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Picture Perfect: Interview with Norma Quill Fisher

posted on February 26, 2009 at 2:58 PM


Norma Quill Fisher was interviewed on October 23, 2008.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier: What was Ridgeway like when you grew up?

Norma Quill Fisher: Oh it was a wonderful place to live and it's in a beautiful part of Iowa.  It's in Winneshiek county and it's, it has Winneshiek County has a northern border of Minnesota and then it has it's fa-fairly close to the Mississippi with only Allamakee County in-between so it's really in, they call it Siberia of Iowa because it was cold and lots of snow and it hasn't changed any.  I can say lots of nice things about Ridgeway but the weather's not one of them.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   Tell me about why you mentioned the cold- what about the Ridgeway/Decorah area is so unique?

Norma Quill Fisher: Winneshiek County is very interesting because there's, there are at the time we were there they were sort of clumps of ethnic groups.  There were Bohemians down by our Lincoln Church.  There were Irish in Bluffton.  There were and predominately Norwegian Lutherans in Ridgeway and, and-

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   Take me back to the time when these photos were taken in the 1930's and 40's.  What were day to day things like for you as a teenager?

Norma Quill Fisher: Well I remember Everett and I wanted to say right early on how much I appreciate the photos that he made and, and he was such a fine young man and our day to day well we had a terrible winter in '35 and '36 and '36 and '37 and sometimes our neighbor came and got us with bobsled and horses to take us to school because we lived about a mile out in the country and our lane was a quarter of a mile long and it was uphill and so dad couldn't always get out to take us to school and, and sometimes I rode with Russell Bocken. 

I'll tell you about him later on in, in this story and sometimes he'd come.  He had a little Model, Model-T Ford Coop that he delivered milk and lots of times he'd come early in the morning and then sometimes I'd ride back to town with him.

We had a really fine school with fine teachers and most generally when I think about my days there I think about school day and we had, our teachers came mostly out of UNI or Luther College and they were, they seemed to be, to me today to have been exceptional and there weren't many of them. 

There were probably 10 or less because the first, second, and third grade had one teacher.  Fourth, fifth, and sixth grade had one teacher and seventh and eighth grade had one teacher and then there were about a half a dozen teachers in high school and we had two years of Latin for a foreign language and we had typewriters.  So we had typing. We, we were a school to be proud of. 

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   What were people like then, you know in the '30's and 40's I mean those were difficult times to for the nation. 

Norma Quill Fisher: There wasn't much money but everybody, almost everybody belonged to a church and, and they all dressed up in their finest garb to go to church on Sunday and in the Lutheran Church it was, it was customary for ladies after, after they were confirmed to wear hats to church and of course we, they wore those terrible stockings of either cotton or lyle stocking because nylon stockings hadn't been invented yet and that's so you see that in the picture of Su- Sunday Afternoon on the Porch.  The ladies are all dressed up and, and so that, that's

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   A lot of the photos are social events. What are some of your fondest memories of just with your friends or family?

Norma Quill Fisher: Well there were lutefisk dinners of course because Norwegians love lutefisk and lefsa and, and ladies there are wonderful, were wonderful cooks and they had the things to work with because they had the special irons and the special molds and all of that for making Norwegian goodies and then even during the war there was, there was butter and there was rich cream and, and fresh eggs and all that and the women were marvelous cooks.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   What do you remember about Everett?

Norma Quill Fisher: He was tall and handsome and very clean cut and he was so friendly to everyone and he just made you really at ease.  Not all, we weren't always aware that he was taking our picture but he, he just had a beautiful personality and so that's and I remember he always had his camera with him.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   What did everyone think?  What do they think of him coming around capturing their everyday life? Was it odd for someone to have a camera back then?

Norma Quill Fisher: It was little unusual but Everett was that kind of man.  He was your average like your average bear.  He was, he was special and he was brilliant as proved by his later career and of course at that time we didn't know that he was going to go on to such a brilliant career but never the less everybody respected him and everybody liked him.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   DO you remember that he would actually have you pose or do you remember being a young girl and thinking it was fun?

Norma Quill Fisher: Oh it was fun. It was fun because there's one picture where we were doing a conga line.  I was one of the cheerleaders and we had a, we were doing a conga line for pep fest outside and then there's another one where Alice and I are in a swing and so I don't know the pictures don't look posed because there were but the basketball pictures were posed and they are, they were more like portraits but no we just enjoyed having him around and, and sad to say at that time we never saw any of his pictures.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   Glance through the book-

Norma Quill Fisher:

I was just going to say that, that particular picture is so appropriate for the cover and because it's his family and it shows them dressed up and the author of the book says the men reminded him or Rhet Butler's poses that with, with one leg up in the air and, and so on.  I thought that was nice and then the very first picture is of Alice Boots and me in, in the, in a swing and-

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   Where were you at in that photo do you remember?

Norma Quill Fisher: In Ridgeway someplace.  I don't remember where the swing was.  Oh it was on, on the school ground.  The swing was on the school ground.  So and here I love this picture of Everett where he's reading by lamplight.  Studying by lamplight and you can see the oil lamp there and there are darling pictures of kids and you can see that the boys were handsome in our school and, and Amos Houge had the barber shop and that was a fun place because he had a great sense of humor and Terries? a telephone company was in the room behind the, up behind Amos Hogue's picture or beside his chair.

Norma Quill Fisher: Oh and here's the skating rink.  The skating rink was behind the lumber yard.  There was a big lumber yard in Ridgeway.  It was owned, owned and operated by, by Mr. Rue and his son Lawrence and kids just loved playing around the lumber yard.  Climbing up on those big shelves where the wood was and then there was a warming house by the, by the rink so we oh we had lots and lots of fun and here are the basketball pictures we were six on six of course.

And here's a real good picture of Everett. 

And here's a picture of the train.  That's important too because Ridgeway was on, on a main line between Minneapolis and Chicago which made it very good for us to be able to take trips when gas ration was on and also it provided us with good mail service and a daily paper on time and it, it was it was advantageous to have a railroad be right there.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   And now the railroad is completely gone and now it's a bike trail.

Norma Quill Fisher: Yes I saw that up at, up by Cresco.  Yeah it's, it's sad we're going to be we're going rue? The day we tore up the railroads I'm afraid because it would be awfully nice and here are his parents. 

Yes he was one in a million.  Oh and here shows Threshing.  Now I can talk to you about the farms.  Farms were not large because it's very hilly up there and there are big limestone bluffs and the farther you get towards the Mississippi the bigger and higher the bluffs and the hillier the land is.  So they have the farms were small but there and there was a lot of dairying which made farm work really difficult.  Much of that had to be done in the dark you know they just by lantern light and wives did farm work as well as working very hard in the kitchen and, and did-

So Ridgeway may not have suffered as bad as they did in the cities because everybody there could have a big garden and can and, and you could buy meat from the farmer and bring it to the locker plant and they'd have it cut into roasts and chops and so on and then and fast freeze it there.  You could rent a locker there so that when you went to the grocery store you could pick up meat, frozen meat too.  So we ate well.  We ate well. And I don't think anybody in town was ever hungry.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   Times were so different then tell me about everyday- electricity- what would you do on a daily basis that is different from today?

Norma Quill Fisher: We our parsonage was one of the most beautiful parsonages of the American Lutheran Church.  Madison Lincoln provided for us very well and we had electricity, we had running water, and we had a furnace.  So we, we had more luxuries than many of the farm people had and there was a lot of wood burned for fuel because wood was readily available and day to day you know it would be get up and go to school you know and I loved school and so did my little brother and that's where all my friends were.  So we got to be just about like brothers and sisters because we weren't very many.

Norma Quill Fisher: I think maybe when we were in elementary maybe there were only about ten of us and then when we started high school kids came in from rural schools.  So we had 26 in our class which was consider a big class as freshman but before we graduated some of them had gone off to Cresco or to Decorah because they wanted courses that weren't offered in Ridgeway.  So our class was small by the time we graduated.  I think there might have been 16 or 17 in our class. All of us were above average as Garrison Keeler says.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   why is it important to have photos like this of, of a specific time?

Norma Quill Fisher: Because it was so different.  The, the late 30's and the 40's were a whole different era by themself and then when the war ended then things changed and modernized and the farms became REA came in and the farmers were electrified and, and where as before when you'd go outside at night you could see the stars and the constellations and everything because it was totally dark.

But after REA came in the everybody had a great big yard light and their farms were lit and, and that was different and then, then the roads got improved because before they were not graded up. And so when the plow -- if there were a plow -- that went there was no place to put the snow.  The ditches were so shallow that as soon as it, the wind blew again and the wind blows a lot in Winneshiek County they, the roads would fill right in again.

So it was an experience just living but of course we were happy kids and well taken care of and all the children were well taken care of.  It was, it was wonderful, wholesome kind of living.  There was no, there was no such things as drugs.  There were watering holes more watering holes than, than groceries stores in Ridgeway but, but it was, it was great.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   When you see these images what does it make you think to see them now.

Norma Quill Fisher: Oh it's nostalgic for me and sometimes when I go back it's hard for me to keep from crying because my family was there then and now they're all deceased and, and then I realize I'm the only one left but it's, it's so sometimes it's nostalgic but most times it's really fun and we have all school reunions quite often and we get together with our classmates.  They come from far and near and then we, we gather for several days.  Sometimes down at in Spillville at and sometimes in the, there's a city hall in Ridgeway now and, and we had meet there and, and lots of Everett’s pictures were posted.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   How has Ridgeway changed since the 30's and then 40's?

Norma Quill Fisher: Well I would guess that probably a lot of those people commute to work elsewhere and I don't know if there was any of that when I, when we were there most everybody worked in town or were-

So it maybe that it's kind of a bedroom town either for Calmer or Decorah and there are a lot of beautiful new homes there that are built outside the village.  They're built along the highway.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   Time before Everett took these photos before US became involved in WWII.  Were people in Ridgeway isolated or do you think they were really aware of what's going on?

Norma Quill Fisher: Oh they were very, very patriotic and, and men called up and were and many enlisted and there were young men lost and the, the whole country was different than it has been since because everybody wanted to be included in the war epic, the work ethic for the war work and some, some families left to go to California. 

A couple of families left to come down to Des Moines and work in Ankeny at the ammunitions plant and-

No I, there was never a time in our history that I can remember in my age, at my age when people where as patriotic and there was no complaining.  We had rationing of shoes and, and food and gasoline but I never heard anyone complaining about that we were suffering during the war because our men were, were really in harms way.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   In the late 30's with the Depression it's still lingering do you remember people just taking things in stride what were, how did people respond to the difficult times?

Norma Quill Fisher: I think they had a wonderful attitude.  The, the nei- they were so neighborly and so willing to help one another and of course there was threshing rings and there were ___ groups that helped put, take in the hay.  So farmers worked together and if anybody had an accident of any kind there were always people there to help and it's, it was just very, very special because it was close knit friends who loved each other.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   How do you think things changed for the country or places in rural areas that were in the war and afterwards?

Norma Quill Fisher: Oh it changed remarkably when the war ended because then farms became more mechanized but the time we came there in '35 a lot of farmers were farming with horses.

And then when, when REA came so their homes were electrified then that made a difference in how they did chores or where able to do chores and then you know during the war they didn't even make cars and they didn't in the United States nor did they made big appliances like refrigerators and stoves.

So when the war was over in I suppose it would have been '47/'48 that we were beginning to recover and during the war you couldn't even buy sheets and pillowcases.  You know people made, sometimes people made sheets from flour sacks and sometimes even little girl’s dresses from flour sacks.

And of course shoes you- each person had a ration book that had allowed you two pairs a shoes a year. So, closets weren't full of shoes like they are today.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   Do you think the times of the photos were more innocent or simpler?  Describe what the photos represent?

Norma Quill Fisher: I love them because it's an era that doesn't exist anymore and it changed so dramatically between '35 and '50 and there was no television yet at that time and so home and family and neighbors and all the things that we enjoyed at church and school. 

PTA was a big thing, you know, because everybody in town came to PTA and met once a month in the gym. And usually some talented kids would have the program and there. We'd have a business meeting. And then they'd have, then they'd would have served lunch, you know.

And everybody came because they were either parents or they were interested in kids, or grandparents. And when we played basketball we had good teams. And so we had good crowds.

And it wasn't easy because there was gas rationing and we had, we didn't have school buses. So everybody had to get to school as best they could.  Sometimes neighbors took us. If you were walking, whomever went by would stop and pick you up. And so it was, it was different. And that whole, that disappeared when the war was over and that era doesn't exist anymore.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   What do you think we lost in society?  What do you think we maybe lost?

Norma Quill Fisher: Oh life was even though it was very hard it was, it was sort of simple in a way. Because kids were very respectful and kids were, as I said before, the kids had two parents. And parents were very interested in the school and very interested in education. And so I think we've lost something with-

our children are growing up so much faster. 

We were, we were naïve. And I especially, I guess didn't really know what the world was all about because we were sheltered and it was good. 

If every child could have the same kind of bringing up that the Ridgeway kids had I don't think we've have the problems that we have today. And there was no discrimination of course because there was no, there was no one of any other faith or creed or color. 

I suppose most of those, most of us had never- the kids that lived there probably had never seen anybody of another race or color.  So I can't recall if there was every any discrimination.  Everybody was well received and well appreciated.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   What's it been like seeing yourself in these images as a teenager?

Norma Quill Fisher: Oh fun, fun.  The last reunion we had Everett's pictures were there and his mother was there, ah his wife was there. And so that was, I was real  happy to meet her. And it, it and it was fun seeing those pictures.

And I told you that book must be a best seller in a lot of places because it's almost impossible to get it from the library.  You have to get on a waiting list and I've been on the waiting list twice because my son bought me three copies of the book but he hasn't given them to me yet.  So I need to get the one from the library.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   In his book he has a lot of different themes kind of.  I guess you could say.  I mean they're not pointed out.  You know a lot is about church or family you know school.  Maybe if you kind of went through a few of those what do you think his pictures say about those things?

Norma Quill Fisher: Oh I, I love those pictures of the ice cream social by the river and the family photos there were reunions and, and kids playing games and Turkey River is a beautiful river. And it's spring fed so it's a nice clean stream and so it, it, it was always beautiful along there and it's just a slow moving stream.  You could wade in it.

I love seeing the pictures of his family and, and the groups that we had. And as I mentioned, the lutefisk dinners that we had in church. And many, many important occasions in a person's life were held at the church or at the school. And we had an uncommonly large number of weddings and baptisms at the parsonage. Probably because it was such a parsonage, for one thing, but because the weather was so severe at certain times of the year people didn't dare set a wedding date for winter. And many of them didn't like to bring out an infant for infant baptism at when the church was cold. And when there might be a danger of them not being able to get home.

Norma Quill Fisher: So it, it was we were just sort of not isolated but insulated.  Let's say it that way which is a prettier word for what we were.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   This really kind of a small group of people in these photos.  Why do you think someone out there that grew up in sort of small town or rural Iowa or wherever why do you think they might resonate with them?

Norma Quill Fisher: Everett was a special person because he realized what he was taking pictures of.  He knew he had the eye for it.  He was a marvelous photographer and he knew what, what was important.

And that's why his photos are so good and so representative of the times.He was just as I said he was an extraordinary person.  You know he was brilliant and so and that was his hobby was taking pictures and I know he enjoyed that because he was always where the action was you know?

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   Why do you think others of your generation could look at these and think- Do you think they could look at them and say that's me?

Norma Quill Fisher: Yes.  No doubt about it because Ridgeway was no different from rural Iowa and in other, other all over Iowa was of that same era and the only thing that kind of set Ridgeway apart was that our weather was so severe and it's, it still is. And we lived in Red Oak, Iowa which is down in the southwest corner and I thought that was positively balmy by comparison with our years in Ridgeway when we had so much snow and such bitter cold and such a long winter.

Norma Quill Fisher: So that made it different.  He doesn't have many winter pictures though. 

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   I think a lot of them when he would come back from college. 

Norma Quill Fisher: I thank you for doing this and I thank you for what it will mean to people in Iowa to see and hear something of that era. And I appreciate your coming and doing this.

I also wanted to make sure that I gave Everett credit because there would have been no book without Everett. And there's a marvelous man who did the printed words.  I understand that he was a, a member of the Faculty at Iowa State, Iowa University?

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   He comes and teaches some at the writer's workshop.

But he actually grew up in NW Iowa but then in Minnesota for a long time.

Norma Quill Fisher: I don't know who was responsible for seeing Everett's pictures and getting them into a big, his own show at the University of Minnesota. And then naturally everybody enjoyed seeing his pictures when he came down to Ridgeway with a show for our reunion.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   What were your friends like?

Norma Quill Fisher: Norwegians aren't like that.  They say.  Normally I've heard people say that Norwegians that when they really, really warm up to you they'll shake hands with you. 

You know but they're not effusive and they're not openly affectionate.  So I don't recall that we, there was hugging and that kind of thing like there is today. You just see your friends in church now and give them a hug. And some say, "Oh boy, it's worth coming just to get a hug" you know.  Well there wasn't a lot of hugging, but there was deep feeling.

Laurel Bower Burgmaier:   Describe how they were almost like brothers and sisters.

Norma Quill Fisher: Sure, because we were such a small group and, and we had so much fun together. And some of us were confirmed in the same class. So we went to confirmation class for two years and, and that was a special bond.

And then there were the sports, was certainly, and the singing.  We had wonderful music.  We had good glee club teachers and we always went to music contests and our people did well at music contest. And we had a teacher that taught violin. And so, it was exceptional for, for a little country village like Ridgeway. It just was special.


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