Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Hilde and the Old Man

Back around the turn of the century, Martin Noll’s neighbors would have been polite and simply said that Martin had a stern expression on his face most of the time. Today, medical research has a name for it: RBF. RBF, or ‘Resting Bitch Face’, is a configuration of facial muscles that make a person seem to carry a perpetual frown most of the time. Truth be told, it said a lot about him. Martin Noll was a stern task master of his farm, his large family and the surrounding community. To many folks in Sterns County, Minnesota, he was simply known as the old man.

Martin Noll was a taskmaster over his children and hired farmhands. He dabbled in several business ventures. He purchased the first automobile, a Studebaker E.M.F., in all of Sterns County. It had solid rubber tires, a fake door in front and carbide lamps on the front fenders for headlights.  Martin knew his way around local politics and never suffered fools in the town council who didn’t know how to run their town the way he knew farming. Over the years Martin bought and traded more cars but that first one was his most prized possession. 

Much to the chagrin of her older brothers and sisters, the youngest of his brood became the apple of Martin’s eye. Hildegarde, Hilde to her friends, wasn’t like the others. Her father sensed in this young child a longing for something more, something better, something undefined yet rock solid in its determination. He took a liking to his youngest and showed it. He taught her how drive horses at four, a car in her teens and travel solo in her twenties. Hilde always claimed her love of dancing came from her father teaching her how to dance the polka on Saturday night barn dances. He instilled in her a love of dancing that lasted a lifetime.

Life was always tough on the farm even for the youngest. It was a regular routine of field work, caring for the livestock, feeding the chickens, sewing old clothes and walking miles to school in nothing more than a woolen coat and rubber boots. A fireplace heated the farm house and there were corn husks for bed mattresses.

At four, Hildegarde took the horses and wagon out into the forest to gather wood. At seven, Martin let her take the wagon into town for supplies. She rode in her papa’s automobile and thought it great fun when he backed up over the outhouse by accident. By ten she was in charge of cleaning out the barn and managing the chickens, a main source of food and income. That same year, her father shot an American Bald Eagle that was killing their chickens. Hilde rescued the bird and when she realized it could no longer fly, she persuaded her father to sell it to the zoo in Minneapolis for ten dollars which she got to keep. Hildegarde shared one winter coat among her three sisters; each going to mass at a different service in their brand new Sears Roebuck catalogue coat.

Farming kitchen

Farming with horses

Hildegarde went as far as the sixth grade at the Catholic school in St Martin then dropped out to take care of the chickens and other livestock. Since she was the youngest it was expected that she would stay home to help out her aging parents and work the farm as her siblings gradually left for greener pastures.

The depression hit everyone very hard but especially the farmers. Sterns County was an agrarian society back then. Martin Noll had to free-range his cattle further north so they wouldn’t starve. A lot of his brothers and fellow farmers lost their farms. The largest town was St. Cloud which served as a magnet for most of the uneducated and unskilled young women anxious to get ‘off the farm.’ Hilde’s sisters all went off to secretarial school in St. Cloud. Hildegarde stayed home to take care of the farm.

Hildegarde grew up a beautiful and ambitious young woman. The Twin Cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis proved irresistible to Hilde when she cautiously toe-stepped away from home for the first time. She was hungry enough to break free of the life-choking reins of farm work by testing herself in the cities. But with just a sixth grade education the only work she could get was house-keeping for wealthy clients, odd jobs as a seamstress and cooking. She became a maid on Summit Avenue. Not quite Downton Abby but close.

In her early twenties, Hildegarde struck out for the West Coast. She went to California at the bequest of an old girlfriend and for a short while led the life of a single young starlet. Together, they moved from San Diego to Salinas. By then there were four of them, young working girls just wanting to have fun. They had their employer’s new Lincoln to tour around town in. 

Hilde got a new job on ’17 Mile Drive.’ Even back then it was an exclusive enclave of retired Army Generals, titans of business and industry and movie stars. Her employers had her over to their house on the Del Monte Golf Course regularly to meet movie stars like Joan Fontaine and Olivia DeHavelund. Together they went to the horse races in San Francisco, the youngest trailing along as their guest.

Working days and hanging out with the movie stars at night. Hilde was making good money, dancing every night and having a grand old time. Then her father fell ill and wrote for his youngest to come back home before he died. She did and shortly afterwards Martin Noll died.

The farm was sold shortly after that and as had been tradition for hundreds of years, the boys got all the money. The girls got nothing. So Hilde hired an attorney and sued her brothers. They finally settled out of court.  Hildegarde and her sisters each got $4000 dollars. The brothers each got $6000 dollars. There was no extra compensation for the youngest and all the years she had spent caring for her elderly parents. Nor did her sisters ever pay her back for the money she lent them over the years. But that’s the way it was back then.

Hildegarde continued to do summer chores for her mother and work during the winter months in the cities. It was the height of the depression but the youngest had ambition. She worked hard, saved her money and knew how to spend it when she had to. While others were going broken because of the depression, Hilde took whatever jobs she could get and thrived. At her father’s encouragement she alone traveled to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934.

Hilde earned enough money to pay $326.00 cash for a practically brand new 1934 roadster. The previous owner had bet on the farm and lost both it and the car when the bank came calling. Her brother, Frank, lusted after that car but Hilde was no fool. It was never available for his forays into St. Martin Township or the Twin Cities.

Hildegarde met her future husband at an ammunition plant on the outskirts of Minneapolis around the beginning of World War Two. That chapter in her single life ended with her marriage to Arthur in 1942. 

It’s truly a shame that none of this rich fascinating ancestral information was passed on to me until just before Hildegarde died. She wrote out her life story in long hand on a faded gray tablet of paper. Ten pages, single spaced, documenting a lifetime of hard work, unbroken faith in her God, loss, rejection, betrayal, heartbreak, and a tremendous (though hidden) pride in her own survival and personal accomplishments.

Unfortunately by then they were just fractured words pulled from a failing memory that left me with many more questions than Hildegarde could possibly answer and leaving a vacuum in my life that has never been filled.

Mom and us kids
Martin Noll, my grandfather, died seven years before I was born. That’s really a shame. I’m guessing he would have been one hell of an influence on me had he lived long enough. So it was left up to his youngest, my Mother, to show me the value of hard work and steel hard, forged determination to get ahead. A legacy that has driven me all of my life.

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