The Writer’s Almanac for July 4, 2018

“This is what you shall do…” by Walt Whitman, from the preface of Leaves of Grass. Public domain. (buy now)

This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.


Today is Independence Day. It marks the day in 1776 when the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. The document was approved and signed on July 2, and was formally adopted on July 4; John Adams always felt that the Second of July was America’s true birthday, and wrote to his wife, Abigail, that the date “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.” He envisioned “Pomp and Parade … Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.” He reportedly refused to appear at annual Fourth of July celebrations for the rest of his life, in protest. He died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration’s adoption — as did Thomas Jefferson, who had written most of the document.

It was traditional in the British Colonies to celebrate the king’s birthday every summer, with bonfires, parades, and speeches. During the summer of 1776, they held mock funerals for King George instead — with bonfires, parades, and speeches. They also read the Declaration of Independence aloud as soon as it was adopted. Philadelphia held the first formal Independence Day celebration in 1777, with bells and fireworks; in 1778, General George Washington called for double rations of rum for the troops, and in 1781, Massachusetts was the first to name July 4 an official state holiday. Congress declared it a national holiday in 1870.

Jefferson turned down a request to appear at the 50th anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C.; it was the last letter he ever wrote, and in it he expressed his hope for the Declaration of Independence:
“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be … the signal of arousing men to burst the chains … and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. […] All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. … For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”


It’s the birthday of playwright Neil Simon (books by this author), born Marvin Neil Simon in New York City in 1927. He’s the most commercially successful playwright in Broadway history, and he’s the only playwright to have four Broadway productions running at the same time. He’s made a nice living for himself depicting the struggles — many of them matrimonial — of ordinary middle-class people, to comedic effect.

His father Irving was a garment salesman, and he had a tendency to disappear every so often, so Simon’s mother Mamie supported her family by working in department stores. In 1946, Simon’s older brother Danny, who worked in the publicity department at Warner Bros., got him a job in the studio’s mailroom; by 1948 they were working together, writing material for Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers. His first big break came in the early 1950s when he got a job on Sid Caesar’s live television program Your Show of Shows, joining a writing staff that included Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks.

Much of Simon’s work is semi-autobiographical. The Odd Couple (1966) came about after Simon’s brother got divorced and moved in with another divorced guy. He wrote Chapter Two (1977) after the death of his wife of 20 years and his remarriage to actress Marsha Mason. The play is also about a widower who feels guilty when he falls in love again.

He wrote: “If you can go through life without ever experiencing pain, you probably haven’t been born yet. And if you’ve gone through pain and think you know exactly why, you haven’t examined all the options.”


On this date in 1802the United States Military Academy opened at West Point, New York. A national officers’ training academy had been proposed as early as 1776 and had the strong support of Alexander Hamilton, but elite officer training was considered to be a European conceit and was rejected. Finally, in March 1802, Congress passed an act establishing a school for the Army Corps of Engineers, and President Jefferson officially opened West Point on July 4.

In the early years of the academy, there were few regulations and only two instructors, and cadets ranged in age from 10 to 37 years. It’s not surprising that many of this country’s great military leaders have passed through its doors, but the period between 1900 and 1915 produced Douglas MacArthur, Joseph Stilwell, Henry “Hap” Arnold, George S. Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley. The class of 1915 is known as “the class the stars fell on” because 36 percent of that year’s graduates eventually attained the rank of general, which is designated by one or more stars on the uniform.


Today is the birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne (books by this author), born Nathaniel Hathorne in Salem, Massachusetts (1804). He married Sophia Peabody in 1842, and soon after their wedding, Hawthorne wrote to his sister, “We are as happy as people can be, without making themselves ridiculous, and might be even happier; but, as a matter of taste, we choose to stop short at this point.”

When he lost his job at the Salem Custom House, Sophia surprised him with money she’d put away out of her household allowance just so he could write a book. And he did: The Scarlet Letter (1850), about Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who bears a child out of wedlock and must wear a red letter “A” for adultery as her punishment.


Today is the day, in 1845, that Henry David Thoreau moved to a cabin on Walden Pond (books by this author). Ralph Waldo Emerson owned some land near Concord, Massachusetts, and let Thoreau build a cabin there. He stayed for two years, two months, and two days, all the while keeping a journal. He published it as a book, which he called Walden; or Life in the Woods, in 1854. In it, he wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” But he wasn’t exactly living apart from civilization, nor practicing pure self-reliance. Concord was only a mile and a half away, and he often walked into town. He worked part time as a surveyor, and his mother usually sent him back to the cabin with some home cooking.


On this day in 1855, Walt Whitman (books by this author) published a small volume of poems, which he called Leaves of Grass.

Ten years earlier, Ralph Waldo Emerson had written an essay called “The Poet,” which called for a new style of poetry that reflected the spirit of the United States. Emerson wrote: “We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials […] Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, […] our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.” And so Walt Whitman decided to become that genius. He wrote later: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.”

Whitman was a printer, and so once he had the 12 poems that would make up Leaves of Grass, he did a lot of the typesetting and design for the book himself, with a gold title and gold leaves and vines coming from it, and yellow endpapers. He published 795 copies, and the poems he included are some of his most famous: “Song of Myself,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Faces,” “The Song of the Answerer,” and so on.

It got very mixed reviews; many critics shared the opinion of the anonymous reviewer in The National Quarterly Review, who wrote: “In no work of the same size have we ever read so much that is disgusting and repulsive.” But Emerson loved Leaves of Grass, and he sent Whitman a congratulatory letter telling him so, writing: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Being the fabulous self-promoter that he was, when Whitman published a second edition a year later, with 33 poems, he included a number of positive reviews of the book, many of them were written by Whitman himself, and he also included Emerson’s letter, — it might be the first blurb in history.

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Feeling odd about feeling this good

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

I read the newspapers, and there was our man in London hobnobbing with the queen at Windsor Castle and exulting in it — “We had a great feeling. I liked her a lot. She is an incredible woman, she is so sharp, she is so beautiful, inside and out.” — which echoed what he’d said about U.K. manufacturing: “They have product that we like. I mean they have a lot of great product. They make phenomenal things, you know, and you have different names — you can say ‘England,’ you can say ‘U.K.,’ you can say ‘United Kingdom’ … the fact is you make great product, you make great things.” And they have a great queen and she and he had a wonderful tea together and the tea was tremendous and so were the scones, inside and out.

That’s how I feel this summer, very happy, though I’m a Democrat and know I should be troubled.

One reason for my cheerfulness is that I’ve stayed indoors except for walking to and from the car. I’ve preferred the indoors since I was a child but was shamed into taking long hikes in the woods because, as devout Christians, we should look upon nature as God’s handiwork, the trees, the birds, the firmament, the whole thing, but now that I’m 75 I just do as I wish. Indoors is where the coffeemaker is and my laptop computer. It’s where one finds a nice clean toilet rather than a public restroom that looks like Paleolithic people have been using it to eviscerate their goats.

A second reason is that I’m in the midst of writing a book. Work is a necessity of life. Retirement can be fatal.

Another reason for my cheery demeanor is that my wife is the critic in the family; she has better taste and discernment, she talks out loud to other drivers on the road (“If you’re going to turn, turn, bozo.”), she casts a critical eye on architecture (“That’s not a church, that’s a warehouse”) and the clothing of passersby (“Look at that man and promise me you’ll never wear a bright orange shirt with a blue tie and white polyester slacks”), and she is absolutely right on the mark. This leaves me free to coast along in easygoing contentment.

This weekend we were in Greenville, S.C., where I enjoyed phenomenal shrimp and grits, great iced tea, incredible company, and a beautiful hotel, beautiful inside and out. We attended a birthday party. There were other people in attendance who may not have been liberal Democrats, just as in any large group you may find people who don’t love grand opera or haven’t read Proust, but in my current live-and-let-live mood, I didn’t bring up the subject. And at the end of the day, my wife and I saw an ice cream stand and walked up and stood in line at the counter. An enormous pickup truck went by, tailpipes roaring, bumper stickers proclaiming the driver’s loyalty to the Confederacy. Fine by me. The war ended a hundred and fifty years ago, but if it’s that important to you, bless your heart. We ordered our ice cream, vanilla and Moroccan mint for her, caramel with hazelnuts for me.

It was only ice cream, but it took my mind off whatever may be happening between Putin and our man in Helsinki, whether Putin has our man’s credit cards and car keys, or just his Twitter password — that ice cream gave me a good feeling. The product was phenomenal, so good I thought maybe the cows were English or British or from the U.K. or all three.

I ate my ice cream slowly. Scripture says, “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God,” which is an extremely high standard of behavior, but I did my best. My wife sat next to me, her thigh against mine. I thank Him for her, for the firmament, and also for caramel ice cream. If it be His will, I intend to have a hot fudge sundae tomorrow.

Why I do not own an air mattress

What a glorious summer. Sunny skies and idyllic summer nights and then we had that ferocious heat wave to prevent us from going camping. When it’s 100 degrees in the North Woods, only demented people would be camping, and if you weren’t demented when you pitched your tent, you soon would be. If you love campfires, you can download a video of one. You know that, right?

Don’t get me started on this subject. America is a land of great cities, dozens of them, and each one has nice hotels and fine restaurants, and by “fine restaurants” I mean ones with napkins and restrooms and hand sanitizer. Campers eat with unwashed fingers in a cloud of flies and mosquitoes, some of whom carry dreadful diseases and it’s impossible to tell which ones. And let us not even mention Lyme disease. Perish the thought.

It makes a person appreciate summer more when you’ve had a miserable winter, so I’ve got that going for me. Dismal dark cold days for which there are no useful pharmaceuticals, depressed Democrats around you, and then a day of freezing rain, which, thanks to the ice in the downspouts, drains through your dining room ceiling while you are at yoga and you come home from two hours of humiliation in the company of slender millennials to find your antique table covered with wet plaster. That is what you need in order to fully appreciate July.

Of course it helps to be married to the right person. Early in the courtship stage, the subject of camping, canoeing, rock climbing, needs to be brought up, right after sexual preference and before religious beliefs, if any. I met my wife in New York at a restaurant. She was not wearing hiking boots, she didn’t smell of insect repellant. We’ve been mostly quite happy ever since. She is a runner but I can deal with that. She runs, she comes back, she doesn’t need me to run with her. I stay home and read great American novels.

There are not many great novels about camping, except for Grapes of Wrath and Red Badge of Courage, and in neither book is camping done for pleasure. The campers were fleeing the Dust Bowl or they were pitching their tents at Chancellorsville, preparing to die. Nothing recreational about it.

Why have practically no great works of art come out of the camping experience? Name one Beethoven symphony, one Van Gogh painting, one Shakespearean sonnet inspired by a week cooking over an open fire and sleeping on stony ground. You can’t name one.

Answer: because camping is about boredom. The campers I know are your usual left-wing environmentalists who are in a daily fury reading the newspaper and seeing those names in the headlines, Pruitt, Giuliani, McConnell, Pompeo, Pence, Ryan, Stormy Daniels, Cohen, Manafort, and the one that rhymes with “hump,” and they decide that two weeks’ backpacking on the Appalachian Trail will clear their minds and when they return, they are very subdued. Ask them about the hike, they’ll e-mail you photos, many of the rear end of the hiker ahead of them. A week on the trail is a refugee experience and most hikers decide that having a coffeemaker and innerspring mattress is more important than ideology. It’s the truth. Offered the choice between a two-week canoe trip and becoming a Republican, I’d choose door number two. A liberal Republican, but still.

I’m sorry you asked me how I feel about camping. I would’ve written about the trade war with China instead, something of real import in our lives, but instead you get this harangue. I apologize. But I was a camp counselor once, in charge of a dozen teenage boys, taking them on canoe trips, all of them suffering the fear of snakes, severe constipation, hearing tall trees falling in the night, one of which might have your name on it. Those boys would be in their early sixties now and I’ll bet not one of them has occupied a sleeping bag since then.

As I write this, I am sitting in a cabin by a lake. It is surrounded by woods but there is a screened porch, a refrigerator, a flush toilet and toilet paper. On that canoe trip with the boys, we ran out of toilet paper and one boy used leaves instead. There is a particular brand of leaves that does not make good toilet paper. I hope he is all right. Thank you for listening. Have a nice day. Stay home. Be happy.

A series of poems read by Garrison

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 21, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 21, 2018

On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first people to walk on the moon. It was actually July 20 in the United States, nearly 11 o’clock p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, but according to Greenwich Mean Time, it was already almost 3 a.m. on the 21st.

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Writing

Feeling odd about feeling this good

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

Read More

Why I do not own an air mattress

What a glorious summer. Sunny skies and idyllic summer nights and then we had that ferocious heat wave to prevent us from going camping. When it’s 100 degrees in the North Woods, only demented people would be camping, and if you weren’t demented when you pitched your tent, you soon would be. If you love campfires, you can download a video of one. You know that, right?

Don’t get me started on this subject. America is a land of great cities, dozens of them, and each one has nice hotels and fine restaurants, and by “fine restaurants” I mean ones with napkins and restrooms and hand sanitizer. Campers eat with unwashed fingers in a cloud of flies and mosquitoes, some of whom carry dreadful diseases and it’s impossible to tell which ones. And let us not even mention Lyme disease. Perish the thought.

Read More

What I saw in Vienna that the others didn’t

I was in Vienna with my wife and daughter last week and walked around the grand boulevards and plazas surrounded by imperial Habsburg grandeur feeling senselessly happy for reasons not quite clear to me but they didn’t involve alcohol. Nor paintings and statuary purchased with the sweat of working men and women. Nor the fact that to read about the daily insanity of Mr. Bluster I would need to learn German.

The sun was shining though the forecast had been for showers. I was holding hands with two women I love. There was excellent coffee in the vicinity, one had only to take deep breaths. Every other doorway seemed to be a Konditorei with a window full of cakes, tarts, pastries of all sizes and descriptions, a carnival of whipped cream and frosting, nuts and fruit. A person could easily gain fifty pounds in a single day and need to be hauled away in a wheelbarrow.

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A good vacation, now time to head home

I missed out on the week our failing president, Borderline Boy, got depantsed by the news coverage of crying children he’d thrown into federal custody and a day later he ran up the white flag with another of his executive exclamations, meanwhile the Chinese are quietly tying his shoelaces together. Sad! I was in London and Prague, where nobody asks us about him: they can see that he is insane and hope he doesn’t set fire to himself with small children present.

London was an experience. I landed there feeling ill and was hauled off to Chelsea hospital where a doctor sat me down and asked, “Can you wee?” I didn’t hear the extra e so it was like he’d said, “Can she us?” or “Will they him?”

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Man takes wife to Europe by ship

A man in love needs to think beyond his own needs and so I took my wife across the Atlantic last week aboard the mighty Queen Mary 2 for six days of glamor and elegance, which means little to me, being an old evangelical from the windswept prairie, brought up to eschew luxury and accept deprivation as God’s will, but she is Episcopalian and grew up in a home where her mother taught piano, Chopin and Liszt, so my wife appreciates Art Deco salons and waiters with polished manners serving her a lobster soufflé and an $18 glass of Chablis. If Cary Grant were to sit down and offer her a Tareyton, she’d hold his hand with the lighter and enjoy a cigarette with him.

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A summer night in the Big Apple Blossom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

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Old man at the prom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

Read More

Making myself useful for heaven’s sake

The lilacs are in bloom out at the old family homestead and it’s pleasant to stand by the bushes and smell them and recall that the outhouse used to stand a few feet away. Who does not feel his faith in resurrection strengthened by this news? We’ve all been stinkers at times but once we leave the body behind, we shall bloom in the life to come.

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The Quotable Keillor

“Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”
― Garrison Keillor, We Are Still Married: Stories & Letters

“Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“If you lived today as if it were your last, you’d buy up a box of rockets and fire them all off, wouldn’t you?”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“I can see how I could write a bold account of myself as a passionate man who rose from humble beginnings to cut a wide swath in the world, whose crimes along the way might be written off to extravagance and love and art, and could even almost believe some of it myself on certain days after the sun went down if I’d had a snort or two and was in Los Angeles and it was February and I was twenty-four, but I find a truer account in the Herald-Star, where it says: “Mr. Gary Keillor visited at the home of Al and Florence Crandall on Monday and after lunch returned to St. Paul, where he is currently employed in the radio show business… Lunch was fried chicken with gravy and creamed peas”.”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“The rich can afford to be progressive. Poor people have reason to be afraid of the future.”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

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A friendly column, nothing about him whatsoever

The lilacs are in bloom out at the old family homestead and it’s pleasant to stand by the bushes and smell them and recall that the outhouse used to stand a few feet away. Who does not feel his faith in resurrection strengthened by this news? We’ve all been stinkers at times but once we leave the body behind, we shall bloom in the life to come.

Read More

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