The Bear on the Stair & other fantabulous stories
“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.”
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, 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.
“I remembered the stories and did not want them to end, I owed it to her to pass them on,” says Mary, a renowned artist who lives in St. Louis. “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 Ingall Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. In fact, Glorious Fourth is published by The South Dakota Historical Society Press—Laura Ingall Wilder’s publisher.
“The coyotes were so quiet and thin that it was creepy. She 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.
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.”
Glorious Fourth of July is available from the South Dakota Historical Society Press, 900 Governors Drive, Pierre, South Dakota 57501, www.sdhspress.com
The paintings of Mary Gibson Sprague can be seen at marysprague.com
The Resale Evangelista cannot recommend this book highly enough. You will love it if you are a child, an art lover, a historian, or someone who grew up in the Midwest with the Little House on the Prairies book. Heck, you’ll love it no matter who you are.