Plains Folk

A Place of Special Wonder and Beauty


There are so many things to worry about, what with cable news, the corruption of Disney child stars, and the breakup of the Big 12 Conference, perhaps I shouldn’t add another one to the list, but I’m concerned about the plague of memoir that is overrunning the country. People in their twenties or even younger write their life stories, as if somebody cared, and older authors, who might grace us with an elegant memoir, end up writing five or seven of them. I mean really, could we perhaps see your family vacation slides, too?


So when I receive a self-published memoir in the mail, I write to thank the sender, but I may be slow actually to take a look at it. It might take years. It might not happen at all.


This summer one of those memoirs, written by Jean Ahlness Stebinger, surfaced on the reading table next to my bison chair. I am so glad it did, for it is simply transporting. I apologize to Jean for not reading it sooner, and hope she understands.


This is a book about her parents, Hans Adolph Ahlness and Frieda Lien Ahlness, with the subtitle, A Story of Western North Dakota in the Early Twentieth Century. It is the story of pioneering Norwegians, and I’m saying that with a straight face. The western reaches of the northern plains were liberally salted with second-stage Norwegian immigrants who came out from Wisconsin, Minnesota, or eastern North Dakota, often founding businesses in nascent railroad towns.


As the Milwaukee Railroad crossed southwest North Dakota in 1907, here came a reef of settlers from the enterprising Ahlness clan, which was centered in Minnesota. They came to Lemmon, Hettinger, Rhame, and Marmarth. Hans Ahlness, a pharmacist who had grown up in Fingal, North Dakota, settled in Rhame and opened a drugstore.


The Lien family of Norwegian immigrants largely lived in Wisconsin, but Frieda moved with her mother and father, a Lutheran pastor, to Portland, North Dakota. After getting a teaching degree from Mayville State, she took a job teaching in Rhame. The rest is history, or rather, memoir.


Hans and Frieda lived well in Rhame, where they raised their children, including Jean, and as she tells the story, she captures the sense of wonder that prairie town children experienced in a fascinating landscape. If you’ve been to Rhame, you know that it is nestled in a splendid place, overlooked by lovely buttes. Let me read you just a paragraph in which Jean responds to this setting.


Best of all about their location, from the point of view of us children, was the range of 200-foot hills rising behind the house and extending over a square mile to the west. An endless source of mystery and exploration, there was a large white circle of stones marking an Indian teepee ring in one valley and a good-sized cave in another. Bleached animal skulls and large cattle bones had piled up against a lonely fence corner, casualties of winter storms. Crocuses in spring, picnics in summer, sledding in winter—it was a place of special wonder and beauty.


There may be some who have listened to this paragraph and have thought, That’s just nostalgia talking. To which I reply, you really don’t get it, do you?


The Twenties, during which decade Hans installed an ice cream machine at the drugstore, were high times in Rhame. The Thirties, not so much, but pillars of the community such as the Ahlnesses gave credit and lifted spirits and carried on. Reading this story, I feel like they have lifted my spirits, too. There really was such a time.


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