Episode 2: The Scary Prairie Will Not Get the Best of Me
Margaret Hoven (singing): Here I am on the prairie. What am I doing here? Mother came to the prairie. I had to come with her here.
Megan Torgerson (narrating): This is Reframing Rural, the original podcast series that elevates unexplored stories from rural America. I’m the founder and producer, Megan Torgerson and in this episode we’ll explore Northeastern Montana culture, political memory and change.
It was eight years ago that I met Margaret Hoven and David Anderson on a snow swept November morning at our little prairie church on the hill. I came home from college, a ten-hour journey across the state of Montana, for my grandfather, Wilhelm Reinoehl’s memorial service. I arrived at church early that morning to practice “Edelweiss” with Margaret, a song I sang in memory of Papa, the endearing name for my gentle and loving German grandfather.
Margaret accompanied me on the guitar and led the congregation through the Old Rugged Cross and Amazing Grace, while David guided us through the service, breathing life into rituals I would have otherwise found heavy with human impermanence.
That was the first time I met Margaret and David and they didn’t feel to me like they were from Sheridan County, Montana. They gave me NPR vibes and reminded me of my English professors in Missoula. They led my grandfather’s memorial service with such honest sincerity, that what I remember most from that day, was how well they honored his memory, and how I wish Papa could have been there to see it.
When I launched Reframing Rural, I knew I had to interview them. And as I learned more about the couple, what I became keenly interested in, was their perspective of rural life from an urban lens. Like me, Margaret grew up in Sheridan County and left when she was a teenager. She met David in Washington D.C. where they lived for most of their adult lives, until moving back 15 years ago to take care of Margaret’s mother. Before moving to Plentywood, Montana, David, who is originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, had never lived in rural America.
What was it like to transition into retirement in a such an isolated small town? Did Northeastern Montana feel like home? These are questions we’ll explore in this episode, “The Scary Prairie Will Not Get the Best of Me,” named after Margaret’s original song we heard at the beginning of the episode, from their play “Dead Thing on the Wall.”
Hoven: I grew up on a farm a mile outside of Antelope. Wonderful childhood, just really wonderful, played and played and played and played. I had two brothers and two sisters. I went to school in Antelope. What else do I say? My folks were a bit little different. There was a lot of reading in our house. Dad did a lot of singing. Everywhere he went he was humming and singing. Mom yodeled. I remember her yodeling out the window. But it was a very plus, plus kind of childhood.
Torgerson (narrating): After graduating from Antelope High School, Margaret moved to Moorhead, Minnesota where she studied sociology and social work at Concordia College. She then move to D.C. earned a Masters Degree and in 1974 founded a bilingual program for adults with developmental disabilities. She dedicated 20 years to the program before transitioning to a career in folk music, singing with children, recording an LP and giving public performances. Music is a part of Margaret’s core, so much so that during our interview, she tapped along to the musicality of her words. Words, both sung and spoken, are a shared passion for Margaret and David, who had a career in journalism and served as editor of Religion News Service. They also share a passion for music, embracing its power to express emotion and bring about social change. In an article they co-authored, titled From the Church to the Union Hall: The Songs of Working People, they speak to this: “Folk music, the music of the people, is a subversive music,” they wrote. “Whether it be the traditional Anglo-American ballad from the mountains and rural areas of the south, or the rural blue to urban jazz continuum of the African-American tradition. It is subversive because it presents an alternative reality that sneaks through the cracks of the hegemonic culture in which most of us live and find our moral, aesthetic and political values.” Given their background, it is no wonder that I was so blown away by Margaret and David’s work as lay minister and church musician at my Grandfather’s wake.
David Anderson: Doing the funerals, as hard as they are, or the memorial services, I think is a real service. Margaret and I used to do a number of funerals together back in D.C., especially for my colleagues, who were unchurched, one of them was Jewish, one died from AIDs, some of them were children of colleagues and so we would generally put together a service, Margaret would sing. So it was not a leap into the unknown when I was asked to lead some services here.
Torgerson (narrating): I would come to meet Margaret and David in the long room beside our church’s nave twice more, to begin the memorial services for my Montana grandparents, Victor and Bernadine Torgerson. The Volmer and Nathanael Lutheran churches will most likely never see a permanent pastor again, but the community is grateful to have Margaret, David and other volunteers help guide families through the transitions of life and death. I wondered what element of these ceremonies Margaret and David found most important.
Anderson: I think the most important element is the music. I think that’s what people resonate with that’s what they respond to that’s where either their grief, or their joy, or what have you. It’s much more expressed in the music than it is in any of the words or any part of the liturgy.
Torgerson: How do you take care of yourselves when you give that back to [the community]. Is it hard on you?
Anderson: It’s stressful for me at times. I worry about doing a good job.
Hoven: Yes and you want to do your very best at something like that.
Anderson: You think that it would be easy to, and I think that happens around here, that you know, you just, not quite brush it off, but that you don’t have to put a thousand percent into it because who cares and it’s a little town and nobody’s going to notice whether you do a good job or a bad job, you sometimes think that, but we’re both of the sort that tends to want to do, to make it the best we can.
Torgerson: And it matters to the people.
Hoven: That’s it.
I also think how the person that’s conducting the service conducts themselves also. If you go through whatever liturgy it is with a certain kind of comfort, I mean it’s really a kind of a performance.
Anderson: Which is what makes me so nervous.
Hoven: And if you do it well, and you do David. You do a wonderful job. If you do it well then the whole thing holds together. If you stumble and mumble.
Anderson: Take it too casually.
Hoven: Yeah, or whatever. And we’re blessed that we’re able to do this, because we like to do this. And I play for church, we have four of us that play and I get to play for a whole month every few months and I like to do that and we do a liturgy that is a guitar liturgy. It’s especially nice when David’s preaching and I’m playing.
Anderson: It’s kind of like writing the play.
Hoven: Exactly, exactly.
Torgerson: So I was wondering what it was like to move back in 2004 to take care of your mom. What was that like going from D.C. to Sheridan County, for both of you, and this was the first time that you [David] had really lived in a rural area?
Hoven: Absolutely it was.
I liked the city and I wanted to get out of here and go to the city. You know, New York watching all these old movies when I was a kid and they were always set in New York City, so that’s really where I wanted to be, but I ended up in D.C. and liked it a lot.
I liked taking care of Mom. She lived with us for four years and David was a partner in all of that, because I was working and whatever and out of the house. But then once she died that’s when it really started to hit that his is kind of… there is not much here.
Anderson: You’re more social here and I can be very private. I don’t mind as much as Margaret does, being sort of homebound. I have my books and…
Hoven: Mhm, and you’ve always wanted to do that. To sit and read. He’s got thousands of books.
Anderson: No, no.
Hoven: Maybe not quite that much anymore but he used to. And we were used to in the city going out and we walked everywhere we went or we took the bus. And we were used to going out to restaurants and art galleries and shows and book stores, which is David’s passion of course. And there was much more of a variety of people. I miss that desperately. My whole work life in D.C. was with people who didn’t look like me, so. So it’s been a real hard adjustment, but we kind of made our bed and here we are, so got to make the best of it.
Torgerson: When you had moved to larger areas was that an adjustment, originally moving?
Hoven: No it was exciting. No, not at all. I do remember feeling, wanting to feel at home somewhere, like moving to D.C. and that took a while, but that eventually, you just have to be a place for a while and you get to know the people.
Torgerson: My questions surrounding home have changed slightly since the conversation I had with Margaret and David last summer. Given the pandemic we’re all currently facing, people still play a huge role in our notion of home, but since we must keep a physical distance from others, the material meaning of home seems to have taken center stage. When I visited Margaret and David at their large golden home built the same year Plentywood was founded in 1912, I took note of their impressive book collection, their block prints, collage art and paintings that decorated their walls, the grain elevator just outside their window, framed by prayer flags that shone as a beacon of hope in the hot summer sun.
Arts and culture also play a vital role in how we understand and celebrate our home and community. Creating, participating in and listening to stories help us make meaning of the world and our place in it. Sheridan County is extremely isolated, so it doesn’t have as vibrant art scene as even say Fort Peck, Montana, a town 140 miles away, with a population under 300 people that has a professional theater. The community is however fortunate to have the Antelope Dinner Theater with Margaret and David at the helm.
Hoven: Well you know I like doing the dinner theater a lot. It’s one of the things that keeps me alive. It’s a really, really, really, really positive thing for everyone in it. They don’t get a chance to ever do anything like that. I think it gives them a really good sense of who they are and then we do original ones quite often.
Anderson: We have in the last few years.
Hoven: Now we didn’t start the dinner theater though. It was going when we got here. And it started because, in Antelope the Sons of Norway Hall, the Sons of Norway closed and they gave the hall to the community and they needed a way to get some money to fix it up and so a mother and a daughter team, Doris and Arteth, they did stuff in Antelope for years and years and years, and they said let’s do a dinner theater production to make some money, so that’s where it started. So they had just quit when we got here
Anderson: We’ve done what four now or five and they vary. They’re sort of musical comedies is what I would call them. We’re redoing one for this fall that we did ten years ago, called Dead Thing on the Wall, which is about one of those dead things that hangs on the wall. Maybe you even grew up with one, who knows. That one is about a mother and daughter who had been in San Francisco in show business there, inheriting a little cafe in a place not unlike here and bringing change to it and the resistance to change, so that’s kind of the theme of that.
Torgerson (narrating): I would like to pause for a moment and consider the theme David mentioned in their play “Dead Thing on the Wall”: Change and resistance to change. South Dakota author Kathleen Norris has helped me put change into perspective within Great Plains culture. Here’s an excerpt from her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. She writes, “To some extent, wariness about change is a kind of prairie wisdom. The word’s origins lie in the marketplace, as in “exchange,” and negative connotations abound, like ‘to shortchange’ or deceive. But the sad truth is that the harder we resist change, and the more we resent anyone who demands change of us, the more we short-change ourselves.”
Wariness to change is not unique to rural communities, and I have been guilty of it myself, but I think in communities with a more stoic or agrarian culture, there can be a tendency to mythologize the past. And this can impede a community’s ability to adapt to change or seek to understand those with differing opinions. Things are changing in Sheridan County though, which David helped me put into perspective.
Anderson: The oil boom did not provide the population stimulus that was expected. It was fine for Williston, but it didn’t move in this direction the way that it should and that people hoped that it would and agriculture is also changing as farms have to get bigger and bigger and bigger and fewer people are coming back to farm. Children who grew up aren’t coming back. Which also then is an outmigration kind of pattern. Fewer of your generation are coming here and that means there’s less vitality, there’s less things for people to do. I mean it can become a vicious circle.
Torgerson (narrating): The county has definitely seen economic hardship before though, including the ‘80s farm crisis and the great depression. I grew up hearing about the economic decline of the 20s from my grandpa Vick who was born in 1921 and experienced farming during the brutal dust bowl first-hand. I appreciate David and Margaret’s reminder of how the community made it through that extreme time.
Anderson: The New Deal helped save the economy of Sheridan County and other places.
Hoven: Which suffered terribly during the dirty thirties.
Anderson: And so there were always the Roosevelt haters, but in lots of rural America, Roosevelt was revered. He brought electricity to rural areas.
Hoven: He brought work, brought food.
Torgerson: The Works Progress Administration.
Anderson: You know Fort Peck. The county court house up here is a WPA.
Hoven: Toilets, out houses were built by WPA. You go out and various people have outhouses.
And Medicine Lake was a CCC. So lots and lots of work for people out here.
Anderson: And that’s what’s been forgotten around here. Everybody rails about taxes and the government, and you know.
Torgerson: Well maybe we need to bring that history back.
Torgerson (narrating): The move to Montana’s Northern Great Plains was certainly a big change for Margaret and David, and while there are many things they miss about their former life in Washington D.C., they have found ways to share who they are and be in community with people here.
Anderson: The people at Volmer and Nathanael have been very welcoming of us, very embracing of us.
Hoven: The people at Nathanael, who we know a little bit better than the Volmer people, have a long history of being a little more open than some folks. We don’t feel like we have to bite our tongues all the way through, every time we sit around and have coffee. We probably still are a little more lefty than some, but you do feel like you can talk about stuff that you can’t other places.
Torgerson: Can you tell me a little bit more about that tradition of openness and how you’ve created community at Volmer and Nathanael.
Hoven: I think they had community long before we ever showed up.
Anderson: I don’t think we created it.
Torgerson: Or I mean created it for yourself and made friends and things too.
Anderson: Part of that is their tradition of, despite the gender segregation, of the fellowship after the service, is such an integral part of the church’s life there. To be welcomed into that was very important. Even though I can’t contribute much to the conversation. I don’t know number 14 from number 7.
Hoven (laughing): So it was a little bit of a shock. The men all sit together and the women all sit together for coffee, unless it’s a really small group, then we all sit together. And the men talk farming and the women talk whatever and it’s kind of the tradition, they’ve done that for years and we finally got used to it, at first it was a bit of a shock. But, I like the women. I like visiting with them. I never get to visit with the men, but.
Anderson: And they don’t think that I’m an idiot necessarily for asking questions.
Hoven: No, no. So that’s been a big, that’s helped to be here. It’s helped a lot. We’ve got to do some of the things we like to do.
Anderson: Something that we’re semi-good at I guess.
Hoven: Something we can offer.
Anderson: Which helps us express who we are too.
Torgerson (narrating): A heartfelt thank you to Margaret Hoven and David Anderson for expressing who you are, and for generously sharing your songs and stories. In the next episode we’ll hear from Eddie Hentges, a friend from Williston, North Dakota and Wolf Point Montana who taught American History through an indigenous lens at the Wolf Point High School on the Fort Peck Reservation.
Eddie Hentges: The reason we learn and study history is because it informs us who we are and why we are the way we are.
Torgerson (narrating): This episode was recorded on the ancestral lands of the Sioux and Assiniboine peoples and produced on Salish and Kalispel aboriginal territories. Thank you to Andrew Drinnan, Ryan Manthey and Dan Sodomka for helping create Reframing Rural’s theme music, as well as Free Music Archive for the music we heard at the interlude. Reframing Rural was made with support from Seattle University’s Arts Leadership Program and the Guest House Cultural Capital Residency.
Hoven: So this is the mother
Hoven (singing): Here I am on the prairie. Ready to start a new life. Here I am on the prairie. I wonder what that new life will be like. I left my life in San Francisco. Everything I knew and held true. Here I am on the prairie. What am I going to do?
I’ll stand up tall and make the best of everything. Stand up tall and do the best I can. The scary prairie will not get the best of me. The scary prairie will not get me down.
This is an opportunity of a life time this is an opportunity for me. An old cafe in the middle of the wilderness is what I need for a mission in my life.
Come on’ Emma.
Hoven: So here comes the daughter.
Hoven (singing): Here I am on the prairie. What am I doing here. Mother came to the prairie, I had to come with her here. I never wanted the prairie. San Francisco town is for me. Yet here I am on the prairie. And the prairie isn’t for me. And the mama says this is an opportunity for you dear. This is an opportunity for you. To see the sky and the clouds and the grasslands. Life in the city is difficult for you.
I never wanted to be here mother. I never wanted to come with you. I liked my life in San Francisco. A life on the stage is what I want to do.
This is an opportunity for you dear. This is an opportunity for you. This is an opportunity for you dear. This is an opportunity for you.