Category Archives: Photos

Talking to Daddy Dougan


Do kids still make flip books? Before GIFs, we did the same thing by making a series of tiny drawings in the pages of a textbook, and passing it to a friend fan through the pages and see the picture move. Kids with better drawing skills could make two faces come together in a kiss; a less ambitious project was making a smiling face into a frowning one.

I wonder what they were thinking when they took these photos in the 40’s? There are only four; not enough for a flip book, and they certainly couldn’t have imagined how they could be displayed online, 70 years later!

Poor as they are, they are the only existing pictures we have of anyone talking to my grandfather using the hand alphabet. It’s my Uncle Trever, and since he’s talking to Daddy Dougan, it’s surely not a four-letter word!

In the 1910’s, Grampa and Grama went together to day classes at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf, in Delavan, Wisconsin –so that Gramp could learn the “hand alphabet,” and Gram could learn how to communicate with him. He wasn’t taught our modern American Sign Language– which communicates whole words or concepts –when he was losing his hearing.

All us grandkids learned the hand alphabet as soon as we could spell. Even before that, for we’d imitate Daddy or Grama, waggling our hand, and Grampa would pretend to understand us. It was a handy language to know in school, too –you could spell secrets to your friend across the classroom.

My mother never learned alphabet spelling. Grampa asked his daughter-in-law not to. “I want to look at your face,” he said, “and try to read your lips.” Concentrating on flashing fingers didn’t allow for seeing the expression on a speakers face, and Grampa knew how much he missed.

Today’s ASL has evolved to include facial expression and whole body gesture to allow the deaf to encompass the whole range of human expression. I wish it had been this way for him, for all of us. It would have made our interchanges so much more satisfactory.

*Full disclosure: It’s true that some of the stories in my books are only known because of Grampa’s written conversations!

Norway adventures

Jon Gjestvang, Jackie Jackson, Eric Gjestvang
Jon, left, and Eric Gjestvang were born in Beloit.

This past summer, my granddaughter Cressida and I spent a week in Norway. This was after the repeated urgings of Nils and Marie Lang-Ree, who live in California but return to their property in Norway every summer. My friendship with many Scandinavians is one of the rewarding fallouts from writing Round Barn, and my dad’s relationship with the American-Scandinavian Foundation (for 25 years after World War II, he hired two Scandinavians a year). Back in 1979, when on sabbatical, I began writing RB in earnest, I figured I better get in touch with our Scandinavian friends and made my first trip to Norway. I stayed with Gilbrand and Solveig Gjestvang, met the babies who had been born on our farm, now young men, and carried home, in translation, the diary Gilbert (as we called him) kept while he was at the farm. You can find it, and more besides, about the A-S Foundation and the farm in my Volume 3. Nils, Gilbert’s brother-in-law, was one who didn’t return to Norway to live, but got a Stanford degree and has done very well in the United States. I see him in California. Year after year, he has urged me to visit Norway again, and this summer, we did. (My granddaughter is half Norwegian!) Here is the Gjestvang family on the Dougan farm, and here are the same grown-up boys with their families, who gave us a lovely reception on a Gjestvang farm this summer. Olaf Byrne also came, and the son of Jurgen Gjestvang, who drove seven hours to join us. He had heard about the farm all his life from his father. I returned from Norway with, among other things, Marie’s fish soup recipe – when I make it, it gets rave reviews.

Eric (left) and Jon as little guys on the farm.
Eric (left) and Jon as little guys on the farm.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year from Aunt Lillian
Happy New Year from Aunt Lillian

Aunt Lillian, Wesson’s oldest sister, lived in Beloit and helped out on the farm as needed; much the the relief (and annoyance) of her sister-in-law, Eunice.

In this picture, taken in (perhaps?) the late 1950’s, she wished everyone
–including herself, every time she looked into the mirror– a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Into the FIFTH(!) generation later, we’re sharing her best wishes with you…

HAPPY NEW YEAR from Aunt Lillian and all of us at The Round Barn!

Recreated Family Christmas Card: 16; and then again, 66 years later

1930 Dougan Christmas Card

The Dougan Children posed in the “little house” for this Christmas postcard in 1930. Jo, going on 6, offers Craig, not yet 1, a stocking. The card reads, “Brother Dougan, we unanimously attest to the efficacy of this practice” Patsy, right, is just 4, and Jackie is 2 & 1/2.
Jackie reports that the fire prompted her to hold her arms over head that way; and that she insisted that her parents to build her roaring fires out of newspapers for months afterwards.


The 1946 card modernized the 1930 photo by printing in black and white. Then, at 21, 19, 17, and 15, the family put on their robes and carefully took up the same poses by the fireplace of their new home, Chez Nous.


The final photo wasn’t taken until 1996, 50 years later, at Ron’s funeral. In this photo, Jo is 71; Pat, 69; Jack, 68, and Craig was 66. Really, they should have put on their pyjamas and built a fire (Jackie would’ve liked that), but this was on impulse, so I guess that floral arrangement is a pretty good stand-in for the fire. This photo was never meant for the Christmas card circuit, but now, here it is.

Merry Christmas!


p.s. Not sure whose sock that was…

Freak snowstorms and weather reports


Here’s another research story, which keeps writing fun. My brother, a doctor in Oregon, treated an elderly woman, Elsie, in the ER, and as she left, he said, “I love your Swiss accent–just like my Auntie Irmy.” The woman stopped, they talked with excitement–Auntie Irmy was Elsie’s sister and they had both worked on the Dougan farm! We kids called her sister “Auntie.” Irma’s first son was named after my uncle Trever, and her second, after my grandfather: “And Irma had to go to the hospital on a bobsled, it was a freak April snowstorm, and on Trever’s birthday!” Elsie said.

I had enough to write up a story about the bobsled trip, and I was currently studying my grandfather’s letters of 1921, which mentioned the baby’s birth, and also a freak snowstorm–but the dates didn’t match. It seemed an odd bit that Elsie would have remembered, if it hadn’t happened — so I looked up the weather following the baby’s birth. I found the freak snowstorm — really freak, it blocked all the roads — for the day that the baby came HOME to the farm from the hospital. So Elsie Did remember!

I called up that baby, now 80 years old, and he said he’d never heard about a bobsled, coming or going, when he was born. But my research proved Elsie’s story and her memory (almost) true. What a research pleasure!

Found picture: “the sidewalk”

This picture (circa 1930) of “the sidewalk” was intended to be in Volume 3, but didn’t surface until after the book went to press

“…Jackie, perhaps six, experiences a kind of spiritual moment on that sidewalk. She’s coming back from Grama’s in the dark, there’s a moon overhead. Shadows are sharp. All the fields are so clear, so bright, so quiet, that something inside her demands response. She creates a ritual, turning first east, then north, then west, then south. She counts slowly to ten and lifts her face so that it is bathed in moonlight. With eyes closed she stands quite still till she is soaked through with radiance. She then gives a little skip and continues on to the lighted Little House.”

…from The Round Barn, Vol 3

“–fixed that for ya, Grandma!”

In 1933, if you weren’t happy with the expression on your daughter’s face in the annual Christmas card shoot, your only option was to try a manual solution. Grandma wanted to use a certain photo in the annual card to be sent to friends, family, employees and customers of the farm, but she just couldn’t accept Jackie’s mouth. So, she got out a fountain pen and tried to fix it, with, as you can see, predictable results:

Yikes! She gave it up and used this shot instead:

Nowadays, it’s easy to switch out features from a similar photos. So, Gramdma, here ya go! “I fixed that for ya.”
My fix:

Now, after 82 years, she can finally share her great joke: that framed photo on the table? –that’s Doc Thayer, the doctor who delivered all four choristers!


See the *new card* on etsy!