Family is a topic that can be studied throughout history. Though the basic structure of the family is pretty constant, the social, economic, and political influences on families change over time. The family is the fundamental unit of society that provides for the raising of children. The families provide food and shelter and teach the children what they need to know as adults.
The federal government collects facts when people are counted for the U.S. Census. Some data is also collected annually. Every year the United States government publishes the Statistical Abstract of the United States which gives us a general idea of what life is like in the United States.
During the 20th century, North Dakota families, like families elsewhere in the United States, underwent many changes. If we look at the family through the children, we begin to see a picture of what family life was like at different times. These trends are useful only as a basic measurement or “yardstick” of personal experience.
The United States became an urban nation in 1920. This means that more than 50 per cent of the population lived in towns and cities instead of on farms. Until 1990, most North Dakota families lived on farms. (See Image 1.) However, in 1990, more than one-half of the population (53.3. per cent) lived in towns and cities. North Dakota was one of the last states to become mostly urban.
There were many small schools in rural areas that provided elementary students (grades 1 through 8) with a good education. Throughout the twentieth century, an increasing number of children attended school. (See Image 2.) In 1920, 75 per cent of school-aged children were enrolled in school; most were in elementary school. By 1960, 94 per cent of school-aged children were enrolled in school. Though many small rural schools had closed by 1960, cars and buses transported children to schools in more distant towns and cities.
In a large state with a small population widely dispersed on farms, it is not surprising that in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, few students had an opportunity to attend high school. High schools were more likely to be found in towns and cities. Between 1920 and 1970, many people thought that boys would grow up to be farmers and did not need a high school education. Girls were far more likely to attend high school than boys. That ratio shifted in 1969 when slightly more boys than girls attended high school.
North Dakotans married at a lower rate than Americans as a whole. In 1930, there were 6.2 marriages for every 1,000 people in the state. The ratio remained about the same for the next three decades. However, the marriage ratio was much higher for the nation. In 1930, the national marriage rate was 10.1 per 1,000 people, and in 1940, it was 9.4 per 1,000 people. North Dakota’s low marriage rate may have been caused by gender imbalance. Throughout our history, there have been more men than women in the state. For instance, in 1940, there were 100 men for every 90 women. This means that some men would have trouble finding a marriage partner.
According to the Statistical Abstract, most North Dakota babies were healthier than the average baby in the United States. The infant mortality rate in 1920 in North Dakota was very high at 67 deaths per 1,000 births. However, the national rate was even higher at 82 deaths per 1,000 births. Over the course of the 20th century, the infant mortality rate fell consistently as improvements in medicine, vaccines, and obstetric practices cured or prevented many childhood illnesses. By 1968, the North Dakota infant mortality rate had fallen to 21 per 1,000 births, slightly higher than the U.S. rate. However, the infant mortality rate for people of color remained shockingly high. Non-whites in North Dakota (mostly American Indians) had an infant mortality rate of 43.3 deaths per 1,000 births in 1960. By 1968, the infant mortality rate for children of color had fallen to 21.4 per 1,000, much lower than the national average of 35.9 per 1,000 births.
The size of the family varied over time. In 1920, there were 4.8 people in the average North Dakota family, higher than the national average of 4.3 people. In 2010, the average North Dakota family was about 2.29 people, slightly lower than the national average of 2.55. North Dakota’s birth rate was higher than the national average through the first half of the 20th century. But, during the 1960s, the birth rate in North Dakota dropped by 40 per cent. The birth rate was 26.3 in 1960; in 1968, the birth rate in North Dakota had fallen to 16.0 per 1,000.
Statistics are important, but they only provide the framework for understanding real lives. (See Document 1.) Many families are not “average” statistically, but do everything that a family should do. Families are supposed to provide a nurturing environment for both children and adults, protect and raise the children to adulthood, and instruct children to prepare them for adulthood.
Document 1. Real Families
Statistics give us one view of North Dakota’s families, but we can learn more about the meaning of these statistics by reading the words of people who grew up in North Dakota. Several governors of North Dakota who grew up in the 20th century have been interviewed about their lives. In this document, their words have been chosen to shed light on some of the statistics about North Dakota families.
Arthur Link was born in 1914 on his parents’ farm near Alexander in McKenzie County. He served in the North Dakota House of Representatives (1946-1970), the U.S. House of Representatives (1970-1972), and as Governor (1973-1980). Governor Link’s wife, Grace Johnson Link, also commented on her family.
William Guy was born in Devils Lake in 1919. He served in the North Dakota House of Representatives (1959-1961) and as Governor (1961-1973). Governor Guy’s wife, Jean, also commented on her family.
George (“Bud”) Sinner was born in Casselton in 1928. He served in the North Dakota Senate (1962-1966), the North Dakota House of Representatives (1982), and as Governor (1985-1992).
Allen Olson was born in Rolla, North Dakota in 1938 and grew up on a farm near Sarles. He served as Attorney General of North Dakota (1972-1980) and Governor of North Dakota (1981-1984). Governor Olson’s wife, Barbara, also commented on her family.
Art Link: Art was the only son of John and Ann Link. He had four older sisters and one younger sister.
Grace Link was the daughter of Roy N. Johnson and Margaret Wood Johnson. She had a sister and two brothers.
George Sinner. George was the son of Katherine and Albert Sinner who farmed near Casselton. George grew up with two brothers and one sister.
William Guy. Bill Guy was the son of William, Sr., and Mabel Leet Guy. He was raised with two brothers in Amenia, North Dakota. Jean Guy was the daughter of Sidney and Clara Mason. She had one brother.
Allen Olson. Allen was the only child of Olga and Elmer Olson. Olson’s mother died of malignant melanoma. He was raised by his father, who remarried twice. Barbara Benner Olson was the only child of Lois and George Benner of Grand Forks.
On growing up:
Art Link: “. . . my earliest recollections are just a very busy farm life, very farm-oriented. . . . It was always work, with time to play when the work was done. My sisters worked just as hard as I did. “. . . my earliest chores were feeding the chickens, feeding the pigs, and feeding the calves. As we got old enough to sit on a milk stool and hold a milk bucket between our knees and milk a cow, all of us learned to milk. . . . There was a little danger once in a while. You might get kicked if a cow was displeased over something. “We worked so close with our parents that it [work] just sort of became natural. . . . I was considered old enough to harrow [a] field. I suppose I was about ten.”
Grace Link: “Wherever the folks went, we went with them. My dad and mom liked to dance, and we kids went along. “Dad would plant about twelve or fifteen acres of corn . . . . Then Vernon and I used to go out and hoe the rest of the weeds. . .”
George Sinner: “Life was difficult even in the rich Red River Valley. The Depression had taken a heavy toll and debt was everywhere. The struggle to keep from losing the farm was an omnipresent and pervasive threat. So, we grew up to be frugal. Although we didn’t engage in a lot of family activities, we did play cards at home. “Christmas was always a pretty big deal. Those were lean years, and I have one memory of coming down and walking into the living room and there was a new bicycle with lights and all the gear on it, fancy things. . . We had one bike for the four of us. “I started running all the equipment on the farm early. . . [Running the boom and shovel] was a dirty job. I’ve often marveled that I didn’t suffer lung damage from all the dust.”
Bill Guy: “In 1922, we moved to Fargo. My dad became the agricultural extension agent in Cass County. . . . We moved to Amenia in December of 1926, when my dad took the position of manager of the Carrie T. Chaffee estate, which was a large remnant of the original Amenia and Sharon Land Company, a bonanza farm. “Amenia . . . was a town of about a hundred people, or maybe a few less, . . . It had a blacksmith shop, an elevator and a feed mill, a lumber yard, a general store, a bank, a garage for repairing automobiles, a gas station, and a telephone exchange office. It had a teeny shop that sold candy and pop, and . . . it had a barber chair. [There was a] contractor . . . a drayman . . . and a depot. . . a bulk oil station. . . one church . . . a hotel and a post office. . . All of the real estate was owned by the Chaffees. . . The depression hit the country in 1928, and it affected Amenia like most other communities. [The bank closed, the general store burned down, taking with it the gymnasium above it. The feed mill burned down and the hotel was torn down. Standard Oil moved its tanks out of the city. The garage moved to Casselton and the barbershop closed down.] My brother Jim and [I rode] back to North Dakota in the caboose [of the train hauling sheep]. . . Our job was supposed to be to get out and pound on the side of the cars with sticks to get the lambs to stand up [so they would not suffocate]. . . We did get the sheep home with a minimum of loss, and that was one of the good experiences of my life. The first job I had as a youngster that was a paying job was leveling grain tanks at a threshing machine. . . . My first day on the job was a hot one, and the water jug was a large crockery jug that held . . . three or four gallons. I soon became extremely thirsty . . . [but] I found that I couldn’t lift the jug high enough to tip it to drink out of. I was parched and in real discomfort. . . . My dad decided that I was still a little light for that job.”
Jean Guy: “I was born . . . in 1922 [at Fort Yates hospital]. . . In November of 1923 . . . [my parents] moved to Fargo. . . [In 1924], my family moved [to Chaffee]. They had a nice house in town. My dad was at the bank, and my mother, like her mother, took in teachers who boarded and roomed at our house. [The family returned to Fargo in 1926]. “My mother taught me the art of homemaking-I learned how to clean and keep house, to do the laundry, ironing, baking, and cooking, to darn socks, and to sew on buttons. So in the summers, by the time I was fourteen years old, I was the hired help. I got paid three dollars a week for doing that.”
Allen Olson: “I grew up [at Sarles] without a mother, as an only child, on a farm, independent; my dad, bless him, let me be independent. “Like every farm kid in North Dakota, I started doing a man’s work when I was probably eleven or twelve years old. It wasn’t child labor, it wasn’t abusive, it was what you did. . . My job as a kid was usually working summer fallow; . . . I would come in at the end of the day and all you would see was eyeballs and teeth and everything else was black because, if the wind was with you, you sat in a cloud of dirt. Turn around and then you’re going back against the wind and you could breathe again. “You know, your father teaches you things. He was concerned about safety. . . My dad was a wise man. Common sense was his mantra. If I would do something stupid, he wouldn’t say ‘Allen, that was a stupid thing to do,’ he would force me to go back and think why did I do it that way or wasn’t there an easier way to do it. My dad would say, ‘Use your head, Allen, use your head!’”
Barbara Olson: “I was born in Grand Forks in June 1941. . . My dad was a small businessman. He started out running a children’s clothing store, and then . . . a toy and hobby shop.”
On School and Schooling
Art Link: “I started school when I was six years old. One room school. . . I think there were about fourteen or fifteen [children] at one time. . . . When I graduated [from eighth grade]. . . we had to go back to take state exams for two or three days . . . in order to pass the eighth grade. A few of the boys, occasionally, would stay out for fall work, but . . . as frugal as our parents were and as important as the fall work was, I don’t recall very many of them that said that they had to stay home and work. I don’t think that’s true of all the rural communities. . . . I think our parents showed tremendous commitment for us kids to go to school and to do our studies. It just seemed natural that being the only boy, I’d be a farmer. . . . Half of the kids in our township didn’t go to high school–the boys. The girls did. [My sisters went to school] in Alexander, five miles away. The girls rented a room in a little house in Alexander. I would take them in Monday morning . . . and go get them Friday night. [In 1929, Dad] enrolled me in the farm husbandry course at the North Dakota Agricultural College [NDAC/NDSU] in Fargo. . . We got some training in English and math, but most of the rest was farm husbandry . . . I was fifteen when I went down there . . . but I didn’t go back for the second year. That was a regret ever since."
Grace Link: “I went to a one-room school rural school [with eight to ten students] . . . a mile and a quarter north [of home.] . . . We were in school all twelve years. My folks paid for my board and room [in Williston].”
George Sinner: “Our parents emphasized school. I was fairly high up in the rankings, but I wasn’t the brightest of the bright in my class of thirty-five or forty kids. My grades at Lincoln High School in Casselton were probably B average–a few C’s or D’s and probably not a lot of A’s. I was a relatively good athlete and we started sandlot sports early. . . . Dad didn’t appreciate the love . . . I had for baseball but he tolerated it.”
Bill Guy: “We had a school in Amenia that went from the first grade through high school. . . I graduated from Amenia High School in the spring of 1937. I think there were about twelve kids in our class. I entered NDAC in the fall of 1937. . . I enrolled in agricultural economics. . .”
Allen Olson: “Dad was typical of agricultural people in this country, [he] was on the township board and school board. You took your turn; everybody took their turn at leadership. “I think one of the reasons I decided I was interested in law school was because I went to Boys State in, I think, 1956, and was elected to the Supreme Court. Then [North Dakota Supreme Court Justice James] Morris came to Boys State. As a result of that two things happened. I probably got interested in the law as a profession and secondly I was a counselor at Boys State.”
Barbara Olson: “I was a cheerleader [at Grand Forks Central High School], which was just the best. . . Every day at noon we would go over to the Y[MCA] and eat . . . and then we’d dance. We would dance for forty five minutes . . . and then go back to school. “I was in that era where . . . you were either going to be a teacher or a nurse . . . I went into education . . . I think now I would have gone in a totally different direction, but I thought that what I wanted to do was to be a teacher.”
Why is this important? We can draw some conclusions about North Dakota families by studying statistics. Children grew up in relatively healthy, large families. However, the children of American Indian families did not have the health advantages of non-Indian children. Throughout the 20th century, children attended school regularly through the eighth grade. Fewer children attended high school. In the first half of the century, girls were more likely than boys to attend high school. However, late in the 20th century, gender made little difference in high school attendance.
Once historians understand the statistics, they can begin to formulate some questions and seek answers. For instance, a historian might ask why men outnumbered women in North Dakota. Was this a result of a farming economy? Did girls’ educational opportunities give them the means or desire to leave the state creating or sustaining the gender imbalance? Why was the infant mortality rate so high among American Indians? Historians sometimes develop theories to address these questions. One way to explore these questions is to read personal accounts of growing up in North Dakota.