Rev. C. Hanko – Chapter 19: Manhattan, Montana

Editor’s note: The Hankos spent three years in Manhattan, Montana, from January of 1945 to May of 1948. Rev. Hanko often spoke of these years as the happiest of his ministry. Looking back on these years, Rev. Hanko could see how the Lord used this time of peace and plenty to prepare him and his family for the troublesome time of the Split of 1953.

It was quite a venture, starting out into the unknown. We had heard about Montana, but we had never been anywhere near there. When I accepted the call to Manhattan, Montana the people in the Oak Lawn congregation felt I should not go on the road with the infamous Ford V8, which for years had given us nothing but grief. But this was still during World War II. Cars were scarce and beyond my financial means. Mrs. Boomsma of South Holland, the mother of Menno Smits, offered her son’s car at whatever amount I could pay. So we obtained from her a Mercury for $600, having sold the Ford for $315. We had to obtain gas stamps from the government for the trip.1

In January of 1945 all our household goods were crated and packed in a boxcar to be shipped to Manhattan. We ventured out on a bitterly cold day, so cold that all the windows were frosted with only a small opening in the windshield to see ahead. In fact, when we reached the bridge at the Mississippi, we passed it and had to turn back.

We stayed in Hull with the Andrew Cammengas over Sunday. Monday morning dawned with a raging blizzard. It looked as if we could not get away. But by noon the wind subsided, the sky cleared, and we decided to go on our way. That evening we arrived in Chamberlain, South Dakota. There was some snow blowing over the road, but none that interfered with traveling. The motel manager was surprised to see us and warned us that the road west was so completely closed that we would not get away for days, and possibly weeks.

But the next morning the sun was shining, and we decided to continue on our way. All along the way water poured along the road. The sudden thaw had opened the roads in a short time. We were beyond Rapid City, South Dakota toward sunset and, since the weather was favorable, we decided to go on to Miles City, Montana. That stretch of road was more lonely than we realized. All the way we saw nothing but the white of newly fallen snow, and a lone white owl sweeping in front of the car lights. We were glad to reach Miles City, where we spent the night.

Here I will recount one incident in order to show how an anthill can become a mountain by gross exaggeration. As we were coming out of the restaurant in some western town, Herm, as kids will do, pushed Fred off the sidewalk. Fred got his foot wet and Herm got a scolding. As this incident was told and retold, it grew and grew, until finally Herm had pushed Fred into the river. Let us heed the warning not to exaggerate!

The next day we started up over a pass, which proved to be slippery because of the snow that had fallen during the night. In fact, as we approached a curve in the road, a car came toward us on our side of the road. Obviously the driver could not get his car on the right side. So we had no choice but to drive off the road into a snow bank, with all four wheels off the ground, not far from the edge of the cliff. As I debated what to do, a truck came around the curve. The driver saw our problem, stopped, hooked us to the back end of his truck and pulled us back onto the road. Since no damage was done, we could thankfully proceed on our way.

That evening we followed the map drawn for us by the consistory showing the route from Belgrade to Churchill and arrived at Henry Van Dyken’s home at supper time. There we had our first taste of venison. For a few days we stayed with Sam Van Dyken and his wife, but since it would take a few weeks before our furniture arrived, enough furniture was brought into the parsonage that we could stay there. Rev. Martin Gritters was there to install me. When our furniture finally arrived by train, we had to keep the doors of the parsonage open to unload the furniture. Our canary, which had survived the trip west, died from exposure to a draft.

Churchill was the loneliest, loveliest spot in America. Here were no paved streets, no sidewalks, no streetlights or shops but only a few houses, two churches, a Christian school and a cemetery. It was the center of a Dutch community consisting to a great extent of members of the two churches. Although it was often referred to as Manhattan, the town of Manhattan was ten miles away. It was so quiet at night that we sometimes awoke with a start. Imagine coming from the outskirts of Chicago, where the trains whistled past at 70 mph, where traffic could be heard all night long, and where planes cruised toward the airport. Now we found ourselves in a quiet valley where the mooing of a cow attracted attention.

For anyone coming from the hustle and bustle of a big city, it was quite an adjustment to live in a community where everyone moved at a leisurely pace. Of course, we soon learned that this was necessary, since we were living at an altitude almost a mile above sea level, about the same as Denver, Colorado.

Quickly running to the grocery store in Amsterdam, a nearby town, meant a discussion with the clerk about the weather or some recent happening in the valley. I came to Harry Leep one day when he was harvesting.2 I asked him, “Busy, Harry?” He replied, “Busy, man, I can’t keep two feet on the ground. Let’s have a cup of coffee.” When we left Montana we hoped to continue in that slow, steady stride, but failed.

Gallatin Valley, in which Churchill is located, is one of the most scenic places of America. The Bridger mountain range is to the east, the Spanish Peaks to the south, and another large mountain range, the Tobacco Root Mountains, to the west. Even the north had its mountains. This valley was known as “the Dutch settlement.” Wednesday was shopping day in Bozeman for the Dutch settlement. Other communities also had their day. If you wanted to meet someone from the valley in Bozeman, you stood at the “Five and Dime Store” and soon you would be drinking a cup of coffee with him in the store.

As long as we were in Montana, we never wearied of the beautiful mountains and the dazzling sunsets. Even the sunrises were interesting because we had to look to the western peaks to see that the sun had risen. All day long the mountains changed in appearance, since the sun cast various shadows on the mountainside. The view from the study window and the kitchen window was most inspiring.

In the winter, when the entire area was covered with white snow, it appeared as if a trip to the highest peak was but a half hour’s walk. But one had better not try it. At night the big sky was arrayed with millions of stars, like Abraham’s seed, the church. The largest stars seemed just beyond our reach.

But the setting sun was the most spectacular of all. Often the whole sky would be a brilliant display of pink and lavender as the shadows gradually climbed the Bridger and night began to fall. We were often amazed at the dazzling splendor of the setting sun and could but cry out, “My God, how great and glorious Thou art!” Is that the experience of the believer as his life’s day here on earth has drawn to a close?

The winters were long in this high altitude. About the middle of September we received our first snow fall. The snow was wet and hung heavily on the trees, telling us that summer was past. Gradually the cold air from the north crept in on us. We experienced many clear, cold days. There were times in January and February that the temperature went down to 30 or 40 degrees below zero. In this cold weather there was no wind. It was worse when the temperature was around zero and there was a strong wind. That could be dangerous, because the wind could cause the cold to penetrate to one’s lungs and cause lethargy or put one to sleep.

One night I had gone to teach a young people’s catechism class in Bozeman. In the meantime the temperature dropped to slightly below zero. When I stepped out of my car, the wind almost took my breath away. After the class the people warned me not to venture out to Churchill in this weather. But the family was at home and would soon wonder why I did not return. So I made the trip, but, as it were, on the wings of prayer.

There were actually two seasons in Montana, a long winter and a short summer. We shoveled snow yet in May. About the second week of June the air was different. Summer had come. The days were warm, but the nights were chilly. In fact, a cloudy day was a chilly day. When the clouds hid the sun, it was immediately chilly. What compensated for the cold weather were the many bright, clear days with plenty of sunshine.

Those years in Manhattan were possibly the best years for Mom. The house was not too large, the family not too demanding. Peace and quiet reigned in the congregation, and we were treated royally. Financially, it seemed as if we had fallen into the lap of luxury, as all the members were doing well. It seems that Mom never felt better than during those years, even though she had to be careful for her heart in the high altitude. She enjoyed having folks stop in for a chat about news in the valley, or some happening in the outside world. She also enjoyed the trips that we made, taking in all the scenery and all the attractions of the far west. She made her weekly shopping trips to Bozeman, even stocking up on staple foods, in case the winter storms would prevent us from getting out for a week or more.

For me, it was a period of relaxation before the task that still awaited me.

I was called to Manhattan on a salary of $2,500 and a cow. When I read the call letter, I thought the mention of a cow to be a bit of humor, but it did not take long before we all realized the value of having our own cow. True, we had to learn to milk her, and that twice a day, as much as possible at the same time each day. Fred, Elaine and I learned and took our turns milking. Fred did it the most. Elsie, as our cow was called, liked Elaine the best, because the cow had been accustomed to having a small girl milk her. Fred and I would occasionally get a sweep of her wet tail in our faces, but Elaine was spared that experience. The advantage of having our own cow was that we had plenty of milk, all the butter we needed, plenty of buttermilk, and last but not least, a yearling calf for meat, which was stored in a locker in Amsterdam. As long as we stayed in Manhattan, we were always furnished with a cow.

We came to the valley at a very opportune time, a time when the people in the valley were experiencing a transition from the horse to machinery, from binding the wheat in sheaves to the self-propelled combine. These were prosperous years; the price of wheat was high, and the farmers were taking advantage of it. Here, for the first time in our married life, we could afford to buy a refrigerator. We bought it on credit, but some members of the congregation made the final payments.

I should mention the irrigation system. There were dams in the mountains holding back the snow water in the spring and summer. There were also numerous irrigation ditches throughout the valley, bringing the farmer the water they so sorely needed. Our garden and lawn, our pasture and the church lawn were also on this irrigation system. At certain times the superintendent would come and ask whether we wanted water. Thereupon he would inform us that the water would be at our place at 6:30 a.m. That did not mean a minute before or a minute after, so we had to be prepared. If the proper gullies were not made, the water would flood and drown the entire garden and yard. So this little chore took some time, steering the water first in one direction and then in another, trying to give everything plenty of water without flooding.

I should also tell about the chinook. This is a westerly wind that comes in the winter, at any time of the day or night. We could go to bed with the temperature quite low and awaken in the morning to find that a great thaw was taking place. Often we would see the ditches flooded and water running over the road. We would drive the car through the water, carefully watching for mailboxes on each side of the road, and trying to stay on the gravel.

As a family we enjoyed reading a book about some scenic or interesting place in the mountains and then visiting the area. We visited Virginia City, a ghost town with all its relics, where the miners tried to make their fortune, and where the vigilantes finally had to bring law and order. Some rather hair-raising tales are told about those places.

Allie started school here in Manhattan. The school was just across the street, virtually next door. She soon learned that by raising her hand and wiggling in her seat she could escape a few minutes from the classroom. She did this so often that Fred wondered how it was possible that Allie could be looking into his room time and time again. And the teacher called to ask whether she had a problem. From the first day of school, she disliked it.

Elaine enjoyed the school because she found many friends there. She also had a lamb that had to be fed with a bottle at recess time, at noon and at night. The boys like to tease this lamb by holding out their hand to it, but when it came for them, they would spread their legs apart so that the lamb dashed through in disgust. The lamb liked to chase Allie. Allie soon learned that if she ran up the front porch the lamb would follow, but dared not come down again. The creature stood there bleating until someone came to help it down.

The lamb also liked to go for Mother, catching her behind the knees to make them buckle. One Saturday evening I was taking a bath, when it dawned on me that I failed to loosen Elsie so that she could go out to the pasture when she had her fill of hay. I asked Mother to go and do that little thing for me. When I had finished my bath, I went to sit in the living room. It was a while before I realized that Mother had not returned from the cow barn. I looked for my jacket, but she had put that on. Then my boots. She had them on. Finally I got to the cow barn to find her inside, patiently or impatiently waiting for someone to come. The lamb was outside the door, ready to buck the door shut every time she tried to open it. She was not exactly happy with the creature.

Before long the lamb knew how to break down the fence and run loose. One night it ran over to the CR church where some meeting was to be held. As the people opened the doors of their cars, the lamb made a dive for them. The minister’s son came over to ask if Elaine would please fetch her lamb away from the church. We decided that the time had come to bring the animal to Bozeman.

Young calves also liked to break loose. One day Fred had to chase a calf all over Churchill, from one yard to the next, from one pasture to the other. And these pastures had just been irrigated, which made running after a calf a sloppy task. Mind you, that calf even jumped over a cattle guard.

Each Saturday, Elaine went to Bozeman with two other girls for music lessons. One Saturday she complained of pain in her side. The result was that instead of taking her music lesson, she ended up in the hospital for an appendix operation.

Fred found his friends in Manhattan. The Van Dyken boys across the road liked adventure. They, along with Fred, made high stilts with which they liked to cross the nearby creek. In the winter he enjoyed snow skiing, which was such a common sport that some boys came to school on their skis behind a car. But his closest friend was the son of the CRC minister. They were always experimenting with something or other.

The Christian school was not all that might be desired. I could never quite figure out how the young people did so well with the education they received in the school. It seems that parents sent their children only as long as they could not be useful at home. Therefore, there were only two grades in the high school, the 9th and the 10th. The consistory had assured me before I accepted the call that there would soon be an 11th and 12th grade in the high school. It was with that in mind that I accepted the call to Manhattan, since Herm was already in high school. I soon discovered that this would not happen in the immediate future.

Herm spent a year with us there, and then we faced the question, What next? We asked him what his plans were for the future. If he intended to become a doctor or lawyer, we would keep him home. If he intended to become a minister or teacher, we would send him to Michigan for Christian instruction. He said, “Didn’t you know that I intend to become a minister?” Although we had never talked about it, Fred piped up, “You thought I would be a minister, but that’s not for me. I plan to be a school teacher.”

So Herm went off to Michigan in the fall to stay with Uncle Bern and Aunt Luce Woudenberg and attend Grand Rapids Christian High. At the end of that year, they preferred to be relieved of that responsibility, so Herm went in the fall to Uncle Pete and Aunt Nell Reitsma. Bernie and he traveled by bike together to school and to work.3 Having to break up the family in this manner was one of the deciding factors in my future decision to leave Manhattan.


1 The government was strictly rationing the use of gas due to WWII.

2 Harry Leep was the father of Bill Leep of Holland PRC.

3 Bernie refers to Rev. Bernard Woudenberg, Herm’s first cousin.