Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Bill Knutz Orchestra

      Bill Knutz and his bands supplied the Beadle County, South Dakota area with dance music for more than 20 years.  The first band, “Bill Knutz and His Harmonians,” was documented as early as the summer of 1934[1], and consisted of Bill playing saxophone, his brothers Howard on bass fiddle and Richard on drums, Raymond Christensen on fiddle and trumpet, and Ray’s beautiful sister Lillian, on piano.  Lillian would eventually become Bill’s wife.  Ray and Lillian’s brother Clarence, who played clarinet, joined them sometimes as well.  Bill’s mother, Elvirta Knutz, handled their calendar for them.

     Howard and Richard Knutz both eventually left for the west coast, and Raymond went off to college, so Bill reformed the band around himself and Lillian, with various other local musicians.  The new band was called “Bill Knutz and His Orchestra,” and they continued to play at barn dances as well as regular venues.[2]

     His daughter, Betty, described the dances:  “Most barn dances were usually quite crowded!  Depending on the popularity of the bands, but most of them took turns at different places each week.  The crowds were ordinarily quite sizable since most everyone did bring their kids, baby sitters and grandparents.  Everybody came!  Teenagers came with their parents to learn to dance.  Other kids depending on their ages brought their toys, pillows, etc., whatever they wanted to play with.  And then they found a corner to fall asleep in!  Some of those little guys were pretty good dancers, too!”[3]  During the years of the Great Depression, barn dances were affordable ways to have some fun.

     Occasionally, younger members of the family would get a chance to showcase their own musical talents.  Bill’s younger sister Dorothy, and his daughters Betty and June would sometimes join the band to sing.[4]

     Nearly 120 tunes are among the several set lists played by the band.  When, exactly, Bill Knutz and His Orchestra stopped playing isn’t clear, but one of the songs on that list was from 1953, making their run at least 20 years.

[1] See newspaper ad at top left, from the ad for the dance at Honrath’s barn, from the Daily Plainsman (Huron, South Dakota) 16 August 1934, pg. 5
[2] The newspaper ad for Albert Baum’s barn dance was from the Daily Plainsman of 17 June 1937.  The ad for the VFW Club was from the Daily Plainsman of 31 Dec 1948, pg. 5.
[3] Interview with Bill and Lillian’s daughter Betty, about 2002.
[4] Betty also noted that her sister June played Hawaiian guitar and sang second soprano, while Betty had a Spanish guitar and sang Alto.  Bill’s sister Dorothy sang soprano.  The three girls would get together and practice songs.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Climbing the Photograph Mountain

Here I sit, labeling old photos.  Again.  I feel like I will grow old and feeble, right here, pen in hand. I have a large box of them, but considering that I started out with at least 5 large boxes of them, I will not complain.  In the overall scheme of things, I am nearly done.

All of these photos came from my grandmother's massive photo collection, and that of my mother's as well (the apple didn't fall far from the tree...)  Some have been put into pages, some have been somewhat sorted and stuffed into envelopes, and many are loose.

Over the years, I've become the owner of photos featuring faces I don't recognize, and always thought it was a pity that the subject in the photo would remain a mystery, for all of posterity.

As I started going through this mountain of pictures, I noticed a common trend.  They either had no identification on the back, or would have something written like "Me and Dad."  Worse yet, if Grandma had made copies for someone, she would write *their* name on the back.  All this is fine if everyone already recognizes who is in the photo, but one day I had the realization that if I drop dead tomorrow, there are very few people left who could identify these images. So, I stacked up the boxes, took a deep breath, and started plugging away.

Part way through, I realized that I wasn't being very complete.  My goal was to enable my descendants to not only know the names of the people, but the circumstances of the photo.  I wanted them to know the people who came before.  So I made a list of things I thought would be helpful when labeling.

1) Use full names.  "Mom," "Kevin," etc. won't necessarily help your descendants years from now.
2) Date the photos, if possible, or at least a rough guess ("1987?")
3) Identify the location ("Phoenix, AZ").  Also, with the really old photos, I often wondered whose beautiful home that was in the background, especially if I noticed family heirlooms, so now I note that as well if I can.
4) Note if there was a particular event that inspired the photo ("Aunt June's visit to South Dakota")
5) Include relationships.  I realized while identifying the two older ladies in one photo, that my descendants might recognize one name as their great grandmother, but would not know that the other woman was her sister.

In short, I am trying to inscribe these photos as if I'm describing them to a stranger - because at some point in the future, I very well may be.  Fifty years from now, the person looking at it may have no idea they're looking at an ancestor.  Also, don't assume pictures from the same event are going to stay together.  Label each as if it were a "stand-alone" photo, because some day it might me.

I'll be the first to admit that all this is a little overwhelming.  But if I don't do it, it isn't going to happen.  My kids don't recognize most of these people, so once I'm gone, these photos will be essentially worthless to my family.  And I don't want any of these precious people in the photographs to be forgotten.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Cap Goes Home

     For the last four years, I've been the keeper of something special - the cap of Lieutenant Joseph E. Leonard of Tipp City, Ohio.  Joe was a World War II pilot in the 417th Night Fighter Squadron.  He and the other member of that two-man crew, Radar Observer Ray Christensen, who was my great-uncle, lost their lives in a battle with German Luftwaffe over the Tyrrhenian Sea.


     There are "family history angels" everywhere - people who find old Bibles, photos, or other family memorabilia in antique stores or yard sales.  They snatch up these treasures and reunite them with their families.  One such angel was a man named David, who found the cap in New Jersey. Surprisingly, Joe's name and serial number were inside.  Unfortunately, David was unable to locate descendants of the Leonard family.  With Joe's close ties to my great-uncle, well, David gave me the cap to take care of in the interim.

Joe Leonard's cap

Inside the sweatband

   From time to time, I would unwrap the cap from its packing, look at it, touch it, and imagine Joe - the young soldier who died with my uncle - wearing it.  I did more research on Joe, and continued to look for his modern-day family, unsuccessfully.

Lt. Joe Leonard

     And every so often, I'd check family trees, looking for someone who had Joe in their tree.  And every time, I would come up empty-handed.  But as I promised David when he sent me the cap, I kept trying.


     A couple of weeks ago, I finally rounded up all the letters, photos, documents and data that I had been collecting on my great-uncle Ray, and decided to sit down and work on writing that story of his short life, and the fascinating years he spent in the U.S. Army Air Force.  I thought again about that fresh-faced young man, the fearless pilot that Ray trusted with his life, and vice-versa.  I climbed to the top of the closet and pulled out the box containing the cap, and once again took it out, looked it over, and imagined the young lieutenant wearing it, dressed sharply in his crisp uniform.  I tried again - and finally, I found a tree that listed Joe, his parents and siblings!  Several emails and a phone call later, I have found the proper home for Joe's cap.  I will re-pack it, and take it to the post office next week, and after 70+ years, the cap will finally be in the right place, at home.

And it feels good.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Day in the Life of a WWII Night Fighter

In a letter dated Sept. 9, 1943, my great-uncle Ray Christensen gives a description of his work schedule in the 417th Night Fighter Squadron, at the time stationed in Algeria, north Africa.

Bristol Beaufighters in flight

"At present I'm on the alert.  We spend 24 hours all dressed and ready to go play with the boys if they get nosey.  [note: they had German planes attempting to fly over] Then we have 24 hours off and then 24 hours on call for big action.  It's lovely country to fly in, especially at night.  It gets so dark you can't even see the wing tips, even though the stars do shine.  Imagine little "Jerry" up there not being able to see and expecting to get a pantfull of hot lead any minute.  No wonder flyers haven't got any nerves left  after a war.  It's good fun though I wouldn't trade for any other branch of the service.  What's worse than Germans is trying to come back over the mountains and land with clouds and fog clear down to the ground.  That's when I've really got work to do.  [note: Ray was a radar operator in a two-man crew] Between the two of us we usually make it.  It's a nice feeling to feel those wheels bump on the ground and hang there."

     Yes, I'll bet it was!

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Dust Storm of November, 1933

As a child, I recall my grandparents talking about the dust storms of the "Dirty Thirties," the air being so dark with blowing dirt that Grandpa could not see the house from the barn.  My grandma would tell of stuffing  rags, or anything else she could find, around the bottoms of the doors to minimize the amount of silt blowing in.  One of these terrible dust storms blew into eastern South Dakota in November of 1933, dominating the news coverage in the area for days afterward.

The following photo was taken November 12 in Huron, at 11:50 a.m.  It looks more like midnight than noon...

Excerpts from the local newspaper tell of the difficulties this storm caused:

1933, Nov. 15
The Evening Huronite

Last Sunday's dust storm brought with it a real problem for wool growers.
The wool of sheep which were out in the storm is packed solid with dirt, according to A. D. Randall, president of the Beadle County Wool Growers association.
How to get the dirt out of the wool is a problem which has not yet been solved, Mr. Randall said.

The storm pushed eastward from Beadle County into Kingsbury County -

1933, Nov. 15
The Evening Huronite, Pg. 2

De Smet, Nov. 15 (Special)  De Smet was digging out of the dust today, with a roof torn from the Sanitary market building as its worst damage and a pyramid of thistles almost to the top of the display windows of the J. C. Penney company store the most freakish effects of the wind.
The roof that was lifted from the market building cleared the front wall and crashed in the street beyond the sidewalk, damaging neither the light post nor windows of buildings.  The thistles were piled as if by hand converging to the center of the fifty foot front of the building, blocking both doorways.
Over Kingsbury county the dust storm raged severely, with many bare fields to feed it.

And it continued into Brookings County -

1933, November 16
The Evening Huronite, Pg. 2

The wind Sunday attained a velocity of 56 miles an hour in Brookings and carried the enormous amount of 125,000 tons of dirt per cubic mile, according to J. G. Hutton, State college agronomist.
The outstanding feature of the storm was the amount of dust which accompanied it.  From the barren fields and plowed lands the wind picked up the soil and while there were no clouds in the sky, when the wind was at its height it was impossible to see a house across the street and the lights were needed within hours.  This was in town where the buildings partially obstructed the wind while in the open spaces the condition was even worse.
One assistant of the college agronomy department went to the top of the Coughlin campanile and collected samples there, which were fairly large, indicating that a great amount of land was moved, if fairly large particles attained the height of the campanile, 165 feet.

The cost of this particular storm, just in terms of cleanup of homes and businesses, would amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars if wages were paid, according to the previous article.  But, during the Great Depression, few could afford to hire help.  It was disheartening, my grandmother told me; she would just get the house clean and the wind would pick up again.  I can only imagine how relieved everyone was when the dust storms of the '30s became a thing of the past.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Lessons Learned From a Computer Failure

It's what we all dread - turning on the computer, and finding it refuses to boot.  One week ago tomorrow, it happened to me.  My computer has not been declared dead quite yet, but it's been in the shop for 6 days, and they are still trying to resuscitate it.  Thank goodness I have my laptop as a backup, as well as my smart phone, but in this last week I've been glad for some of the preemptive things I've done, and I've learned some lessons on other things I should have done better to prepare for this.

My words of wisdom -

First and foremost, back up your data!  I use Carbonite (no connection, no relationship to declare) but there are numerous services out there.  One thing to be cautious of - some unlimited automatic backup services allow you a certain amount of data, and after you have reached that limit, they throttle your backup speeds.  This has been an issue with my service in the past, and I understand that they no longer to this; but prior to the change, I would find files I had created weeks prior had still not been backed up.  Check your backup periodically to see just how fast your files are being uploaded.  Carbonite has a "control center" that tells you how many files are pending at any given time, and also identifies them by name.

In addition, check various file types to make sure they're being backed up.  By default, my service does not back up movie files (as well as others), so I had to be certain that all those file types were included in the uploads.

Second, do local backups.  Huge external drives are relatively cheap; so much so that I have two of them connected to my computer, one set to back up every Saturday night, and the other every Wednesday night (patting myself on the back for that).  Unfortunately, in the month or so prior to my computer failure, I had unplugged the drives for some reason that escapes me now, and I don't recall ever plugging them back in (kicking myself firmly in the backside for that).  The moral of the story is this: just because you haven't had a computer failure in the past doesn't mean it's not coming, so take it very seriously, as if it was just around the corner.  It might be!

Third, go ahead and have your browser save your passwords, if you wish.  It's convenient.  But remember that even though you might have access to another computer, that computer will not help you with all those passwords.  I have no experience with password managers, and in this day and age of abundant hacking, I am not sure I want all my passwords in one place.  Thank goodness, I keep a recipe card file with my passwords managed the old fashioned way - one card for each website/account, and filed in alphabetical order.  Though it's occasionally been a real pain to make a written note of my passwords, and to update the file every time I've changed a password, it's something I am really, really glad I did now.

Fourth, if you haven't already made that emergency boot disk, take a few minutes and do it now.   Also, if your antivirus program has instructions for making a boot disk, do that as well.  If you have a virus that makes your computer inoperable, having virus definitions easily at hand could be huge in recovering your data.  In my particular case, my boot disk did not help, but had the circumstances been different, I could have backed up those new photos of the grandkids that I'd just unloaded from the camera, instead of hoping Carbonite was fast enough to upload them.  And I could potentially have fixed the problem myself instead of having to pay someone else to do it.

Hopefully in the next day or two, I'll have my computer back, complete with a new and improved hard drive, and all my data intact.  Hopefully.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Reading Glued-in Postcards

It's always a thrill to discover a new photograph, such as the one of this lovely large home, printed as a postcard.   But how frustrating to turn it over and find writing - but due to paper glued on the back, it's impossible to read it. 

I could not even make out the postmark, which was especially frustrating.   My husband had a fantastic idea, which ended up solving the mystery.  All we needed was a bright, LED flashlight - 

The  card was postmarked Melrose, Minn., Oct. 1914, and was addressed to Casper J. Kluthe of Howell, South Dakota, and was from Henry Eikmeier, his brother-in-law.  It reads, "Melrose Oct 30 1914    Will be at Orient next Wednesday Nov 4th   Hope you will meet us
Henry Eikmeier"

Being able to put a date to this card also helped to date photographs from visits of the Eikmeier family to the Kluthe family; prior to being able to read this postcard, I was only able to guesstimate the dates within a few years.  In addition, I can add another date/place to the Eikmeier timeline.

I have a number of old photos and postcards that have been glued into albums, and the unfortunate part is that most of those albums had black paper rather than white, so this tip won't work for every situation.  But in this case, it saved the day.