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Story of Perham family filled with joy, heartache

This is the story of a family. And of the Perham community. And of joys and heartaches.

It’s the story of Herman and Louise Nieman, of Perham, and of their children. All 13 of them.

It comes from Ellie Radtke, 93, of Fargo. She was the youngest, and is now the only one living, of the 13.

Her dad came to the U.S. from Germany when he was in fourth grade. He was 55 when Ellie was born and her mother was 45.

Two of Ellie’s siblings were stillborn and two died before they were two. But here’s what Ellie has to say about her other siblings:

Herman Jr. attended Hanson Mechanical Trade School, Fargo, and then owned Nieman’s Garage in Perham for many years and was one of the first in the area to sell Dodge and Plymouth cars. Ellie says he was “a great mechanic; talk was, ‘If Nieman can’t fix it, nobody can.’” He died of colon cancer at age 57. His daughters now are 90 and 88.

Edna married Louis Ouart, a farmer, and lived south of Perham. She was a “great gardener” and “so witty,” Ellie says. She died the night before her 98th birthday, but two days earlier, she’d told Ellie she needed to bake her one more angel food birthday cake.

Esther attended Dakota Business College, Fargo, which didn’t sit well with her dad because she’d be so far from home – 70 miles, with no paved roads. Esther later taught at DBC and elsewhere, then went to Washington, D.C., to work at the Pentagon, where she worked for William Wright, an executive in the War Department. She was in charge of 22 secretaries.

When she retired about 20 years later, she married her boss. She died at age 90.

Arthur was a brother who’d often bring candy home for his siblings. He and his wife, Emma, had eight children. He was a truck driver for many years. His son Leland also drove truck and was honored for driving more than a million miles without an accident. Art died at age 95.

Good times and bad

Interlude here, for Nieman family history.

Herman Sr. was a potato farmer who wouldn’t let the children start school in the fall until all the potatoes were picked. When a truancy officer told him the kids should be in school or they’d never get caught up with schoolwork, Herman said, “Oh, yes, they will!” And they did.

This was during the 1920s-30s, and times were tough. “After seven years of dust and drought and bank closings,” Ellie says, “We lost the farm – couldn’t pay the mortgage.”

Perhaps the greatest tragedy in the family involved Ellie’s sister Pearl.

In 1929, after graduating from high school, she became paralyzed. It was polio, but nobody knew what it was back then. In fact, Perham had a polio epidemic that took the lives of several youngsters.

After a difficult recovery, Pearl went on to become a top seamstress, turning out dresses for many area women, at $1 a dress.

She then attended the Anne Carlsen Center, Jamestown, N.D., and became a part-time bookkeeper at the Coca-Cola plant, Moorhead, where she met and married Ed Gunkel.

Ed and Pearl honeymooned in California. But on their way home, a truck hit their car and Pearl was killed.

3 cheers for Esther

But there were good times, too. Four Nieman siblings – Walter, Lou, Alfred and Ellie – attended DBC thanks to the encouragement and finances provided by their sister Esther.

Walter got a good job with the U.S. State Department in Washington. But he didn’t want his five sons to grow up in the District of Columbia, so he lived in Beltsville, Md., and drove many miles to and from work every day. He died at 79.

Lou and her husband, Joe Larson, let Ellie stay with them in Fargo and sleep on their davenport when she attended DBC.

Ellie was determined to save tuition and get through school early, and she did, completing a year’s course in six months. Then she found an ad in The Forum placed by Service System Inc., Fargo, which was looking for a bookkeeper. Friends said the firm would never hire a woman bookkeeper. Wrong. It did.

Meanwhile, Lou was a secretary for the Ford Motor Co., Fargo. She retired when she got married. She died nine days before her 99th birthday.

Ellie’s brother Alfred, five years older than her, walked with her the one mile from their farm to St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Perham. After DBC, he worked at Allis-Chalmers, Fargo. He later married Margaret Happel, served in the Army, then became a federal tax investigator in St. Paul. He died at 81. Today Margaret, 99, lives in Perham.

High school, big money

Ellie held three jobs during her high school days, at Young’s Jobbing House, the Perham Enterprise Bulletin and the Perham Hatchery, earning 50 cents an hour, “top wages then,” she said.

She, her polio-stricken sister and their mom, after Herman Sr. died, lived in a Perham apartment.

“We had no electricity, no running water and no bathroom, and I still had to split wood for the stove, pump water to drink, cook and wash, just like on the farm. But no more milking cows! And I earned and saved $200 – a start for DBC tuition,” she says.

She writes that today her “treasures” are her children: Dan, Fargo; June Lovejoy, Moorhead; and David, Homer, Alaska.

And there’s the story of the Neiman family, as reported by Ellie, otherwise known as No. 13.

This article was originally published as one of Bob Lind’s “Neighbors” columns in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

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