Undoubtedly, the happiest period of my life was the months
I spent in Fargo, North Dakota attending the Conservatory from
January to June. For this culturally deprived gal a new day was
dawning, the sun was rising over a grand musical horizon for me.
I was embarking on an exciting and interesting journey into something
wonderful! A new world filled with challenges and opportunities
I loved to play the piano and classical music was my second nature. I had played Haydn, Mozart and had started some Beethoven with my Evansville teacher, Anna Dahl. Because of this advanced training, the head piano teacher, Mrs. Aslaug Olsen-Wright, wanted me as her pupil. Lessons were $1.50 each!
Besides learning the piano pieces, I took courses in Harmony,
Ear Training and Musical History. There were about sixty students
in my class when we started the classes, but after a few weeks,
this number dwindled to sixteen; Harmony was the culprit. Each
day a new rule was given; if you play such a note, then only this
note can follow. All these rules had to be memorized because we
were required to write music as a class assignment. In Ear Training,
a note is sounded and from this note you should be able to read
the remainder of the piece. Musical History dealt mainly with
composers of the different musical periods: Baroque, Classical
and Romantic. I was assigned a young pupil to practice with on
becoming a piano instructor.
When Father Renner celebrated his first Mass and reception
in Alexandria, I stayed with the Augustine's. Tracy was the organist
at the church and the choir wished to sing a particular song.
She had the song, but in the wrong key. She said, "I'll have
to walk 10 blocks to Mrs. Leach's house (her teacher) and have
her transpose this song for me into the requested key. "
I said, "Oh, I can do that for you because of my training
at the Conservatory. " She was much relieved because it saved
her from venturing out in -20 below weather.
All music had to be memorized-Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelsohn
and Chopin-each hand alone, and when totally perfected, then both
hands together. I practiced at least 4 hours daily and some times
more. Because of my advanced training, I could have completed
the four year course in 2-1/2 years. All the students were required
to listen to records once a week and in the spring the advanced
students would present a recital. I played "Polonaise Militaire"
All pieces were by memory. If I had stayed to complete the
full course to graduate, I would have had to travel with the orchestra
to different towns and cities as their accompanist. If the orchestra
conductor decided to play a selection in a different key than
the notes written, I would have to transpose the new notes in
my head as we moved through the piece. This would have been most
difficult. Also as a requirement of graduation, the student must
give a recital and play a Concerto of at least 70 pages all by
The Conservatory was located in Stone's Music Store building.
The store was on the first floor, the second was empty and my
school was located on the 3rd floor. This is where I received
my class instructions and practiced the piano. The other orchestra
instrument lessons, plus singing lessons were also given here.
Off to the side, looking down through large doors, was a ballroom
dance area. We would sometimes watch the couple whirl around the
My teacher insisted that all her pupils attend the musical
concerts in Fargo. I was only given $5.00 spending money per month,
so in order to make this money stretch, I bought the cheapest
stockings and I was too proud to wear overshoes. The Conservatory
was just off Broadway and the Dormitory was a good mile to the
south. I had to walk this distance several times daily as breakfast,
dinner and supper were served at the dorm and classes and practice
time was at the Conservatory. In the process of walking without
overshoes, I froze my toes!
Several names come to mind from my Fargo days. Viola Larsen
was a piano student from Fargo. She would buy a bag of chocolates
and eat them on the way home, and if I was walking with her, she'd
share with me. Dora Dyer was another piano student I knew quite
well and a Clara Eaves who had a beautiful Soprano voice. Mr.
Albert. Stephens taught the string instruments, was the president
of the Conservatory and the Conductor of the school orchestra.
No name is more etched in my memory than that of Pearl Levitz.
Pearl was a violin student at the Conservatory at the same time
I was there. It amazes me how well we hit it off together. I was
just an ordinary farm girl with a love of music and this perhaps
framed our relationship. Her father owned a furniture store on
Front Street. My folks told me later that a Mr. Levitz had walked
by foot through the Millerville area peddling shoe laces and sewing
thread. He later had saved enough money to buy a horse and buggy
and then sold kitchen utensils and cloth. This frugality afforded
him the chance to venture into the furniture business.
I'm going to be bouncing around a bit in telling her story, but this incident fits while I'm talking about the store. Pearl bad a terrific gift of gab and a real sassy, twangy voice. She was clerking. Two men came into the store wishing to purchase two folding chairs. Now, in a Jewish store, prices are not marked on the item. They asked "How much are the chairs?" She said, "$1.50 a piece." The men paid for the chairs and left, she laughed. She knew there was a circus in town and these men were visitors. If they had wanted more chairs, she would have charged them the correct price of 75~ each, but since they only wanted two chairs and she also knew they wouldn't store hop, she hit them for double the price. Then she laughed and held the money up high in the air and danced a happy jig, "See, I made an extra $1.50!l!I"
Another example of her "in-your-face-style". Pete
Schirber from Millerville and friend of my future husband, Joe,
came to Fargo and called me to see if we could spend the evening
together. We met at church for Devotions. Then he took me to a
movie. I told him I needed to be back at the dormitory by 9:00
p. m. or the door would be locked. We left the movie before the
end and he walked me to the dorm. I tried the door and since it
was a few minutes after 9:00, the lady had locked the door. So
I called to Pete, who already was half-a-block away, to come to
my aid and walk me over to Levitz's house. When I got there and
told Pearl what had transpired, she grabbed the phone and called
the lady at the dorm and let her have it with both barrels!!!
I couldn't help laughing to myself how Pearl could shrink this
lady down to size. I got into the dorm and had no more problems
with her after that.
The Levitz' lived in a beautiful stucco house south of Front
Street. I spent many interesting hours there, in fact it became
my second home. I seldom saw Mr. Levitz-but on one occasion I
saw him sitting in a chair and he was always jerking his neck.
So I asked, "Does Mr. Levitz have arthritis?" Pearl
and her mother just "hooted" because that jerk is an
indication of a Jew thinking over a business deal.
Pearl had three sisters: Della, Etta and Jenny and two brothers,
Albert and Jacob ~a key). Her mother had a deep voice and distinct
brogue. One time Pearl had become angry during a family dispute
and said, "Honestly, I'm going to take poison. " The
mother said, "Listen Laura dear, she's crazy. " Pearl
played the violin well and I would accompany her. Etta played
the piano too. The Conservatory always posted notices of upcoming
musical attractions. I didn't have much money and Pearl never
refused a bargain. She suggested we get 50~ tickets to see and
hear the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of
the noted Walter Damrosch with Joseph Hoffman as guest concert
piano soloist. We were perched way up in "the nigger heaven,"
but I didn't care where we sat. I was too emotionally enthralled
with the orchestra, maybe 60 violins all in sync and the musicians
in their black suits. What a treat!
Onetime I was at Levitz' when they were entertaining guests.
I had Harry Lashowitz, an attorney, on one side of me and Jakey
Levitz on the other side entertaining me in conversation. I felt
so honored for an 18 year old girl to be receiving so much attention
from such learned people. Harry Lashowitz married Etta Levitz
and my brother Willie, while in the bank in Kulm, read about a
case involving Harry. He was the defense attorney for the accused.
A man involved with murder. The man's finger prints were on the
gun, his blood on the victim, and yet Harry was able to get him
freed. He became the best noted lawyer in the area. His son, Hershel,
became mayor of Fargo in more recent years. Jake became the owner
of the family furniture store.
The Levitz' family, being Jewish, were very loyal to their
kind. I remember a sickly man given breakfast at their table.
And Mrs. Levitz would prepare a plate of dinner daily for a poor
lady who lived close by. Pearl and I took her the food one day
and all she had to sit on was an apple box. However, the family
was honored to have me, a Gentile, as a guest in their home and
a friend to Pearl.
Pearl visited me at our farm place and we have a picture of
her milking a cow out in the pasture east of the house. She liked
my dad, for he too had a gift of gab and loved to tell stories.
She was very true to her Jewish faith, so no pork or pork products.
Ma had baked a Lemon Pie for dessert and because lard is contained
in the crust, Pearl would not partake. After dinner, the pie was
stored in the stove oven and during the course of the afternoon,
while the rest of us were in the living room, Pearl was overcome
by temptation-the oven door went squeeeeek-and she snitched herself
Through the years, I lost contact with Pearl. She called once
a long time after I had married. She had married a wealthy man
who, at the time, was a manufacturer of men's trousers and they
lived in Cleveland, Ohio. A lady friend of Millie's, Greta, knew
of the family. Pearl and her husband donated large sums of money
to the Synagogue in Fargo. There is a large portrait of Pearl
and her husband as you enter their place of worship. I talked
to Greta on Millie's and Carl's 50th wedding anniversary (about
10 years ago) inquiring what she knew of the family, but I'm sorry
to say I never wrote down her husband's name nor any of the enterprises
in which he was involved.
Meanwhile, Della had been teaching in the country schools and
taking summer classes to upgrade her certificate. This went too
slowly, so she enrolled at Moorhead State Teachers College at
the time I was at the Conservatory. She wished to complete her
degree so she could teach in town. She had joined the Glee Club
at the College and wished to develop her voice more fully and
to do so, also took voice lessons at my school.
While in Moorhead, she met a soldier Bill Rasmussen and I had
met Phil Nelson, a pharmacist at Christiansen's Drug. Bill invited
us to a Military Ball given by his unit. I was his partner, and
Phil took Della. We marched in procession into the ballroom and
we were treated to a grand evening of dancing and a smooth, rich
sounding orchestra. Phil loved classical music and had a trained
While in the company of the Levitz', I met a dentist by the name of Leo Vogel. He could sing well even though he didn't have a trained voice. Leo took a liking to me. He loved music and I was at ease with the piano. Well, after I had returned home to the farm, Leo continued to write me letters. But I never received them. Dad would sit by the south window and look towards Math Hockert's for the mailman to come. When he saw him coming, he would get the mail. Ma would say, "Is there a letter for Laura?" If there was one from Leo, in the stove it went. I asked her, several years later if she ever destroyed Leo's letters and she did confess. "It would have been just terrible for you to marry a Jew!" How did she know we would necessarily get married, we were just good friends interested in music. Anyhow, Pearl would write to me, hoping I would drop Leo because if he and I had gotten married, it would have been her fault and the Jewish community would have ostracized her. "And so the ball bounces!!!"
When I began relating the story of my Conservatory days, I
said that I started in January and the classes continued till
June. I came home for the summer months to help my parents on
the farm with the full intention of returning to Fargo in the
fall. However, when fall arrived, and I was to return to Fargo
(I was ready to board the train), my mother cried so pitifully.
I was the last of her children to leave home, the rest having
married (except Della who was teaching) and established families
and interests of their own. She was already in failing health
and the weight of all the years of her struggle to survive and
succeed in life had sapped her energy and she knew she no longer
had the will to cope with the dark days that lie ahead. She felt
alone and abandoned. She was about 60 and dad 66. I stepped back
off the train and returned home to assist my parents in their
declining years. My parents had made great sacrifices in their
time on my behalf. Now it became my duty, as I saw it, to return
"in full measure" what they had given our family. Now
the sun began to set on my musical journey and a dark shadow surrounded
me as I contemplated my future.