Music, and Neighbors, Made her World Go ‘Round

Doris Voermans

     Doris Voermans can remember back to a time in Whitefish when a footbridge was the only way to cross over the Whitefish River at Baker Avenue and runaway horses were a real danger in town.

   “Horse ‘runaways’ were horses that got scared and started off. Stuff would go flying around in the wagon. Every bump meant something came off,” she recalled of earlier days, “It was something to be afraid of. Once [a horse] started you couldn’t control it.”

 With 97 years of life experiences, 94 of them in Whitefish, she remembers more than just that. Beside the obvious perils that came before the automobile, Voermans also remembers a pre-concrete era that included wooden sidewalks about town.

    “You didn’t dare wear high heels—you’d get your heel caught.”

    If the hazards of town could be avoided, there was the quarantine to consider. This was the time of influenza, scarlet fever and typhoid, where entire households were separated from the general public by signs that varied according to ailments—Spanish Influenza, Keep Away.

    “They quarantined you for everything in those days. Doctors would put a sign up,” said Voermans, who recalled a summer where mumps, scarlet fever and influenza were prevalent. Voermans herself came down with meningitis and had to have an operation to save her life. One Dr O’Neil performed the first surgery of his career on the Voermans kitchen table. Her mother gave her the anesthetic.

    If it sounds like a scary time to be a child, Voermans also has a slew of wonderful memories of that same time. As a Girl Scout, there were no cookies but there were hikes to the top of Lion Mountain. Summers meant picnics and silent movies (Mary Pickford and the Perils of Pauline—“every week she was left on the railroad track with an engine bearing down on her”.) In the winter there was sledding and ice skating at a pond between O’Brien and Lupfer. Once, Voermans witnessed local recluse Joe Bush drive a team of horses onto the ice. The ice broke under their weight.

    Voermans’s parents were among the first settlers to the area. After trying their hand at homesteading in Plentywood, Montana John and Grace Sindt, moved to Whitefish in 1910. Back then, homesteaders had five years to ‘prove up’ their land. “Prove up’ was an official government term that required evidence of improvements made to land before ownership was awarded in accordance with the Homestead Act. Specifically, a house had to be built and 10 acres ploughed within five years.

    In Whitefish, her father was a fireman for the Great Northern Railroad and her mother was an English gal who met her father at a dance in Canada while visiting relatives. Meals were a chance to bring out her English background.

    “Mother was a great one for boiled dinners. Beef steak and kidney pie,” Doris explained, “That’s real kidneys. Plus boiled puddings and suet tied in sacks that looked like white bowling balls.”

    Voermans family lived on Dakota Avenue and she went to school beside Whitefish Lake in a two room building—first and second graders were in one room, third and fourth graders in the other. Back then, corporal punishment was heaped lavishly upon offending children and the price for talking was a malodorous mouthful.

    “Teachers used to tie your mouth with an old sock if you talked. My older sister Marjorie spent a lot of time in the corner.”

    When not in school, Voermans could be found at a neighbor’s house listening on phonograph records. She can still remember the song titles—“The Preacher and The Bear”, “Tying the Leaves so They Won’t Fall Down”, “Hello Central, Give Me Heaven For My Momma’s There”.

    “We had a lot of sad songs, but I enjoyed every one.”

 This was a time when women wore switches to make their hair longer and Voermans recalls amusing details about this neighbor—“She took her hair off and hung it on the clothesline. She took her teeth off, too.”

    Neighborliness was something that everyone took seriously back then, and families invested time and energy establishing ties.

    “We babysat for nothing for our neighbors. You didn’t think anything about helping your neighbors like that.”

    Dances were also a time to socialize with neighbors—while the adults danced in the living room, the kids danced in the kitchen.

    “We made our own entertainment back in those days.”

 The Voermans’s were a musical family—Doris played the violin and her sister played the saxophone. Music and musicians were both a necessity and a precious commodity—fiddlers, banjo and guitar players were rewarded at the end of a dance when a hat was passed around and money graciously given for the music. Dances were casual—‘aprons and overalls’ so that everyone would feel comfortable. Player pianos were also big and teens would often exchange the tapes that ran them. After dinner, families would often gather around player pianos and sing.

    “We were quite an orchestra,” she recalled.

    It was amidst music and dancing that Voermans met a certain milkman, Joseph, Voermans—just as her parents had met years before.  At age 16, Voermans married that man.

    When they moved out to run his family’s dairy, the largest dairy farm in the Valley, the neighborliness of her childhood translated into more acts of kindness. Competing dairy owners would call one another for help with sick cows. And when families fell on hard times, as they often could in the Flathead, the Voermans’s provided milk and butter to mothers and children no matter their financial means—they simply worked off what they could in the Voermans’s hay field.

    For Voermans, that sort of neighborliness was kept alive in kind, but also everyday, acts—on Mondays all the women would do wash and talk while they hung their wash on the clothesline to dry. Or when all the dairy farmers would get together to play cards or go dancing.

    “You just don’t see people doing that anymore.”