Steinheimer, Peggy Lee, and one photograph’s backstory

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Minnie Egstrom, the Midland Continental Railroad's agent at Millarton, N.Dak., stands outside her station in 1957. Richard Steinheimer photo
The photograph by Richard Steinheimer is typically masterful. A stout, resolute woman, the Midland Continental Railroad’s agent at Millarton, N.Dak., stands firmly on the station platform. Her gaze is fixed on some point across a frozen, barren horizon. She projects a defiant air — a tough old railroader who can take anything the Dakota prairie can dish out.

It’s an iconic image, to be sure, the kind of photograph Stein made all the time. It appeared in print at least twice, once in Kalmbach’s celebrated Backwoods Railroads of the West, a lavish hardcover portfolio of the photographer’s work published in 1963, and again in the June 1972 issue of Trains as part of a comprehensive story on the Midland Continental, by Stewart Mitchell.

That second appearance in Trains added an interesting detail in the caption, noting that the agent, the “Widow Minnie Egstrom,” was the stepmother of pop-music star Peggy Lee, born Norma Deloris Egstrom in 1920. And therein lies a tale.

An article in the now-yellowed pages of June 1972 Trains profiled the Midland Continental. Steinheimer's photo of Minnie Egstrom elicited a response from her stepdaughter, popular singer Peggy Lee.
I had long admired that photo when, last year, I had occasion to leaf through some Midland Continental archival material in the Classic Trains library. As I thumbed through the file, I was caught off guard by a distinctive piece of stationery, across the top of which was an inscription in elegant script typography: Miss Peggy Lee.

What’s this? A letter from a show-business legend, in the Kalmbach library?

The letter, to Trains Editor David P. Morgan, was dated April 27, 1973, and got right to the point:

“Dear Mr. Morgan: Someone was kind enough to send me a copy of your magazine. The article about the Midland Continental Railroad by Stewart Mitchell brought me a certain sadness thinking about my father as well as the demise of that dear old railroad. I would like, however, to point out a couple of errors. My father’s name was Marvin Olaf Egstrom rather than E. G. Egstrom as printed. My father was station agent for [the MC at] Jamestown, Wimbledon and Nortonville. He also traveled as freight agent … for the railroad.

“My trips on the train were not to take singing lessons but rather to go to Bible school in Jamestown, which in turn gave me the strength and faith to get away from the cruel stepmother pictured in the magazine. The only encouragement I got from her was child beating — the child being myself. I would not ordinarily disclose this but since there have been other misrepresentations as well as those in this article I want to set the records straight. She came into my life as my mother’s last nurse and I’m lucky I’m alive to tell the tale. I’m truly sorry to see the Midland go, I loved it as my father did.

“Sincerely, Peggy Lee.”

A letter from Peggy Lee to Trains Editor David P. Morgan presented a different side of the MC's Minnie Egstrom, her stepmother.
The letter left me speechless, what with its utter candor and shocking disclosure. Stapled to the letter was D.P.M.’s response, a polite, respectful promise to never make the “mistake” again should the magazine do another Midland Continental story.

Before I get back to Peggy Lee’s story, some quick background on the Midland Continental. The railroad was built beginning in 1906 as part of a fantastically ambitious scheme to connect Winnipeg with the Gulf Coast, giving shippers a north-south alternative to what was considered price-gouging by the region’s east-west trunk lines, namely Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and Soo Line.

But the MC was always a shaky financial proposition, and it never got beyond the 68 miles from Wimbledon to Edgeley, N.Dak., relegating it permanently to shortline status. Most of the property was abandoned by 1970, with small pieces going to Burlington Northern and Soo.

As for Miss Peggy Lee, her history was much more auspicious. After escaping North Dakota (and her stepmother) at age 17, she set off on a career that brought her huge fame and fortune. She parlayed her first big gig — two years as the “girl singer” in Benny Goodman’s band in 1941 — into a recording and movie career that brought her three Grammy Awards, an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress (for the 1955 movie Pete Kelly’s Blues), countless radio and television appearances, and millions of record sales. She also wrote scores of songs, including several for the 1955 Disney animated movie Lady and the Tramp.

Peggy Lee, born in 1920 in Jamestown, N.Dak., became one of the top singers of the 1950s and '60s, but she retained a soft spot for the Midland Continental, 'that dear old railroad.'
Despite a personal saga strewn with the usual difficulties of show biz life, she attained a lofty status as one of the great pop-jazz singers of the 1940s and ’50s. Her band members considered her a musician’s musician, especially for her peerless command of rhythm. In his 2006 book Fever, biographer Peter Richmond had this to say about her:

“Peggy Lee was not in a class by herself. There were three others who shared her particular greatness. Armstrong, Crosby, Sinatra, Lee — these are the faces on the Mount Rushmore of American pop, the greatest generation of American music, singing at the height of an era when the American Songbook was the expression of the national heart and soul.”

What an endorsement, putting her up on the mountain alongside Louis, Bing, and Ol’ Blue Eyes. But that’s how good she was. Her 1953 jazz album, Black Coffee, should be part of the collection of any serious jazz fan.

Meanwhile, back to that photograph. This whole Peggy Lee adventure sent me to Milwaukee’s Central Library, where I found a copy of her 1989 autobiography Miss Peggy Lee. Sure enough, early in the book she paints a stark picture of her childhood with stepmother “Min” Egstrom, whom she says administered punishment with either a cast-iron skillet or a leather strap.

“The first time I saw Min,” Lee writes, “the lady who was to be my stepmother was dangling a ball of candy on a rubber string. She had a gold tooth. She was smiling, but I could tell she wasn’t smiling at all. Children are like that.”

Scary stuff, although in all fairness I should point out that Lee’s various biographers say the singer was prone to exaggeration when it came to describing some aspects of her personal life. So I’ll stop short of condemning Min Egstrom.

Just the same, I’m haunted by the story of the cold-hearted station agent and her fabulously talented stepdaughter. Steinheimer brought keen insight to his images of the American railroader, but this episode shows that a photograph’s backstory — namely the truth — isn’t always what you’d expect.

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