Although I can no longer untangle when I decided to learn more about Ruth and Clell Goebel Gannon, I credit my friend, Ken Rogers of Mandan, N.D., for piquing my interest to the point at which I started collecting their books and admiring their prose and poetry. Ken and the inimitable Kevin Carvell of Mott, N.D., who quite possibly has one of the largest privately owned collections of North Dakota books. Hence I have chosen to research and write about both of the Gannon’s stories, and others of that time, including one Paul Southworth Bliss, the Gannon’s friend and fellow poet (another fellow to whom I’ve devoted an inordinate amount of my time). Certainly, the number of Gannon books on the shelves in my home is revealing as well.
While the editor of the Bismarck Tribune, Ken Rogers frequently wrote about the Gannons. During my years as a librarian, I knew of the Gannon Art Gallery on the Bismarck State College campus as it was located in the same building as the “old” library. (That building was bulldozed some years ago, but the Gannon Gallery is now in the LEA building on the BSC campus).
Vernacular architecture is also of great interest to me, particularly North Dakota buildings using locally available materials. More on that later in this essay. Finally, I am intrigued by the cultural milieu in North Dakota during the years of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl. This stems from my heritage as the child of a child of those hard years in rural Slope County, from my direct experience with so many of that generation who survived that time and who, in a plainspoken manner, told those stories all the rest of their lives.
Clell might be more well known to the general public, but however intertwined their lives were, Ruth led her own remarkable life. Born in Colorado, she was educated in Kansas, North Dakota, Virginia and Mexico City. She arrived in North Dakota in the 1930s, worked at the North Dakota State Library, where the state librarian, Lillian Cook (I know, right?!), took from her own salary to help pay for other employees’ expenses (as an aside I’m guessing that the salary for educators and librarians, however exemplary their credentials, was as comparatively low then as it is now). Later, Ruth, who was educated in biology and zoology in hopes of becoming a nurse, was an instructor of English and Spanish at Bismarck High and (then) Bismarck Junior College (BJC’s first location was at Bismarck High). She retired from BJC in 1972.
Although I can picture the romance of the lives of these prairie people, what may very well be my favorite episode in the life of the Gannons is found in the North Dakota Historical Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1, October 1926. Price 75 cents, and then published at the State Historical Society of North Dakota at Grand Forks.
“A Short Account of a Rowboat Journey from Medora to Bismarck,” by Clell G. Gannon, tells of a 13-day river expedition of 350 miles taken in June 1925 with his friends, George Will and Russell Reid, in a boat they built and christened the “Hugh Glass.”
“There was no particular motive for the trip. It was a vacation and done for the mere joy of it, although back of it all was a passionate love for the Bad Lands and the Missouri River, and an intense interest in ornithology, geology, archeology and the historic associations with which the region is especially rich. … The geology of the Bad Lands region is intensely interesting. Erosion, wind and the burning out of lignite beds are agencies constantly at work sculpturing new and intricate forms. … Altogether our journey had been a most delightful one, and our experiences along the river are those that will live with us always in memory. We hope, in the not distant future, to again make the voyage except that next time we shall embark at Marmarth and take at least a month for the journey.”
Ruth and Clell were married in December 1932. An account in the Minot Daily News reads:
“The marriage took place at 4 o’clock Saturday afternoon, in the First Presbyterian (Bismarck) … the church was decorated with Christmas greens, and lighted tall white candles. The Rev. Mr. Johnson escorted his daughter to the altar. … She wore white organdy with a short veil of tulle caught in a cap with a sprig of orange blossoms, and her bouquet was of pink rosebuds. … Russell Reid was best man, and Harold Schafer served as an usher.” In 1953, Ruth received a Ford Foundation fellowship for travel and study and this is the time when she and Clell and their two young sons lived in Mexico City.
When the Gannon Gallery was dedicated, Harold Schafer and George Will (son of Oscar H. Will of the Bismarck-based seed company) made remarks. According to my notes, the Will home was a gathering place for many of these folks, including Reid and the Gannons.
Clell was born in 1900, in Nebraska, and traveled with his family in 1908 in a Model T Ford to take up a homestead one mile east of Underwood, N.D. Clell’s father lost the farm during the Great Depression, at which time he became the Underwood postmaster. Clell graduated high school in 1918 and then attended the Art Institute in Chicago, where his idol was N.C. Wyeth, a book illustrator, commercial artist and muralist.
As a student in Chicago, he worked as a waiter and an usher at the Chicago Opera. Homesick for North Dakota, he returned and found work with the Soo Line Railroad, where he worked from 1922-1938. During the 1920s, he roomed at a Bismarck boarding house run by Mrs. Peter Reid and became a close friend of her son, Russell Reid, who later was appointed director of the North Dakota State Historical Society.
At that time, the State Library and the SHSND were in the same building, and soon Clell and Ruth were dating. During the years of the Depression, Clell wrote for the Federal Writers Project, contributing to the WPA-era guide to North Dakota. Later he worked as a commercial artist for the Provident Life Insurance Co. in the downtown Bismarck building, a short stroll from his home. For nearly eight years, he was unable to work due to tuberculosis and was in this time (the 1940s and ’50s) a patient at the San Haven sanatorium, where he wrote articles for the in-house newsletter and bemoaned that many other patients did nothing but play cards.
Clell drew a map for the Greater North Dakota Association, for the pamphlet, “North Dakota: Land of Opportunity,” (as described in “North Dakota History,” v. 76, no. 1 & 2, 2010, pg. 32) and created much of the cover art for the Oscar Will & Co. seed catalogs. These works can be seen at the North Dakota Heritage Center. And I know that my Slope County grandparents and parents received the Will Seed Company catalogs.
Clell also painted some of the historic-themed murals in the Burleigh County Courthouse, an Art Deco building built in 1931. According to Ruth Gannon, “the painting in the third-floor courtroom was not painted by her husband, but had to be touched up by him because it just didn’t look like North Dakota.” Clell’s paintings, reflecting his preferred realistic style, are found in the courthouse entryway and lobby, and in the BSC Library.
Clell writes, “I have had all the resources of the State Mistorical Museum and Library at my disposal. No effort has been spared to make the mural historically correct. In painting the dedication of the territorial capital the weather bureau was consulted to ascertain the kind of weather in Bismarck on Sept. 5, 1883. The records disclosed fair weather, clear skies and northern lights at night. … If there is any merit in them it belongs to those who made the painting of them possible, particularly to George Will and to A.C. Iseminger, Russell Reid, the officials of the Soo Line who arranged for my leave of absence, and to scores of friends to whom I shall ever owe a debt of gratitude for their interest.” Bismarck Tribune, “Artist Describes Scenes Painted for Vestibule of New Courthouse,” July 18, 1931. The paintings were later restored and can be seen today by visitors to the Burleigh County Courthouse.
The Gannons were very civic-minded and were members of what was dubbed Beta Stanzas, a poetry society located in Bismarck. (There were other named “chapters” of the North Dakota Poetry Society at that time in varying locations.) During this time, their paths crossed with Paul Southworth Bliss, who was living in Bismarck while he worked for a Depression-era relief program, traveling and writing his own poetry, and a member of Betz Stanzas. The Gannons hosted Beta Stanzas gatherings in their home which included Bliss, and exchanged letters with him, some of which survive in Bliss’s papers.
Oct. 2, 1935
Mr. Clell G. Gannon
Dear Mr. Gannon,
In visiting the Bismarck Library the other day I had a real thrill for in the poetry section I found your “Songs of the Bunch Grass Acres”. I liked every bit of it including the title, binding, and general format of the book and especially the poetry — although the illustrations were a close second.
May I say that I think you have done a great deal for North Dakota in pioneering as you have done in home building out of native stone. In my opinion 80 percent of farm housing and, of course, much of the urban, is inadequate in one way or another. There are so many things that can be done to provide adequate, beautiful, healthful homes and appropriate furnishings that it is a shame everyone is not doing something you have.
I have recently taken some pictures of housing including native stone — I was one of the first to take pictures of your house as it was being constructed. … I visited the Dikotah Pottery at Dickinson Sunday night and Mr. Zook and his wife showed me around. I contemplate a set of dishes with the Bliss brand on it, this brand consisting of a scoria lily motif. …
Very sincerely yours, Paul S. Bliss
Clell writes back to Bliss, using the Gannon’s handprinted stationery, with the bison skull motif.
Oct. 16, 1935
Mr. Paul S. Bliss
Bismarck, N. Dak.
We, too, were much interested in (the dishes) and if their prices are not too high would like to consider some purchases.
That November, Ruth writes to Bliss, continuing their correspondence on pottery and architecture and prairie life and Bliss’s new volume of poetry, “Spin Dance”:
“My immediate purpose in writing this note, without waiting for Clell to answer, is to ask of you a favor. It’s this: Clell and I have read your “Spin Dance” — borrowed from the library (and like it!) —and as Clell has several times expressed the desire to own the book I would like to get it for him for Christmas.”
Ruth goes on to arrange for a signed copy to be delivered to her friend in the offices of the North Dakota Supreme Court so as to keep the gift as a surprise to her husband.
These letters bring me to the other reason I’m captivated by the Gannons, their rock home in the heart of Bismarck. Their son, Grael’s, inherited the house and died in Bismarck in February 2023. His words best describe their family home:
“The new Gannon house was named “The Cairn” — cairn being a Scottish word meaning a manmade mound of rocks, usually used as a monument or marker of some kind, though sometimes just the result of physical doodling by bored shepherds. This was appropriate as the outer walls of the house were of stone masonry comprised of small granite and other field boulders gathered around the area.
“Clell and Ruth and many of their friends made a hobby of collecting these stones. Ruth has said that she thought they had accumulated enough stones for three houses, but when the walls went up there still weren’t enough.
“The original house was rather small with a really nice, large living room including a large fireplace made of the same type of stones as the outside walls, including some nice pieces of petrified wood. The pretties stones of all were chosen for the fireplace, but lacking the scouring action of outside air and weather, they soon became rather dull looking. The masonry was done by a tall skinny old geezer named J.D. Anderson who drove around Bismarck on an old Model T chassis flatbed truck.
“… Clell got the plans for it from a U.S. Department of Agriculture brochure and the two of them worked it out. It has always worked quite well except that sometimes it doesn’t draw properly and smokes into the room. The living room ceiling has large lengthwise exposed beams for rustic effect. The huge solid wooden front door has hand made ironwork taken from iron from the old Dakota territorial statehouse which burned down in the early 1930s, a fire which could be clearly seen form the Cairn as there were then no buildings between the Cairn and the Capitol grounds. I believe some of the same iron was used to make the andirons for the fireplace.
“Apart from the very nice living room, there was a master bedroom opening directly off the living room, a very small kitchen on another side of the living room, a small bathroom, and a small laundry room at the back of the kitchen. Also a concrete full basement under abuot two-thirds of the house, which quickly became a storehouse for all manner of family memorabilia and other odds and ends, including art and printing supplies. Clell had somewhere found an old Pearl job pres, very narrow, and with a foot treadle to operate the flywheel. He also acquired a font case and several font trays and several fonts of type, most of it the Berhard Light Gothic design — a very plain tin sans serif type. … With this equipment Clell and Ruth did a little home publishing over the years.
“The land on which the Cairn was built was just on top of a long hill on the north side of Bismarck on Mandan Street. (Now 912 N. Mandan St.)
“Clell had inquired who owned the land and learned that it was owned by the Mellons of Pittsburgh. Clell was told that they probably would not sell it but it wouldn’t hurt to check. He did and was asked to make an offer. The Mellons agreed to sell two adjacent city lots for $60 apiece. These lots had the usual frontage measure but were very deep, running at least two-thirds of the way through the block. A few years later Clell purchased a half-lot on the north side of the other two, this half lot for $75. The prices were going up! It is hard to imagine city lots with water and electricity going for that kind of money. Clell said that if he had had foresight he would have borrowed enough money to buy the whole hill, which became a fashionable residential area immediately after World War II, contrary to its windswept hilltop reputation of earlier years — Gannon’s folly! Clell and Ruth were avid gardeners. He tried to use native plantings as much as possible, including an experiment in planting the whole large lawn to North Dakota buffalo grass.
A story in the Sept. 17, 1935 Bismarck Tribune trumpeted “Bismarck’s Native Stone House Attracts 400 Visitors Sunday: Gannon Housewarming a Success: Novel Residence is Result of Long Planning.”:
“More than 400 persons signed the guest book at the novel home. It’s walls are of native rock gathered from the fields in 10 to 15 miles of Bismarck and from the ranch owned by Mr. Gannon’s father at Underwood. For three long years every time they were out for a drive, the Gannons would bring home a rock. … After the room arrangement had been determined, Bruce Wallace, an architect, drew up the detail plans and put on a roof. Besides Mr. Young and Mr. Wallace those artisans who had to do with the construction of Bismarck’s most unusual house were Robert G. Aune and Fred Anderson.”
According to a letter from Paul Bliss, the lead stonemason was Mr. J.E. Young, who lived at the Bismarck Hotel. I know this because Bliss followed up on his promise to send photographs of the home as it was under construction. Wonder where those photos are?
Last fall, I had the distinct privilege and pleasure of a visit with Jenny Yearous, a curator at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, who carefully showed me Clell’s work, which reflects his development as an artist. (Jenny’s hand in blue gloves shows up in my photos.) He began drawing when he was 8 and began writing poetry when he was 15. Eventually his studio was in his home, the Cairn.
Many other SHSND staff have been generous with their time in patiently assisting me to access the Gannon papers and photographs within the collections. Yearous told me she has a special fondness for the Gannon collection and this was clear to me in our time spent together. One Gannon painting is on public display in the North Dakota Heritage Center, cleverly tucked into a grain bin next to Will Seed catalog cover art.
I am able to write about the Gannons because their work, letters, prose, poems and art has been carefully archived, chiefly by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Clell’s paintings can also be seen at Bismarck State College, both in the library and the Gannon Gallery, and in the Burleigh County Courthouse, all a short drive from the home they dubbed “The Cairn.” The Bismarck Historical Society has also preserved stories of that time and books by the Gannons can be found in libraries to this day. I am grateful to all whose work preserves this North Dakota history and enriches our lives to this day.
The digital archives of the newspapers of North Dakota, including the Bismarck Tribune, are a rich source of information for any who wishes to learn more about these prairie people as is the online source Digital Horizons. One can read online more current information on The Cairn in a 2015 issue of Prairie Places
If you are still reading this essay at this point, maybe, just maybe, you need to get a life. Go watch a sunset. Take a hike. Go hunting or fishing. Take a river journey. Paint. Plant a garden. Write poetry. Read a book. Play cards with friends. Watch a movie. Drink a glass of wine. Go to college. Look at the stars and Northern Lights. Cook a meal. Wash dishes. Take a hot bath. Volunteer somewhere. Visit a museum or art gallery. Build a house. Shovel a neighbor’s driveway.
The Gannons left a remarkable footprint on North Dakota. And designed and built a marvelous house in Bismarck, of native prairie stone, where in the basement they operated Cairn Press. That home stands still, not far from my home.
Beta Stanza of the North Dakota Poetry Society was organized informally in 1936 at Bismarck, North Dakota, under the inspiration of Paul Southworth Bliss, regional director, and Grace Brown Putnam, president of the North Dakota Poetry Society, with sincere interest but without literary pre-requisite, the members come from occupations of teaching, nursing, farming, housework, and the office. Meetings held once a month, except in summer, are devoted to discussion, study in technique, constructive criticism, and the writing and reading of original verse.
“The Badlands Call”by Clell Gannon
Land of a thousand voices
Beckoning unto me,
Land of the zigzag valleys
Shadowed in history.
Land of a thousand coulees,
Pastures without the bars,
Land of a weird beauty
Under a million stars.
“Ever and Always I Shall Love the Land,” a book of poetry by Clell Goebel Gannon, a lifetime member of the North Dakota Historical Society, was published by his widow, Ruth, in 1965.
The Gannons published a number of books:
- “Songs of the Bunch Grass Acres”
- “Lines for the New Year”
- “The Christmas Trail”
- “Beta Stanzas”
- “Ever and Always I Shall Love the Land”
Clell’s illustrations appear in many publications, including “Furbearers of North Dakota.”
His illustrated map of North Dakota can be seen at the North Dakota Heritage Center.
Visit the North Dakota Heritage Center, the Burleigh County Courthouse and the Gannon Gallery at BSC in person. My gratitude to all the staff for their assistance and patience with me as I wrote this essay. Photos I took of the collections during my visits are used with permission (while I am a freelance writer, I derive no income from my essays). In the words of Clell and Ruth, “scores of friends have helped me along the way.”
Digital Horizons a rich resource of images, documents, videos, and oral histories depicting life on the Northern Plains.
Rogers, Ken. “The Spirit Moved Him.” Bismarck Tribune special, June 1997.
“North Dakota: A Guide to the Northern Prairie State,” American Guide Series, 1938.
Johnson, Roy P., “Bismarck Artist Captures Prairie Beauty: Triumphs Over Adversity,” Sunday Fargo Forum, November 1961.
Ever and always, I shall love the land.