December 3, 2019 — On this date in 1909, Charles and Catherine Vanourny had been married only a day, but it’s unlikely they were honeymooning. They were, after all, frugal, hard-working Germans from Russia. A 31-year-old widower, Charles had homesteaded his 160-acre farm southeast of Ashley. His new bride was 25-year-old Catherine Geiszler.

According to the book “Women of the Northern Plains” by Barbara Handy-Marchello, Catherine’s mother reared her “in the ordinary fashion of the prairie, teaching the oldest to mind the younger ones and to manage some simple household tasks while (mother) worked in the fields. By the age of five … Catherine looked after the babies while her parents were out of the house” and she was also taught to “start the fire to heat the noon meal when the sun reached a certain spot on the floor.”

Catherine was only thirteen when her life changed dramatically. Capricious, uncontrollable fires were common on the dry, flat prairie. One afternoon two of her younger sisters had gone to bring in the cows as prairie fires danced nearby. Noting a change in the wind, her mother rushed home from the field and found the girls, each grasping the tail of a terrified cow, racing for home, but little Annie’s foot caught in a gopher hole and her mother reached her just as the flames engulfed them.

Hours later, Annie died. Their mother hung on for fifteen days, desperately instructing Catherine in the details of housework and childcare despite incredible pain. Drawing her last breath, she asked Catherine to “be good to your stepmother, knowing that (her husband) would undoubtedly remarry in order to keep his family together.”

Less than two months later, he did remarry. Catherine was no doubt a great help to her eighteen-year-old stepmother as they cared for the house and six younger siblings, as well as thirteen additional children who would be born to her stepmother. This undoubtedly left Catherine well prepared to start her own family, as she began married life on the prairie, over one-hundred years ago.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at

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