For nearly eight decades, one Wisconsin farm girl has followed the music along the back roads of the bluffs high above the banks of the Mississippi. As the sun rises on Sunday morning, catching the mist off the alfalfa, a pick-up truck crisscrosses the farmland on its way to morning services. Sunday church, weddings, funerals, private lessons, recitals, …all have made her a fixture up and down the river towns of Highway 35, leading one local to remark, “Ain’t but nobody what lives or dies, but what don’t know Louella Dettling.”
(The following is a story told by Luella Dettling to Jan Larson)
My name is Luella Dettling. I was born September 29, 1928. I have been playing piano for 81 years.
My mother had one. I don’t remember not having a piano and hearing her play.
I grew up kind of around Stockholm. Then my parents bought a farm in Maiden Rock. I always lived on the farm.
I remember her trying to start me playing when I was 6 years old. I was rather a tom-boy. I had a couple of brothers so I would rather be outside with them. I just really wasn’t interested. I wanted to go outside and play. When I was 7 she decided, ‘We’re going to try this again,’ and I just plain grabbed ahold. I wanted to play.
Music has always been a joy. I would just sit right there by my mother and watch her fingers and just watch them and just listen. I used to sit and watch her fingers go. I was just enthralled by how her hands would flow. That was our little entertainment. There was no television. We just always had music in the house and that was all there was to it.
I can see this Sunday morning. And, of course, she was the organist and did all the playing in the church, but this morning I remember getting ready and she said, ‘I just don’t feel good today. I don’t think I can do this.’ She said, ‘I think you can do that, so you go.’
I was 9 years old. That was going to be my first church service. And there were no bulletins in those days. They didn’t tell you what you were playing. The first I knew was when the pastor announced the song – that was the first I knew what it was going to be. I wish we’d had had tape recorders because I would like to hear that.
I got married and we moved to a farm. And you know, when you are trying to get started, making a living, you do not buy pianos. And I really didn’t think much about it, but she did. She called me up one day and I was just going about my work as anyone else, and she said, ‘There’s a truck coming, and I want you to stay right there, so don’t go anywhere’.
And, I don’t know whether I had any idea what she had done, but it didn’t take long. And she had bought a piano for me. So, when she did that she said, ‘You know, I was so afraid that if you didn’t have a piano, you’d lose it.’
Think of the joy I’ve had. Tomorrow is Sunday, so I’ll be up around 5 o’clock. I’ll go down to the two churches and take care of those on Sunday as long as I’m able to do that. Only God knows when that will be – when I won’t be doing that anymore.
It’s been a joy. It really has. It’s been a good part of life.
Luella Dettling lives in Ellsworth, Wisconsin. She plays the organ at Lund Mission Covenant Church and Maiden Rock United Methodist Church.