Today, for the 44th or 45th time (you do the math — I was an English major), Americans woke up with a different president than the one they awakened with the day before. I’ve lived during the terms of 13 of them, about a third, depending on who’s counting. I can actually remember 12 of them; I was 5 when Gen. Dwight Eisenhower took office and 13 when he and Mamie gave the keys to the White House to John and Jackie Kennedy on Jan. 20, 1961.
I don’t remember ever being as surprised at the outcome of a presidential election as I was by this one. All my friends and I, and a couple hundred million more Americans, including Hillary Clinton, expected we were electing our first woman president. As I said last fall, we got up Nov. 9 expecting to get out our finest clothes and get ready to go to a ball. Instead, we got invited to a rodeo. Hang on. It’s gonna be a long wild ride.
I want to tell you a story today because it is a good story and because it might contain a lesson for all of us. Or maybe not. But it’s a story my mother told me many years ago, and one I have not forgotten. Take from it what you will.
In early August 1934, my grandfather, Peter Boehmer, a first generation North Dakota farmer of German heritage, stood alongside a Ramsey County field one morning and saw only stubs of what looked like brown grass where a crop of wheat should have been waiting to be harvested, knowing that because of the third consecutive year of drought on the Great Plains, no wheat would be harvested from that field that fall.
Shaking his head, mumbling to himself, he headed back to the house for dinner and to read the Devils Lake Daily Journal before starting his afternoon chores. There, on the front page was a big headline: “President Roosevelt to visit Devils Lake.” He didn’t say much that afternoon or evening about that, but the next morning at breakfast, he announced to my Grandma Sophia and their brood of kids that they were to scrub up and put their best clothes on, because that afternoon they were going to see the president of the United States.
My mother, 9 years old at the time, said she gasped in surprise when he said those words. Grandpa Peter was a staunch Republican and had never spoken a kind word about FDR during the first year and a half of his first term in office. Times were hard. Farmers were tense, strained, bitter and spent a good bit of time trying to stay one step ahead of the bankers who held the mortgages on most of their farms.
This Roosevelt fellow had campaigned hard in the wheat belt, promising to bring help to this drought-stricken part of America, where the times were just as hard on the main-street merchants and the bankers as they were on farmers. It was just the beginning of the Great Depression, but no one could have imagined how many more years this Depression would last, or what kind of government programs could help them, or what kind of politician could bring those programs to their towns and fields.
Those farmers had to cuss at someone to relieve their frustration, and Roosevelt had campaigned on bringing them help. Help that had not arrived. That’s why there was much surprise around the breakfast table that morning of Aug. 7, 1934, when Grandpa said they were going to see the president. Sophia and the kids knew how the old man felt about this president.
As he stood up from the table, he said “I don’t like this fellow Roosevelt. I didn’t vote for him. But he’s the president of the United States, and by God, if he’s willing to ride a train all the way out here to North Dakota, we’re going to go see him.”
And so that afternoon, Grandma Pete and Grandma Sophia piled their brood — I believe there were six of them at that time — into their beat-up Model A and drove 40 miles on dusty roads to Devils Lake to see the president of the United States.
The newspapers of the day estimated there were 35,000 people gathered in the park in Devils Lake beside the train station, some nearly half a mile away, and my mom said she didn’t remember what he had to say because they couldn’t hear very well, but they got a glimpse of him, and they went home proudly late that afternoon knowing they had been a part of history, and they had actually seen a U.S. president.
As it turned out, what he addressed here in his North Dakota stops was the desire by North Dakotans for the U.S. government to build a dam on the mighty Missouri River, a dam big enough to create a massive lake from which canals would be built to bring water to the drought-stricken fields of North Dakota. The first mention ever of a project later to be called Garrison Diversion.
History records what he said there (he probably said much the same at every whistlestop), and here’s some of that:
“Today there is more of what you might call Government talent, experts from different departments in the Government service, fine people with good knowledge and training. They are getting the views of civilians and State employees and are trying to find a solution of this problem.
“Soon after I get back to Washington many of the studies being made this summer by engineering and agricultural officials will be completed. I expect to confer within the next few weeks with all of the experts. I shall give an opportunity to people who do not agree with their conclusions to come and be heard. As you know, I believe in action.
“On the 4th of March, 1933 (the date of FDR’s inauguration — Inauguration Day was March 4 prior to 1937) we had a parallel. It was not just one section of one State or a few sections in a few States. It was the whole of the United States. The United States was up against it. I asked the people of the United States at that time’ to have courage and faith. They did.
“Today, out here, I do not ask you to have courage and faith. You have it. You have demonstrated that through a good many years. I am asking, however, that you keep up that courage and, especially, keep up the faith.
“If it is possible for Government to improve conditions in this State, Government will do it.
“I assure you the interests of these communities are very close to my heart. I am not going to forget the day I have spent with you.
“We hope that Nature is going to open the Heavens. When I came out on the platform this morning and saw a rather dark cloud, I said to myself, “Maybe it is going to rain.” Well, it did not. All I can say is, I hope to goodness it is going to rain, good and plenty.
“My friends, I want to tell you that I am glad I came here. I want to tell you that I am not going to let up until I can give my best service to solving the problems of North Dakota.”
History also records that we got that dam, and even though it took almost 20 years to complete it, it was started during FDR’s last term in office. We take the Garrison Dam and Lake Sakakwea for granted now. Maybe FDR remembered those 35,000 people who came to Devils Lake. One thing I know for sure was my mother remembered the words of her father on that hot August day in 1934:
“I don’t like him … I didn’t vote for him … but he’s the president of the United States, and we’re going to see him.”
And if he were here today, he’d probably say “Have courage and faith.”