"...lightness and glee"

In this post we move from the sinister, sacred, and scientific of last time to simplicity and sisterhood: the Severin sisters of Fargo, North Dakota, circa 1930. One of those sisters would become my maternal grandmother: Myrna Margaret Severin.

Myrna Margeret Severin, 1930

My grandmother was born 5 November 1907, at least according to her Birth and Death Certificates. (Other documents list her birth date as the 6th.) She was born in Redfield, South Dakota, to Jack Severin, a tall Danish farmer, and Belle Runser; she was the youngest of their three daughters. She is nearly unique among my ancestors--going back to the late 1700s--in that three of her grandparents were immigrants: her father's parents, Jacob Soren Severin (31 Mar 1848 - aft 1920) and Anna Margrethe "Annie" Nissen (8 Dec 1851 or 2 - 2 Jan 1924) were Danish; her maternal grandfather, Phillip Jacob Runser (30 Jun 1845 - 22 Mar 1921) was from Hegenheim, in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, on the border of Switzerland.

My grandmother with her grandfather; Myrna and Jacob Severin, c 1918?

Redfield itself was modest, and remains so. Founded in 1878, it was the County Seat for Spink County, located at the junction of two railroads; it was also the home of the Northern Hospital for the Insane (founded in 1902 and still running today under the more optimistic name South Dakota Developmental Center). Redfield did not achieve any real distinction until three pair of pheasants were released there, "near where the ethanol plant is currently," according to their Pheasantennial Celebration brochure--I kid you not.

Downtown Redfield--all of it--about the time the Severins lived there.

Since then, Redfield has prided itself on being the "Pheasant Capitol of the World" (so much so, that they have trademarked that slogan), and the pheasant has become the State Bird of South Dakota, one of just three states with a non-native species as such. The Pheasantennial occurred in 2008 (for any of you who were considering a trip), the release being in 1908, a year after my grandmother's birth and just a year or so before the Severins left Redfield for Crookston, Minnesota. 

The Severins at  E Holmes Street, Redfield, South Dakota, c. 1908
From left: unknown dog, Jack, Gleva, Lee, Belle, Myrna.
 Not pictured: pheasant.

The Severins at that time were comprised of Jack and Belle, and their aforementioned three daughters. Eldest was Gleva Marcella (15 Jan 1904 - 4 Aug 1982), fair and wistful, or so she seems from photographs; next was Arletha Monica, (13 Jan 1906 - 22 Aug 2002) known always as "Lee," with luxuriant dark hair; she rarely smiled, at least to gauge from the childhood pictures I have seen. Next was my grandmother, always cheerful-seeming (although in pictures from her late teens she often looks to be attempting a dramatic or sultry visage). Their unusual names seem to reflect their background, a mash up of Scandinavian and French.

There was also a son, Delmar J[?], who was born in September 1909 and died within a few years. I know nothing more about him, and often wonder, if he had lived, how our family might have been different.

From left, standing: Lee (smiling!), Gleva, Myrna; seated: Delmar.

I wonder about Delmar in part because my mother's side of the family was (and is) the side I know best, and it was definitely a matriarchy, in form if nothing else. For most of my childhood (with occasional interruption from my father's side), I had always thought of our family as just “the three Severin sisters,” each with their one or two children, each of those children with just one, two, or three themselves. The sisters were close; when my grandparents moved west, the rest of the family followed. Their husbands had businesses together, and we saw everyone at least once a year, usually at Thanksgiving. While growing up, although close, with such a small family our get-togethers seemed-- if only in numbers--somewhat meager affairs. Perhaps if our forebears had been Catholic rather than Presbyterian, things might have turned out differently…. And certainly different if little Delmar had lived.

Anyway. In Minneapolis, my grandmother attended school, and in 1924 the Severins moved again, this time to Fargo, North Dakota, where they lived at 910 College St. My grandmother graduated from Fargo Public High School on 4 June 1925; her diploma mentions her Literary studies. The following year, the family moved again, this time to 1020 N Thirteenth St.

It was that same year,1926, that my grandmother began keeping a diary, inspired by the discovery of a diary her mother had kept when she was young. Apparently her sister Lee was keeping one as well, to better effect, as Grandma's peters out after just fourteen days--with lapses! "Whether or not mine will be read some time in the future with any interest or not time will tell." Indeed.

Only a few pages long, there is not a lot of information (it is a hot summer, the piano is moved, sister Gleva is away from home but writes often, Lee and Grandma spend a day canning "pickels"), and just one bit of drama: returning from Crookston, Minnesota in their horse and wagon, her parents are nearly hit by a freight car that has gone off the tracks.  Her "literary" side comes out briefly: Lee asks if the author of The Snob (a sensational novel--and silent film that Lee had seen--from 1924) is a man or a woman, and Grandma retorts, "neither--a birdie." She may have been a bit snobbish herself, as she writes that Lee is "foolish" for asking.  But otherwise, it is a nice, albeit brief, glimpse into her life, and did afford one pleasant surprise: she is reading a book of essays, From a College Window, by A C Benson, a prolific but now long-forgotten author from a family of such, whose novelist brother, E F Benson, has long been one of my favorites!

Myrna continued her education; she received a two-year teaching degree from Moorhead [Minnesota] State Teaching College in June 1927, and was teaching in Estelline, South Dakota.
The diary was more interesting, at least, than an autograph book given her in 1928, when she had moved out to attend college. It is signed by many of her friends as well as former pupils. Highlights of that document include the repeated use of the jingle:
"When you see a monkey up in a tree,
Pull its tail and think of me."
And the perhaps telling:
Dear Miss Severn,
Some right for money
Some right for fame
But I simply right
To sine my name.
your pupil,
Zola E---
Possibly despairing of teaching, Myrna began her graduate work, this time at North Dakota State College (now University), and by 1930 had moved back home.

The 1930 Fargo Directory

It was at this time that she became co-owner and proprietor, with her sister Gleva, of LaPetite Art Shoppe. It was located at 316 Broadway, next door to the Fargo Theater, which was built in 1926 and, fully-restored, is still in operation today. Alas, LaPetite does not appear to have lasted long, as it is gone by the 1932 edition of the directory. Beyond this, I have no other information, despite researching through some excellent Fargo websites (see links), but yearn to know more! 

The Fargo Theater marquee is visible in the upper left. La Petite Art Shoppe was next door.

It is not surprising to know that the sisters ran an art "shoppe." My grandmother's highest grades on her 1925 report card were in Music, Drawing, and Watercolor. The sisters made their own clothes--which was common at the time, of course--but took great pride in their work, as evidenced by the photos below. They even made wedding dresses for their friends, and Gleva was working as an instructor at the Singer Sewing Machine Company in 1934.

Grandma modelling some of her (or Gleva's) creations. There are also photos of Gleva wearing these same clothes.
 On the back of the center photo is pencilled "Virginia Snow patterns," and "WDAY", a Fargo radio station. Why?
More colorful creations. Left: What I hope is Halloween, with Lee and Gleva.
Right: Grandma between two drabber, unknown friends.

The directory page shown above also indicates that Lee has continued her love of movies, as she is working as an usher at the Garrick Theater, Fargo's first and most lavish picture palace, just two blocks down Broadway from LaPetite. The Garrick was later converted into a department store, and has since been demolished.

While in college, Myrna joined the Gamma Phi Beta sorority, and became very involved in social activities through school, serving on various committees and attending numerous dances. 
Some of Grandma's dance cards. Clockwise from the top:
Epsilon of Alpha Gamma Rho Spring Formal, Crystal Ball Room, 7 May 1931;
 Beta Sigma Chapter of Kappa Psi Annual Spring Formal, Crystal Ballroom, 20 May 1932;
 Senior Ball, Class of 1932, North Dakota State College, Crystal Ballroom, 3 June 1932;
 15th Annual Military Ball, presented by M Company, 3rd Regiment, N D State College,
Crystal Ballroom (did you expect anything else?), 17 January 1930. 
Most of the dances were held at the Crystal Ballroom, the glamour spot of Fargo, hosting everyone from Lawrence Welk to, famously, Duke Ellington in 1940. From the dance cards, it appears the most noted name who performed when my grandmother attended was Bill Euren and His Collegians; Euren later was music director for NDSU from 1948 - 1968, and there is still an annual Music Fellowship given in his name.The ballroom itself occupied the upper floor of the Fargo City Auditorium, at the corner of First Avenue South and Broadway, not far from the Severins' home. The lower floor served as the National Guard Armory. Despite its dual-purpose functionality, it too was demolished, in 1962. 

Photo courtesy the Cass County Historical Society.
With my grandmother's stated aversion to pickels [sic], one wonders how she felt about the menu for the Spring Formal:
Fruit Salad       Water
Creamed Chicken on Rosettes
Potato Chips       Cucumber Pickles
Hot Buttered Rolls
Individual Washington Cream Pie

Despite Fargo's big city trappings, its surroundings were still definitely rural. In a letter written for my grandparents' fiftieth anniversary, Grandma's lifelong friend and neighbor, Mabel Farden Nelson, shared memories:

All the good times on your farm, especially when we got snowed in and missed school. Your mom made corn fritters for us. Boy were they good!

...we couldn't wait to get to Aunt Polly's Slough for the first skating of the season.... When we returned there was a big "bread raiser" pan of popcorn.

How about the time the chickens roosted on top of Dad's Dodge--and when he started to drive off your folks yelled --Stop! Stop!

It was a long walk from M[oorhead] St[ate] C[ollege] to your home in Fargo. I guess we thought shoe leather was cheaper than streetcar fare.

How about the time we went "frogging" to get enough frog legs for Gleva to have the dinner party. We cried as we hit them with a stick cuz their front legs crossed like they were praying.

At any rate, it was not all frogging, art and gaiety; Myrna did graduate in 1934 with a Bachelor of Science, Education degree. By that point, she had also married my grandfather, and was expecting my mother, their first child. But that part of the story will have to be told another time.... 
On the back of another snapshot from this day is pencilled: "Our Happy Family 1934"
Lee, Gleva, Myrna, and (from left) their husbands:
 Thor Moe, Kenny Richards, and Dana Brown.

Nature or nurture? The question is an old one, with proponents on both sides. Considering the Severin sisters, certainly it seems a little of both. Out of their fifteen descendants (through two generations), fully a third were or are teachers; three work in the film industry; one has a sewing blog in which a Singer machine has pride of place.... Certainly, the apples did not fall far from the trees.

And then there is your humble blogger, who, while neither teacher, sewist, nor filmmaker, is fascinated by it all.

"A man who reads at all, reads just as he eats, sleeps, and takes exercise, because he likes it; and that is probably the best reason that can be given for the practice.”
                                                                       From a College Window, A C Benson

Myrna Margaret Severin was born 5 Nov 1907 (according to her Birth and Death Certificates; other records say 6 Nov) in Redfield, Spink, South Dakota, to John Jacob "Jack" Severin (11 Jul 1878 - 2 Jan 1965) and Isabelle "Belle" Runser (21 Oct 1881 - 30 Mar 1960). On 21 Oct 1933 she married Dana Earl Brown (26 Jan 1910 - 10 Sep 1984), son of Clarence Edgar Brown (1 Dec 1878 - 21 Aug 1937) and Cora Mabel Kinman (4 Sep 1876 - 22 Aug 1958), in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the home of Iza May (Kinman) Carlson, the groom's aunt. Rev Porter, a retired Presbyterian minister officiated. The following year, on 15 Jun 1934, Myrna graduated with a Bachelor of Science, Education, degree from North Dakota Agricultural College, and two months after that, delivered her first child. The Browns moved to Northern California the following year, where Myrna worked as an elementary school teacher. She continued to work as teacher after their move to Long Beach, California in the early 1950s. Although in almost perfect physical health, she died 12 Jun 1997 after enduring many years of Alzheimer's disease.

1 comment:

  1. This was fantastic to read! It got me a little choked up several times as well. Since my grandma (Gleva) passed away when I was only 8, I feel like I missed so many of her stories and ended up not knowing too much about her in the end. This was so wonderful to get a peek into their lives.

    And maybe that closeness to family continues on from them as well, as we still drive over to the old neighborhood for all the big holidays and spend it it Lee's side of the family.