Episode 6: A Celebration of Rural Womanhood
Megan Torgerson (narrating): This is Reframing Rural the original podcast series that elevates unexplored stories from rural America. I’m the founder, editor and producer Megan Torgerson, and today we’ll hear from two rural Montana farm women and old friends, retired country school teacher and businesswoman, Kay Brinkman.
Kay: I just always was really proud that my parents would do anything for us to have an education. In this little northeast corner where many people just wanted their children to get married and get out of the nest because I don’t have any money to take care of you.
Megan (narrating): And trilingual, book-lover, photographer and American immigrant, my Mom, Renny Torgerson.
Renny Torgerson: My first language is German. I would say I learned English in the streets of Montreal from friends.
Megan (narrating): This is the second to last episode of Reframing Rural’s first season Coming Home, and publishing on Mother’s Day it’s a celebration of all the rural moms, stepmoms and grandmas who are really the cornerstone of so many small towns and isolated rural communities.
Rural women across the country play a crucial role in national food security, in community cohesion, in keeping country churches’ open, running small businesses, caring for the elderly, raising future community leaders and building overall rural resilience. So when I was thinking about rural women from my hometown, Dagmar, Montana, who could speak to some of these themes and give me perspective on what Dagmar was like when it still had a bar and a gas station and a country school, I thought about my Mom and Kay, a member of the community who really feels like family to me.
Kay grew up hunting with her Dad and helping her parents raise cows, chickens and wheat on their farm on the Fort Peck Reservation west of Medicine Lake, Montana.
Kay: I was the right hand man on the farm and loved it, the only thing I didn’t love was going into a grain bin where I thought there could be mice.
Megan (narrating): After receiving her bachelor’s in education from Montana State University then living for a time in Chinook, Helena, Bozeman and Opheim, Montana, Columbus, Ohio, and Fargo, North Dakota, Kay eventually found her way home to Northeastern Montana, where she was the last teacher at Dagmar’s two-room K-8 Hiawatha School which closed in 1997.
When a community loses its school it’s a big deal. For Dagmar, the school was one of only a few remaining institutions. Now there’s just the post office and thanks to the dedicated support of the community, Dagmar Central, a general store and café. For gas you’d have to travel to Grenora, North Dakota.
When I was a young kid, Hiawatha was the only country school in operation, but it wasn’t always that way. When my Dad Russ grew up in the 1950s, Dagmar’s school was one of seven, one to two room country schoolhouses in operation within a twenty mile radius of my family’s homeplace. This included the one-room schoolhouse, Sunny Hill, my Dad attended through the fourth grade.
I grew up exploring some of these deserted school buildings, poking my head through broken windows, walking gingerly on swayback floorboards that once knew the pitter patter of children’s feet and staring in awe at the final words drawn on an intact forest green chalkboard.
When you see a derelict schoolhouse decomposing back into the hard earth prairie, it can feel like something of a bygone era, but according to a 2014 article from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Montana at the time had 60 rural and one-room schools in use, the most in any state in the country, which really speaks to the huge distances between communities in the Big Sky State. Still, that number once totaled 2,600.
But back to Kay and the Hiawatha School, in 1989 Kay was invited to apply to the first vacant teaching position in Dagmar in 25 years, and she thought:
Kay: Holy cow, I’ve never thought multiple grades in a room, how in the world would I ever do it? I mean to meet all their needs, no matter if you had five or, I ended up with 14 and it was just a two room school and so somebody had to be in charge and since I was the oldest one I was the supervising teacher and I taught K-3 so four grades and the upper grades teacher taught four through eight and so we had 25 or I think it could have been 26 students in the whole school and hired a music teacher willing to do this and not on a full time basis and also an art teacher came in maybe for 45 minutes for each class once a week and so that was fun so they had, I wanted to get them exposed to somebody else besides one teacher. I didn’t want these little people to be like in this little bubble. I remember one instance I scheduled somebody who had just been to Chile and he came in with slides and talked about it so any time anyone did anything I got a hold of them because I wanted these kids to have an exposure because I thought they’re rural kids anyway, kind of like how you were raised if you had just been on the farm and never went out you know? And so I felt like they needed exposure so getting different people whether it was the post master to come in or whatever and not necessarily talking about jobs but talking about themselves and I always felt like it could have been better but I always worked hard at trying to get the kids ready to blend in when they left Dagmar.
Megan (narrating): Kay succeeded at this and said a lot of Hiawatha’s students went on to be valedictorians and salutatorians when they went to high school in Medicine Lake. Their success was due in part to a multi-age educational setting in which younger students overheard the more advanced curriculum the older students were learning, while the older kids were able to reinforce their learnings by aiding the younger ones. Kay also said that her students learned to be respectful and patient when she had to shift gears and work with another level. These students, like Kim Rudnigen from our first episode, also found academic and career success because Kay worked so hard to expose students to life outside the two-room classroom.
Both Kay and my Mom Renny also worked hard to give their own kids access to experiences beyond our small farming and ranching community. My Mom is a bit hard on herself in this respect, maybe it’s because she grew up experiencing a greater variety of cultures in Montreal, Quebec and Nuertingen, Germany. But I try telling her that I am grateful for our trips around the Western U.S. and Canada, for all the music, volleyball and basketball camps I attended, as well as the opportunity I had to grow up around cows and my cousins in the country, which is not something many people get to experience these days. Still in her eyes, she wishes she could have offered my sisters and I more.
Renny: See I have more the guilt. I have the guilt of not taking you to violin lessons. You don’t have that guilt you probably don’t think about it or care about it anymore.
Megan: I didn’t remember that.
Renny: Yes, yes and I still feel bad about it, but anyway. We took the [older] girls to gymnastics in Williston but that got to be too much on Saturday to drive 100 mile roundtrip. But we tried! You know what I mean we took you to camps, we encouraged you to go to camps so that you would experience life, so you know what it was like when you went away. See that’s what I think was very important, because in a way you were so sheltered.
Megan (narrating): Curious to hear my older sister’s perspective on this, I phoned Lori…
Lori Warden: I’m Lori Torgerson Warden and I live in Missoula, Montana.
Megan (narrating): …and asked her what the impact this exposure my Mom worked hard so hard to give us, made on her life.
Lori: Growing up in Northeastern Montana, you know I definitely felt kind of the smallness and the remoteness of it but I just loved the opportunity to get away and to see new places and my parents were really instrumental in giving us that opportunity. You know when I, my grandparents didn’t, or our grandparents, didn’t move to Regina, Saskatchewan to be closer to us until I was 12 and so they had lived in Montreal until that point, Montreal, Quebec. I just know that from that very beginning, travel, I just loved it, my whole life. And I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have experienced worlds and cultures and places outside of Montana.
And I think what it does actually is it has built, for me, greater just appreciation for where I grew up and where I live now. Don’t get me wrong I love the city, but I do think where we’re from and where I live now are pretty special places and I’m very grateful to have that perspective and I’m grateful to my parents for exposing us to travel and new places, and even though they weren’t always with me on those trips, they held the fort down at home and they let us spread our wings and I’m very grateful for that.
Megan (narrating): Mom and Kay’s children are now spread out across the country, and I wondered if that’s a reality my Mom had ever considered when we were growing up.
Renny: It’s funny you should ask that question, because I never thought when you were growing up where would you end up someday, and right now from the farm Lori is 600 miles away in Missoula, Kathleen is in Alaska, you’re in Seattle and Louise is in California. I never ever thought that you kids would be so far from home, but I never even thought where would you be. And it’s hard that you’re so far away. And I remember telling you Megan one time that my mother, moved from Czechoslovakia, went west to Germany, picked up Papa, they went west to Montreal, I went west to Montana and then you girls are further west. You’re at the end of North America, on that west coast. And I said that I’m glad that there isn’t much further to go than that and you said “well, I think India would be interesting to live in.” And I thought oh my gosh. So I’m hoping you girls, my hope is always that somebody, of you three that are not in Montana, that maybe somebody would move back to Montana. And I tell you girls everybody moves to Montana, but you girls move out of Montana, so that’s my wish that someday you girls will all be closer to us, but it’s just a dream I know.
Megan (narrating): If you’ve listened to the other episodes from this season Coming Home and you’ve caught on to how much I love my home state you’re probably asking yourself “why doesn’t Megan live in Montana.” It’s a good question and one I’ll explore in the next episode, along with whether this idea of exposure played a hand in my migratory tendencies.
As it turns out though I’m not the only one prone to migrating. My parents spend almost half the year in the Rocky Mountain West of Missoula, while Kay and her husband, Brian split their time between Dagmar, Billings and Phoenix, Arizona.
In a community centered around agriculture it’s fitting that the Brinkmans and Torgersons return to Dagmar to farm. Every March, like clockwork both couples return to their respective farms to de-winterize machinery and prepare for seeding.
A few years back Kay and Brian nearly hung up their hats, but true to the saying “farmers never retire,” it didn’t stick. Kay talks about the process of her husband flirting with retirement and then reconsidering.
Kay: And Brian was dead serious. He wanted to farm and I thought oh he got cheated out of those years with his stroke, we can do it for a few years. So we did. And he being the laborer and me being the business manager we started and we just had a blast together because in the year’s past that he farmed, I was either teaching or raising children so I really didn’t have time to help much more than move after school or move before school, or you know help on the weekends of course, but didn’t have much time.
Megan (narrating): In the late 1990s, when Kay was still teaching and the Brinkmans had kids at home, Brian sadly suffered from a stroke. Thinking they wouldn’t be able to farm again they sold their farm equipment.
Kay: I guess it was three years after his stroke we had a farm sale and sold so we needed to replenish our stuff, and as you know Megan it’s not cheap. If you buy a tractor, a drill and a tank for fertilizer, seed and so forth, you can probably buy a million dollar home, so it’s not getting back into any little cheap business. And so it took a lot of effort, but you know I really enjoyed it. So we started farming. So our first crop was ’09 because by May I knew he was serious so that’s what we did.
It took a lot of effort but you know I really enjoyed it. It was fun and I think that a lot of time men farming and doing all the business end it’s kind of hard for them.
Megan (narrating): Now retired from teaching Kay has more time to not simply help Brian on the farm, but really ensure the success of the business by applying her lifelong knowledge of agriculture and savvy business skills.
And while my Mom didn’t grow up around farming, she is an integral part of my family’s operation today. At our farm, my Mom preworks the fields with the tractor and picks rock. She helps move machinery, flagging for my Dad on hilly washboard roads and single-lane highways busy with oil truck traffic, while he moves the air seeder in spring, and the combine in summer and fall to fields scattered across Sheridan, Roosevelt and Williams counties in Montana and North Dakota. She makes runs to John Deere and NAPA, and delivers parts and supplies to wherever they’re needed. She fixes countless hearty meals. And when we still had cattle, my Mom was instrumental in the fall roundup, herding the cows and feeding hired help. She even helped save the herd from a brutal Northeastern Montana winter storm.
Renny: 2000, November 1 we had a blizzard like no other blizzard. We ourselves didn’t have power for a week, some neighbors about seven miles west of us didn’t have power for two weeks and I remember our cattle were down south about 20 miles and we had to move them closer to home and so we trailed them home but it was so hard in that blizzard to get them to go and at one point there was so much snow and we were on the road and there was a pasture right next to the road and the neighbor’s cattle, since the snow was so high it covered the fence. They just walked over the fence joined our cattle and then we kept going down and we took a short cut through a field but they wouldn’t go anymore so we stopped. Dad went and got some hay and fed them there and they just spent the night over there and the next morning we had to go and get them home the rest of the way.
Megan (narrating): This great example illustrates what is required of a husband and wife farming duo to save their livestock and livelihood. This storm left our cattle stranded and our home without power for a full week. My Dad was even interviewed by the Associated Press about the relentless storm for a national news article titled Ranchers Try To Save Starving Cattle. The article reads:
“Russell Torgerson spent Wednesday plowing through 8-foot snowdrifts to reach his cattle, feed and water them and try to herd them closer to home. He has 360 cows, calves and yearlings stranded on his ranch that straddles the Montana-North Dakota line. ‘I'm sure glad I've got a dozer on my tractor,' Torgerson said. ‘As much snow as we've got, I'd have never got to them today.’”
I was only nine years old when my Mom and Dad braved a whiteout so they could save our herd of black angus. I must have been worried, but all these years later I can only remember the event feeling magical, and that’s probably because my parents knew exactly what needed to be done to keep their kids from freezing or even complaining. They got the cows and themselves home safely, and back at the house they hooked up the generator and melted snow so we could have water to wash our faces and flush the toilet. What stands out most to me though is the thrill of skipping school for multiple days in a row, digging a massive fort into the wall of snow my Dad plowed from the yard, playing cribbage by candle light and wearing a stifling amount of layers to bed.
These were good days. The days of dialup internet, before cellphones and before 9/11 when I felt like my parents could protect me from anything,
These days were also good because there were more people living in the community. From the time of the immortal snowstorm in 2000 until the time I graduated high school in 2009, Sheridan County went from a population of roughly 4,000 to 3,200, a loss of 20% in less than a decade. That’s a lot of loss.
It’s important to remember though that it wasn’t always like this. Back in the day when there were more people there were also more communal activities that brought folks together. Often led by rural women these special occasions offered a sense of belonging and togetherness for the community.
Kay: When I first was married and moved out nearly 40 years ago we had a club, a women’s club that had like 25 members that met once a month. We would make crafts or visit or community projects, such as going to the nursing home and play bingo or going up there for birthdays and they loved seeing people from the community and so we were very very active.
Megan (narrating): These women were also of course very involved in being there for local youth.
Lori: You know there all of these really interesting and loving women around our community. You know people who took an interest in what you were doing who invited you over to their house to teach you sewing or you know hosted 4H workshops where you did cooking or you know helped break your steer. There were always people willing to share their skills and you know I think those were all those women who valued bringing up their own children but also everyone that they realized that it takes a lot of people to raise good kids, kids who have different interests and who are going to be contributors to society, so I’m really grateful and all that was led by the women in our community, whether they were 4H leaders or Sunday School teachers.
Megan: It’s so cool because in today’s age you would pay for a class for that service probably you know?
Lori: Right a camp. You would put your kids to camp.
Megan: Yeah, but yeah you guys were kind of existing outside of the structure of like paying for things and were really like skill sharing.
Lori: Yeah and I think 4H gave it a structure, if you were involved in 4H for instance because you have different projects and if you want to complete those projects sometimes you need the help of other people. Yeah there was a lot of that stuff going on when I was growing up.
Megan (narrating): Since this story is publishing on Mother’s Day I’d like to honor an old Volmer Church Mother’s Day tradition. In lieu of the flowers that Sunday School kids used to hand out to moms and grandmas in the congregation, I have a different little surprise for Renny and Kay. This Mother’s Day I’m bringing to you the voices of a few special guests:
Kathleen Hurst: My name is Kathleen Hurst. I live in Girdwood Alaska and I grew up in Northeastern Montana on a farm and ranch with my parents Russ and Renny Torgerson.
Well in order to be a successful farmer and rancher one has to have a really strong family to always be there to back them up and Mom was always you know ready to help out Dad with whatever needed to go down. If she had to drop the cooking and cleaning for a moment and help with moving, just always being ready to rally behind and help in any kind of way and kind of instilled in us that we’re part of a team that we need everyone on board to help out with the farm operation in order for it to be successful.
Karleen Harris: My name is Karleen Harris. I live in Plentywood, Montana and I am Kay’s daughter. Overall in being part of the Dagmar community, it’s just essential for the rural women to support each other and to come together and they just never hesitated to jump in and help anybody or help a neighbor, whether it was funerals or serving at weddings or anniversary parties or a milestone birthday. They’re always eager to support each other and then that extended to each other’s families and helping with their kids, whether it’s driving kids to town or picking kids up or making sure that they got a meal at night maybe before heading home to an empty house where parents weren’t able to be there, just very supportive. That saying that it takes a village to raise a child is something that our community lived by.
Liv Steinbarth: Hi, I’m Liv Steinbarth. I live in Fort Collins, Colorado and I’m Kay Brinkman’s daughter. Yeah so my mom taught at a two-room schoolhouse in the middle of nowhere and it’s pretty crazy. I went there for my kindergarten and first grade year, I should have went longer because when I left I didn’t have as good as teachers as my Mom. But I tell people. They’re like I’m from a small town too and I’m like hahaha, I always win the small town debate and the class size and how many people I graduated with. And they’re like what! Where is it? And they take out there phones and want to see where Dagmar is, so that’s kind of cool. And they’re always like well, what did you do for fun, how did entertain yourself. Did you have any friends. So it’s kind of fun to talk about how I grew up starting at a two-room school house, people can’t even believe that was still going. It was a pretty interesting way to grow up but I never felt without like people kind of think that sometimes, like oh you didn’t have ballet to go to or different activities. There were pretty structured activities and I was never without from my parents or from you know growing up on the farm, I never felt I was missing out and there was something out there that I should have been doing or seeing.
Louise Torgerson: My name is Louise Torgerson. I live in San Luis Obispo, California and my mom is Renny. I have so many fond memories of not only my Mom but also with Kay and my best friend Liv, our moms driving all over the state and outside of state to go to basketball camps and summer camps and basketball games. And the amount of time and dedication that it took for my mom and Kay to provide those opportunities for Liv and I was crucial. I really think that I would not be in the profession I’m in or in the place, the location I’m in today, if I didn’t have that exposure that Mom really took time to invest in us seeing things outside of Northeast Montana. I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel abroad and see all different corners of our country. And so I think that especially for my Mom coming from a whole different environment in the city, a whole different country, a whole different part of North America, I think the amount of strength for her to leave her family behind in Canada and still have family members back in Germany and to really kind of go to the wild open west and create a new life for herself with a young gentleman that she met, and start a whole family and figure out how to navigate the world of farming and ranching and raising four kids. It’s just incredible to think how someone could live such a neat life and be so strong.
Megan (narrating): And finally a few last words from my oldest sister Lori:
Lori: Farming is not a solo act. It takes the hands of many for a farm to operate and be successful. Hands to fix machinery, hands to mend fences, hands to feed the livestock, the family and the helpers, hands to pray that the crops come up and the hail stays away. At the nucleus is often the husband-wife team that shares a dream of raising plentiful crops and strong and compassionate children, and a dream to leave a legacy that nurtures a vibrant future for the land and those who will carry it on.
Megan (narrating): Thank you to everyone who made this episode possible! Thank you to Kay Brinkman, Renny Torgerson, Liv Steinbarth, Karleen Harris, Kathleen Hurst, Louise Torgerson and Lori Warden. Thank you to Andrew Drinnan for creating original music for this story and to our friends Dan Sodomka and Ryan Manthey for helping us compose Reframing Rural’s theme music. Thanks also to Andrew Evans for mixing.
The next episode is our final story of the season. This audio memoir piece will explore more of my story. It will uncover what I learned putting this season together and the work I’ve done the last few years to reframe the narrative on rural America. It will also include a sneak preview of season two! Visit my website reframingrural.org where you can find more details about my upcoming season, full transcripts for each episode and links to donate to the creation of this podcast.
I produced and edited this episode on Duwamish aboriginal territory with field recordings from the ancestral land of the Assiniboine. Reframing Rural is a project of Tree Ring Records and a member of the Rural Radio Collective and Story Hangar Network.
Thank you for listening!
Host, creator, producer and editor: Megan Torgerson
Guests: Renny Torgerson, Kay Brinkman, Karleen Harris, Liv Steinbarth, Louise Torgerson, Lori Warden, Kathleen Hurst
Episode Music: Andrew Drinnan
Theme Music: Andrew Drinnan, Dan Sodomka, Ryan Manthey and Megan Torgerson
Mixing: Andrew Evans