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Pen pals for life

Women reconnect in person, were pen pals in the 1950s

There is a certain kind of magic in pen pal relationships, and that magic became a real gift when two young, 10-year-old girls from the early-to-mid-1950s reconnected in today’s world. It’s quite a story of friendship.

Audrey (left) and Beverly (right) were pen pals as 10-year-old girls back in the 1950s. They got together last month at a restaurant to reminisce and laugh about their early letters sent in the beginning of their friendship. Photo by Rachel Barduson

Audrey (Haben) Behrens lived on a farm near Appleton, Minnesota, and Beverly (Dahl) Toso lived on a farm near Hampden, North Dakota when the two became pen pals during the ‘50s. The Little Cooks page began with The Farmer magazine publication* and the “Let’s Cook with Gail” recipe series followed, inviting young people to join in a pen pal program.** By responding to an advertisement in the magazine, both girls received a cookbook and were invited to begin correspondence when they “picked a pal” from a list of people who wanted to participate.

“It wasn’t free. It cost, I think, about $1.00 for the cookbook. My mom bought it for me,” Audrey explained. The cookbook was filled as each little cook clipped the featured recipes from the monthly issue of The Farmer magazine and carefully pasted their recipe onto each cookbook page. Beverly added, “I responded to The Farmer cookbook advertisement without telling anyone. When I got the postcard back from the publisher my mom asked, ‘What are you doing now?’ I don’t remember how I paid for it.” It was a pretty big deal for a couple of little girls who knew that growing up on a farm didn’t allow for any frills.

Clippings from the magazine that helped Audrey and Beverly connect in the 1950s. The girl with a circle next to her name is Beverly. Photo by Rachel Barduson

But, this seemed like a pretty neat thing to do, and so, the “Let’s Cook with Gail” pen pal friendship began, and flourished. The girls exchanged recipes and wrote about what they were doing on the farm, how they helped their mom and dad at home, 4-H and church activities. They wrote about school, and of course, boys. “I remember you writing about your boyfriend, and I wondered what it would be like to have a ‘steady’ one,” Audrey said.

As the girls began to grow up, school and life changed along with it. Both left their childhood homes after high school. “I tried to get to your wedding in 1961. My parents were going to let me go, but there was no bus connection,” Audrey told Beverly.

It was 1961 when Beverly married, moved, and started a family. Audrey also married and moved to Idaho. Audrey came back to Minnesota in 1965 and has lived in Alexandria ever since.

Flash forward to today and the world of the Internet, Facebook and online connections. “I was downsizing and going through boxes of memorabilia and things I have saved through the years. When I found Beverly’s wedding invitation I was excited because it gave me Beverly’s married name, and I thought maybe I could find her,” Audrey said, continuing, “I found other things I had saved from Beverly. A whole flood of memories of that time came rushing back. I missed her, and I wondered if I could find her.”

And so, in much the same way as a genealogist begins research, Audrey began her search for a long-lost friend. She found an online obituary with the name Toso and realized this was Beverly’s husband. The obituary also mentioned Alexandria. She realized Beverly wasn’t that far away.

Saved letters and clippings from “Let’s Cook with Gail” made the reunion more enjoyable for Audrey and Beverly. Photos by Rachel Barduson

Soon, Audrey realized that one of her friends on Facebook was also a friend with Beverly. “And then, I discovered we had only been 20 miles apart for the past 36 years,” Audrey explained. Beverly lived in Hoffman. Both worked in Alexandria throughout those years. And yet, their paths never crossed.

Once the Facebook connection happened, it didn’t take long for Audrey to contact Beverly and schedule a reunion. Lunch dates have begun. Comparing their “Let’s Cook with Gail” recipe books, reminiscing over pictures and correspondence…it almost seems like they never lost touch.

They both still refer to their cookbooks, “Among many other recipes, I still use the chicken stuffing and peach cobbler recipe,” Audrey said. “The barbecue hamburgers, the Baby Ruth cookies,” Beverly added. It’s fun to compare recipes, but the lasting friendship that has now become a brand-new connection is the bonus. The “Let’s Cook with Gail” series ended, but the friendship remained.

“You were my only pen pal,” Beverly told Audrey as they sat recently over lunch.

“Life happens, and here we are,” Audrey said. “We can’t lose each other again,” Beverly added.

* Founded in 1882, The Farmer grew from a small publication produced by Edward A. Webb and his wife into a large circulation of over 175,000. For more than 100 years, it was published by the Webb Company in St. Paul, reflecting the mindset of its founder. Webb wanted his publication to be a resource for farmers. The farmers could write to the magazine with questions and know that they would receive expert advice in return. It also sought to entertain farm families across the Northwest. Issues included comic strips, brainteasers for children, and order forms for patterns of the latest fashions. Spiritual advisors had regular columns. Webb died in 1915, and his two partners, Albert Harmon and Horace Klein, continued to build on its success. The company that E.A. Webb began with no more employees than himself and his wife grew to have more than 300 employees by the time it was bought out in 1986. In 1992, The Farmer, in an attempt to increase revenue, became USAgriculture. The next year, after being sold to Farm Progress, a publisher of agriculture and ranching magazines, The Farmer returned to its old name, but it is no longer produced in St. Paul.

** and The “Let’s Cook with Gail” series began in 1952, written by 11-year-old Gail Palmby from Blue Earth, Minnesota. Each cookbook contained some printed pages and was then to be filled by cutting out recipes from the monthly issues of The Farmer.

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