Although I’m a New Yorker now, I’ve always liked the Midwest. When I was seven I spent the summer swinging from barn beams into haystacks at my grandmother’s dairy farm in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. My father was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He, my mother, one sister, and I all graduated from UW–Madison, and my step-grandfather, Clarence Dykstra, was its chancellor. But it took me sixty years to write about the Midwest—and then it was thanks to Bill Zinsser, my late, great writing teacher.
When Bill went blind, he stopped writing and teaching formally, but he met individually with some writers in his rambling Manhattan apartment. I was one of the lucky ones. I went about once a month. If I came at noon I’d bring him a sandwich; if I came at 2:00 I’d bring him cookies. That was the deal. He’d sit at the dining room table, sunglasses and baseball cap on, and listen intently as I read my latest pages. Occasionally, he’d stop me and, in his inimitable, funny, but always supportive way, would offer an editorial suggestion.
“Gretchen, if you are a bus driver going from New York to Miami, you can’t head to Chicago without telling your riders why.” Then I’d know I had an organizational problem.
It was Bill who urged me to go looking for the grandfather I never knew—Franz Rickaby, who had died when he was only thirty-five. My grandmother had called him Frenzy. As a young English professor at the University of North Dakota, Franz wandered the Upper Midwest from 1919-1923. With a fiddle on his back, he sought the songs of the shanty boys from the camps of the quickly disappearing white pine forests.
His resulting songbook was published by Harvard University Press several months after he died in 1926. The book became a minor classic in the world of American folklore and folksong. Edited by George Lyman Kittredge, praised by Carl Sandburg, and celebrated by Alan Lomax, Rickaby’s book was unique for the lyrics, the tunes, and the vivid portrait he painted of the lumberjacks and their lives.
I took Bill’s advice and hit the road. I traced Rickaby’s footsteps—as many as I could—and, in doing so, I met my grandfather. And I came to know a slice of American history from the lumber industry to the forest fires, from cutover land to the last remaining majestic white pines. I dove into the files of archives and historical societies from Galesburg, Illinois, to Ladysmith, Wisconsin, to Virginia, Minnesota, and points in between. When I called eminent folklorist Jim Leary, who knew Rickaby’s work well, a new edition of my grandfather’s work took shape. Pinery Boys was born.
It has four parts: Rickaby’s original text with all the lyrics, music, and his lively notes; an introduction by Leary, placing Rickaby in historical context; additional never-before-published songs that Rickaby collected, with notes by Leary; and the story of my own quest and discovery of who Rickaby was, what he might have seen, and what motivated him.
One man, one life, a glorious time, a changing landscape, and three voices.
(1889–1925) was born in Arkansas, educated at Knox College and Harvard University, and taught at the University of North Dakota.
is a writer living in New York City. She was the founding president of the National 9/11 Memorial Foundation, commissioner of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, and president of the Times Square Alliance.