The Bear on the Stair: Tales of the Prairie, with Paintings

Journalist Susan Caba wrote this book review. She first published it on her blog: http://www.resaleevangelista.wordpress.com. Susan is one of my co-authors of the book Guilty Pleasures.

“As I was walking through our house one night, a smelly, fierce, roaring black bear appeared out of a dark corner and chased me up the stairs. He almost caught me.”

The bear in question had quite a few teeth and a long, pink tongue which he waggled as he roared at the bottom of the curving staircase.

“I ran as fast as I could, slammed the door on his nose, and leaped to safety deep beneath the covers of my bed. The bear made one last horrible roar and left.”

Bear on the Stair

The words belong to Catherine Augusta Rademacher Gibson, recalling a tale told to her as a child by her grandmother in a little house in South Dakota. The vivid watercolor of the bear is hers, too, painted by Catherine many years later, as she grew old.

“Even now, I get goose bumps when I think of that bear. Mom’s sister, Aunt Clara, told me that I had a wild imagination. She did not mean it as a compliment.”

Though Catherine died in 1996, her “wild imagination” lives on.

Her watercolors and stories have just been published in a book, Glorious Fourth of July and Other Stories from the Plains. Catherine recounted the tales to her two daughters so they would sit still while she braided their hair. Later still, she made what she called “memory paintings” of these childhood stories. They were exhibited, in 1992, at the Mitchell Museum in Mount Vernon, Ill. Her friends told her she should make a book.

Catherine never got around to following their suggestion. But her daughter,  renowned St. Louis artist Mary Gibson Sprague, kept the paintings and remembered the stories. Finally, in honor of her mother, she gathered the work, researched the stories for historical accuracy and, two years later, the result is Glorious Fourth.

Glorious Fourth cover

I remembered the stories and did not want them to end, I owed it to her to pass them on,” says Mary, now in her 80s. “Mother taught me to see creatively…from baseball to gumdrops, she paid attention to the world around her.”

Each of the 32 paintings tells a story, recalled from Catherine’s childhood in the early 1900s, about life on the plains of South Dakota and Montana. Glorious Fourth is sure to beguile children, but will also be appreciated by historians, art enthusiasts and anyone who grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilders Little House on the Prairie books. In fact, Glorious Fourth is published by The South Dakota Historical Society Press—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s publisher.

“The coyotes were so quiet and thin that it was creepy. Shep barked harder and we walked faster. The coyotes drew closer. Finally, Shep laid his ears back, faced the animals and bared his surprisingly large, white teeth.”

The book tells tales of menace—a circling pack of coyotes, cyclones, and an Indian who showed up unannounced, but only wanted to borrow a needle. There are stories of everyday entertainments—dancing the Mazurka on the parlor rug, telling ghost stories during a thunderstorm, ice skating on empty lots flooded by the Watertown Fire Department. And then, of course, there was mischief—but I’ll leave that for you to discover.GranPa's beard

Catherine was a master of composition and color. These watercolors, painted between 1986 and 1989, are edgy and fresh—a mash-up of Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse, with a dollop of Keith Haring. They are as alive as stained glass windows on a sunny day.

She studied art at the University of Minnesota, met and married her husband, Verne Cyril Gibson, and graduated in 1929. Verne—known as “Gib”— took a job as an engineer with the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which became the U.S. Coast Guard. With two daughters in tow, the family followed his assignments to lighthouse stations around the country, finally settling in San Francisco. Catherine painted when she could and joined the artistic community in every place they lived.

When Gib retired, Catherine could finally paint full-time. And, during the last few years of Gib’s life, when he was ill and housebound, she made her memory paintings to pass the time and cheer him up. In doing so, she created vivid images and stories that made the past come alive—and seem magical.

“During the making of this book, I realized these stories are more than a collection of one family’s anecdotes,” says Mary Gibson Sprague. “They belong to any family that ever had the imagination to move from place to place in search of a better life.”

If there is one trait that defined Catherine Augusta Rademacher Gibson, it was imagination.

“One day, Dad came home (and) the back seat of his car was soaking wet, while, oddly, the front half was completely dry. He said he had driven home so fast that the line storm could not get past him…my daughters decided that I made this story up. I finally painted a picture to show them how it happened. They said I made the picture up, too.”

granpas storm art

Glorious Fourth of July is available from the South Dakota Historical Society Press, 900 Governors Drive, Pierre, South Dakota 57501, www.sdhspress.com

High resolution images available.

The paintings of Mary Gibson Sprague can be seen at marysprague.com

Tell me: Who is the historian (writing and/or painting) in your family? How about you?

Author: cathyluh

I am a retired internal medicine physician and a working writer. I live with my husband in St. Louis.

4 thoughts on “The Bear on the Stair: Tales of the Prairie, with Paintings”

  1. My grandmother, Agnes Caba, spent a good portion of her last few years compiling scrapbooks of family photographs with her handwritten captions and identifications on each picture. She wasn’t an artist, but she was, nonetheless, preserving family history and stories. A reminder that every family has stories to be savored and saved, all the more so in this electronic age when photos can disappear into the ether and never be seen again.

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  2. Both my parents were born and raised in SD but emigrated to the Washington DC area shortly after I was born. They did not talk much of their early years but their few stories were ones of privation during the Depression. We made annual automobile treks (3 days each way) to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, but I always felt like an outsider and opted out when given the chance as a teen. Later in life I made the journey a few times to connect with remaining family members. My mother was a very talented oil painter, as well as needlework and other crafts, but she did nothing related to SD. For a brief period I fooled around with oils and once, from a snapshot, painted a picture of my grandparents’ farm house. My grandmother apparently liked it and kept in her room during her last years in the nursing home. I felt good about that. I’ve also written a few memoirish things based on my parents’ anecdotes, including a poem to celebrate my mother’s 100th birthday.

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