Betty Ann Barr Boilesen

Entertainment growing up in Elba, Nebraska


By Doug Boilesen, son of Betty Ann Barr Boilesen


Betty was born in 1924 and grew up on a 640 acre farm which they called "River Ranch" as it was located next to the North Loup River. She never lived in a town until high school, however Elba, Cotesfield, Dannevirke, St. Paul and Grand Island each would have influences on her entertainment experiences while growing up.



As described in Betty Ann's story The Hour of Charm, the radio was an important source of entertainment for Betty and her parents just as it was for other rural Nebraskan's who didn't have access to professional entertainment other than the occasional traveling show or band.

When Betty was around 14 she stayed at the Keller's house as her parents had gone to York for the Golden Anniversary of her Grandparents. She knew that her Dad and brothers were giving her grandparents a radio for an anniversary present so she called up to the radio station and requested them to play "Silver Threads Among the Gold," then she listened and waited to hear it play, proudly thinking that someone at the party would probably hear the dedication from Betty Ann Barr to her grandparents.


1933 RCA R-28 Cathedral style tube radio




In the summers there were weekend silent moving pictures shown in Elba during the teens and 1920's. Since there was no movie theatre in Elba, the movies were projected against the side of the Elba grocery store and people sat in the empty lot next to the store on benches and blankets. I don't think Mom remembered any of those silent movies in the 1920's as she was much younger than her siblings. But movies did become part of her entertainment world in the 1930's and her story titled The Blue Hat - Going to the Picture Show takes place on a shopping outing to Grand Island and includes her going to see Heidi starring Shirley Temple.

Mom's older step-brother Chris who was born in 1907, however, does have a story about those outdoor Elba silent movies that he watched in the early1920's.

According to Chris he would ride his horse to Elba on a Saturday night when the weather was good and if it a movie was going to be shown. This would have been about a 2.5 mile ride from his mom's family farm outside of Elba. Though not a great distance he still would have been a teenager and it would have been quite dark as there were no farm yard lights since the Rural Electrication Administration did not yet exist. Lighting for his journey therefore would have been primarily the light of the moon. But that was no deterrent for Chris as he felt there was nothing better than watching a good western moving picture on a Saturday night.

I don't know the name of the movie or who the star was (perhaps Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, William S. Hart or some other movie star of the day) but Uncle Chris remembered a particular movie from some western serial (1) which left him quite distraught. When the movie's single reel ended for the night the situation was dire: the cowboy and and his horse were stuck in quicksand and they were slowly sinking to certain death.

Tom Mix, The Best Bad Man 1925


What scared Uncle Chris and what he said he couldn't understand was how that unfortunate cowboy was going to survive all week in that quicksand.

Now he probably told me that story with a smile that I didn't notice as I was young and he might have thought I wouldn't get the disconnect that this was only a movie. Or perhaps when he originally saw it he really was worried all week about the fate of that cowboy. Suspended belief, after all, has its own reality.

Either way, movies were an important part of entertainment in the 1920's even in a small village like Elba. The new wonder of moving pictures had a unique power to captivate audiences and make lasting impressions.



Dannevirke was a small town in Howard County, Nebraska near Elba that was settled in the 1880's and was named, of course, by the Danish immigrants that settled there which included my great grandparents. It's a town that my Dad wrote about in his story Growing Up - My Danish Heritage. When we visited what remained of Dannebrog in the 1990's I learned that my mom used to attend dances there when she was growing up. Interestingly, it was here that she would sometimes see Dad at a dance but I didn't hear that they ever actually danced together.

The Community Hall is one of the few buildings still standing in Dannevirke so we photographed it with Mom at the door as a reminder of where she had loved to dance and of course for its connection to the man who would be her future husband.

Dannevirke Community Hall ca. 1992



My grandparents loved to play cards and it's a tradition they passed down to Mom and her siblings and in turn has been passed down to succeeding generations. Canasta and Hearts were my grandmother's favorite card games. I think of my grandfather as more of a Pitch player. My impression was that the women of my grandparents generation played card games with their women friends and that the men played with their men friends.

My grandpa Barr left me with several important principles in playing cards:

"Bid 'em high and sleep in the streets" was intended to remind me to not be overly cautious in my bidding. I don't think he ever further explained that in general you have to bid to win (because he was basically a man of few words).

"Cut 'em thin, sure to win" was another piece of advice apparently built on the belief that luck and the cards dealt have a direct relationship with how you cut the deck.

Finally, if the game was getting out of reach go ahead and "shoot the moon". The final score didn't matter if we ended up in the hole and the risk was worth it because there was always a chance that we could get lucky.

My grandma Barr had other ways to turn the tide if the cards weren't going very well. Her advice was to get out of your chair and walk around the table, counter-clockwise, to reverse the direction the game was going. I'm not sure she had a magic number of times to walk around the table but I like the number three (3) as it has the most folktale/popular culture associations for me, e.g, three wishes, what's behind door number 3 (i.e., Let's Make a Deal aka The Monty Hall Problem), three little pigs, three bears, three billy goats gruff, three blind mice, three strikes and you're out, etc.).

Grandma Barr was also one who paid attention to where the split in the table was for the leaves. My grandparents had a round oak table where cards were always played and it had multiple leaves that could be added for family and holiday meals (which were taken out if cards were to be played). The line that divided those two halves was said by my grandmother to be a good place to be aligned when you played cards.

My grandparents didn't have a bathtub in their house but for some reason my mom later added to the table alignment strategy by saying that the chances of good hands could be increased by partners in cards being seated in alignment with the bathtub's direction in the house. My dad and mom played a lot of bridge so maybe that alignment was part of their game plan. I don't remember ever actually implementing that as a corrective action if the cards went bad. For me, circling the table 3 times counterclockwise seemed the only logical countermeasure to bad cards.


Phonograph and Records

When Mom was growing up only one of her neighbors had a phonograph. She later wrote about hearing that phonograph: "When we visited them, sometimes during the evening we would all go to the parlor and listen to a few records. What wonderful phonograph memories."

As to her own home, they never had a phonograph or records although like everyone else they did have a radio and much of the entertainment on a radio was courtesy of the Phonograph. So in a way she listened to records all of her life.

For the story about one of the more memorable songs she remembers from her youth, see her story "Shuffle Off to Buffalo."


Listen to Shuffle Off to Buffalo courtesy of TCM on Youtube.



Checkers, cards, and parcheesi are games I know were played in the Anna and Manley Barr home. They had a Carrom board with pool sticks and red and green wooden rings and on the other side there was a checkerboard, which I believe was simliar to this Carrom Viking "Q" from the late 1930's.



Parcheesi game board, ca 1938 (1)




Mom also told the story of the mysterious powers of the Ouija board which she saved for use only when a girlfriend would spend the night. It was probably during one of those stay-overs that an Ouija board confirmed who she was going to marry.


This Ouija Mystery Board from a Montgomery Wards & Co. Catalogue in 1930




A game mom said that she always wanted to play growing up was croquet. Perhaps she had been inspired by a croquet image or a story that she had read. On their farm there was a flat, weedy area close to their house that she always wanted to keep mowed as a potential croquet court. They never did own a croquet set and although that field was mowed by their goat it never did host a croquet match.

Years later, however, croquet games would be played on her own backyard lawn in the suburbs of Lincoln, Nebraska. On that court playing croquet would become a family tradition particularly after a holiday or birthday party dinner.


Alice playing croquet with flamengo and hedgehog, 1865 John Tenniel

Norman Rockwell, September 5, 1931





The newspaper featured comic strips that were something everyone in the family looked forward to reading.. Bringing Up Father, Little Orphan Annie, Mary Worth, Gasoline Alley, L'il Abner, Mutt & Jeff, The Katzenjammer Kids and many more.


Bringing Up Father by George McManus, June 4, 1930


Mutt & Jeff by Bud Fisher


September 22, 1936 by Harold Gray
Panel from Mickey Mouse's first comic strip, January 13, 1930


Mom had several Little Orphan Annie Big Little Books when she was growing up. I remember seeing some of these on my grandparents bookshelf in the 1950's, perhaps put there for the grandchildren to enjoy.


Whitman Publishing Company, 1935
Better Little Book 1948 (2)


Little Orphan Annie and Punjab the Wizard, The Big Little Book, 1935




Mom didn't have many dolls but her favorite was a Shirley Temple doll similiar to this doll from the 1930's. She also had a doll that she named "Beverly"... a name that she would later give to her own baby daughter.

For her most memorable Christmas story involving a doll, see her story The Christmas Dolls.

Shirley Temple ca. 1935


Paper dolls were a popular playtime activity for girls in the 1930's and Shirley Temple was naturally a favorite.




The Balky Mule was a tin toy made by Lehmann's between 1897 and 1938. It was one of the most common of the Lehmann wind-up toys. When I was very young I saw a toy simliar to this in a trunk in my aunt's garage in Elba. My aunt told me that the trunk had belonged to my mom. I don't know what happened to this toy or if The Balky Mule was the same windup toy that I saw in that garage.. A more likely toy for her was probably the "Balking Mule" (3) which was a Marx knock-off of the Lehmann toy.




Besides mom's Shirley Temple doll, the only toys that survived were a small wooden kitchen cabinet where she kept her doll's china, a wooden bed, a tin toy cook stove, some doll cups and sauces and a few small dolls including a hand-made stick doll in red clothes. I don't know if my grandfather made the cabinet and bed, and they may even have first belonged to my mom's older step-sister (which would make them ca.1912). These toys are now part of the Stuhr Museum collection in Grand Island, Nebraska.



Wooden doll's bed, homemade circa 1928

Wooden doll's kitchen cabinet, homemade circa 1928

Tin toy kitchen stove

Assorted small dolls

Mary had a little lamb doll china plates and sugar bowl



Growing up in rural Nebraska in the 1920's and 1930's was a time of significant changes and challenges. The USA would go from the Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression to entering World War II when Betty was in High School.

Home entertainment would see the rise of the radio's domination over the phonograph while movies would continue to redefine entertainment with the addition of talking pictures and Technicolor.

I believe Mom's most enjoyable entertainment, however, came from her own imagination and from the visits of relatives or girl friends coming out to their farm. She loved reading and writing (see an early poem from grade school in Education - Growing Up in Elba) and going to school where she could be with her friends. And she always looked forward to trips to the big city - Grand Island.

She also enjoyed simply observing strangers. She once described how she would stand by the railroad tracks near their farm as a young girl and watch the passenger train go by and look at the people sitting on the train and wonder who they were and where they were going.

Although her family would lose their "River Ranch' in the Depression and although her 'entertainment' opportunities may seem very limited compared to 21st century options, I think her world of entertainment, growing up where she did and in the time period that she did, resulted in experiences that she valued at the time and in later years which she enjoyed remembering and sharing with family and friends.