Plains Folk

Whoopie John


The night of October 30, 1951, was the climax of the 50-year jubilee celebration in Zeeland, North Dakota. City council member Tom Hilt was in charge of booking the band for the dance. A first-generation immigrant from Odessa who worked fifty-one years for the Milwaukee Railroad, Hilt knew what sort of music would pack the hall. He signed a contact with the Whoopie John Orchestra from St. Paul, conducted by John A. Wilfahrt, and I am not making any of this up.


Whoopie John had a pretty good payday when he finished playing Zeeland at two in the morning, his contract calling for a $500 stipend plus 65% of any receipts exceeding $765. The organizers in Zeeland sold 1200 tickets. One person who attended said there was no problem with anyone falling over, because the hall was too crowded.


The Zeeland Hall, incidentally, still stands. It is a WPA project dating from 1936. I’ll have to get an architect to help me with the style, but it has a barn-like monitor roof and some Moderne details, such as round windows.


The Zeeland Hall truly is a small-town treasure. I got the cook’s tour when I came to visit with some people interested in doing maintenance on the hall and possibly getting it on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation the building richly deserves.


There was a wedding reception coming up in the hall, and in fact, my tour of the interior was led by the mother of the bride, who explained with some pride that her wedding reception and dance had been in the Zeeland Hall, and now her daughter was getting the same treatment.


North of town as I drove out, I observed that the Bicentennial Cross, which was in disrepair when I last visited a few years ago, has been restored by the owner. I must get back to that stretch of Highway 11 and see the cross when it is lit up at night.


The visit to Zeeland was just one piece of a one-day, multi-point, 500-mile junket around the middle part of the state on a beautiful day in June. It was exhausting, but at the same time heartening.


It began with a drive to an old country church, St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, in McIntosh County, for a meeting of the Tri-County Tourism Alliance. This is a group that promotes grassroots heritage tourism in Emmons, Logan, and McIntosh counties. There were various pieces of business to consider, including preparations for an event at the Welk Homestead the first three days of August. At that time volunteers will gather to make repairs to the barn, with all sorts of cultural events on site at the same time.


The big takeaway from the meeting, however, was the wonderful lunch served by the ladies of the St. Andrew’s Preservation Society. I mean, you’ve seen the newspaper notices of small-town club meetings where, it is reported, “A delicious lunch was served.” But I’m telling you, in this case, a delicious lunch was served.


There were two roasters filled with halupsies—cabbage rolls, to the uninitiated—with the tomato sauce done just right, a rare thing. There were homemade pickles and homemade bread. And pies—seven of them, seven different kinds. I had a slice of chocolate alongside a slice of chocolate pecan. That was all I could eat, I don’t know what’s the matter with me.


And the day ended up at the McLean County Fair, in Underwood. It’s not a big fair, but it asserts vitality at the grassroots. At the ranch rodeo, in the long light of dusk, the colorful shirts of the competitors grew luminescent.

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