Dating over 100 years: Part II, It was simple

Dating over 100 years: Part II, It was simple


Shalee Hanson


The question: What was dating like then, and what is it like now?

I had the privilege of trying to answer this question by interviewing a few people who were married more than 50 years ago. Each story was quite different in details, but shockingly familiar in tone: things were simple.

Ninety-five-year-old Alma Schreiner met her late husband, Clayton, in 1938 at a dance in Guttenberg. The dance was held at Lakeside Ballroom, where there used to be dances every weekend.  She was graduated from high school and working her first job in Elkader at the time.

While she was dancing with another young gentleman, Clayton tapped her on the shoulder and requested the next dance. She waited out a song for Clayton to come to her, but he never did.

“I usually danced every dance, so after I waited for one song, I started dancing with someone else. Then I had a tap on my shoulder, and it was him. He said he wasn’t in the habit of getting cheated out of a dance, so I told him I wasn’t in the habit of waiting for anyone,” she laughed.

A few weeks after the dance, Clayton called on Alma to let her know that he was going to be coming from West Union to visit Elkader, where Alma lived, and he wanted to see her.  He pulled up to her house on a motorcycle with a sidecar.

“I guess that was our first date. We rode around Elkader on his motorcycle in the middle of a snowstorm,” Alma shared.

After knowing each other for a year, the couple was officially considered “going steady.” Though their relationship went through a few minor breaks, after another year they were married in 1940.

Grace and LaVerne Swenson of Clermont had a very different love story from Alma and Clayton.

They met behind a manure spreader when they were just 5 years old. They grew up near each other and went to school together all their lives. The couple was later married in 1959.

“I think we were sophomores when we officially started going steady,” Grace shared.

The couple spent most of their dates attending movies, enjoying band concerts, and playing games with their families. For the early part of their relationship, LaVerne had to walk to see Grace because he didn’t have a car.

“If we were lucky, we’d get to double-date with a couple that had a car and go to the drive-in movies together,” LaVerne laughed.

After being a part of the same church, elementary school, and high school graduation together, it was natural to them that they would end up together.

“It was a much different time.  We were very secluded, and we didn’t go too far out from our circle of friends,” Grace explained.

According to the Swesons, it was fairly common for people who grew up together or went to school together to end up settling down together. Where you lived and attended church and school played a big role in relationships.

My final interview was with Pat and Mike Finnegan of Clermont.  Pat roomed with Mike’s sister in Cedar Rapids and they met when she brought Pat home for a weekend to visit her family.

Mike had just returned home from two years in the service and was helping out on the farm for his family. He admitted that he was at a time in life where he wasn’t sure what his next step would be.

That weekend he knew his sister was bringing home a friend and he had been asked to take them out on Saturday night.

“I had no idea she’d be charming,” Mike laughed, “But I got home from doing chores and there she was, her back against the wall with a big smile on her face.”

A week or so after her visit to the Finnegan home, Pat received a letter form Mike in the mail saying that he wanted to see her again.

“I think it was a few months before we had our first date,” Pat recalled.

But after that, it was history.  Mike and Pat would visit each other once a week, and send letters back and forth to keep in touch in between.

They would see movies or go to bands and dance together.  Sometimes Pat would take the bus up to visit Mike and other times Mike would hurry through his chores to make it down to visit Pat.

“Sixty miles was no small distance in that time,” shared Mike. “There were some times when things would come up and we wouldn’t get to see each other for a few weeks, but we’d always see each other again.”

There was never any uncertainty in their relationship.

“Sure we had our differences, but it never even crossed my mind to dump her,” Mike said. “Did you ever think to dump me?”

“No, of course not,” Pat said with a smile.

Having met in their twenties, Mike felt that he and pat were very mature about their relationship.  They were committed to each other.

The couple married on a brisk day with the temperature dipping to negative 20 degrees.  They will have been married for 59 years come February.

Neither Alma Schreiner nor the Swensons recall their parents having any rules in place about dating. In fact, none of them remember their parents talking to them about dating at all; they were on their own.

“It was just a different time. We didn’t talk a lot about feelings and such with our parents. We tell our kids, and even kids that aren’t our kids, that we love them all the time. That wasn’t something you did back then,” Grace said.

For these people, dating was never confusing; things were very clear-cut when it came to relationships. 

Alma shared that even when she and Clayton broke up, she didn’t really mind; sometimes they just needed a break. 
Each of the couples left me with some advice to share for future generations:

From Alma: “Whatever you are is a result of every decision you’ve made in your life. Think about how you feel; don’t do something without thought.”

From the Swensons: “People are all about money, money, money.  Do things together, have your faith together. Spiritual guidance is very important, and money isn’t everything.”

From the Finnegans: “Commitment.  Commitment is such an important and serious thing when it comes raising children and having a family.  Have spirituality in your marriage.”

Each couple had struggles beyond what some of us can understand, but the idea was simple.  You found the person you wanted, and you stayed with them.  Even when life wasn’t simple, you were committed to each other and that made it simple.

The answer that I found for this generation: Dating was simple.

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