A novelist at 99:

NEW ULM – “The year 1862 is indelibly impressed in my memory, for in that year, the blood-thirsty Indians descended into the Minnesota Valley, killing and plundering…”

This dramatic sentence – which should be read in the context of its times – opens a famous eyewitness account of the US – Dakota War of 1862 by Katherina Gropper Baehr, known locally as Kati Groper, a 10-year old pioneer girl who survived the war.

Kati, at that time attending school in Turner Hall, witnessed the Sioux attacks on the new settlement. She lived through the confusion of those tense days, the building of barricades and drama of battle… She ran and hid with other women and children in the crowded Erd basement and joined in the settlement’s evacuation. She ultimately reached St. Peter, where her mother and siblings reunited with her father.

Katherina, the eldest of five children of Peter Gropper, a blacksmith, and his wife Anna Maria, was born in New York City in 1852. The family came to New Ulm in 1857. Her father operated a machine shop in a building on the site of the Pennsylvania House (later, a Masonic hall).

Katherina first wrote her memoir for the Minneapolis Freie Presse-Herald, a German language newspaper published in the Mill City. The newspaper was edited by her husband Carl Baehr, previously employed at the New Ulm Post, also a German weekly.

Katherina had married Carl in 1873. The previous year, she had been engaged as the first teacher of the newly-opened South Primary School in New Ulm. The Baehrs had three daughters and a son.

The son, C. A. Baehr, went to West Point, served in the Field Artillery during both World Wars and reached the rank of brigadier general. His elder daughter, Katherine “Kay” B. St. John, would carry on more than just her grandmother’s name…

The Brown County Historical Society (BCHS) is printing a new book called “The Key to Kati’s House.”

Written by Kay St. John, of Fort Belvoir, Va., and illustrated by Kay’s daughter Helen St. John, of Alexandria, Va., the book is a fictional rendition of Kati’s memoir. It covers the time from Aug. 18 to Aug. 28, 1862.

The novel is intended for young readers, ages 10-14. It contains 18 chapters and five illustrations. Bibliography is provided by the author. The 104-page book will come out in a trade paperback format. The publication date is late August.

The book has a fascinating story of its own.

The manuscript was completed in 1987 but never saw publication.

“About 30 years ago Kay left the manuscript with me at the BCHS,” recounts BCHS Research Librarian Darla Gebhard, who, coincidentally, has used the same material, Kati’s memoir, to write the text of the popular Kati Gropper Walking Tour that the BCHS conducts for children.

“Kay was going to pursue a publisher out east where she lived,” remembers Gebhard. Kay wanted to know Gebhard’s opinion of the manuscript.

At the time, the BCHS had just moved into its location on Broadway and Center Streets, and wasn’t actively publishing.

“I tucked the manuscript away in a drawer,” says Gebhard. “There it sat for 30 years, and I assumed Kay had found a publisher or self-published it in a small run. However, I’d never seen the book in print.

“Last month at the BCHS publications committee meeting, we were talking about publishing something for young readers. I recalled the manuscript, and they told me to pursue the rights to it. I googled the St. John family and found Helen St. John, the daughter of the author. I called her and to my surprise found out that Kay St. John was still alive at the age of 99!

“She has given us the rights to her manuscript, and we will be publishing it… Kay is a delight to talk to… Her daughter Helen illustrated the book, and the line drawings are just delightful.”

The BCHS plans to test the waters with a small print run, perhaps about 250 copies, to be printed by Martin Luther College. More copies would be printed as dictated by demand.

Gebhard and several BCHS members, including historians, published authors and two librarians, are collaborating on editing and proofing the manuscript. They are clearing up minor historic inaccuracies, regularizing punctuation, etc.

As I leafed through the manuscript, I kept thinking Kay St. John must have inherited her grandmother’s flare for the dramatic and story-telling gift. Or, perhaps, St. John got these traits from her newsman grandfather. The concise sentences in the novel’s short, pithy chapters paint a vivid picture; a style likely to appeal to its intended tween readers.

St. John’s telephone manner proved as “delightful” as Gebhard had promised. Kay’s soft voice wound through the stories of a long life, lived all over the map, as she moved, first with her military father, then with her husband Larry St. John, whom she met when he was a combat engineer.

Kay attended eight different elementary schools and two different high schools. Close to her elder brother, who helped her transition between schools, she was also an avid equestrian; perhaps a reflection of her father’s heritage.

She graduated from high school in 1932 and the Oklahoma College for Women in 1936 and took her first, teaching job in Tulsa, Okla. A school doctor noted her strength in the sciences and encouraged her to become a medical technologist. After completing a year’s training, she joined the Civil Service and worked at an army hospital in Temple, Texas. She met Larry just before World War II; the couple were married in 1947.

They lived in Alexandria, Va.; Norfolk, Va.; Germany; San Francisco, Calif.; Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, and had a daughter, Helen.

Kay had assisted at a children’s library and enjoyed it; the experience prompted her to earn a master’s degree in library science at Catholic University. Soon after, she was hired as an elementary school librarian. Kay worked with gifted children; it sharpened her story-telling skills.

“I loved books and children,” Kay says.

The story that ended up as a manuscript grew out of anecdotes she told and the accompanying research.

The book “sort of grew out of scraps,” to quote its author.

The information that would eventually be woven into it accrued by bits and pieces, as Kay’s interests led her to study family history, do research at the Library of Congress and archives, and question surviving relatives.

Various experiences melded to form the background for the book – living surrounded by Civil War history in Virginia; writing a college paper on pioneer outposts and forts in the Midwest; an interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder and her illustrators, who served as the topic for Kay’s master’s thesis; of course, reading Kati Gropper’s memoir…

Kay did not have many meaningful interactions with her grandmother. She met Katherina three times; once as a toddler, which she barely remembers, and twice more, when she was 9, 10 or 11. By then, Katherina was frail, and the daughter she lived with in Minneapolis was excessively protective of her, limiting interactions, remembers Kay.

“I wish I had known her better,” says Kay.

“I remember Mother writing the book in the early 1980s, shortly after she retired from being an elementary school librarian,” remembers Kay’s daughter Helen, whose elegant black-and-white drawings lend a period-style appeal to the book.

“I first heard about Kati when I was recovering from the chicken pox when I was a little girl; Mother was telling me stories to keep me quiet,” says Helen.

“The next time I remember her talking about it was when I was in elementary school and was given Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘The Little House on the Prairie.’ Mother was interested at first because she had lived in Oklahoma’s former Indian Territory; when she began to read the book, she found Ma Ingalls referring to the Sioux Uprising…”

“I was interested in drawing as a child and did some art classes in school; I liked the illustrations of Tasha Tudor and Garth Williams, who did the illustrations for the ‘Little House’ series. I didn’t follow up with art courses beyond high school but, for a time, I kept drawing in notebooks. My interests gradually turned to calligraphy.

“I know that Mother did research in the Library of Congress; I accompanied her, doing research for my own academic projects. Mother, her younger sister Betty, and I visited New Ulm and the Historical Society, where we saw the muster list of the defenders and found Peter Gropper’s name. I slightly remember Mother asking some of her older cousins what they knew about their Grandmother, but I think they just sent copies of the interviews Katie had done for ‘Duncan’s Doings,’ a newsletter one son-in-law’s company published.”

As for Helen, she went to the College of William and Mary where she majored in history, and her interests changed from American to late Medieval history. She ultimately got at Ph.D. in medieval studies from the University of Toronto.

Kay tried to find a publisher for the book once or twice, but did not succeed. Life took its course, and between relocations, health issues and losses (including Larry’s death from a condition that resulted from his war service in New Guinea), she forgot about the book.

Imagine her shock on receiving the BCHS call.

“I was surprised and pleased,” says Kay. “I said, you are making this up! It’s a story; I’ll believe it when I see it.”

It seems, she’s closer to seeing and believing than she ever hoped.

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