Friday, July 2, 2010

Harlem High's All-Class Reunion Brings Memories With It

This came out in today's Blaine County Journal. This is a real coup, by the way. And I got a nice compliment from the editor.
Harlem High’s All-Class Reunion Brings Memories With It

The voices and memories are those of Mary O’Bryan, Mary Belle Liese, Elsie Hanson, Phyllis Rasmussen, Karolee Cronk , Kay Brekke, and Irene Stout. The mistakes are all mine. I take credit for historical errors. You may blame us all for lack of a coherent time line and the rambling nature of this piece. I have tried to keep the sense of many people talking at once, which was often the way it was that day at the Senior Center , when these women shared their stories with me.
Sondra Ashton
Harlem High Class of ‘63

Every community has a unique identity, a spirit about it which reflects the life of its citizens. Never is this spirit felt more strongly than when graduates return home. In Montana ’s small towns the high school is the hub of the community. Each student, each teacher, cook, janitor, bus driver and class aide leaves his or her mark. Wherever one goes, throughout his life, the graduate carries the influence of his home-town school experiences.

With this in mind, I recently met with a group of women to talk about the up-coming All Class Reunion in Harlem . These seven women created a patchwork quilt of memories. And as in any patchwork, one story-piece led to another. My job was to listen to the stories these women told and share them with you.

The first thing they talked about was what the town looked like, where everything was. They began naming the stores on the north side of the tracks, across from the train station, where Harlem had its beginnings--the elevators, hotels, groceries, a mercantile, blacksmith, the post office, warehouses, and restaurants including Quong Louie’s, which they agreed, did not serve Chinese food.

You could buy lumber, flour, furniture, canned goods, tools, seeds—everything the town and the homesteaders needed. There were many fine homes on the north side. When the elementary school was built on the south side of the tracks, kids had to cross a huge ditch on a bridge and then cross the railroad tracks. This waterway runs under the school and through the town. It was all built over with concrete as the town grew. Why the transition from north to south, I asked. Fires and floods. And the school was on the south side. It just seemed natural. The town followed the school.

What began on the north quickly jumped the tracks to the south side. Andrew Nelson’s Confectionery, next to Kennedy’s, served hand-packed ice cream and had booths with high walls where you could have a coke with your boy friend and not be seen if your parents peeked in the door. One woman told a story about the night there was a shivaree. We all were banging cans and making all kinds of noise. The young groom bribed us to go away by giving us money to go get ice cream at Nelson’s. We left the couple alone then. This talk led to Merle’s Confectionery, built in the ‘50’s, where everyone enjoyed black-and-whites.

I could not keep up with the lively conversation. Imagine a mosaic of voices: JC Penney’s was a large store with a downstairs. The stairs were very wide. That was before the Brekke Block was built. Gambles had a downstairs too. That was on the east side of Main Street . There was dancing in the New England Hotel bar during the war (WWI). It was downstairs. There was a barber shop in the hotel. There was another barbershop where Kennedy’s Bar stands now. Oh, that barber like to scared me to death. My father took me into that barber shop for a haircut. I was scared stiff I would come out looking like a boy. It was a barber shop, you know, for men. I was five years old.

Remember Halsey’s Drug Store. Oh, and the Post Office was in there. It was real small. Then there was the Smith and Kissell Grocery. And the hospital and mortuary once stood where the Senior Center is now. People hardly ever left Harlem to buy anything. They rarely went to Havre.

The Grand opened in 1920. Several of the girls agreed that Mack Miller was a great guy to work for. One woman reported: I was raised out north. When we came to town to go to the Saturday matinee, I was surprised to see so many people. People everywhere. Dad took us kids to the show so it was always a cowboy movie. We girls got up and left because it scared us when the Indians rode in shooting.

They gave dishes away at the shows. They had nights they gave away dishes, real pretty ones with a Phoenix bird or some kind of bird on the plates. And we used to get silverware out of flour.

The Indians from Fort Belknap drove horses and buggies into town. They tied up behind Fred Sturges’ Saddlery. I loved the smells back then, one woman said. He tanned leathery there, where Frip’s CafĂ© was. And the old greasy smell from the John Deere shop. That was where Albertson’s is now. The John Deere and the tannery. I loved those smells.

The streets were either mud or dust. The cemetery was all sagebrush. It looks so pretty today with the grass and hedges and pine trees. The FFA helped plant those trees. One time our class took an unscheduled sneak day. As punishment we planted grass and pine trees at the grade school. When the addition was built, all our hard work was plowed up.

Speaking of playing hookey, Scrud Brekke could get away with anything. He told the principal that he was picking potatoes. High school kids were excused from school to pick potatoes or harvest sugar beets. Even the girls were let out of school to harvest beets. It was hard work. We had to pick them up and throw them into the truck.

The women’s school memories included head lice, tuberculosis patches, mean kids, and how hard it was to go from a one-room country school to the big school in Harlem . One girl boarded in town for eighth grade, so she could get used to it before high school. The outlying boys often boarded in town so they could play basketball.

Everyone recalled the “pit” at the old grade school. This was a sunken gym, about four feet below floor level, with a rail built around, a stage at one end and with wide hallways all around. The older girls set up tables for school lunches in the pit. Fort Belknap sent in hot lunches for the Indian kids and their tables were up in the hallway. The white kids ate sack-lunch sandwiches down in the pit. We all wished we were up there with them eating hot soup while the Indian kids wished they were down in the pit eating sandwiches. The pit was used for everything--roller skating, basketball, parties, dances, Christmas programs and proms. And if you were bad in class, that is where you were sent. So if you saw some kid sitting by himself in the pit, you knew he’d been bad.

In 1925 the notable basketball team comprised of Hurley Wilson, Harold Hoyt, Emmett Buckley, Waldo Ekegren, Quentin Ekegren, Ed LaRock and Kermit Ekegren was called The Terrible Swedes. Why, I asked. Because they were Swedes was their laughing answer. In 1951 Harlem won the State Class C Football Championship. The game was played on Watkin’s Field, on Thanksgiving Day. This was a real field planted with blue joint hay. In 1977 Harlem placed second in Class B Basketball.

Music played a large part in school. One woman recalled that she played trombone in band and also was a majorette in the drum and bugle corps. At one past reunion she was reminded by Superintendent Langbell that she wasn’t as good a trombone player as she was a majorette. He also remembered that a different woman of the group had tried to play fiddle and could not learn.

In 1933 Leo Brockie, Sr. was the first Fort Belknap graduate of Harlem High. Herman Liese graduated twice. Well, his picture is hanging on the wall at the high school in two different classes. One woman said there was one year when every boy in her class was in the service. The seniors were issued diplomas even though they were gone. Several young men finished their credits at Ft. Lewis . Many didn’t come back. At the dances, girls danced together. The dances all started with girls on one side and boys on the other until the boys got up the nerve to ask the girls to dance.

Two of the women recalled the time when the older Native people spoke little English. They signed for what they wanted, and wrote a mark signifying their name. They were always able to make you understand what they wanted. The Hutterite people, not that many years ago, spoke broken English with a heavy German accent. During WWII, Harlem had a German POW camp. At night we could hear the prisoners singing in harmony. It was beautiful. They had a bus driver who dropped the men off to work at sugar beet farms. Japanese people were also brought into this area. These were American citizens. They were lodged in bunk houses on farms. They liked to hang out at the theatre. Some of them liked this area so well they wanted to stay. But when the camps were formed, they shipped them all out. One woman still has a perfume bottle given to her by a young Japanese man. Then the Mexican laborers were brought in to hoe sugar beets. The Mexican men planted another crop alongside the ditch banks. Some of these men found a way to stay and are now a part of the community.

We wrote a lot of letters during the war. And got letters—Dear John letters. Those went both directions. One woman got five hundred letters from her sweet heart when he was thirty-three months in the Pacific. Then he came home and she married him. Another woman, a nurse during the war, helped with the returning Prisoners of War. She described how helpless she felt that there was so little they could do to treat the men. Bud Campbell from Lodgepole was one who returned to us. Then Korean POW’s, George Blackbird and Charles Brekke, were released in 1953.

There used to be nice big houses in town until the Snake Butte project got started. The street from downtown to the high school was called “ Silk Stocking Avenue ” because of those beautiful old homes. Then those homes were chopped up into apartments and they never recovered. Anything was used for housing, shacks, shanties, tents. All were rented. The population tripled. A lot of Harlem girls got married. There were so many kids in school that several classes were held in church basements.

It was not the only time kids were farmed out to church basements. 1968 was the year of the fires. In January the civic enter burned down completely. It had housed the library, the basketball court, stage, jail, police office, a shooting range, the city office, and the Legion meeting rooms. All the basketball games, the school carnival, and the Seed Show were held there. Then a month later the older part of the grade school burned. It felt like the entire city disappeared. One of the Frey girls didn’t get out of the school. The teachers didn’t have a good count. Jim Thompson went back into the building, feeling his way, the smoke was too thick to see. Suddenly her little arms wrapped around his legs. He was so happy to get her out of there.

What do you remember most, I asked. They answered: We were a community. We were a village looking out for one another. We had a commitment, whether it was to school, to a job, or to our community. We were involved and became a part of everything. Young people today, well, both are working. They don’t have time for civic duties. Everyone knew who you were and where you were supposed to be. As young people we never got away with anything. Somebody would see us and that would be that. They would scold us and then tell our parents and then we would get it good when we got home. But we knew they cared. They cared what we did and wanted us to do good. If we could, this is what we would bring back. That strong sense of community.

Blaine County Journal
June 30, 2010

1 comment:

  1. The population.. of our planet.. has gone out of control. With that.. comes.. sadly.. those that would do harm.. to a community.. that is SO giving. We need.. desire.. as humans.. to have this! Perhaps.. someday.. I hope!