Chapter 6 – A Celebration of American Independence
Nettie and Bertha wore crisply starched white blouses and the best summer skirts they owned to the Fourth of July Celebration at the Wilson Mansion.
The band was playing in the gazebo when they arrived. Many of the men and women were dancing in the grass to the tunes.
Children ran everywhere, laughing and playing games.
Bertha nearly fell over a little girl who pushed a hoop in front of her as she ran.
“Be careful, dear,” Nettie said.
“I feel as though everyone’s looking at us,” Bertha whispered.
“Of course they are; your skirt is caught up in your bloomers.” Nettie bit her lip to still the laughter.
Bertha whipped around, tugging at her skirt. “It is not, Nettie Perkins. What would your mother say if she knew you made such a distasteful joke at my expense?”
“I apologize, Bertha, but the look on your face was worth the risk.”
Both girls laughed as they joined arms and walked toward the gazebo.
The band played two more songs before laying down their instruments to take a break.
It gave Bertha and Nettie an opportunity to carry their pie over to the serving table.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” The deep baritone voice echoed through the yard.
Nettie turned back toward the gazebo, nearly knocking down a gentleman dressed like Uncle Sam.
The man tipped his top hat at the two of them and walked on toward the vegetable tray.
“Mrs. Wilson and I welcome you to our celebration of the Independence of the United States of America. We are proud of our community and the hard work you have each done to make this city the wonderful place it is today. I have no intention of taking up any more of your enjoyment of this day, but before I hand it over to the magician, I would like to introduce Menomonie’s new teachers.” He adjusted the chain on his pocket watch as he gazed in the direction of the new teachers.
Nettie and Bertha gave each other a panicked look. They had no idea they would be on display today.
“Ladies, please step forward so everyone can see you.” Mr. Wilson motioned them forward, and Nettie followed Bertha to the gazebo.
“This is Bertha Carlson.” He put his right hand on Bertha’s shoulder. “And this is Nettie Perkins.” His left hand pressed down on Nettie’s shoulder.
The crowd clapped. A few whistles came from the young men standing by the food table.
Nettie didn’t think her face could be any warmer.
A young dark-haired woman approached Nettie and Bertha after the ladies served a light lunch.
“Good afternoon, ladies. Welcome to the community. My name’s Mabel Tainter. Several of us are going to play a game of croquet on the side lawn. Would you care to join us?
Although they’d never played the game, Nettie and Bertha were delighted the young woman wished to include them in the festivities. The two of them thoroughly enjoyed the new lawn game brought to the states from Ireland through England.
During the afternoon, they learned Mabel’s father was active in local politics and the lumber industry. He was also captain of a riverboat called the Chippewa Falls. Nettie wasn’t sure she understood Mable’s story accurately. It seemed her mother had been a nanny to some Ojibway children who were somehow under Andrew Tainter’s guardianship.
Mabel appeared to be roughly sixteen years old. She was a lovely hostess and introduced them to several of her friends.
The group of new friends moved over to the gazebo about four in the afternoon. The scent of the roasting pork was driving Nettie crazy. She couldn’t believe how hungry she was after all the activity chasing that round wooden ball all over the lawn.
Nettie learned that one of the lumberjacks came from the New Orleans area and was responsible for the spices rubbed on the meat for the event. The scent of the meat cooking was unlike anything she’d ever smelled.
The ladies had also cooked several chickens, but Nettie was much more interested in the pork. That was a treat she rarely enjoyed, living in the city for most of her life.
She filled her plate with meat, cornbread, potato salad, and beans, then she turned to Bertha. “Where would you like to sit?” Benches and tables made of wooden planks were set up all along the river bluff. It was a beautiful day and a wonderful view.
“Let’s go sit at that table. No one’s there yet, so we don’t have to ask permission of people we haven’t met yet.”
“Perfect!” Nettie hurried over to the empty table. She couldn’t wait to dig in.
They put their plates on the table and placed their glasses of lemonade in front of them.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please bow your heads for the prayer.”
Nettie and Bertha complied immediately.
“Bless us, Lord, and this Your food that You have provided for our enrichment. We thank You for the good men and women who fought to make this land free for all of us. Today, we ask You to watch over your children as we leave this place tonight. We humbly come to Your table, knowing we have not yet accomplished all You wish of us. Give us the strength and faith to provide for those who can’t provide for themselves. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
Nettie looked up in time to see Raymond as he finished the prayer. Everyone joined in the ‘Amen.’
“Good afternoon, ladies. Do you mind if I join you?”
The Reverand Raymond Henson towered over them. His plate was heaped full of every dish available on the serving table.
“Are you certain you can eat all that, Pastor?” Bertha wagged a finger in the air. The soft breeze licked at the lace on her collar. Her brilliant blue eyes were fixated on the man of her dreams.
Nettie couldn’t remember seeing Bertha ever look more radiant.
“I shall eat nothing without an invitation to sit.” Reverend Henson grinned like a high school boy caught passing a note in class.
“Yes, please join us.” Bertha indicated the chair next to her and across from Nettie.
He sat down and for the next few moments, everything was silent as they engaged themselves in the feast before them.
“I love it when a celebration comes mid-week. It puts everyone in such a good frame of mind for both the Sunday before and the Sunday after. It helps the collection plate considerably.” Raymond stuffed another bite of roasted pork in his mouth.
Bertha blushed and fanned herself with a pretend fan in response.
The pastor’s plate was nearly empty, but Nettie couldn’t seem to consume enough of anything on her plate to even make a dent.
“There’s something that’s been bothering me the past few days. Both of you have become extremely formal when I’m around. I hate the fact that my current position in this community has made a difference in our friendship. It would be a blessing to me personally if you could find it in your hearts to call me Raymond again.”
“I quite agree.” Bertha beamed. “We shall be informal when not in a crowd, but I believe we owe you respect when others are near.”
The table filled up quickly with townsfolk and the discussion turned to the festivities planned for the evening.
“The children are so looking forward to the fireworks.” Esther Snyder spoke to Nettie. “I can’t remember a time when they arose and dressed as quickly as they did this morning.”
“I’m convinced it will be the highlight of their summer,” Nettie said. She hadn’t met the woman before the event, but the two of them had much in common. “Did I understand you to say your husband works in the lumber industry?”
“Yes, he’s a foreman at the Cedar Falls installation. He’s a hard worker and provides well for the family.”
Nettie counted the little faces sitting next to their mother. “You have four children.” It was a statement more than a question.
“We had a fifth, but she happened into a beehive in the fields two years ago. It was the most horrible experience. Stings covered her precious little body. She died before dinner that day.”
“I am sorry for your loss.” Nettie did nothing to stop the tears that slid down her cheeks. She noticed the look of concern from Raymond but chose to ignore him.
“We loved Elizabeth so. She was the lifeblood of our family. Those golden curls… I miss brushing her hair. It was during that quiet time I heard her dreams of the life she wished to live.”
“Nothing is as tragic as the loss of a child. I can’t even imagine how you manage each day.”
“It’s difficult to rise each morning and know one of my children will not sit at the table with us.” Esther brushed at the crumbs on the table.
“Joey Snyder, will you come forward and light the first rocket?” Mr. Wilson stood near the shoreline of the Red Cedar River.
Esther Snyder beamed as her son skipped across the grass. He took the lighted stick from Mr. Wilson and touched it to the fuse.
“This is for Elizabeth!” he yelled.
Esther grabbed Nettie’s hand as the fuse ignited and the rocket soared skyward.
The crowd cheered as Joey ran back to his mother as a rainbow of color exploded over their heads.
“That was wonderful.” His mother gave him a big hug.
The sky filled with explosions of color, lighting up the lawn like midday.
Raymond appeared out of nowhere. “So, what do you think of our little community’s celebration?”
“It’s quite lovely. I can’t remember a better Fourth of July celebration,” Nettie said.
“It compares favorably to anything I ever saw in St. Paul.” Bertha moved closer to Raymond’s side.
When the fireworks ended, a small group of musicians played in the gazebo. The adults danced on the lawn while Nettie kept the children entertained with stories under a huge oak tree.
Raymond listened to the stories of wagon trains and settlers crossing the prairies of Iowa for a while before moving off and becoming lost in the crowd.
At one point Nettie glanced over to the dancers and saw Bertha dancing the waltz with Raymond. She felt joy for her friend, but the sight dampened the mood of the day.
“Nettie, Howard and I are going to head home now. It’s late and tomorrow’s a working day.” Esther motioned for the children to follow her.
“I’m so glad we met, Esther. I look forward to having the children in my class when school starts.” Nettie rubbed the curls on the top of Esther’s youngest son’s head. “The children were very animated during the storytelling and asked many good questions about life in the time of the pioneers.”
“That one always did love history,” Esther said.
As the crowd gathered up their belongings, several of the men helped move the tables to a large shed beyond the house.
The Party’s Over
Nettie looked for Bertha, but she couldn’t find her in the crowd. One lone violinist continued playing in the gazebo. The tune was mournful, matching Nettie’s current mood.
“There you are.” Mabel Tainter walked toward her across the lawn. “I wanted to offer my services to the school if you find you need any additional help with the younger students.”
“What a lovely gesture.” Nettie smiled at the young woman. She was going to be a catch for some lucky young man in the community.
“Mabel, may I accompany you to your home?” A young muscular boy strode up to them.
Mabel blushed. “I would love that, James. Mother is helping Mrs. Wilson, and I fear she will not be ready to retire to our home until much later. Good night, Miss Perkins. I shall see you at the school.”
Nettie watched as the two of them strolled over to a carriage.
The Ride Home
Nettie found Bertha helping other women clean up the food tables. Raymond and the men gathered the benches to clear the lawn.
It was nearly eleven o’clock when Nettie and Bertha headed back to the school.
“It was such a wonderful day,” Bertha said.
“Yes, we’ve met many memorable people here today. I must write Mother and Father a letter and tell them all about it.”
Bertha abruptly changed the subject. “Raymond asked me to dance.”
“Yes, I’m delighted to see the two of you have such an attraction.” Nettie didn’t look at her friend.
“He said he’s going to stop by tomorrow to help us whitewash the walls of the classroom and install the workbench.”
“I look forward to putting the finishing touches on the classroom,” said Nettie. “We will have our hands full with all these children. As soon as we finish those tasks tomorrow, we need to begin working on the class schedules.”
“It’s always a challenge keeping the smaller ones engaged and quiet while teaching the older children.”
“I’m certain you will control the younger children with your teachings,” Nettie said as they neared the school.
If you haven’t read the previous chapters, you can find them below: