Wheelock, ND – Herman Gerling Family

This morning the Facebook told me I posted about the Gerling Family 5 years ago today. It just so happens I am working on an article about Wheelock. So here is an update on the Gerlings (complete with typos – I haven’t proofread yet).

Russell Lee’s journeys brought him to North Dakota from August through November 1937, with much of his work focusing, not unexpectedly, on the arid western half of the state.[1] In September 1937, Lee visited Wheelock and photographed a number of area families and farms. While we have only the photographic evidence to work from, and propaganda photos at that, there is still much to be gleaned. The photos uniformly record utilitarian, somewhat ad hoc structures. Farmer Ole Tronson poses in front of his home, decorated only with what seems to be mud mortar and a hanging thermometer. Ole Thompson sits at his kitchen table in the

unfinished interior of a vertical slatboard structures, with the wooden framing serving as narrow shelfs.  Thompson is surrounded by items and clutter, some functional, like kitchen condiments and books, other piles of papers, destined for reuse. Lee recorded other utilitarian houses. One is a simple house with a low sloped roof, sided with pieces of sheet metal, a shed unceremoniously placed right in front, car perked in front. Another is two shed roofed building of different heights joined together, the exposed end loosely covered in tar paper.

Most memorable, perhaps, is the series of photos focusing on the home and farm of Herman Gerling.  The photos indicate that the Gehrling family did not live in town; they do not appear as landowners in the 1937 atlas, indicating that they were likely tenant farmers.   Herman Gerling was born in Minnesota, but was a resident of Williams County, North Dakota all of his adult life. Gerling was in his first marriage to Katie when in 1912 when their mortgage was foreclosed (Williston Graphic 4 July 1912). He was drafted in 1914, and was back home by August 1916, when he collected an $8.00 bounty on four coyote skins (Williston Graphic 10 August 1916). By 1920 Herman was living in nearby Springbrook, and Katie had died (1920 U.S. Census). By 1930 Herman, now 49 years old, had relocated to Truax township (about 15 miles south of Wheelock), with his second wife Tirazah (age 29). Three children were living in the house: Doris Hickle (age 4), James (age 9), and Gertrude (age 4) (1930 U.S. Census). A decade later, it seems that Doris Hickle and James had left the household, but Herman, Tirazah, Gertrude (Age 14), and son John (Age 3) were still in Truax.     Hermann was buried in Epping, a town in Truax township in 1966.  Gertrude never married, or at least never took another name, and lived in Williston in the late 1990s.  She died in 2001 and is also buried in Epping.[2]


The Gerling family seems to have interested Lee, or maybe have just been amendable to his presence, as he recorded multiple scenes with them. The most notable image, perhaps is the family in front of their handmade door, Tirazah holding baby John, Herman hand-on-hip. Eleven year old Gertrude, wearing clothes so clean and oversized they must be Herman’s best outfit, is turned slightly to the side, perhaps self-conscious of her missing right arm, which she lost four years earlier in an accident. The house, as revealed in other photos, is in rough shape. The attic window is missing completely, with one board over it showing that it has been opened up for ventilation during hot late summer days. The front window is missing, the frame boarded up except for a top slat opened for light and air; a second photo shows this window fully “closed,” with glimpses of the cloth used to stuff cracks and stop seeping dust. The windows on the sides of the house are in their frames, but all but two panes of glass have been boarded over. The house does have, however, wooden siding and a good roof. A pile of rocks along the side of the house seems aspirational, rather than an actual stone socle; the rocks are held in place by a retaining fence and this style is matched at other houses photographed by Lee.  Boards form a ladder up the roof to the stove pipe, suggesting maintenance is regular. A crosscut woodsaw hangs from the eaves. The Gerling house has an interesting additional feature.  A large sheet of wood mounted to serve as a second door that closes over the front door and secures the house. This is an odd feature; perhaps it serves to close out the dust when the storms come, or perhaps to better secure the house when the family is away.

The interior of the Gerling home is similarly utilitarian. The framing is exposed and used as shelving in the kitchen, where three guns are hung over the boarded up window. Lee recorded Herman sitting in a chair reading the newspaper, and a hung photo is canted to created a storage space for stacks of paper waiting to be reused.  The wall finishes are curious; they are sheets of a material perhaps 4 x 3 ft in dimension, with flaps or subdivided panels at one side. They are not placed piecemeal however, and the Gerlings have aligned them where possible.  The yard of the Gerling house is filled with items; barrels for water Herman fetched from the spring, a discarded tire, a washing machine. To the left of the front door there is a metal barrel laid on its side, with a metal pan sitting next to it; perhaps for storage or a shelter for farm animals. Lee also photographed the Gerling’s threshing machine, which had not been used since the harvest of 1929, eight years earlier.[3] The machine is surrounded by metal debris and forms the core of what is a typical farm junk pile, a not-so-subtle indication that, for the Gerlings, no one intends to thresh again.

[1] Based on a search of the Photogrammar database, http://photogrammar.yale.edu/, accessed 23 January 2018.

[2] http://www.willistonherald.com/obituaries/gertrude-gerling/article_0c739f12-adf9-5727-9485-221db31f1c99.html

[3] Lee, Russell, photographer. Old threshing machine on Herman Gerling’s farm. There have been no crops for eight years. Near Wheelock, North Dakota. North Dakota United States Wheelock Williams County, 1937. Sept. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://lccn.loc.gov/2017780478. (Accessed January 16, 2018.)


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