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Reading between the lines: Westbrook woman writes historical account based on mother-in-law's diaries

Carolyn Van Loh

WESTBROOK -- Carolyn Van Loh has never found mother-in-law jokes funny -- she just doesn't get the joke. She cherishes the close relationship she had with her mother-in-law, Betty Van Loh, who died in January 2009.

"She was a mother-in-love," corrected Carolyn, who married Betty's son, Dave, after meeting at Pillsbury Bible College in Owatonna, and later moved to his family farm near Westbrook.

"We actually met working on sets for a Shakespearean play, of all things, 'Romeo and Juliet.' He was on stage crew, and I was on costuming," recalled Carolyn, a native of Tyler, about their college courtship, adding that their paths had briefly crossed much earlier at a Lake Shetek Bible Camp. "

In another few months, the Van Lohs will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. They have two sons -- one a pastor in central Michigan, the other a family law attorney in the Twin Cities -- and five grandchildren.

A retired English teacher, Carolyn spent her last four years of employment at her alma mater in Owatonna, before it closed for financial reasons in 2008.

"I would drive over on Sunday evening for the first year or two years, and then I came back home on Thursday afternoon," Carolyn explained. "So that meant I had five classes back to back. I stayed in an efficiency apartment on campus."

That work schedule left her with free time in the evening, during which she wrote two books: the 50-year history of Pillsbury College in 2006; and the history of Farm Bureau for its 90-year celebration in 2008.

After retiring from teaching, Carolyn found fodder for her third book in the diaries that her mother-in-law kept for many years. Titled "A Place of Interest: One Family's Journey to the Farmlands of Minnesota," the historical account weaves Betty's daily jottings with her children's memories and the broader history of the greater Westbrook community.

"She started keeping diaries -- I have one in my hand right now, a notepad where you can rip off a sheet of paper -- starting on May 16, 1946, the day they moved into their first house. There's a picture of it in the book," said Carolyn. "She didn't necessarily have a sense of history, but of family. The first six months of their marriage, they had lived with the in-laws, which wasn't easy, so this was the beginning of their life together."

The little house into which John and Betty moved was located in Ashton, Iowa. But John wanted to farm, and with the help of Betty's father, Art Thies, they found land near Westbrook -- a farm "of interest," as noted by Betty, inspiring Carolyn's book title -- and moved there in late 1948.

To record her daily endeavors, Betty also used flip calendars provided by businesses, making brief notations in the spaces usually allotted for appointments.

"One of my favorite entries would be on Monday -- 'Washed.' That was it," noted Carolyn. "At one time, she wrote 'washed' twice, and knowing the way washing was done in the early days, with the old wringer washer, that meant she filled it once and did a regular wash, then filled it again and did rugs and things like that. I had to read between the lines sometimes.

"She kept these diaries, more or less, until the end of 2007," Carolyn said. "That's when she started going downhill. She had pulmonary hypertension."

Betty also recorded her communications with relatives, both near and far.

"Her sister was married and was a missionary in Alaska for a while," explained Carolyn. "She'd write down when she called and how long they talked. Phone calls cost money. She was an avid letter writer, and she kept track of when she sent a letter or received a letter."

Carolyn describes her mother-in-law as an immaculate housekeeper and formidable woman of faith and compassion.

"She was an encourager," Carolyn said. "I actually met her first through her letters. When my husband and I had started dating, she started writing to me. Her letters weren't short and to the point like her diary. They were long and full of compassion, so I knew she was a remarkable woman before I met her."

In 1982, Betty and John relinquished their farm home to Carolyn and Dave and moved into town.

"I fully expected to find a house in Westbrook, but they said, 'No, if you're going to farm, you need to be on the farm,'" recalled Carolyn. "I always felt like I was under her watchful eye, because she was a meticulous housekeeper. But there were advantages. From the basement up, the house was immaculate when we moved in, and there was no question of organizing the kitchen. I just put things where Betty had them."

Because her Westbrook home is located so close to the Walnut Grove stomping grounds of famed author Laura Ingalls Wilder, Carolyn ties her tome into Wilder's historical perspective.

"I wanted to target people who had an interest in history," she explained. "And when our grandkids come to visit in the summer, one of their must-sees is always the Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove. They've probably been through it 10 times, but they will want to see the museum, still want to see the dugout and wade in Plum Creek if there's enough water. ... The Van Loh family came here 75 years later, and our roots are still sinking in. ... When I go into town and talk to people who are part of a third- or fourth-generation family, I feel like a newcomer. I learn new things all the time about our community."

In compiling the information for "A Place of Interest," Carolyn uncovered all kinds of historical tidbits about her community. The editor of the local newspaper, The Sentinel, allowed her to take home bound copies of issues since 1947.

"I guarded them with my life," she said. "But that way I could work on them at any time of day or night. It took me most of the summer of 2011 to do that, and I wish I could spend more time on it.

"... When I was researching the history of our farm, that was fascinating," continued Carolyn, who learned that the land was originally homesteaded by Norwegian immigrant Thorbjorn Torjuson in 1869. "That was seven years after the Dakota War, and where we live is between Lake Shetek and New Ulm, right on the path of the people who fled from the Shetek area. ... He didn't get married until 1894, so he was not a young man when he got married, but how many available women were around here in the 1870s?"

Carolyn signed a contract to self-publish the book in late 2011, but still had a lot of work ahead to get it into book form.

"Some of my chapters were rough -- rough drafts -- and some were maybe just a couple of paragraphs," she said. "But to sign the contract, I had to submit what I had, and then basically I had from then until the third week in June, when I submitted the completed manuscript."

Throughout the process, Carolyn relied on the memories of her husband and Dave's extended family to fill in the missing blanks and confirm what she surmised from Betty's diaries.

"There were lots of emails that flew back and forth," she said. "Dave has a brother who lives in southern Brazil and sisters who live in Colorado and the state of Washington. When I got a rough draft to a place where I felt comfortable to have someone besides my husband read it, I would shoot them a chapter, and they would review it. It was like I was ghostwriting this story. It was really fun, and every day I looked forward to the email banter back and forth."

When the final product was finally in hand, Carolyn received positive feedback from the family and from readers throughout the greater Westbrook community. Now she's marketing it a bit farther afield.

"I did this primarily for my family, but I included other things because it doesn't just affect our family," Carolyn said. "This book can be read on a number of different levels. I'd like to think that one of the top things that people pick up from it is that my mother-in-law was a very godly woman. That's my reason for starting each chapter with a Bible verse. And she was a praying woman. Whenever I was going to be traveling somewhere, she'd ask when I was leaving and when I would be getting there, and she would pray me there."

After getting "A Place of Interest" published, Carolyn has taken a break from writing and has yet to decide on her next project, although she's mulling some possibilities.

"I like big projects," she said. "I do write for The Land and the River Valley Extra (regional bi-weekly publications), but I like the big projects. I'm looking for just the right one."

Carolyn also enjoys speaking about her projects and interest in history. She has a presentation to a local Kiwanis club and a book signing event on her upcoming calendar and is open to more possibilities.

"I love talking about how I put the book together, or more broadly about preserving history," she said. "We are just surrounded by history."

"A Place of Interest" is currently available at The Hut in Slayton, the Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove; and online through Barnes and Nobles, Amazon and the publisher, www.winepresspublishing. Copies are also available directly through Carolyn Van Loh; phone (507) 274-6431, email Carolyn also has a Facebook page for the book:

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers

can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

(507) 376-7327