Lena Turck: Country School Teacher and Citizen Farmer

Lena Turck was the second-oldest child in her family, born in 1873. She grew up on the family farm in Forest City Township, Meeker County, Minnesota. Her father’s brother, Philip, owned the farm to the east of theirs.

Jacob, Philip, Paul, and Christina Turck had come over from Germany with their father in 1849, followed a few years later by their mother and brother John.

In 1864, Jacob and his brother Philip got in a covered wagon and headed for Minnesota. They lived in the wagon for several weeks while building a log house. The rest of the family (except for Christina) followed. 

Lena Turck’s parents—Anna Maria Ritten (or Rütten) and Jacob Turck—were married in St. Gertrude’s church in Forest City on January 1, 1871. Anna was 19 and Jacob was 30. She bore 11 living children and two who died before being named. 

Lena finished eighth grade in a one-room country school. In 1891, she left home to attend St. Cloud Normal School. 

“Normal school” meant teacher preparation. The brand-new state of Minnesota authorized three normal schools. The first, opened in Winona in 1860, closed because of the Civil War but reopened in 1864. A second opened in Mankato in 1868 and the third in St. Cloud in 1869. The St. Cloud Normal School became St. Cloud Teachers’ College in 1921, St. Cloud State College in 1957, and St. Cloud State University in 1975.[1]

Lena Turck was a country school teacher, by definition an itinerant with no job security, low pay, little respect, not even a home to call her own. Stories of country school teachers are preserved, if at all, in letters and diaries. Lena left none, so our best guess at her circumstances comes from contracts and public records, and from the accounts left by others of their own teaching days. 

While many people, then and now, look down on teachers as somehow inferior to other professions, the teacher exams back then required an amazing depth and breadth of knowledge. 

Lena Turck’s surviving documents contain some teaching contracts and some school and teacher examination records. In 1905, Lena passed North Dakota teacher exams in reading, writing, orthography, language and grammar, geography, history of the U.S., arithmetic, civil government, physiology and hygiene, physical geography, natural philosophy, psychology, plane geometry, and elementary algebra. Her papers include pages and booklets from a number of teacher exams. Generally, each subject matter exam seems to have 10 questions, with a requirement to answer eight of the ten. Here is a sampling of questions from those exam pages:

August 14, 15, 1913 Examination No. 1 GEOGRAPHY

1—Describe Alaska as to location, size, climate, products, and cities.

5—Why does the United States import more goods from Central than from South Africa?

8—Compare the Trans-Siberian Railway with the Great Northern, as to length, number of people served, and importance as a commercial route.

10—Draw an outline map of North Dakota, and locate the wheat section, corn region, the greatest dairy region, and the mining region.

December 1913, ELEMENTARY AGRICULTURE

1—Name two breeds of the dairy purpose, two of the beef purpose, and one of the dual purpose.

4—Define the following: nodulus, humus, flax-wilt, silage, seed bed, rust

8—Explain what is meant by crop rotation, and by diversifying.

Reading Monday July 28, 1924, 4:15-5:45 p.m.  [probably Minnesota] 

Answer any eight. 

III. A seventh grade history class is to make an oral report upon a topic. Select a topic that would be likely to come up in this work, and show how you would make the assignment so as to motivate the reading. State one reason why such an assignment is a means of getting results in silent reading.

VI. Why is it desirable to use a basic text in teaching reading in the lower grades? State briefly five things you would have in mind in selecting a basic reader for your first grade.

IX. Of what value is a reading table in a rural school? What should be found on this table for lower grades? For intermediate grades? For upper grades? 

Physics: Wednesday, July 30, 1924, 10:15-12:00 M [probably Minnesota]

Answer eight.

I—Define gravity, mass, specific heat, visual angle, resonance.

IV—A ball is fired vertically with an initial velocity of 500 meters per second. Neglecting the resistance of the air, to what height will it rise, what is its acceleration, and in what time will it return to earth?

General History, July 30, 1924, 2:45-4:15 P.M. [probably Minnesota]

Answer any five.

III- How did any ten of the following earn their places in the pages of history?

Nebuchadnezzar

Socrates

Solon

Caesar

Gracchi

Luther

Sulla

Cavour

Cromwell

Moses

Bonar Law

Warren G. Harding

IV. Discuss the work of the following individuals under three heads: object, efforts, and results.

Peter the Great

Frederick the Great

Napoleon Bonaparte 

Lena Turck graduated from St. Cloud Normal School in 1892, after attending for a total of 60 weeks. She was teaching in Minnesota by 1893, in some one-room school with students of all ages. From 1906 to about 1914, Lena taught in North Dakota. The earliest contract in her records shows her teaching in 1906 in in Noonan School District No. 18. The contract, dated April 23, showed a salary of $45 per month for four months. That seems like a strange period of time, but North Dakota sometimes had split sessions for school years. 

“Most school terms ran between four months and six months. Some of the terms were split. For example, half of the term might be in the late fall after harvest had been completed and the other half in the early spring before planting began. In a split term, no classes were held during the cold winter months.”[2]

A four-month term beginning in April seems unusual, as if it would overlap the planting season. Perhaps the contract was not signed until school had begun. Or perhaps the older children simply did not attend school after the ground thawed and warmed enough for planting. 

“When North Dakota became a state in 1889, it had about 1,400 schools. Of these schools, most were ungraded, which means that students were not placed in grades. Instead, each student worked at his or her own level. Many children did not attend school regularly because of work at home. When they returned after being absent for a time, they continued their studies where they had left off. A 16-year-old might be reading out of the same book as a 9-year-old. In the early pioneer days, the majority of the country schools were ungraded.”[3]

The next contract in Lena’s records is dated September 17, 1906. This contract was for six months, with a salary of $50 a month, and was in a different district: School District No. 3, in Creel Township in Ramsey County. 

Ramsey County, located west of Grand Forks, is about 350 miles from Lena’s home in Minnesota. The county seat is Devil’s Lake, named after the largest lake in the county. Creel Township is located on the shore of Devil’s Lake, and Noonan Township is several miles north of it. The 1884 “Historical Atlas of North Dakota” describes the lake:

“Minnewaukan, or Devils Lake, has a length in a right line east-southeast and west-northwest, of thirty-two miles, but measured along the center of its channel it stretches out to a length of about forty-five miles. The water of this lake resembles that of the ocean, holding in solution chloride of sodium, magnesium, sulphate and carbonate of soda and lime, The lake abounds in splendid fish of the pike family, known as pickerel weighing from a few pounds to thirty pounds each. Bathing in this lake is highly recommended for nervous and rheumatic diseases.

“The water, which is exceedingly clear, varies greatly in depth, the deepest places reaching 100 feet or more. A broad and beautiful sandy beach extends along the margin in many localities, and in places a person can wade to a distance of fifty yards from shore without getting beyond depth.”[4]

Why would Lena move 350 miles to North Dakota to teach? Family connection is the likely answer. Her mother’s brother, Francis or Frank Rütten, had moved their family to Ramsey County, North Dakota in 1883. They homesteaded in Ramsey County, and became leading citizens. The large Rutten family in North Dakota lived near Crary, so they could have invited Lena to teach there. 

The post office was at the Rutten house, and the first Catholic church services were held there as well, with the people who could not fit inside the house standing outside and listening through the open windows. Frank[5] donated the land for the first church building and helped to raise the money to build it.[6] John Henry Rutten, Sr., usually known as Hank Rutten, was one of the sons of the family, about five years younger than Lena. Hank Rutten farmed in the county his whole life, until he died in 1967 at the age of 89. 

Lena taught in Ramsey County, moving from school to school, until 1914. Contracts show various lengths of school terms—four months, six months, seven months, even nine months: 

  • Ramsey County, ND, Noonan School District No. 18 – for four months, beginning 4/23/1906 — $45/month
  • Ramsey County, ND, Creel School District No. 3, 9/17/1906 – for school District No. 22 for six months, beginning on 9/17/1906 — $50/month
  • Ramsey County, ND, Noonan School District No. 18 – for seven months, beginning March 13, 1907 — $50/month
  • Ramsey County, ND, Creel School District No. 22 – six months, beginning 9/30/1907 — $50/month
  • Ramsey County, ND, Noonan School District No. 18 – seven months, beginning 3/16/1908– $50/month
  • Ramsey County, ND, Creel School District No. 22, 9/17/1906  for 6 1/4 months, beginning on 9/28/1908 — $50/month  “PROVIDED FURTHER that said Miss Turck is to receive $5.00 for janitorial work during the winter months—school house to be left clean at the end of term.”
  • Ramsey County, ND, Noonan School District No. 18 – eight months, beginning 3/22/1909 — $50/month
  • Ramsey County, ND, Newbre School District No. 26 – 5 months, beginning 11/1/1909 — $55/month Provided further, that said Lena Turk is to do the janitor work or cause same to be done at her own expense. 
  • Ramsey County, ND, Noonan School District No. 18 – seven months, beginning 3/21/1910 — $50/month
  • Ramsey County, ND, Creel School District No. 22, 10/3/1910 for 9 months, beginning on 10/3/1910 — $60/month  “PROVIDED FURTHER that said Miss Turck is to do all janitor work or hire same done.
  • Ramsey County, ND, Creel School District No. 22, 9/4/1911 for 9 months, beginning 9/4/1911 — $60. provided further that said Miss Turck is to do all necessary janitor work.
  • Ramsey County, ND, Noonan School District No. 18 – four months, beginning 5/20/1912 — $60/month
  • Ramsey County, ND, Creel School District No. 22, 9/9/1912 – nine months, beginning 9/9/1912; provided further that said Miss Turck is to do all necessary jan. work
  • Ramsey County, ND, Noonan School District No. 18 – four months, beginning 5/19/1913 — $65/month
  • Ramsey County, ND, Creel School District No. 22, 9/22/1913 – nine months, beginning 9/22/1913 — $60/month, provided further that said Lena Turck is to do all necessary janitor work. 

Except for the first, all contracts have Duties of Teachers printed on the back. All require the teaching of 

“orthography, reading, spelling, writing, arithmetic, language lessons, English grammar, geography, United States history, civil government, physiology and hygiene, giving special instruction concerning the nature of alcoholic drinks and other narcotics and their effect upon the human system … All pupils … below the high school and above the third year of school work … shall receive instruction in this subject every year from text books adapted to grade in the hands of pupils for not less than four lessons per week for ten weeks of each schoolyear. …[P]upils in the lower three primary school years shall each year be instructed orally in the subject for not less than three lessons per week for ten weeks of each school year by teachers using text books adapted to grade for such instruction as a guide or standard. …”

That’s a lot of material to know and teach, for pupils of all ages and levels. While Lena was certified, as many as half of the teachers in the early years of North Dakota statehood were not. Some were even younger than their oldest students.[7]

The emphasis on teaching about “alcoholic drinks and other narcotics” is consistent with North Dakota’s commitment to prohibition. The state had a strong Women’s Christian Temperance Union from very early days, and prohibition was a part of the first state constitution.[8] Temperance crusaders in North Dakota also strongly supported a women’s right to vote. They won in 1917, with women gaining the right to vote in North Dakota three years ahead of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote across the United States. 

Besides instruction, teachers had to keep students and schools in good order. That meant building a fire in the stove in the morning, keeping the school and outhouse clean, and maintaining discipline in the classroom. With no one else in the school, the teacher kept all student and school records and reported to the local school board and, when required, to the county and state. A strict code of conduct often required that teachers be single, and forbade smoking, drinking alcohol, or dancing.  

Country school teachers boarded with families near their schools. Sometimes that was a good fit, sometimes not. In some school districts, a teacher might board with the same family for the entire school year, but often they moved from family to family during the year.

Gertrude Black La Due was a Minnesota school teacher in the early 1900s. Born in 1882, she seems to have begun teaching in 1901. She later became a Methodist minister, married, and had three children. Some of her early journals remain at the Minnesota Historical Society. The entry for December 1, 1901 shows that she paid eight dollars for board, though it does not specify the period of time that the payment covered. The entry for the first day of school in 1902 gives some idea of what teaching was like: 

“Monday September 1st – 1902

“I went to the school house early. Swept. Had 18 pupils. They have not had training previously in their work so it is tedious. Some can not understand English. I hardly knew how t begin with them. Got along well tho. Mr. Pfiefer came to see me. Will pay me extra for teaching his children. Evening I wrote to Emma and Hanna Shirley. Am keeping close to Jesus.”[9]

La Due taught in Grygla, close enough to her family home so that she could return there on weekends and summers. But where did teachers go when they taught, and boarded, far from home? 

Though we have no records from Lena, she could have returned from North Dakota to Minnesota by train. Back then, trains were a major mode of passenger transportation. The St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway Company, which later became the Great Northern Railroad. reached Devil’s Lake, North Dakota in 1885.[10]  While the distance was too great for weekend excursions, she might have gone home during summers or even during a long winter break in the school year. 

In some summers, she took more university courses. The 1905 North Dakota Teaching Certificate has an endorsement on the back showing that she spent six weeks in University Summer School and passed examination of three subjects. In Minnesota, she had Minnesota Reading Circle Certificates for 1917 and 1923. While the certificate says it is “offered for credit towards teacher’s certificate,” she was already a long-certified teacher by then. For her, this was some part of continuing education. 

Before and after her teaching years in North Dakota, Lena taught in Minnesota, mostly near home in Meeker County and Stearns County, and possibly for some time in Polk County. Meeker County is home, and Stearns County is next to Meeker, but Polk County is in northwestern Minnesota, adjacent to the North Dakota border. Lena passed the state teacher examination in Polk County in February 1914, giving her a certificate to teach in Minnesota for five years. 

Lena’s papers include no contracts from Minnesota schools, but documents from the State of Minnesota Teachers Insurance and Retirement Fund shows that she taught in Luxemburg MN District 134 in 1893 and 1894 (Stearns County), and in Meeker County in 1891, 1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1905, and 1915. She may have taught in Minnesota past 1915, but probably not past 1920. 

At some point, she taught in a school in Kingston township, the township bordering Forest City. She lived on the farm at that time, and walked miles to the school each day. Maybe that was one of her final years of teaching, after she returned from North Dakota, but we have no records to confirm this guess. 

A State of Minnesota Teachers Insurance and Retirement Fund certificate of membership dated 8/15/1917 says that she needs to teach two more years before being able to retire. A later certificate of membership shows credit for 18 years of teaching in MN and 7 6/7 years outside of MN. This certificate is dated 8/27/1919 and says all assessments have been paid and “the holder of this certificate shall be entitled to retire on the twenty-five year plan when she has taught NO years more in Minnesota.” Retirement was a substantial benefit, paying $500 per year in 1921.[11]

The 1920 report of the Minnesota State Board of Education lists Lena Turck as one of the teachers who retired in 1919. Retiring at age 46, even after 25 years of teaching, seems early by today’s standards.  That age might not have been so young back then. The life expectancy for someone born in 1873 was less than 45 years.[12] Lena Turck beat the odds, living to the ripe old age of 90. 

Lena probably returned to the family farm during the final illness of her mother. Anna Turck died in 1914 at the age of 63.  

Lena spent the second half of her life mostly on the farm with her brother, Louis Peter, whom every knew as L.P. He was the second-youngest in the family. Born in 1891, he was 18 years younger than Lena, and still a baby when she left home to teach. Henry was the youngest brother, born in 1893.

In 1915, their father, Jacob Turck, sold the family farm to Lena and L.P. and Henry. 

Henry Turck said that his father had mortgaged the farm and nearly lost it. Lena’s papers include numerous mortgages made by Jacob Turck over the years. Since her brothers had lived their entire lives on the farm, they probably had little cash of their own. Lena may have had savings from teaching. In any event, she took a strong part in managing the farm. 

In 1916, Jacob Turck remarried, to the great disapproval of his children. They disapproved of the way that he handled the land, mortgaging it repeatedly and leaving them to pay off the mortgages after they bought the farm from him. They disapproved of the way he had had treated Anna, whom Henry called their “sweet little mother.” They disapproved of his new wife, and thought the speed of his remarriage was one more way of disrespecting their mother. Jacob Turck’s second wife died before he did, and he may have married a third time, perhaps to a woman in Wisconsin. When Jacob Turck died, in 1931 at the age of 76, he was listed as widowed and as a resident of Forest City. 

In 1920, Lena and L.P. and Henry bought the next farm to the east, which had belonged to their uncle, Philip Turck. 

In 1921, Henry Turck married Mary McCoy. Henry and Mary Turck remained on the farm where they had all grown up, and L.P. and Lena Turck moved to the former Philip Turck farm. The two families lived side by side during the rest of their lives. 

L.P. was a little strange, so Lena probably helped keep him on an even keel and smooth relations with the rest of the community. When L.P. was a youngster, he was already “different.” Henry had to start school early, because the teacher needed his help to keep L.P. from hiding under his desk. 

L.P. didn’t have much use for education. Henry said he learned to read and write and cipher and that was all. He had a high regard for education and deeply regretted being unable to have a good education. At that time, however, mandatory attendance laws applied to children between the ages of eight and sixteen, and required only 12 weeks of attendance during the year, though most schools were in session for longer periods of time. Farm boys were excused from school for planting and harvest time. The 1910 report of the state school superintendent noted that, “Approximately 75 percent of the pupils entering rural schools drop out by the time they reach the sixth year of their studies.” 

Both Lena and Mary McCoy were school teachers. In Henry and Mary Turck’s household, Mary was the bookkeeper, though decision making was shared. It seems likely that Lena was the bookkeeper and possibly the senior partner in decision-making in the farming business that she and her brother shared. She was not only better-educated, but also quite a bit older than L.P. 

The two Turck families—Henry and Mary and their children on the west farm, Lena and L.P. on the east farm—remained close through the years. When Mary needed a cup of flour or sugar, she would tie a note to the dog’s collar and send him over to Lena, who would send back the sugar or flour in the same way. 

When Howard was a boy, L.P. and Lena took him along to Litchfield on Friday nights. That was the night that stores stayed open late, and many people went into town. Howard and L.P. went to the movies to see Tom Mix, while Lena sat in the Model A and watched the world go by. 

Back on the farms, the traditional division of income seems to have prevailed. That is, most of the farm income is attributed to the man, with the woman claiming egg money for the chickens she tended. And did she tend chickens! Egg receipts from the time show 80 or 90 dozen eggs, which would mean hundreds of laying hens. 

Though she took care of the chickens, she did not particularly like them. She called them “white bleachers,” which may have been the substitute for a swear word. (“Son of a biscuit!” was another substitution that I heard a lot, growing up.) 

The Turck papers from those years also include records of crops and livestock sold, in the name of Louis Turck or L.P. Turck. All of the bills, receipts, and financial records use Louis or L.P. Turck as his name. The two exceptions: mortgages name both L.P. and Lena Turck, and some tax receipts show her as the person paying the real estate tax. All of the egg receipts are all in the name of L. Turck, not L.P.  

While Lena stopped teaching, she did not retire from public life. On the contrary: she remained both interested and involved in political matters, and especially in education. She served on the school board for the one-room Forest City school located across the highway from her farm. 

Dorothy Pennertz remembered her visits to the school. Lena brought her dogs with her, right into the school, to the delight of the students and the chagrin of the teacher. She quizzed the teacher and students, and put them through their paces. She could get away with all that, could do anything she pleased, because she was on the school board. 

The school across the road from the farm was District 64, at least in later years. Lena Turck’s papers, however, include financial records from District 2. They have various dates, from 1930 to 1938. The receipts are for school expenses, ranging from $2.75 for library paste and ink in 1930 to a $90 monthly teacher salary payment in 1938. 

Eventually, Lena ran for county superintendent of schools. She was the first woman to run for that position in Meeker County. She lost the election, probably because she was a woman. Or maybe there were other reasons. She had strong beliefs on morality and did not hesitate to tell people when she thought they were in the wrong. One example: she thought that playing cards were the devil’s playthings. Card games were a popular form of recreation, so her judgmental attitude could have cost her votes. 

Lena’s interest in political and civic life may have been sparked by the women’s suffrage and temperance movements in North Dakota and Minnesota. Both states had strong women’s organizations and the two issues were frequently joined together. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union in North Dakota was a major advocate for women’s suffrage. North Dakota women won the right to vote in 1917. 

Minnesota women were involved in the struggle for suffrage from the time of statehood in 1858, pushing for an amendment to the state constitution to give women the right to vote. In 1870, three years before Lena was born, Governor Horace Austin vetoed a suffrage bill before it could go to the voters. In 1875, the Minnesota legislature gave women the right to vote in school elections, but only in school elections. In 1877, the Minnesota House and Senate passed a bill to amend the constitution to allow women to vote on the “whiskey questions.” That time, the amendment went to the public for a vote, and male voters defeated it. In 1898, a constitutional amendment allowing women to vote for and serve on library boards passed by a wide margin. 

Despite giving women votes on school and library matters, the legislature voted down bills for women’s suffrage legislature in 1893, 1911, 1913, and 1915.[13]

In 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. Minnesota was the 15th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, which became part of the U.S. Constitution in 1920. Finally, women in Minnesota and across the country could vote. 

Lena Turck lived through first wave feminism and the struggle for suffrage, though those battles took place far from the farm. She was already 46 years old when women won the right to vote. Her independence, her stern morality, and her involvement in politics make her sound like those first wave feminists of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, fighting to close the saloons and open the voting booths to women.  

Lena voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR brought the WPA during the Depression, so that people could earn a little cash money. Henry graded roads for the WPA, working to keep the farms solvent during those tough times. FDR also brought the REA, so farmers could get electricity. Howard remembered that when electricity arrived at the farms, the cows at the Henry Turck farm were scared by the lights in the barn. But, he said, the cows at L.P.’s farm paid no attention to the lights, because they had already seen lots of crazy goings on. 

Lena faithfully listened to Father Charles Coughlin on the radio. He was a popular radio personality throughout the 1930s, until his anti-Semitic and pro-fascist rants got him kicked off the radio airwaves. 

In the early 1930s, Coughlin denounced the Ku Klux Klan and strongly supported Roosevelt and the New Deal. He was stridently anti-Communist, which fit in well with Catholic dogma. But by 1936, he had turned against Roosevelt, and his broadcast became virulently anti-Semitic.  

Did Lena like Coughlin because of his early years, when his message was pro-Roosevelt and also anti-capitalist and anti-banker and pro-labor? Was she swept along by his demagoguery, accepting into his later anti-Semitic rants? Or did she, like Chicago’s Cardinal Mundelein, eventually reject Coughlin and his poison? 

When World War II came along, Lena insisted that Henry and Mary Turck’s son, Howard, leave the university and return home to farm. She would not hear any nonsense about either continuing his studies or enlisting in the army—he was needed at home, and she was going to make sure he came home. He did. 

Howard was classified as a worker essential to the war effort and therefore exempt from the draft. He had wanted to leave the farm, to have a different kind of career and life. In later years, he said that Lena was the one who made him a farmer, tied him to the land whether he wanted it or not. 

When the war ended and soldiers came home, farm workers were no longer in short supply. Howard Turck’s deferment ended in 1946. Lena tried hard to get him a continuing deferment, writing to Congressman Harold Knutson, but to no avail. In a letter dated March 16, 1946, Congressman Knutson told her:

“I don’t know how much I am going to be able to do to secure a further deferment for Howard, but am writing Col. Nelson, State Director of Selective Service at St. Paul today, as per enclosed copy.

“It is most unfortunate that the Government continues to take boys off our farms. Now that the war is over there should be no drafting of farm boys. As a matter of fact, they badly overdid that during the war and as a result we are having farm sales all over the country.

“When we have a report from Col. Nelson I will advise you.

“With personal regards, I am,

Yours sincerely,

Harold Knutson.”

Despite Lena’s best efforts, Howard was drafted and went off to Korea. He returned in November, 1947, back to farming, and soon starting a family of his own. I was the first child born to Howard and Millie (Erpelding) Turck in 1950. 

Before Howard and Millie were married, Howard went to town with L.P. After Howard returned from Korea and began courting Millie, LP went alone. By then Lena’s memory was failing and she was sliding into dementia.  When L.P. went to town, Mary Turck would sit with Lena, patiently listening to her, as Lena told the same stories, and asked the same questions, over and over again. She especially liked to talk about the cows. On Saturday mornings, Howard would ask his mother, “How many times did she milk the cows last night?”  

I remember Aunt Lena as a spry, little old lady with long, silky, white hair coiled and pinned into a bun, a faded, flowered house dress, bright blue eyes, and a sharp tongue. 

I remember L.P. as always funny and always a bit strange. Lena, Henry, and Mary were all members of St. Gertrude’s Catholic Church. L.P. wouldn’t go to church and was not a member, although he insisted that he was a Catholic: he just didn’t need priests and church. He was so much a Catholic that, in later years, he took up a garden hose and chased visiting Jehovah’s Witnesses away. 

L.P. said he hung his head out of the bed first thing in the morning to get the wrinkles out of his brain. He had a lot of strange ways, but he was always good to us. 

I remember Buddy and Lady, Lena and L.P.’s two beautiful collies and their house full of cats, a sharp contrast to our house full of children, where cats and dogs were kept strictly outside. We children were not allowed to pester Aunt Lena and L.P., not allowed to cross the fields to  their house, so we saw them infrequently. 

Lena Turck with dogs

They came to our house for Christmas Eve, when we all gathered in the living room to await the appearance of Santa Claus. They came, too, for some of the big Sunday dinners, and for the Fourth of July picnic. I do not remember anything that Aunt Lena said, though surely she spoke to me at some point. 

By 1960, Lena’s memory loss had progressed to the point that Howard was appointed her legal guardian. She grew too frail to stay on the farm, and moved into a nursing home. Lena died in a nursing home in 1963. 

I wonder who she was inside her own mind: school teacher or spinster, independent woman or unmarried sister and dutiful family caretaker? Did she mourn her teaching career when she came home to the farm? Or did she prefer dawn to dusk farm work and her own house to the also-hard life of an itinerant country schoolteacher?

After her death, I learned Aunt Lena’s full name: Mary Magdalena. Working on family history years later, I discovered women named Magdalena or Mary Magdalena in every generation. 

Mary Magdalene, their namesake, traveled with Jesus, helped to support him and the apostles, and was a witness to the crucifixion and burial. She is mentioned 12 times in the Gospels, more than most of the apostles. She must have been both independent and wealthy to lend support to the motley crew around Jesus. 

Like many strong and independent women, Mary Magdalene ran into trouble with the patriarchs. Way back in 581, Pope Gregory I preached a series of sermons in which he identified Mary Magdalene with the fallen woman of scripture, perhaps a prostitute, certainly sinful. That became the official line, all the way through the centuries until 1969, when scholarship finally prevailed and separated the two women’s stories again.  

I like to think that Aunt Lena and the other Magdalena women in the Turck and Rütten families over the generations were strong and independent like Mary Magdalene. I hope they felt some of that strength as they built lives and families and farms alongside their fathers and brothers and husbands. 

I inherited my Aunt Lena’s gold watch, and had it engraved with her full name, Mary Magdalena. I treasured Aunt Lena’s gold watch for years, until my Chicago apartment was robbed. The burglar took Aunt Lena’s gold watch and my two Siamese cats. Maybe more, but those were the only things of value.

Though the watch is long gone, Aunt Lena’s memory lives on: an independent woman, a teacher, a political pioneer, a challenge, a puzzle, an inspiration. 


[1] St. Cloud State Names (1869-Present) St. Cloud State University <https://www.stcloudstate.edu/library/archives/histories/structure/names.aspx> (consulted 7/17/2022)

[2] Part 3: North Dakota Pioneers, Section 10: Schools. From 4th Grade Curriculum. https://www.ndstudies.gov/gr4/early-settlement-north-dakota/part-3-north-dakota-pioneers/section-10-schools I (Consulted 7/16/2022) 

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Excerpt From Andreas’ “1884 Historical Atlas of Dakota.” https://www.co.ramsey.nd.us/180/1884-Historical-Atlas (Consulted 7/19/2022). Note: during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, the lake shrank considerably. In more recent years, it has expanded again and has been a major factor in destructive flooding. For fascinating geological history bringing the story up to the 21st century, see “Runaway Devil’s Lake” by Douglas Larson in The American Scientist, January/February 2012 (Volume 100, Number 1, page 46). https://www.americanscientist.org/article/runaway-devils-lake (Consulted 7/19/2022)

[5] Ludwig Rutten family history (unpublished). Frank’s birth name was Franz Michael Hubert Rutten, born in Wehr, Region Heinsberg, Government seat in Aachen. He was Anna Rutten Turck’s half-brother. His mother died, and Anna was the first-born child of Ludwig Rutten’s second wife, Anna.

[6] Ludwig Rutten family history (unpublished). 

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kautzman, Zach. The Prairie Fire Extinguished: Prohibition in Territorial and Early Statehood North Dakota, 1880-1900. (Middle Tennessee State University ProQuest Dissertations Publishing,  2018. 10838326.)

https://www.proquest.com/openview/ef7bd5fedd9c4770a251822f471a0770/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750 (Consulted 7/17/2022) 

[9] Gertrude Black La Due diaries, 1900 – March 1906. 6 volumes. Minnesota Historical Society. (Consulted 5/4/2022) 

[10] Great Northern Railway Historical Society https://www.gnrhs.org/gn_history.php (Consulted, 7/17/2022)

[11] Laws of Minnesota existing for the Public School System including the State Teachers Colleges and the University of Minnesota. Prepared under the Direction of Clifford L. Hilton, Attorney General, and James M. McConnell, Commissioner of Education – 1921. Section 417. 

[12] Statista. “Life expectancy (from birth) in the United States, from 1860 to 2020*” <https://www.statista.com/statistics/1040079/life-expectancy-united-states-all-time/&gt; (Consulted 7/19/2022) 

[13] Jess Bellville. “Explore a Timeline of Women’s Suffrage Efforts in Minnesota.” TPT Originals, April 7, 2020. https://www.tptoriginals.org/explore-a-timeline-of-womens-suffrage-efforts-in-minnesota/ (Consulted 7/23/2022)

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