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Social and Economic Aspects of Pioneering as Illustrated in Goodhue County, Minnesota
By Theodore Nydahl (Volume V: Page 50)

One is amazed to contemplate the amount of activity that could be crowded into the life of an adventurous soul who left his home amid the fjords and mountains of Norway to seek economic betterment in the land of opportunity in the day of the pioneer. His was a life of new and varied experience. There were hardships aplenty; and many the tales of self-sacrifice; but when one thinks of the goal that the immigrant set out to reach, one feels that sacrifices and hardships were well worth suffering. The improved status of the majority of the Scandinavian pioneers was their reward for strenuous endeavor.

Some idea of the conditions that the Scandinavian pioneers found throughout the Middle West, the activities in which they engaged, and the manner of life they lived, may perhaps be gained by glancing at conditions in a section small enough for minute study -- Goodhue County, Minnesota. The very first settlers came into that county in 1853, but it was in the next two years that the greatest amount of land was taken up. By 1855 practically all the desirable land was taken. Land seekers came from Iowa, from Wisconsin, from Illinois, and directly from Europe. Of the pioneer group the largest element by far was Scandinavian, the Swedes settling in the northern part of the county and the Norwegians in the southern and southwestern sections. They came into a country that contained soil of great fertility and held forth the promise of rich agricultural development.

The lot of the Goodhue County pioneer was not bad when compared with that of the settler in other localities. Thus P. M. Langemo, who settled in the county in 1856, remarked in a reminiscent address, "The pioneers of this community had their trials, but they were really small compared with those I have heard of and witnessed in other places." {1} Describing conditions on the arrival of the pioneers, he said:

Naturally there were no houses awaiting them, but they had houses along with them which they had become thoroughly accustomed to in the last few weeks -- their covered wagons. And those covered wagons were not like the wagons we see today; no, they were roomy enough so that a person could lie down in one and stretch his weary limbs, and still have room to spare. It was not long, however, before the settlers did have homes, since trees were plentiful. Log houses were built, generally about ten by twelve feet, and sometimes twice as large. These huts were always open to welcome those who came later, and often housed two and three families. {2}

The log house, it appears, was the customary type of abode, but a few families built sod huts or dugouts in a hillside. The log house generally had a roof of sod, although occasionally hay or straw was used. "In favorable weather this sort of shelter was satisfactory, but when rain and storm came it was quite otherwise." The use of sawed lumber from a mill was not to be thought of because, in the first place, the pioneer had no money with which to buy it, anti, in the second, hauling distances were too great. {3}

Professor I. F. Grose of St. Olaf College, who spent his boyhood days as one of a pioneer family of Goodhue County, has given a picture of those days.

Our house [he writes] was a conventional white-washed log dwelling with a log shanty attached. Its cellar held potatoes, cheese, barrels of salt pork, and kegs of butter. The first floor, making up one room only, performed potentially the functions of parlor, living room, dining room, bedroom, and kitchen. . . . The upstairs or attic served as a sleeping room and as a place for stowing away emigrant chests, boxes, wearing apparel, "wadmol" blankets, and other things not needed for immediate use. Window-screens and storm-windows did not exist in those days. {4}

A spirit of good will and helpfulness prevailed among these people who dwelt in cabins, as is evidenced in the occasional "raising bee." A "raising bee" was an example of community cooperation. On a given day, settlers from some distance around would gather at the farm of the pioneer who wanted to put up a cabin. Division of labor was practiced in that each man would have a special task to perform. Some men went into the woods to cut down the trees; some trimmed the fallen timber; some, with the aid of oxen, dragged the logs to the site of construction; and others would roll the logs to their place in the new structure. In a very short time the cabin would be completed, and then followed the feast. {5}

The duties of the pioneer housewives were manifold. Professor Grose tells of them as follows:

I remember that they made cheese, churned butter, baked bread, boiled soap, carded wool, spun yarn, wove cloth, and sewed clothes. Canned fruits and vegetables were not then on the market. Home-prepared food and home-made furniture and garments were largely in vogue. My first ready-made trousers I got when I was twelve years old, and my father had bought them for me at a bankrupt auction sale. Rags dipped in fat and placed in tins lighted the house. On state occasions only, were candles used. The first kerosene lamp at our house was lit with much trepidation, as we had heard direful stories of how its explosions had caused death and ruin. Fortunately we never had any tragical experiences connected with our use of such lamps. {6}

The old settlers report that the first winters seemed very cold. Perhaps that was because of inadequate shelter and lack of proper clothing. One of them writes:

Woolen clothing we knew nothing of in those days. We had no fur coats nor overshoes. The latter need was in a way met by making use of hide from an ox or cow. If an ox died it was a common thing to have the neighbors come and ask for a section of the hide that they might make a kind of leather foot covering. Such shoes served fairly well. In time, fur coats began to be made from sections of calfskin. These coats were rather short to begin with, but as the supply of calfskin increased they attained a more reasonable length. {7}

The word economy may not have been in the vocabulary of the early Norwegians in Goodhue County, but the virtue was a characteristic of their everyday living. One of them says:

The majority of us, for a good many years, lived very frugally. It was necessary that we save wherever it was possible. We did not consider our means great enough to permit us to use unmixed coffee; we had to add to it grindings of dried bread crust, and the like. By selling some butter and eggs it was possible to lay our hands upon sugar and coffee. It was impossible to get cash. {8}

No one dreamed, in those days, of heavy trading in wheat or hogs, as there was no market for either. In some instances roasted wheat or barley was used for coffee. For construction purposes wooden pins took the place of nails. {9}

In order to secure title to his claim, the settler had to wait for the day when his land came on the market, upon which a visit to the land office was necessary. In conversations with people of Goodhue County today one commonly hears reference made to the "homesteading" done by the pioneers. This use of the term is, however, an error, for practically all the land of Goodhue County was taken five years before the Homestead Act went into effect. The land office which the people of Goodhue County made use of was located at Red Wing, and was opened early in the year 1855 with W. W. Phelps as register and C. C. Graham as receiver. {10} The settler invariably had to borrow the two hundred dollars needed to cover the charges against a one hundred and sixty acre farm, and he paid interest on that loan up to as high as forty per cent. The customary rate, however, was twenty-five per cent. {11} Money was extremely hard to get, and the farmers made as many deals among themselves as possible without the use of it.

Breaking the land was a slow and laborious process. Those who had settled on the prairie naturally found the process easier than did those who had taken timber claims. It appears that many of the Norwegians regarded the timber land as superior to the prairie and therefore selected wooded tracts in the western part of the county, which had a number of scattered groves. These settlers had the additional labor of pulling out the stumps, most of which were of oak, two or three feet through. It would take a farmer several years working with chain and oxen to clear his land of stumps. {12} "Breaking rigs" in the early days went from claim to claim much as threshing outfits in our day pass from farm to farm. The equipment consisted generally of five yoke of oxen, drawing a bulky plow. One man would manage the oxen, walking beside them with a whip twenty feet long, shouting his "get up," "haw," or "gee" as the occasion demanded. The plow, thus used, would "work a furrow eighteen or twenty inches wide through forest and brush." Breaking time generally extended from May 15 to July 15. The price charged for breaking was five dollars an acre, "and a rig often plowed one hundred acres a season, and so made good money." {13}

The grainfields in the early pioneering years were small and widely scattered. Generally they were fenced in with zigzag wooden rail fences. Fencing was necessary because cattle were permitted to roam at large. They were turned loose in the morning, and customarily came back of their own accord in the evening. "But sometimes we children had to go out to get them," writes Grose. "Many a time did I listen for the tinkling of the cowbell in order to locate the whereabouts of .the cows and drive them home." {14}

Wheat was practically the only crop raised for the market. Other grains were produced only in small quantities, corn .hardly at all. Vegetables were grown, of course, potatoes particularly, but only in quantities sufficient for home consumption. The price for wheat sold at Red Wing in the first years of grain growing ranged from thirty-five to fifty cents. 'Not until Civil War days did the price go as high as sixty-two and one-half cents. Before the war poverty was general; after the war better times set in. {15}

Judged by the standards of our day, the methods employed in these early years of farming were crude. Sowing was done by hand. The grain was cradled. Threshing was accomplished as in Biblical times, by oxen treading the grain in circular fashion. Flails also were used for threshing. This state of affairs did not, however, continue for many years, for machines began to be introduced in 1859 and 1860. In the days before the Civil War, prices received for farm products were low, and so also were farm wages. Harvest help was inexpensive, with sixty-five cents a day commonly paid for harvest hands. During the war wages rose, and $2.50 and $3.00 a day came to be the common wage. {16}

Red Wing was the market for the majority of the Norwegian settlers in Goodhue County, as it was also for most of the settlers of southern Minnesota until railroads opened the way to new markets. In fact, for several years Red Wing enjoyed the distinction of being "the largest primary grain market in the world." {17} Langemo, writing of the trip from Holden to Red Wing, says:

To reach Red Wing the first settlers had to pick their own way, not alone over prairies, but also through forests and streams, over bluffs and sand hills. The road may be long now, but the course taken in those days was a good bit longer. . . . The three days that it generally took to make the trip to Red Wing and back passed quickly, especially in the summer. We generally traveled in small caravans, and the well trained oxen followed the road themselves so that the drivers could keep in a group and talk together as they followed. The ox teams did not trouble to go very fast, and neither did the drivers. . . . Rich meadows for the oxen were on every hand, and while they grazed, the lunch kit and coffee kettle performed their duties by us. Beds could be had without cost either on the first or the second story; namely, under or on top of the wagon. {18}

Another writer speaks reminiscently of two spots along the Hader-Red Wing road that the grain haulers always tried to reach, because they were especially desirable for grazing purposes, and also because the company of the other drivers was a thing to be desired. Often of a night there would be as many as twenty men and teams assembled, and a big bonfire and the interchange of stories around it deprived the grain haulers of many good hours of sleep, but introduced a wholesome variety into the day's work. During hot seasons much of the hauling was done by night, as the midday sun oppressed the oxen. Grain hauling continued, however, until late in the winter, and the trip to Red Wing through deep snow and in extreme cold was a trying ordeal. {19}

A large number of Norwegians of Warsaw Township used Hastings more commonly than Red Wing as their grain market. The grain road which they used took an almost directly northerly route one mile east of the county's western border, and crossed the Cannon River at a point a little below the present town of Randolph. Three days were also required for this route, the haulers generally striving to reach the Archer House, a hotel ten miles from Hastings, the first night. On the second day they sold their grain in Hastings, purchased supplies, and then started on the return trip, generally stopping at the same hotel to pass the second night. {20}

In accounts of old times in Goodhue County, one frequently comes across the term "the Red Wing grain road." There were really several grain routes, but four of them were used much more commonly than any others. There were, of course, many roads which branched into these along the way. It is interesting to note that county and state highways tend to follow the same grain roads. They took the shortest possible route across the county and therefore ran in a diagonal line, cutting section lines without mercy. They generally followed high land to avoid the marshes and heavier timber.

Older settlers speak of two stagecoach lines which ran through the county. One of them, a part of the St. Paul-Dubuque line, ran north and south between Cannon Falls and Zumbrota. The other extended from Red Wing to Faribault, Kenyon then being the last stopping place within the county. This line traveled over the same ground that the grain haulers did. The stagecoach made the trip in one day, and the return trip the next day. The coaches used were of the hackney type with the driver's seat on top, and two spans of horses as the traction power. Besides transporting passengers they carried mail. In 1882 the Minnesota Central, or Cannon Valley Railroad, was opened for business, and stagecoach service was subsequently terminated. {21}

Horses were a rare sight in Goodhue County until after the Civil War. The first few years after 1865 were prosperous for the county, and people then began to purchase horses to replace the slowly plodding oxen. "But with the passing of the oxen," according to Langemo, "disappeared also a certain sociability which has not been revived to this day." {22}

Indians remained on their old grounds for several years after the negotiation in 1851 of the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota, and the settlers came in contact with them very frequently. {23} Very rarely did they do any harm. Now and then one of them might frighten a household by putting his face against a windowpane and peering inside, but as a rule this was. merely the preliminary to a request for food or the purchase of ammunition. {24}

The Sioux War of 1862, however, had reverberations in Goodhue County. Soon after the outbreak, rumors were circulated that the Sioux were in the neighborhood carrying on depredations. One report had it that all the inhabitants of Faribault were killed. "A certain woman living in the southeastern part of Warsaw Township was out one night calling the cattle in, and some other people who had heard her calls mistook them for cries for help, and so with the quickness of lightning the report was spread throughout the neighborhood that the Indians were at work slaying the inhabitants of school district number 36 in Warsaw." {25} The fear of the Indian must have been deep seated, for we find the settlers gathering together for protection. Cleng J. Dale speaks of a large group that assembled at the home of Torger Rygh, "a devout old gentleman, at whose place people frequently held religious meetings. . . . The women and children," he said, "occupied the second floor while we men remained on the ground floor and equipped ourselves with whatever weapons we could find, such as axes and pitchforks, as we had no guns." A watch was kept during the night, but no Indians appeared, and the frightened settlers found upon investigation that their homes too were unmolested. The nearest Indian that night was probably a hundred miles or more away. {26}

Because of the compactness of Norwegian settlement in Goodhue County there was little to induce the pioneers to learn the language of the country. Very few of the original settlers spoke any English. Even their children, who attended "Norwegian school," as the summer religious schools were called, as faithfully as they did the "English school," or public school, spoke the language of their fathers better than they did that of the land of their adoption. Not until the third generation do we find English used in preference to the Norwegian. And even today one will meet a large number in the county who speak Norwegian very fluently.

The Norwegians had little to do with the establishment of towns in the locality where they lived. Credit for activity of that nature goes generally to the Yankees. It was they also who generally made up the professional element in the county and who were elected to public office. The townships of Holden and Wanamingo were exceptions in the last regard, however. There, most of the town officers from the day of organization were men of the predominant nationality. The pioneer towns, those formed in the years 1856, 1857, and 1858, are Kenyon, Zumbrota, Wanamingo, Hader, Wastedo, Norway, and Goodhue. A glance at the names of some of the firms which established the first stores in these towns will show immediately that the men who made up those firms were not Norwegian. There were Kenyon and Company in Kenyon, J. F. Wright in Wanamingo, and Swift and Sales in Hader. Zumbrota was founded by the Stratford Western Emigration Company, composed of settlers from the New England states, particularly Connecticut. Aspelund, founded some years later, is an interesting contrast to the above cases. One can hardly call it a town. The place contains a church and a store, which was established in 1875 by a cooperative organization of Norwegian farmers in the locality. They hired as their manager Nels J. Ottun, who was also a Norwegian. {27}

As the towns grew older, Norwegians began to enter them and to set up business establishments in competition with those formerly founded by the Yankees. In some cases they bought the older establishments. Thus the Norwegian settlers penetrated the life of the community and county, gradually losing their status as a compact group of alien tillers of the soil and assuming diversified roles in the economic and social structure they helped to build.


<1> Festskrift, Holden Menigheds Jubelfest 1906, 49 (Minneapolis, 1908).

<2> Festskrift, Holden Menigheds Jubelfest, 48.

<3> History of Goodhue County, Including a Sketch of the Territory and State of Minnesota (Red Wing, Minnesota, 1878), 462; G. K. Norsving, "Noget om Indvandringer til Vans i Goodhue County," in Samband, no. 35, P. 153 (March, 1911); interviews with Frank K. Carlson and Isaac Emerson. Frank K. Carlson is a resident of Red Wing, Minnesota. He came to Goodhue County in 1854, and was therefore one of the earliest settlers.

<4> I. F. Grose, "A Pioneer Boy's Experience in a Corner of Goodhue County," in Jul i Vesterheimen, 9: 31 (Minneapolis, 1919).

<5> Interview with Frank K. Carlson.

<6> Grose, in Jul i Vesterheimen, 9:31.

<7> Norsving, in Samband, no. 35, p. 154.

<8> Norsving, in Samband, no. 35, p. 156-157.

<9> Information received from Marten C. Westermoe. Mr. Westermoe is a resident of Kenyon, Minnesota, who came to Goodhue County as a boy in the late fifties, and. has lived the remainder of his life in the county.

<10> Lucius F. Hubbard, "Early Days in Goodhue County," in Minnesota Historical Collections, 12:154 (St. Paul, 1908).

<11> M. S. Urevig, "I gamle Dage," in Nordstjernen (Red Wing, Minnesota), June 3, 1898.

<12> Interview with Mr. Isaac Emerson, who with his parents arrived in Goodhue County in the early sixties. He has served several terms in the state legislature and is one of the outstanding citizens of the county.

<13> Urevig, in Nordstjernen, June 3, 1898.

<14> Grose, in Jul i Vesterheimen, 9:34; interview with A. M. Slee. Mr. Slee saw the settlement of the district around Dennison, Minnesota. He came with his family as a boy in the early days of settlement, and in 1929 was still living at Dennison.

<15> Some of the above information was received from A. M. Slee and Marten C. Westermoe. See also Carl Roos, "Vasa, Goodhue County, Minnesota: the First Settlers," in Swedish Historical Society of America, Yearbooks, 10: 107 (St. Paul, 1925).

<16> Roos, in Swedish Historical Society of America, Yearbooks, 10: 107; J. J. Skørdalsvold, "Omkring 1869," in Trønderlagets Aarbok, 1926, 55; interviews with A. M. Slee and Marten C. Westermoe.

<17> Hubbard, in Minnesota Historical Collections, 12: 161.

<18> Festskrift, Holden Menigheds Jubelfest, 49-50.

<19> Urevig, in Nordstiernen, June 17, 1898.

<20> Interview with A. M. Slee.

<21> Minnesota Railroad Commissioner, Annual Reports, 1882, p. 84; interviews with A. M. Slee and Susie Clark Ellsworth. Mrs. Ellsworth was one of the first teachers of Goodhue County, and in 1929 was living on her farm three miles from Cannon Falls.

<22> Festskrift, Holden Menigheds Jubelfest, 50.

<23> By the treaties made with the Sioux Indians in 1851, at Traverse des Sioux and Mendota, the Indians ceded to the United States their lands west of the Mississippi in Minnesota and Iowa.

<24> Norsving, in Samband, no. 35, p. 154; interview with Isaac Emerson.

<25> Urevig, in Nordstjernen, April 22, 1898.

<26> Martin Ulvestad, Nordmændene i Amerika, deres Historie og Rekord, 93 (Minneapolis, 1907).

<27> W. H. Mitchell, Geographical and Statistical Sketch of the Past and Present of Goodhue County, Together with a General View of the State of Minnesota, 79-185 (Minneapolis, 1869); Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge, ed., History of Goodhue County, Minnesota, 169-234 (Chicago, 1909).

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