Sisters publish new history of North Dakota rural life in the 1950s
Windmills have been crucial tools for the people of the plains for more than a century, harvesting first water and today energy.
In a new book penned by sisters Jackie Pfeiffer McGregor and Janine Pfeiffer Knop, a windmill takes on the unique role of narrator. While the Windmill Watched: A Slice of Rural America in the 1950s chronicles that decade through the lives of the Pfeiffer sisters, Jackie and Janine, as they grew up on a farm near Menoken, ND. Written in four voices—each sister, the sisters together and the windmill—the book describes how many of the social and technical innovations that occurred mid-century played out in the daily lives of farmers, ranchers and townspeople across the Great Plains.
Today McGregor and Knop live half a country apart near Colville, WA, and Atlantic, IA, respectively, but neither is far from her North Dakota roots. Throughout their young lives they participated in 4-H, raising and showing high-quality livestock while honing their domestic arts both through 4-H and at their mother’s side. Inspired by Eudora Pfeiffer’s skills as a homemaker, the sisters each completed a home economics education degree at North Dakota State University.
McGregor shares, “Living on a farm taught me self-reliance and creativity, which has been beneficial wherever I have lived. The North Dakota prairie instilled in me an appreciation for uninterrupted vistas and the solitude of sparsely populated areas.” McGregor lived for more than 21 years on a beautiful Alaskan island. Now retired, she and her husband travel the world when they’re not spending much of their time volunteering and enjoying the outdoor activities of hiking and kayaking in northeastern Washington.
True to her father’s prowess at land and animal management, Knop and her husband settled on an Iowa farm where they became nationally respected breeders of award-winning linebred Suffolk and Hampshire sheep for the club lamb industry. “Dad was well-known in our area as an innovative farmer and dedicated livestock man, and always wanted to improve the quality of our livestock. From him I learned the difference that genetics and proper animal husbandry could make in the quality of livestock. And from my earliest memories, working with the livestock has been my passion and source of fulfillment.” In addition to the Knops’ family genetics business, the author is the owner of Miss NiNi’s Fine Desserts, a local and mail-order bakery that serves customers across the country.
Originally conceived as a family history that the sisters could pass along to their children and grandchildren, While the Windmill Watched expanded to become the history of an era and a community. The former Menoken neighbors the authors feature in the book are uniquely representative of their time and place, as are the community’s civic organizations, businesses, churches and farming practices.
When asked why they wrote the book, the sisters answer as one: “We recognized our era of life in North Dakota was a prosperous time full of innovation and change. The decade of the 1950s reflected an era when people honored and respected the ideas and principles of each other, which gelled into the qualities of life found within the community. Sharing that history with our readers will foster a warm reminiscence while serving as a time capsule for younger generations to hear firsthand the lived experiences of that time, that place, those people and in many cases, their personal roots.”
Prominent North Dakotans agree with the sisters. After reading an advance copy, Bill Thomas, director of radio at Prairie Public, said, “If your Christmas morning was get up, eat, feed the animals, then open presents, you will find this sisterly memoir a rich remembrance—or if you had a different experience, this will give you a new view into growing up mid-20th century on a North Dakota farm. Jello salad, the Young Citizen’s League song, cattle drives (yes, in the 1950s), skillfully home-made clothes and, of course, a blizzard or two. The Pfeiffer sisters evoke it in detail, and how well it worked for them and their community. We’ve all got a thing or two to learn from this lovingly recalled portrait of a family, a farm and a town.”
The Pfeiffer sisters learned about the power of friendship from observing the relationship of best friends Howard Goehring and Jack Pfeiffer, their father. Today Howard’s grandson Doug Goehring is the North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner. Of the book he says, “While the Windmill Watched provides such great insight into the skills that were developed in our families and rural communities in that time. It’s not as prevalent now, due to all the distractions that exist in life, but there was so much value in it. The story captured the sense of community that was built then. I truly enjoyed the book, not just because there's a long history between our two families but because it illustrated such valuable principles.”
Beginning Tuesday, April 22, the book will be on sale at WhiletheWindmillWatched.com. Online sales are being handled by the NDSU Bookstore, which will also stock the book. For a list of other stores carrying the book, check the website. Email Sisters@WhiletheWindmillWatched.com to make arrangements for a virtual or in-person author event.
K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.
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