Chapter 2 – June 1883
Nettie Perkins hurried down Summit Avenue in St. Paul toward the home of Beth Brandon. The lush trees shaded the street as she walked past the stately William B. Dean house. The first mansion on the street was built in 1855 when land was going for about one dollar per acre. The wealth of people living here came from trading, lumber harvesting, printing, and mining.
She knew her mother lusted after the new wealth along this street. Of all the girls in her group of friends, her family came from the most humble of circumstances.
Why do people give so much weight to wealth?
She brushed a strand of auburn hair out of her eyes as she ran up the steps to the front door of the stone mansion.
Late again. I pray the girls are not too upset with me.
The double wooden front doors opened as she reached for the brass knocker. “Good afternoon, Miss Perkins.” The butler stood with one arm behind his back, and the other white-gloved hand held the door open for her.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Tyschen. So, are the girls here yet?”
“I believe you will find them in the sitting room, Miss Perkins.”
Nettie scurried through the open doorway and into the entry hall of the grand mansion. She hesitated. “Do they appear to be upset that I’m late?”
“No, Miss. They’re discussing the performance from last evening, I believe. There has been much laughter coming from the group.”
“Thank you.” Nettie hurried past the marble statue in the center of the room and down the hallway to the third door on the right.
The Girl’s Club
“Where have you been, Nettie? Can’t you ever be on time?” Rosemary Zehr chided her, and for good reason. She never arrived at the appointed hour.
“I am sorry for my tardiness. I stayed late to work with little Joshua Yost. He’s been having difficulty with his multiplication tables, and I tried to help him catch up to the other students in the class.” Nettie rubbed the toe of her shoe against the highly polished maple flooring.
“Come over here and look at the program. Rosemary went to the Pence Opera House last evening.”
“How exciting.” Nettie rushed over to where the girls huddled around Rosemary.
“The St. Paul Musical Society put on a most lovely program,” Rosemary said.
“You are truly a lucky girl,” Nettie said as she scooted in beside Maria Iannone to view the program. “Oh look, they performed Beethoven’s 5th Symphony!”
“Don’t you wish we could all travel to Vienna to see it performed there?” Bertha Carlson said. Her hair shone in the afternoon light coming through the window, and her ceruleum blue eyes matched her silk blouse perfectly today. No wonder the boys always had eyes only for Bertha.
“Oh, Bertha, I love how you dream. Someday, I would love to go there.” Nettie fingered the edge of the program, picturing the five of them in the city of Vienna. She had the perfect silk material at home to fashion a dress worthy of a trip to Austria. What would the men be like there? Would they all be captivated by Bertha’s blonde hair and blue eyes like the men here?
“You’re thinking about the romantic nights in Vienna, aren’t you? I can see the far-off look in your eyes.” Bertha pinched Nettie’s arm to bring her back to the present.
“Don’t be silly.” Nettie flushed.
The Girls Club Begins to Change
“We’re a bunch of old maids.” Beth laid the program from the theater on the Queen Anne table. “We’re here to discuss the curriculum for the next school term. We need to make sure the children all get a similar learning experience in the classroom. It will definitely help us mold them for the university. They need to be taught well, as they are the future business leaders of this state.”
“It’s hard to believe this wasn’t a state when our parents were growing up. Mother said they danced in the street when the Minnesota Territory finally became a state. I wish I could have seen that.” Rosemary picked up the program and paged through it again.
“Oh, I received a letter today! Sorry to interrupt, Rosemary,” Bertha said. Her hand shook as she reached into the pocket of her skirt and removed an envelope. “I’m torn by this request.” Bertha turned the envelope over and over in her hands.
“What is it, Bertha?” Nettie placed a hand on her impulsive friend’s arm, alarm filling her dark amber eyes.
Bertha slowly pulled the letter out of the envelope. “It comes from a Mrs. Willoughby Denton in Menomonie, Wisconsin.” Bertha looked up and her face glowed with guarded excitement. “I can’t sit here and read it. They want me to come to Menomonie and organize the school system there. They plan to hire me as the new principal.”
Nettie quickly bit her lip. How could she possibly get through even a day without Bertha by her side? The two of them had always been together. Mother referred to them as ‘two peas in a pod.’
“That is, umm, wonderful,” Maria said. Her smile belied the confusion in her eyes.
“That’s not the best part.” Bertha flipped to the second page of the letter. “They want me to choose a teacher for the upper grades to accompany me. They said here somewhere,” she shook the pages in the air, “that part of my responsibility will be hiring the teachers and working with the parents.”
No one spoke.
Nettie fixed her eyes on the ruby red glassware on the whatnot shelf in the corner of the room. The afternoon sun coming through the windows created a blood-red light show on the wall, matching her sudden change in attitude. How could her best friend even consider leaving St. Paul?
“Ladies, I thought you’d be happy for me.” Bertha’s smile faded.
“What about the Girls Club?” Maria was the first to speak. She twisted a strand of hair around her finger.
“I’ve thought about that. We will all get together here during the summer months when school’s not in session.”
“What about the students who need additional tutoring during the summer?” Nettie was quick to point out the flaw in Bertha’s plan.
“I hadn’t thought it through, I suppose.” Bertha tossed the letter on top of the theater program.
“Don’t be silly.” Nettie grabbed the letter before Bertha could stop her. Her eyes got bigger as she read through it.
Everything became quiet in the room.
“Bertha, the pay they are offering is double what we make here.”
“Yes, I know.”
“You’d be silly to ignore this.” Nettie felt a sour taste rise in her throat.
“Do you think so?” Bertha’s eyes regained their sparkle.
“I believe you need to explore this opportunity.” Nettie forced a smile.
“I have some news, too.” Maria tried to sit as tall as possible on the settee.
All eyes turned to her in expectation.
Maria gulped. Do you remember I told you about the soldier who asked me to dance at the party at my cousin’s house?”
They all nodded their heads.
“Well, he has been calling on me for four months now.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Rosemary fairly screamed.
Maria blushed. “I didn’t want to make a big event out of something that I wasn’t sure would change anything.”
“So…?” The anxiety showed in Bertha’s voice. She brushed a strand of blonde hair behind an ear.
“He asked me to marry him last night.”
“He what?” They all screamed the words at the same time.
“Details!” Beth laughed.
“Well,” Maria began. “his name is Victor Hoch, and he’s a sergeant at Fort Snelling.”
“A sergeant?” Beth wagged a finger at Maria. Her left eyebrow lifted dramatically. “How could you not tell us about someone so important coming into your life?”
“What’s he look like?” Rosemary interrupted as she leaned forward toward Maria.
Maria smiled. “You are all so greedy for information. This is why I, umm, hide my emotions. I didn’t tell you because I was afraid he wouldn’t come back. When he did, I was afraid you’d never stop asking questions, so I wanted things to happen as they would happen.”
“So, what’s he look like?” Nettie forced her to continue.
“He’s tall with brown hair, a mustache, and the sweetest smile you’ve ever seen.”
“How tall is tall?” Nettie said.
“Umm, he said he measures at six feet and five inches tall.”
“You’ll look like an ant beside him at the wedding,” Rosemary said.
The room erupted in gales of laughter. Bertha suddenly piped in and asked when the date for the wedding was.
“We’re going to be married in the chapel at the fort in two weeks.”
“Two weeks?” They all reacted in unison.
Nettie rubbed her hands together. “We have to start planning things right away.”
“I need to talk to you all.” Rosemary’s face turned ashen as she gazed down at her lap. “I…we have an opportunity that Franklin believes we need to take advantage of.”
All eyes turned to Rosemary.
“You see,” she began wringing her hands, “Franklin’s Uncle George died a while back. He had no wife and no children. And, well, he has left Franklin 1,000 acres of prime farmland in northern Iowa in what they call the Bremer area.”
“You’re leaving us?” Beth was beside herself. “This can’t be! How can the Girls Club continue with only three of us left?”
“I’m so sorry!” Rosemary reached for Beth’s hand, but Beth withdrew it before she could grasp it.
A tear slid down Bertha’s cheek.
“I promise I’ll come back to visit in the summer when I can.”
“You’ll have a ton of children, and we’ll never see you again,” Bertha wailed.
“Ladies, are you in need of some afternoon tea?” Mr. Tyschen stood in the open doorway.
“Thank you, but I’ll ring the bell when we’re ready.” Beth dismissed him quickly before moving over to put her arm around Bertha.
“Come on, everyone. We always knew things would change as we began to grow into our adult lives.”
Maria, always the peacemaker, Nettie thought. “When are you planning on moving?” She glanced back over to Rosemary.
“Franklin said we needed to be packed up within two weeks. I’m going to try to find someone who will come to the house and help me pack things up. I have something I haven’t even told Franklin yet, and it scares me.”
“You’re pregnant!” Beth’s voice echoed through the room.
“Really?” Nettie rushed forward.
“Our first baby!” Rosemary was right behind her.
“Careful, everyone, I don’t want to fall and hurt the baby.” Her smile glowed as she gently stroked the barely visible bump under her skirt, while each of the girls gave her a gentle hug.
“Let me get some of Poppa’s writing supplies. We need to make lists…lots of lists!” Beth gathered up her long skirts in her hand as she skipped out of the room and toward the library.
The girls huddled together; everyone was talking at once.
“What can I get you for the new baby?”
“When can we plan a baby shower?”
“How many people will be invited to the wedding?”
“Should we have a wedding breakfast for everyone?”
The banter continued when Beth returned with paper and pencils. “Come on, girls, we need to get organized. We only have two weeks to plan everything.”
“I’ll be in charge of packing the educational supplies Bertha will need.” Nettie’s eyes lacked the sparkle they had when she arrived at the house earlier.
“Perfect!” Beth shoved a piece of paper into Nettie’s hand and held forth a pencil. “I’m a whiz at packing. I’ll be in charge of making sure Bertha doesn’t forget her bloomers.”
An hour passed quickly as the planning for the moves was mingled with wedding and baby shower preparations.
“Come on you guys, you’ve assigned me enough to keep me occupied for the next thirty days. How are we ever going to accomplish all this in only two weeks?” Rosemary rubbed her eyes with clenched fists.
“Heaven only knows! We need some of that magic that seems to surround Nettie to rub off on all of us.” Bertha’s laugh echoed through the room. She pretended to sprinkle fairy dust over Nettie’s head as Nettie pushed at her hand.
“Well, at least it’s not winter. I don’t think I could possibly get everything done in the snow.” Bertha looked at the two pages of wedding notes, shaking her head in disbelief.
It was nearly time for dinner when the girls prepared to leave Brandon House.
Mr. Tyschen opened the front door as the girls neared.
“It is always such a pleasure to see you ladies. Please come back soon.”
Beth giggled as she pulled herself up in her most sophisticated stance. “Why thank you, Mr. Tyschen. We shall return in a fortnight.”
Nettie shook her head as she followed Beth down the front steps.
“Nettie, can we walk together for a minute?” Bertha slipped her dainty hand inside Nettie’s.
“It truly saddens me you’ll be leaving.” Nettie wiped the moisture from her forehead.
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about today. I want to hire you to work as the other teacher for the school. We can divide the classes up, and I’ll take the younger kids while you teach the older children. The town has a big lumber mill, so there are too many families for the current system there to work any longer.” Bertha’s words came out in a rush.
“Whoa, what makes you think I want to move to the Wisconsin Territory?” Nettie’s normally pale complexion reddened.
“It’s a state now, silly. You know that.” Bertha skipped forward and twirled around to face Nettie.
“Yeah, but it’s much wilder there, and they don’t have the protection we have here with Fort Snelling.” Nettie picked at some lint on her sleeve. She stopped walking. “What’s the name of the town again?”
“That’s a weird name. Is it Swedish?”
“No, the Ojibwe people are one of the many tribes in the area. I believe there may be some Sioux also. From what I understand, most of the food supply came from the rice fields that gave the land its name. In the Ojibwe native language, Menomonee stands for ‘Wild rice people’. Recently, they changed the second ‘e’ to an ‘i,’ so now it’s Menomonie.”
“Wonderful, they have Indians and rice. I suppose you’re going to tell me there are bears in the woods too.”
“Umm, probably.” Bertha laughed.
“Why are you even considering this, Bertha?” The suddenly knitted brows were impossible to ignore.
“I need to get away from here.” Bertha took Nettie’s hand in hers. “My father is driving me crazy. He’s trying to arrange a marriage with one of the professors from the university. The man is truly ancient. He’s twenty-eight, and he’s balding!”
Nettie chuckled. Then, she laughed out loud. She couldn’t stop the laughter; tears ran down both cheeks. Wrapping her arms around herself, she bent over at the waist and started coughing and choking. When she finally stood up, the hiccups started.
“Now you’ve done it, Miss Perkins! Your face is getting all blotchy. Your mother will think you’ve been in the park kissing a boy.”
“Stop it, Bertha!” Nettie wiped a tear from her eye as she hiccuped again.
“I want you to come with me Nettie. Think how much fun we could have, and we’d be in charge of an entire school in a growing town. There will be lots of wealthy businessmen coming to the Knapp, Stout, and Company lumber business. We’re sure to find husbands there. Besides, you know the choices we have for men here. Neither one of us can stand the eligible bachelors. All the good ones are already taken. I don’t want to die an old maid.”
“Let’s meet at my house tomorrow. We can go through mother’s treasure-trove of material and pick what we want to make our dresses out of for Maria’s wedding. There’s a ton of preparation, and we need to get going on it. I’ll think about your offer tonight, and we’ll talk tomorrow.” Nettie couldn’t think right now, much less answer Bertha’s question.
Summit Avenue no longer looked as inviting as it did a few hours ago. The shade of the beautiful old trees now produced a menacing atmosphere for Nettie.
If you haven’t read it yet, go here to read Chapter 1
Nettie is Elle Burton’s Great-great-great-great-Grandmother. To find out more about the first Elle Burton book, go here.