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Play tells of woman’s life in Jewish pioneer settlement near Devils Lake

Jeff Firth, president of the North Dakota Chautauqua Association, intoduces actress Kate Fuglei via Skype at a press conference Thursday in Devils Lake. Fuglei is bring her one-woman show, "The Rachel Calof Story" to the Robert E. Fawcett Aiditorium at Lake Region State College in June.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD

DEVILS LAKE — The story of Rachel Calof, a Jewish pioneer who homesteaded in a 12-by-14-foot shack — along with her new husband, her in-laws and their children — on the harsh plains north of Devils Lake in the 1890s and early 1900s is coming home.

“Rachel Calof: A Memoir with Music,” is a one-woman play that will be performed June 20-21 at the Robert E. Fawcett Auditorium at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake.

The solo theatrical event, starring actress Kate Fuglei, is based on Calof’s memoir, “Rachel Calof’s Story,” which was published in 1995. She wrote the memoir at the age of 55, while living in St. Paul. It was discovered by her children after her death.

The play, which has been performed in Los Angeles, New York City and St. Paul, was arranged for the stage by Fuglei’s husband, Ken Lazebnik, and is directed by Ellen S. Pressman. Music and lyrics are by Leslie Steinweiss.

The Jewish farming colony, located near present-day Garske, N.D., faded into history, and several of the settlers moved to Devils Lake, where they established businesses. Others, like the Calofs, moved on.

All that remains of that Jewish settlement is a tiny cemetery, Sons of Jacob Cemetery, which has been restored over the past decade. The performance is sponsored by the the North Dakota Chautauqua Association, the Sons of Jacob Community and Lake Region Heritage Center in Devils Lake.

A formal announcement of the summer event was made Thursday.

“The whole thing has been an honor and we’re very excited to be bringing this story to the place where it was born,” Fuglei said through a Skype interview from California, where she lives.

Universal themes

The Devils Lake performance was initiated by four Devils Lake-area residents, Mike and Ellen Connor and Rick and Shirley LaFleur, who saw it in St. Paul last August and met with members of Calof’s extended family, as well as Fuglei and the production team.

“Even though we live just over a mile from the Sons of Jacob cemetery and have the opportunity to visit it quite often, it was awesome to sit in the theater and hear Rachel’s words come to life, visualizing a barren treeless prairie, pitch dark when the sun set, bitter cold in the winter, scalding hot in the summer and looking at the outline of their shanty home on the stage,” Connor said.

Fuglei, who said she always has had an interest in women in the west, discovered the memoir about 10 years ago.

“I was completely captivated by the story, not only because of its historical significance, and the unusual nature of it,” she said. “Often times we hear the story of immigrants and of Jewish immigrants, and we hear about the Lower East Side in New York, the tenements, and I’m also very interested in that. But I had never known that Jewish settlers lived in North Dakota.

“I think what really makes the play great is that it’s very specific about the details, the history, the specificity of being in Devils Lake, N.D., in the 1890s,” she said. “But I also think there’s a great universality about the play. It deals with things that we’re all still dealing with today — how do you handle a nasty mother-in-law, how do you deal with a relationship that’s maturing and, if you will, an empty nest syndrome. What happens when two people grow apart and have different interests later on in life. Does their marriage continue? What do you do about that? How do you integrate yourself into a new family of in-laws?

“So, there are many issues in the play that I think are relevant to men and to women and to relationships today. And I think that’s another reason it really speaks to people.”

Kevin Bonham

Kevin Bonham covers regional news, mostly from northeast North Dakota, for the Grand Forks Herald. A North Dakota native who grew up in Mandan and Dickinson, he has been a reporter or an editor with the Herald and Forum Communications for more than 30 years. Find his articles at: He welcomes story ideas via email,, or by phone, (701) 780-1110.  

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