Listen to the Weekly Radio Readings by Sheila Winstead, RCHS Board Member
Recorded March 2021
March 7, 2021: A short time ago, I was in the Roseau County Museum looking at some old newspapers to find new stories to read on this broadcast. Across from me sat Mike Hetteen looking through a large collection of Polaris racer Bob Eastman’s collection of memorabilia from his many years with Polaris, which his family donated to the museum after his death recently.
One of the interesting things Mike showed me was a copy of a 1963 letter from Kohler Company with a brief story attached that was going to be in their publication “Kohler Engines in Action”.
Most people with a little history around here know of the trek across Alaska in 1960 by Edgar Hetteen and Erling Falk and Rudy and Bessie Billberg. The trip was a showcase for the usefulness of the snowmobiles of that day for travel in rugged areas previously only traversed by dog sleds. A lot of stories of that trip have been told from the perspective of the men, but this story was told from Bessie’s angle. I’ll read it today.
“Bessie Billberg drove an “iron dog” across Alaska. She went through some of the 49th state’s roughest weather. She prepared two hot meals a day for her three male companions on the three-week trek.
And she did all this bundled up in men’s arctic clothing three sizes too big for her.
If you ask her bush pilot husband, Rudy, or the other two men on the expedition, they’ll tell you it was Bessie who got them through to Fairbanks. It was Bessie who kept their spirits up through 1,200 miles of Alaskan winter.
Alaska’s rough-hewn interior, mountainous, gouged by rivers that are white and ice-covered and silent in the wintertime, is a man’s land. Yet to Bessie, a native of Duluth, Minnesota, it is home. For her, its breath-taking cold, its week-long blizzards, and its “white-outs’’ are part of its wild charm.
Since 1941 she and Rudy had spent most of their time in Alaska – at Nome, on the barren and inhospitable west coast, at Fairbanks and Galena and Bethel, in the interior. Bessie has loved every minute of it.
The motorized snow-sled she drove from Bethel to Fairbanks …listen for the rest of the story.
March 14, 2021: Last week I started reading the story of Bessie Billberg’s 1,200 mile trip across the rough Alaskan terrain on 1960 era snowmobiles with her husband Rudy, Edgar Hetteen, and Erling Falk. It was from an interview by “Kohler Engines In Action” magazine. She told it from her perspective as the provisioner and cook. I’ll continue her description today.
“We ate only two meals a day on the trail, morning and night. At noon we always had concentrated candies and other high-energy foods we could eat while we kept moving. To the men’s almost fervent comments that it was Bessie’s cooking that brought them through the three-week journey, Bessie answered simply: “When you’re outdoors all day, everything tastes good.”
Bessie had planned only one-pot meals, partly because she could take along only a limited number of cooking pans, partly because preparing meals in Alaska’s winter weather is a complicated process at best.
“For breakfast I always served cooked cereal with fruit in it. I would add powdered milk to the cereal at the last minute for extra nourishment. Hot cereal and hot coffee gave us a good start each day.” Morning and evening Bessie cooked outside on a two-burner camp stove mounted on one of the toboggans.
“Sometimes the snow was so deep and loose I had to stand on snowshoes while I was cooking. And usually we ate standing up. Some nights we wouldn’t stop until it was dark, and I’d have to cook and wash dishes by flashlight – or by candlelight if the air was calm.”
One-pot meals were the rule in the evening as well as in the morning. “One night I made hash from hamburger, bacon, onions, and potatoes. Another night I served a thick stew of chicken soup stock and macaroni. I could put anything into the pot, and the men would enjoy it. For instance, I would chop up frozen hamburger and boil that in water with soup mix, carrots, dry onions, potatoes, and powdered eggs. When you’re standing outdoors at 20 below zero, that combination is delicious.
“At Bethel I had cleaned out my cupboard, and one morning…listen for the rest of the story.
March 21, 2021: I’ll continue reading today from an interview with Bessie Billberg following a 1960 adventure by snowmobile across Alaska with three men. The story comes from “Kohler Engines in Action” magazine in 1963. She described the food preparation in extreme conditions and read from some diary entries during sub-zero temperatures. Here’s the continuation of the article:
“Not until mid-March did the temperature drop sharply, and it was on March 17 that Bessie noted in her diary that the mercury was down to 29 below zero. “I never was cold,” she insisted afterward, “not with all those layers of clothes I was wearing.” From inside out, here is what Bessie wore: Thermal underwear, Tights, Quilted underwear (down-filled), Wool shirt and wool trousers, Sweater, Bulky outer trousers, and parka, both insulated with thick layers of fiberglass. Her parka had a close-fitting hood with a rim of fur circling her face, wolverine fur next to her face (“It doesn’t frost up when you breath,” she explained), and wolf fur on the outside.
“My boots were too big, so I stuffed them with extra insoles. I wore three pairs of wool socks and a pair of Finn socks (felt boots). My outer boots were the standard canvas and rubber mukluks. Not once on the trip were my feet cold.” Arctic mitts with heavy wool liners completed Bessie’s travel wardrobe. “We had extra clothes with us,” she said, “and we’d change when we stayed overnight at a village.” Fortunately for the travelers, Indian villages in Alaska are concentrated on the rivers and many have missions or public schools operated by people the Billbergs had known personally or by reputation.
Bessie’s diary reveals that the Sno-Traveler party spent only four nights camping out in tents and four nights in abandoned or unoccupied cabins. On the remaining nights they were guests at villages or in occupied cabins. The isolated cabins were not unmixed blessings. Bessie’s diary for March 9 reads: …listen for the rest of the story.
March 28, 2021: We have this one Sunday left of March, Women’s History Month. I’ll talk about Lucile Landby, a woman I met many years ago while she served on the board of the Roseau County Historical Society. I was recently looking through old newspapers at the Roseau Museum and found the article about her wedding in 1945.
In a double-ring ceremony performed Saturday morning, Miss Lucile M. Pearson of Warroad and Lionel R. Landby of Swift exchanged nuptial vows. Reverend Melvin Ostlin performed the ceremony at the Lutheran parsonage at 11:30 o’clock, in the presence of Miss Isabelle Landby and Charles Landin.
The bride is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Peter G. Pearson of Warroad. She is a graduate of Warroad High School and the St. Cloud Teachers College. This year she is completing her second year of teaching commercial subjects in the Goodridge High School. She wore a light blue two-piece dress with black accessories and she had a corsage of roses and carnations.
Lionel Landby is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Martin Landby of Swift. Following his completion of school at Swift, he attended one year at the Northwest School of Agriculture at Crookston and has since been assisting his father in the operation of his farm at Swift. He wore a light gray pin-stripe suit with a white carnation boutonniere. Both of the young people were active 4-H Club workers in their communities in bygone days.
Miss Landby as a bridesmaid, is a sister of the bridegroom. She wore an aqua blue dress with black accessories and she had a corsage of carnations and chrysanthemums. Mr. Landin wore a brown pinstripe suit and had a white carnation for a boutonniere.
Immediately following the ceremony Mr. ad Mrs. Landby left on a short honeymoon trip.”…listen for the rest of the story.
Thank you to for letting us share the history of our county with your listeners.