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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published May 12 2012

Eriksmoen: Jazz singer Peggy Lee was once North Dakota depot agent

Prior to becoming the greatest white female jazz singer of the mid-20th century, Peggy Lee (Norma Egstrom) could often be found filling in as depot agent for the Midland Continental Railroad.

On May 26, what would have been her 92nd birthday, Peggy Lee will be remembered with the grand opening of the Midland Continental Depot Transportation Museum in Wimbledon, N.D., the depot where she frequently served as agent while her father was nursing a hangover.

Norma Deloris Egstrom was born May 26, 1920, in Jamestown, N.D., to Marvin and Selma (Anderson) Egstrom. Marvin was the Midland Continental Railroad agent and had a serious drinking problem. Years earlier, he had been a superintendent of the South Central Railroad in Sioux Falls, S.D., but was released for alcoholism.

When Norma was 4 years old, Selma became very ill after giving birth to her youngest child. Min Schaumberg was brought in to care for Selma. A year after Selma died, Marvin and Min were married. Norma took the loss of her mother very hard, and Min’s cruelty toward her young stepdaughter only made matters worse. The one area where Norma found joy was music and singing.

In 1925, her home in Jamestown burned down, and the Egstroms were forced to move in with Min’s parents.

In 1926, Marvin was demoted from his job in Jamestown for “fraud and larceny” and transferred to the smaller town of Nortonville, 28 miles south of Jamestown. The family lived upstairs in the depot. At Nortonville, Norma’s beatings at the hands of Min intensified. Once she was struck in the face with a razor strap, which left a scar that she bore for the rest of her life. In 1930, Norma lost a second home to fire when the depot burned down.

When Norma was 10, she suffered a ruptured appendix after Min failed to take her to a doctor. It was reported that shortly after she returned home from the hospital, Min punched Norma in the stomach.

To get out of her home and away from Min, Norma took many different jobs: baby sitting; cooking for threshing crews; feeding sheep, pigs and chickens; washing clothes; scrubbing floors; and delivering milk and eggs to neighbors. Her life began to have meaning when a neighbor lady taught her to play the piano and the Egstrom home received electricity, enabling them to purchase a radio. This allowed Norma to tune in to the music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and other big-band leaders.

When Norma was 14, the Midland depot in Wimbledon needed a new agent, and Marvin was hired.

Thankfully, Min was assigned agent at Millarton, so she was away from the Egstrom home much of the time.

Crossing the Midland tracks was the Soo Railroad, which increased duties for the depot agent. However, Marvin continued drinking, so Norma, who adored her father, would fill in when her father was unable to tend to the necessary duties. Norma “ran the bills of lading” and stoked the four stoves in the depot. She later commented, “Even at 14, I don’t think I did too badly at running the depot.”

While in Wimbledon, Norma sang in the church chorus and high school glee club.

In Valley City, N.D., Bob Ingstad established radio station KOVC and hired Lyle “Doc” Haines to provide live music on the air. Norma auditioned to sing with the Haines band and, after a trial run, was hired. Haines also employed Norma to do the vocals for his band at dances and other gigs.

Later in 1936, she was hired by the Jack Wardlaw orchestra. Wardlaw’s Carolina Tar Heels had opened for Guy Lombardo, and the band had accompanied legendary enchantress Josephine Baker at the Champs Elysees in Paris.

Norma was occasionally employed to sing over station KRMC in Jamestown. One of the people who heard her sing was Bill Sawyer, a baseball player for the Fargo-Moorhead Twins. He found out that Norma was also a waitress at the restaurant in the Gladstone Hotel and paid her a visit. After eating his meal he asked, “Would it be all right if I wrote you a letter?” Norma agreed, and soon they were corresponding on a regular basis.

After some time, he wrote that he was a good friend of the program director of WDAY, Ken Kennedy, and that he had arranged an audition for Norma. Sawyer drove to Jamestown and picked her up to take her to the tall Black Building in Fargo, where WDAY was located.

When the two arrived at the studio on the top floor, Norma became nervous. She later commented, “Bill literally had to push me in the door.” She impressed Kennedy, and he not only hired her but put her on the air that afternoon. He also gave her a new name – Peggy Lee.

At WDAY, Peggy received a regular singing spot on the “Noonday Variety Show.” She was also given other assignments playing Freckled Face Gertie on “Hayloft Jamboree” and singing with Len Hawkins and his Georgie Porgie Breakfast Food Boys. Additional tasks included filing music scores, sealing envelopes and wrapping packages of prizes that contestants had won.

None of this paid very much, so Peggy also got work across the street at Regan’s Bakery, where she sliced bread.

North Dakota, as well as the rest of the country, was in the midst of the Great Depression in 1938, and Peggy thought that she could do better financially elsewhere. One of her friends from Fargo had moved to Los Angeles and invited Peggy to come and stay with her. Her father, Marvin, provided a free rail pass and some money for the relocation.

When Peggy arrived in Los Angeles, she soon discovered that the Depression was just as bad there. Learning of a job as a cook and waitress in Balboa, 50 miles south of Los Angeles, she hitchhiked and the owner of the café found her a place to stay.

When her employment with the café was over, Peggy was hired as a barker for a nearby carnival. She then got a job singing at the Jade, a hot spot for music in Los Angeles.

Peggy was still a young teenager, and being naïve in the Los Angeles night life almost cost her dearly. After a close call with white slavers, Peggy decided she was not yet ready for Hollywood. She was almost pleased when a doctor advised her to return home.

Toward the end of 1938, Peggy boarded a train for Hillsboro, where two of her sisters lived. She firmly believed she would return to Hollywood and, when she did, she would be triumphant.

(Next week, we will continue our story about Peggy Lee.)

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.