Saturday, July 11, 2020

Chapter 20: Exact Postage Required



EXCERPT from:  GRANTSBURG:  THE GOLDEN YEARS
to be published, 
Chapter 20:

AFTER LOOKING AT two people who overcame personal health issues to succeed in life.  We now turn to something totally different.  We go from the serious to the sublime.  We now turn to Arthur Birnstengel. 
Author Olaf Danielson of this missive once mentioned the name Birnstengel to his Grandmother Lucille and the response was an eye roll, a simple utterance, “Birnstengel,” followed by a long sigh.  Yes, that about sums it up but not in the judgmental sense of a grandmother who thinks she has seen a thing or two, but why did this lonely man living in the Barrens of Anderson Township become somewhat of a sensation? 
            It all started in July 1945.  Arthur Birnstengel, then a 44 year old farmer on 610 acres, living down near County Highway O sent a letter to Grantsburg’s congressman, Alvin O’Konski.  There is another name from the past in which I also remember my Grandmother Lucille having a reply to.  In this case it was more of head shake and a smirk and Grandmother was a rather conservative republican.  Alvin O’Konski had represented Grantsburg for 30 years from 1943 until 1972 in Wisconsin’s 10th Congressional district at the time even though he had just moved to Mercer, and seemed to live in Kewaunee. One would think that a Congressman who represented an area for 30 years would be known for something, but Representative O’Konski was something else.  It is hard to think he was known for anything except a quote:
most lawmakers "are bought, sold, signed, sealed, and delivered."
            Besides being known as a pro-Polish and staunch anti-communist member of the House of Representatives, it isn’t very clear what O’Konski accomplished in Washington.  He could have been even more anti-communist than McCarthy and he tried to replace Joe McCarthy in the Senate when McCarthy died, but he lost.  He was known for bluster and saying things that were so preposterous that even if he was caught in saying something like he had visited the Soviet Union, when he hadn’t, he say things like he had gone under a group passport and left no record, when nothing like that even existed.  The district had been redistricted out of existence in 1972 and he lost to Rep. David Obey in a wild and crazy campaign.20-4


Congressman Alvin O’Konski at his desk, possibly even responding to Birnstengel’s letter
Courtesy Library of Congress Collection

Birnstengel’s letter, which became infamous, has been lost to history but by per reports was short and sweet and asked the congressman to please get him another wife.  O’Konski responded that he was short on wives but was long on advice and told the farmer, “make sure she is honest.”20-6  For reason’s unknown, O’Konski passed the letter along to Washington newspapers in a press release dated July 21, 1945, and, despite a war going on, they printed it. Shortly afterwards, even though O’Konski didn’t release his name, Birnstengel came forward.20-5  From the Beatrice Daily Sun, Beatrice, NE July 21, 1945

Many newspapers also contacted the farmer and he began to place ads. Birnstengel began with some stipulations:20-6
1)     Be between 30 and 42 years of age
2)     Not weigh more than 195 pounds
3)     Be between 5’ and 5’8”
4)     Be truthful (O’Konski said so)
5)     Not smoke or drink
6)     Be healthy
7)     Be friendly
8)     Not be a gold-digger
9)     Have a sense of humor
10)  Be able to take good care of Arne, his six year old son
11)  Be willing to help milk 14 cows

Letters poured into his mailbox outside of Grantsburg from all corners of the America and even some from France and Canada and at times even overwhelming his mailbox.  Newspapers called and interviewed him.  Famous Time/Life Photographer Wallace Kirkland made the trek out to rural Wisconsin in the winter of 1946 and published a photo essay of Birnstengel on March 25, 1946 that was seen around the world.20-1  Even more letters poured in. The world seemingly could not get enough of the lonely farmer from Grantsburg.
Arthur Birnstengel had been divorced twice.  He reported both women had bailed on living in Anderson Township due to the loneliness of living miles from the next house, and he had gotten divorced.  Arthur was left in the care of his son, Arne, after his mother left. He had a son, lived in isolation, one needed to work hard to exist on the farm, but on a good note, Birnstengel reported to the world that he had no bad habits.20-1
Arthur Birnstengel Wallace Kirkland,  Unpublished B&W Google March 25, 1946

A woman applying for this position was not going into the lap of luxury.  The Birnstengel farm located in the sand barrens near Highway O didn’t have power and the only water was a hand pump at the kitchen sink.  Birnstengel has some interesting quotes back in Life Magazine.  “If my wife wants electricity, she is going to have to work for it first.”20-1
A Springfield, IL widow who was 37 wrote:  “I don’t want no blue ribbons, but my friends all say I’m a good cook.”20-6
             A Toledo, Ohio woman wrote:  “I like cows and children.  But if you have any pictures of your former wives around, destroy them.  I don’t like the idea of old faces around.”  The farmer thought she was too jealous and turned her down.20-6
            An 18-year-old woman from Texas wrote: “Oh, yes Arthur!  But I need to run away to get married, so please send money.”20-6  Mr. Birnstengel had decided he wasn’t sending any train tickets either just in case the woman was trying to take advantage of him as they could be cashed in.20-1 Some women seeing his picture gave him things to do like loosing weight and furnish a financial statement.20-6
With all the responses, he was elated but shortly overwhelmed. With the response, he took stock in himself, realizing that after the war a man shortage had made him a much more important item than he thought  Early on, he even hired a private investigator to look at some likely prospects but in one case his man found out that what the woman had written him was a lie, so she got crossed off.20-6
Optimistic, he reported he’d have a prospect selected within a year, but apparently, it appears all the choices made him hyper critical,20-1 much like going to restaurant with too many choices.  He made notes on the letters.  One in which the woman sent him a risqué picture, he wrote “ankles too thin.”20-1  He also stated that he had tried to send an ad to the local newspaper in Grantsburg, but they had rejected it.20-2
The letters kept coming in via waves and in most the farmer found a flaw.  It almost seemed to many of the interviewers that he didn’t need a wife anymore.  He had thousands of letters to keep him company.  Wallace Kirkland stated, the correspondents may have defeated their own purpose.”  He also surmised that all the man-hunger, unrest, and lonesomeness of American women was startling.20-1 In fact, in looking back at it, it is still startling, and depressing. What is even more depressing is that the farmer could not ever choose anyone.
Every once in while, Birnstengel’s seemingly never-ending quest would resurface in a newspaper or two and then the story would go away. He appeared in the Lubbock, Tx  newspaper in October 22, 1960.20-7   By 1960, the 58-year old at the time reported he had received letter from 8500 women seeking his potential companionship and was still getting three or four a week over the summer.  He related at the time that he had replied to over a thousand but usually the correspondence ended after the third or fourth letter if it even got that far.  He had changed some of his requirements by then, but he was still picky, or so it seemed. He had not found the correct woman as of that time, but …he was still looking.20-7
In all, the seemingly human-interest story appeared in hundreds and hundreds of newspapers, possibly even them all from 1945-to at least 1961.  After while the plight of one man’s eternal quest for something gets too depressing.  It appears the stories are meant to be comical, but they aren’t.  Besides magazines, the Stars and Stripes, we remember him appearing on a television show in the Seventies but we could not track down the date.  
           

Birnstengel Farm Wallace Kirkland,  Unpublished B&W Google March 25, 1946

It is rather curious that America became so enthralled in the plight of a single farmer living on the edge. Historically, advertisements for wives and marrying people one had only met through the mail was quite common, especially out on the frontier. Letters were the only means of courtship between potential mates separated by thousands of miles. According to one bride, the Pony Express "took about four weeks to go from east to west," and letters "often came in bundles." Language was a means of persuasion. Illiterate men could dictate their letters to typists who, for a fee, would doctor their sentiments on Remington Standards. Dishonesty was a risk. Men and women could easily misrepresent their physical attributes, their station, or finances. A homesteader who sent his betrothed a train ticket might find that she had turned it in for cash. A 1911 Wahpeton Times article tells of a New York girl for whom, upon arrival in Buford, North Dakota, "the spell was immediately broken" when she saw the face of her intended.20-3
The railroad also played an important role in the western diaspora of single women. In 1882 businessman Fred Harvey sought young rural women "of good character, attractive and intelligent" as waitresses in whistle stop cafés along the AT&SF rail line. Harvey required that they remain single for a year, live in chaperoned dormitories, and entertain callers in "courting parlors." By the turn of the century, he had married off nearly 5,000 so-called Harvey Girls20-3.
Apparently by 1946, thoughts had changed.
Over the years many authors have included Mr. Birnstengel in larger issues like the forever quest or the psychological issues and how it could relate to Freud and Kierkegaard.20-2  Many have surmised as to what really were his true motives and also about his indecision.  Why did he never try to marry any?
            Arthur Birnstengel died single on January 31, 1986 in Boyceville, WI where Arnie had moved to and is buried at the cemetery at the Evangelical Free Church in Trade River.  His grave does not say husband and as far as can be told, he never found Mrs. Right.  Possibly if you are single, you could leave a letter at the tomb, but we can’t be certain that he’ll see it.  When we were there, there wasn’t any, but remember, you can’t have mail delivered to a grave, it has to be a personal visit. 
                    
Photo property of the authors

20-1  “farmer wants a wife.” Wallace Kirkland. Life Magazine, March 25, 1946. Vol. 20 No. 12 Pg 141-144.

20-2 The Ego Is Always at the Wheel: Bagatelles Delmore Schwartz and Robert Phillips, New Directions, New York. Apr 17, 1987

20-3  "I Do!": Courtship, Love, and Marriage on the American Frontier: A Glimpse at America's Romantic Past through Photographs, Diaries, and Journals, 1715–1915. Luchetti, Cathy.  Crown Trade Paperbacks, New York: 1996. 
20-4  Raising Hell for Justice: The Washington Battles of a Heartland Progressive.  David Obey.  University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.  Sep 24, 2007
20-5 “The Farmer seeks a wife.”  John Stone.  The San Francisco Examiner.  San Francisco, CA June 30, 1946.  Pg 82-83.
20-6  “Advertising pays off.”  Linton Daily Citizen, Linton, Indiana, January 26, 1946
20-7  “Farmer would select wife.”  Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Lubbock, TX Oct 22, 1960

2 comments:

  1. Buz Swerkstrom of Atlas interviewed Art in the 1970s or 80s and wrote it up in one of his series of Profiles books out in the past couple of years. He also published a small book -- a play on his life of course with a different name used -- Swanberger's Song https://www.amazon.com/dp/150240379X/ref=rdr_ext_tmb

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    1. I'll see if can track that down, I have rumors of an ad in the family archive, I need to add.....he story gets a little sketchy after 1961 although a guy has a chapter on his in a book about rural farm life psychology in 1987, probably sent to publisher before he died because that is not mentioned

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