(Editor’s note: All quotes from Pauline Olson are transcribed as she wrote them.)
Telephone. Electricity. Television. Pauline Olson (1885–1969) saw each of these life-changing technologies come to her isolated North Dakota farm. She marked them in a diary she kept starting in 1926, a diary we can read today thanks to the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
Pauline was a pretty 20-year-old with curly dark hair when she married John Jacob “Jake” Olson in 1905. Her parents were Norwegian immigrants, his Swedish. Together, they farmed in Bottineau County within hollering distance of the Canadian border. They raised four children and lived through two world wars and the Great Depression.
Electrification in 1949 stands out as the most exciting change she witnessed, but first things first.
When a rotary-dial phone replaced her hand-crank phone, Pauline was moved to recap what she had seen of rural telephony in a long entry on Oct. 18, 1954. “I shall here. Again write of another Episode, This time the Phone,” she begins.
Like other homesteaders, the Olsons had to “prove up” their land by farming it for five years and building a house. In 1909, they purchased a share in Farmers Telephone Co., which was probably a tiny mutual or co-op system. There were thousands of them across the country.
The system’s last day was bittersweet for Pauline: “… today Oct 18— I took the wire off & so the Last of Farmers line is writen off past. Now we expect to get our dial Phone in soon See a new Co. is now started as the old line went broke could not keep it up too many lazy line men who was payed good wages but never did fix any thing.
“Good Old Phone line that given much company & many Sad reports … many Sad things been told to me many more than Happy reports.”
At the end of the entry, she notes that the new phone was installed the next day. “The new episode starts Will I see the end of this,” Pauline, 69 at the time, wonders.
Four years later, she reported that the new phone company was bought out by Bell Telephone.
On Sept. 2, 1949, in uncharacteristically large capital letters, Pauline enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of central station electricity on a line built by North Central Electric Cooperative.
“REA. We at last got the High Line going … Off went 32 volt. On went 110. Took 12 years before it came. Pretty late in life to get this.”
A gasoline generator or a wind charger could have provided the 32 volts she refers to; both were common on Midwestern farms back then. World War II was the cause of the long delay.
People in North Dakota began talking about electrification in the late 1930s, and some co-ops had been incorporated by the time the U.S. entered the war in 1941. But construction came to a halt because copper wire and other materials used to build power lines were needed for the war effort. North Central Electric got moving again in 1945 and energized its first home the next year.
Pauline noted that she and Jake had bought a Philco refrigerator, a vacuum cleaner, and a cream separator ahead of the big day, spending close to $500. “The wiring cost us $316.98 on house and Barn,” she wrote.
Four years later (Nov. 16, 1953), she again was celebrating a new technology: “… And we have TV. Going for the first time real good, can’t think of any [thing] more entertaining then TV for us. So again we experience another wonderful thing in life.”
But Pauline still didn’t have indoor plumbing. That came in 1957. “Now after 50 years. I got water piped right into the house,” she wrote on June 13, a week later. “Could I have dreamt about this 50 years ago.”
Visit the North Dakota historical society website to read all of Pauline Olson’s diary.