Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

North Dakota




I have been a member of Hadassah for fifty years. I read the magazine thoroughly. I am a former citizen of North Dakota, and I lived in small towns. I loved it and feel if you never lived in a small town, you have missed something. I am ninety-four years old.

My parents were from Kurland--Germany then. My father came to America over one hundred years ago. He left his sweetheart behind. He was young--opened up a "made-to-measure store" --sent things out to be sewn. He worked hard and saved. Four years later he sent his "Liebshen" Becky four hundred dollars to come to America. She came by boat-ship --where all of her beautiful trousseau was lost. When the ship arrived, Papa was there to meet her. They went right over to the rabbi's, where they were married. My father was a macher in the synagogue, and, when it was finished, members were given two seats and two cemetery lots.

photo: Minnie R. Lyons celebrating her 91st birthday October 1988 in Willistown, North Dakota


After they were married, they went to the Jewish boarding house where my father had lived--all this was new to my mother; my mother spoke German. The owners of the boarding house had a daughter, who offered to teach my mother English in exchange for sewing. Mamma liked that. My father had an Irish friend who was a veterinarian, and had horses and buggies. For a wedding present, he told my father he could use a horse and buggy on Sunday for as long as he wanted, to take his bride for a ride. My mother was just learning to speak English; my father and mother went for a ride and, when they returned, my mother mistakenly said to Dr. Pomeray, "Thank you, Doctor, you are a damn fool!" The doctor understood, but not my father! After the next Sunday out tor a ride she said, "Thank you, Doctor. You can go to Hell." That was enough for my father; they moved out of the boarding house and bought a house where five children were born. I am next to the youngest--my older sister and two brothers are deceased.

We went to public schools in St. Paul. My brothers had Bar Mitzvahs there. When I was twelve years old, my mother became ill; the doctor suggested the climate here. My parents made lots of friends, Jewish and non-Jewish; it was a big move for Mother. My father had a sister and her family living in Williston, North Dakota--so we moved there in 1909. It was a small town with a few Jewish families. My mother was very religious, both kosher and at heart--it was very trying for her at first. She met lots of non-Jewish people who were wonderful to her. My sister and I went to junior high and graduated from high school there. I took a complete business course in high school and thought that was enough, but my folks wanted me to be a teacher, so I went to Fargo, North Dakota. My sister was a "born teacher"; she went to the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks. I went back to Williston--taught for a while but didn't like it. A wholesale fruit and produce company branched out and asked me to come to work at the one in Williston. I loved it and was assistant manager. I worked there six years and married a man from Powers Lake, North Dakota, a town of 250 people. Coming from a modern town, it was a hardship, but I never complained--we were the only Jews living there. The people there were wonderful to us. The little girls asked me to be a Campfire Girls leader, and I loved it.

The following year, Jimmie was born. We left that town for a larger one. Fred was born in Ray, North Dakota, and we lived there until Jim was fourteen and had his Bar Mitzvah.

We had wonderful friends in Ray. We were the only Jews, but no distinction was ever made. Ben was on the city commission and the school board. He was a staunch Mason. I was an Eastern Star at age eighteen-I'm a seventy-five-year Star. The Masons asked me to start a Star there, and I did. I was president of many organizations, but I would have to brag too much to tell. i write all this because we were Jewish living in a non-Jewish community. We loved where we lived; you learn how to live with people and be happy. We moved to Los Angeles in 1939; the boys went to junior high and graduated from high school there when World War II was on. Jim enlisted in the Marines right after graduation, Fred in the Navy the following year. Both were in the Pacific at the same time; Jim was in Iwo Jima when they raised the flag. They both came home safe and went to college. Ben passed away twenty-two years ago and Jim six years ago. Both married lovely girls in our faith. I lived in Los Angeles for forty years and was active in many organizations. I moved to the valley to be near my children and lived in Woodland Hills in an apartment for five years. My doctor suggested that I live in a convalescent hospital--so here I am, lucky enough to have an old age like this. I have been here seven years. Although it is not Jewish, a rabbi comes once a month on Fridays for candle lighting, prayers over wine, and challah. All Jewish holidays are observed. They won't serve me anything in the pork family. We had a Seder here. I go to my children's for a big Seder. I am very lucky; I have met many non-Jewish people here who are wonderful to me--I could write on and on, but there is a limit. I have a bad wrist--I fell and fractured it--so writing is hard.

Oh, yes, being a Jew in North Dakota. My brother was president of Elks Crippled Children's for the state--also mayor for three terms. He was sitting in a chair after dinner and died in the chair. The Catholic priest wanted him to be buried in their cemetery, but he wasn't. They had lots of plots in Minot, North Dakota, for members of the temple. His wife grieved so hard she died four months later. Both were loved all over the state. When the news came about his death, banners were put on all along the freeways. We were living in Los Angeles then--my friends wrote to me about it.

Hope I have not bored you and you can read this. I'll never forget North Dakota.




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