photographs, informed by that girl-woman’s memoir, is simply transporting.
This, too, is splendid documentary photography, as illustrated by the two photographs of Mrs. Bettenhausen checking her dishpan of dough. She lifts the towel covering the dough, and it’s a little tacky, sticking to the towel, but the look on her face says she is satisfied with it. That’s because she is working with a vorteig, a sticky batter-dough, to which, having completed the first rise, she now will add the rest of the flour for the second rise. That’s the way it was done.
There are children in the photographs, lots of them, and on first examining the images, I thought that the Mrs. Bettenhausen depicted therein must have been the grandmother to some of them, but not so. She would have been about 37 at the time, and she had borne sixteen children to her farmer-husband, Oliver Wesley Bettenhausen.
Emma Bettenhausen—Mrs. Bettenhausen, as she is known in the Library of Congress catalog—did not live to see any of her children to adulthood. She died in 1941, age 38. Mabel, who had been working in Minneapolis, came home to care for the family. She does not bemoan her lot, any more than her mother would have.
I’m going to stop now, and think about these things for a while.