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Cavalier resident honored for more than 30 years of interviewing people, collecting their stories

Posted 2/14/24 (Wed)

By Delaney Otto

February 03, 2024 

CAVALIER, N.D. — Matt Werven has spent more than 30 years connecting with people across the region, speaking with them about their lives and experiences. More than 700 interviews later, his work has been recognized with a state award.

“I didn't expect any reward of any kind,” he said.

Werven, of Cavalier, received the 2023 Excellence in Local History Award for his work conducting these hundreds of interviews over the course of his life. He received the award at the Pembina County Historical Museum from State Historical Society Director William Peterson during the annual meeting of the Pembina County Historical Society.

The interviews he recorded have been donated to the SHSND to be digitized and made available to the public, with the caveat that an interview is not released until the person interviewed dies.

“They stuck by their promise,” Werven said. “I just love the guys down there. They made me feel happy.”

The interviews began in 1985, when Werven focused on interviewing people born in the 1920s and 1930s, talking with them about the pioneer experience. As the years moved forward, he spoke more with people born in the 1940s and 1950s. While some biographies focus on war stories, Werven is more interested in the experiences of people who lived through the Great Depression, droughts, and the times in history with no electricity or plumbing.

He has a few stories that still stick with him — mostly what he refers to as “undertaker” stories. Among them are stories about a man being wrongfully blamed for a woman’s death, a woman’s corpse falling off a wagon while on the way to the funeral home, and, later, her family having to slide her husband’s corpse down the stairs from the second story. There was the woman accidentally poisoning the children she was babysitting with toxic canned peas and a young girl giving her new white dress to another little girl to wear during her funeral.

“(People) told me a lot of hard-luck stories because the day they had an ice cream cone or something nice happened, that wasn’t interesting,” Werven said. “They wanted to tell me about the hard times, how it was, what it was like.”

He’s still conducting interviews to this day, and says they’re a piece of history that may have never been known had he not sat down and talked with people. Now, he said, someone could listen to their grandma or other family member and learn about what they had to go through, or how they lived.

“It’s so educational,” he said. “All this knowledge, what (people have) done, would’ve been wasted.”

Werven’s work wasn’t just recognized the day he received the award, but also a story of his own in the form of a 1948 UTS Minneapolis Moline tractor that his family donated to the Pembina County Historical Museum. Werven rode the tractor from Pembina County to Bismarck to be part of the 1989 North Dakota Centennial Parade.

Werven said he almost wasn’t able to get into the parade, as he had called to register after the registry was finished. However, then-state legislator Sebastian “Buckshot” Hoffner had declared the Minneapolis Moline the Centennial Tractor, and when Werven clarified that was exactly the tractor he was planning to bring, he was allowed to be a part of the parade. He’s glad the museum accepted the tractor.

“They brought it out and put it right in front of the museum,” he said. “That was really nice of them to do that. It really made my day.”