Ma Porter and Her Parrot

Witten July 12, 1995 by Helen Nolden

Many years ago, in early Anamoose, a woman named Ma Porter came to town. She soon owned a hotel that stood on the east side of Main Street where Thurow's Garage used to be.

The way I hear, her hotel was quite a busy place. The Soo Line Railroad began surveying and laying tracks in the 1890s, and by 1898, Anamoose was a bustling community. The railroad company built the section house, depot, windmill and water tank for the new black steam engines that would soon be the mainstream of Anamoose in those early years.

All of this was followed by stores, homes and elevators, so Mrs. Porter had a lot of railroad men staying at her hotel. I read in one of the old 1905 minutes of the city council meeting that Marshall Roll was called to her hotel to settle fights among the girls who were also staying at her place of business. In the early years, they never referred to the chief of police as the cop; they always called Mr. Roll, the marshall. He rode a beautiful brown horse.

I don’t know when Mrs. Porter moved into the house that Steve and Pam Heim live in today, and I don’t recall when she married a man named Ole Olson, but they seemed to be a volatile couple. I asked a lot of people in Anamoose if they knew what her first name was, but they all knew her as either Ma Porter or Ma Olson.

However, it wasn’t Ma Olson that attracted the children of the city to her doorstep as much as it was the big green parrot she owned. As a child, I spent many hours sitting on the back porch of Ma Olson’s house talking to the parrot, whose name was Polly. When you whistled and clapped your hands, Polly would dance on her perch. She would sway back and forth, bob her head, and turn circles while she imitated your whistling. She could really give the wolf whistle very loud.

Polly loved sun seeds, so there were always a lot of shells on the sidewalk near her cage. If you put your finger inside her cage, she would shake hands with you all the while she was saying “Pretty Polly”. For the most part, she was a friendly bird, but Ma Olson had taught her to scold the children if they had bare legs. Polly would say, “Shame, shame,” and she would really screech at you if you were wearing shorts. For some reason, Ma Olson thought it improper to show your legs. Back in those days, girls did wear dresses and anklets, so there was some bare leg showing. Between Polly and her owner, we certainly got reprimanded a lot, but we still went over to see Polly.

We also gathered that Mr. and Mrs. Olson had numerous quarrels with a lot of name calling between them. Polly could really swear like a trooper if she set her mind to it. Some of the people in town that I talked to said that some of the railroad men had taught Polly a lot of bad things too.

In the spring and fall, when school was in session and the weather was nice, a lot of children would run across the street from the old red brick schoolhouse to Ma Olson’s where we would talk to Polly. It would just amaze me when she talked; it sounded like a person was doing the talking instead of this green bird.

One time Polly got out of her cage and flew up on top of Martin Hublou’s elevator. What a lot of excitement! A lot of people from town gathered over there and Ma Olson was crying. Finally, in her own sweet time, Polly flew home. She was put back in her cage and all was well again. It seemed like the whole town breathed a sigh of relief!

Somewhere along the line, Ole Olson had gotten into trouble and served a few years in the Bismarck Penitentiary. Years age, they used to have tours through the prison in certain areas. I had gone down to visit the Fiest family back there in the 30s. Mike Beck, who was formerly from Anamoose, was a guard at the pen and, as our guide for the day, told us not to talk to any of the prisoners. Of course, that went right over this teen’s head. When I saw Ole, I said hello. He was working in a place where they made pins, brooches and rings out of really hard celluloid. I don’t know why, but he quickly handed me a ring, which I immediately put in my pocket. I don’t know if the guard saw it or not, but he didn’t say anything, so I kept it. It was black with a red set in it and many years ago, I gave it to my daughter Barbara.

When Ma Olson died, Father O’Donaghue bought Polly from the Olson estate. He liked Polly and hated to give her up, but he just couldn’t keep her because she would swear at people when they came over to the parsonage. I asked people in Anamoose if anyone knew where she ended up, but no one remembered. I do know that Polly was very old. For the many years she spent in our little city, she provided the children with a lot of entertainment back in those poor years. Young and old would stop and talk to this crazy green bird who had a pretty big vocabulary.

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