NAHA Header


Early Years in Dakota
    by By Barbara Levorsen (Volume 21: Page 158)

The author of the following paper spent her childhood on a homestead in Wells County, North Dakota. Her parents had settled there with other Norwegians who had torn up roots only recently planted in Ottertail and Lyon counties, Minnesota, and Trail County, North Dakota, to cultivate the fertile land near Fessenden. Norwegians first appeared in the region in 1886, and three years later a considerable number of them, including Mrs. Levorsen’s father, Jens O. Hovland, moved into the area to convert the frontier community into a substantial Norwegian settlement. Hovland’s wife Barbro followed him there in 1890.

Mrs. Levorsen was born December 5, 1895, the fourth child of parents who had known a full measure of pioneer hardship and who, in a real sense, were part of the human price paid in the conquest of the Great Plains. Her mother was without medical attention at the birth of this daughter, and died thirteen days later. The father, in despair over the loss of his wife, sold his farm and other belongings shortly afterward. He placed Barbro (Barbara) with John and Agnette Flotlien, a childless couple who had arrived in the Wells County settlement in 1893. They are called "Papa" and "Mama" in the following account, and in fact they assumed the major responsibilities of parents to its author.

"Early Years in Dakota" is chapter 3 of a full-length book titled "The Quiet Conquest," an autobiographical narrative recently prepared by Mrs. Levorsen for her grandchildren. In it she [159] recounts the westward movement from older immigrant settlements and describes, with rare insight and charm -- as well as a keen sense of history -- her native community, its families, her parents and foster parents, and especially her girlhood in the West. There is joy in her story, but there is sadness too -- and a wealth of interesting detail. All in all, it is a unique record of pioneer life in North Dakota.


MY FOSTER PARENTS were more fortunate than the average settlers. They had rented land in Minnesota, and during one year had harvested a bumper crop of wheat which they sold at a good price. When they prepared to go to Dakota in the spring of 1893, they had a fine team of horses, several head of cattle, farm machinery, lumber for building, posts and barbed wire for fencing, and hay and feed for the stock.

Papa, as I always called him, had arranged for an immigrant car to freight their belongings from Hawley, Minnesota, to New Rockford, North Dakota. They left on June 12th. Several friends, among them Lars Nersween, helped haul their goods and herd the cattle to Hawley. Room was arranged in one end of the car for the animals, the household goods went in the other end, and all the other things were piled between. Papa had to travel with the stock and Mama stayed with him. Mama often told about that train ride -- how they were almost thrown off their feet by the sudden jerking of the switch engines, were shunted off onto sidetracks and left there, and so on. Papa had to fetch water in pails for the stock, and this left Mama alone in the car. Once when Papa was gone and the car door was open, some hobos came along. Two of them had swung themselves lightly up into the car before they saw Mama. They leaped out again yelling: "There is a woman in there!" They probably had planned to help themselves to whatever they could use if the car had been unguarded. [160] The familiar tale of the trip westward from New Rockford is, no doubt, similar to that of many of the other settlers. Since Mama could not drive the horses, she had to try to keep the cattle following along. Water was still standing in every slough, and every low place was sodden and wet, so she took off her shoes and went barefoot. She knew it would not be easy to get new shoes out there. They saw a number of antelope, and foxes yelped from every hill. They barely stopped to eat some cold lunch, as they were anxious to get to their friend Helge’s before nightfall.

They were fortunate that they could move in with Helge, who was still a bachelor. On the other hand, Helge was no doubt tired of "batching" and glad to turn the cooking over to Mama. Helge, Papa, and others to be mentioned in this story had cut cordwood together in Minnesota, and Mama had cooked for them there, too.

The next morning Papa had to go back to New Rockford for more of their goods. After much searching he had found a small building there in which they could store things, as it would take several trips to bring them all out to the claim.

The place they chose as a homesite was across the road from Helge’s and, as long as they lived there, the path between the two places remained well worn, even though it led across a narrow strip of Helge’s field.

The summer was a busy one. Their home, about 12 by 18 feet, was built. I think Germund Tweeten built it. I heard much talk about how well it was done. It was a plain house. Two windows faced east and two faced west. The door was on the south side, and beside it there was another window. The north wall was, as in so many dwellings thereabouts, blank. The upstairs remained unfinished all the years we lived there.

My foster parents were careful about everything, and I am sure the house was painted as soon as the siding was put on. Through these more than sixty years it has always been a white house. They lathed and plastered one coat [161] between the studdings, and when this was dry another coat of lath and plaster went on over the studs. Above the stove the ceiling plaster remained very rough because it had dried too fast. It was so cold by the time it was put on that they had to have a fire in the stove. A three- to four-foot wainscoting lined the walls of the main room. This room served as kitchen, dining room, sitting room, and sometimes as bedroom as well. Here Mama washed clothes and ironed them, cooked, baked, sewed, and mended. This house plan was so widely used for buildings of the 90’s that it deserves a special name, such as those in New England called salt-box and Cape Cod styles had.

A tiny bedroom and "buttery" took up one end of the house. A narrow stairway led upstairs through the buttery. A tight trap door at the head of the stairway shut out the winter cold. Sacks of flour and sugar and boxes of other staples were stored upstairs, as well as our extra clothing.

Outside the door was a tiny entry, the walls of which were neatly papered with old Decorah-posten newsprint. This Norwegian-language paper, printed in Decorah, Iowa, was widely read in our settlement, and later used for lining dresser drawers or wooden grocery boxes. Some women, fancier than Mama, cut scalloped edges in the paper before using it for shelves, and many papered walls with it.

From my first remembrance of the house until the day I went away, the furniture always remained in the same place. In the very beginning Mama must have used grocery boxes for her dishes. Then one day Uncle Andrew came, pulling a two-piece cupboard on a sled. This became the only cupboard Mama ever had. Uncle Andrew, who was handy with tools, had made it out of shipping boxes and grocery crates. I still have this old cupboard and think it remarkably well made, especially when one considers that all the tools he had were a saw, a hammer, and a knife. There are glass doors above and wooden ones below. Underneath the glass doors are two small cutlery drawers and in the lower section two quite [162] deep drawers. Each drawer has a nicely curved handle made out of wood. The woodwork was stained in two shades and varnished. This cupboard stood in the northwest corner of the room. Next came Mama’s choicest possession -- her sewing machine. This was always kept covered; to this day it remains unscratched and sews perfectly.

In the northeast corner stood a large dresser, called kommoden. Between the east windows there was a clock shelf on the wall and below it a table. Between the bedroom and buttery doors stood the cookstove. This they bought in the new little village of Harvey. A few chairs and a neat little washstand made by Uncle Ole completed the inventory.

Papa was no carpenter, so he had nothing to do with the house building. He plowed wide firebreaks around the homesite. He also broke the amount of acres for field required by law. (I think it was 15 acres.) He put up a sod stable for the animals, and cut and stacked hay for their winter feed. When he and Mama had arrived in the spring every slough stood full of water, but as these dried up in the summer sun, the problem of finding water became acute. Papa dug well after well by hand, without any success. Helge had dug one at the edge of a ravine half a mile east of the house, and Mama led the cattle over there for watering every day. She said that the slough grass was so tall she could see only the backs of the cattle above it.

The summer went quickly, with constant planning, labor, and preparation for the winter ahead. It must have been lonely for Mama sometimes, as there were very few women near by and little visiting was done among the scattered settlers. Mama used to tell again and again about an adventure that befell them when they were going to one of the very few gatherings that were held.

It seems that a bachelor had decided to raffle off a plow. The person who went around selling numbers on this plow said that there would be music, dancing, and lunch for all who came. Papa and Mama talked to Joran and Hans Eidal [163] and they all decided it would be fun to hear music and to dance again, so they would go to the raffle.

The evening came, cold and still. A slight snowfall had whitened the prairie. Winter was close at hand. At Eidal’s Mama and Mrs. Eidal settled themselves in the spring seat and bundled up in blankets. Papa and Hans sat on a board laid across the wagon box. They chatted amicably while the horses proceeded at an easy pace. They stopped to pick up a lonely bachelor living near by. Kjittil came out with an old violin tucked under his arm and climbed into the wagon to stand behind the spring seat.

The snow and darkness obliterated most of the thin wheel tracks but the men knew the way and the horses plodded along. Soon Kjittil braced himself against the spring seat and began to play his violin. Through the long silences in his lonely shack Kjittil had scraped away at his violin until he had undoubtedly convinced himself that he was a great artist. Recently he had broken the bow, but he had made another from a willow stick and the long hair from a horse’s tail. Now the violin squeaked and whined, in the semblance of one tune after another, directly behind Mama and Mrs. Eidal’s heads, until they wished it far away.

Then someone said they should soon be there. The raffle was being held in a large dugout and they could not expect to see much light from the place. There was nothing but the starlit heavens and the empty prairie around them. They set their course by the stars and went on. When they had again driven a long ways they decided they must be far beyond the dugout and were lost. So there was nothing to do but try to retrace their tracks.

They were now chilled to the bone and Kjittil had even given up his playing. At two o’clock in the morning they found the place. The raffle was over, the dancing had ceased, and almost everyone had gone home. However, they got some hot coffee and doughnuts, which took some of the chill out of their bones before they started home. From men who were [164] present earlier in the evening I have heard in detail about this dance, held in a dugout! The drinking, the cursing, and the fighting were such that it was a blessing that nice women like Mrs. Eidal and Mama did not get there in time. One newly arrived bride wept despairingly as her husband and another man, both too drunk to stand up, kicked and pummeled each other on the dirt floor.


Papa was born on his father’s little farm in Hedemarken, Norway, in 1858. He came to America with his parents when he was twelve years old. It must have been a sad trip for the family, for the youngest son was washed overboard and lost at sea. They lived in Fillmore County, Minnesota, until the spring of 1877. Then, with fifteen other families, they prepared to leave by wagon train for Ottertail County, Minnesota, where there was plenty of homestead land. That May, as the time for departure drew near, a friend who had experience with wagon trains suggested to Papa’s father and another man that they would be much better off if they remained behind the others for a week, as they could then follow the trail of the large wagon train, travel much faster, and catch up to the main group at Alexandria.

The two families remained in Fillmore for another week and found the trail left by the large train easy to follow. Their only difficulty was with the sheep. These animals absolutely refused to go into the water. Papa and another boy of his age had to throw them into the river and then go in themselves to see that the sheep and cattle crossed over. At Alexandria they found the fourteen families who had left earlier. All were glad to be together again, and Papa’s father bought a small keg of beer to celebrate the event. The saloonkeeper must have been afraid they would keep his keg, as he wanted it left there. So the beer was emptied into two big pails, which were set underneath the wagon. When all the men gathered to get their glasses of beer, they found the pails empty. A cow [165] tied nearby had managed to stretch her neck enough to empty both pails. Money was scarce and there could be no buying another keg of beer, so the names the poor cow was called that night were far from complimentary. Worse yet, the next morning the cow could not walk, and her owners had to remain behind for a day while she sobered up. After the trials of the trek were forgotten, this incident caused much merriment among the wagon-train families.

Whatever learning Papa received in this country he undoubtedly acquired in a small country school in Fillmore County. He wrote a steady, fine hand and spoke English without the usual "newcomer" accent. He was a nice-looking, mild-mannered man slightly under six feet in height. He had mild blue eyes and brown hair. I always thought it strange that his mustache was so much lighter than his hair. Once, when he shaved it off, his appearance changed utterly, and I for one was glad when the mustache had grown back again.

He was slow and deliberate about his work and absolutely honest in all his dealings. He was truthful and conscientious and believed well of his fellow men. Being all these things, he was still a "man’s man." He took a drink or two a few times a year but never went on a "toot," as did some of his bachelor friends. He was very fond of company and loved to play whist. They may have played poker in the earlier years but I know Mama would have been opposed to this. Papa chewed tobacco constantly, as did most men in those days. A wide-brimmed nickel-plated spittoon seemed a natural part of the furnishings at home. Papa’s aim could not have been very good, for he took the trouble of spitting right in the spittoon, while most men could hit the bull’s-eye from across the room. Of course some figured that if they missed it, the women would always clean it up -- and so they did!

Papa was easygoing, but when he became angry he expressed himself freely with a flow of scalding Norwegian oaths. On lesser provocation a few common American curse words would do. He was very careful of his horses and I never [166] saw him beat one of them. The team he brought from Minnesota made an odd pair. Prince was a long-legged, beautiful animal, as black as Jennie, his partner, was white. Jennie was big and rangy but not handsome at all. She was "skittish" and got credit for starting several runaways, or attempted ones, at least.

Papa liked people and was seldom, if ever, too busy to stop to visit a bit with anyone who came along. It has been said that he was a very strong man. I don’t know about that. I do know that Mama brought many fears with her to Dakota but I never heard of Papa’s being afraid of anything or anybody. If Papa and Mama had a particularly strong trait, it was thriftiness. They took remarkably good care of everything they possessed and tried to make it last and give good service.

Papa came to Wells County too late to take a tree claim. He would have taken excellent care of one. He planted trees year after year and eventually we had a fine grove. It is only recently that I have realized what excellent planning went into this project. He started by putting in cottonwood saplings fifty yards north of the house, stretching westward in long rows. West of the house there was a square of cotton-woods, and in between the two plantings, in a low place where water stood in spring, he planted willows. There were English, Russian, and golden willows. Later he planted many young ashes and box elders out beyond the cottonwoods. These trees served as a windbreak as well as a place for the snow to pile up. There were two rows of trees to the east of our house. They turned westward just south of it and joined the grove, thus forming a rectangle. All around the rectangle there was a three-strand barbed-wire fence. Inside the rectangle there were a few apple and plum trees, currant and gooseberry bushes, and garden space. Some special trees were given as premiums by the "tree agents," as the nurserymen were usually called. Among these I remember the Bolleana poplar that smelled so sweet after a rain, and the mountain ash that the rabbits were so fond of gnawing! [167]

Our gooseberries were really special. I remember one nurseryman asking Papa if he could have some of our berries for his sample vial. He then emptied out the berries in the glass tube and put some of ours in. The tree agents came regularly for many years. They walked around and looked at our trees as though they were wonderful. Then Papa and the agent would sit down somewhere on the ground to look over the beautifully illustrated nursery catalogue, while I hung over Papa’s shoulder and stared at the colored pictures of flowers, fruit, and trees.

When there was tree planting to do, I was right there to help. I usually held the slender sapling straight and still while Papa filled in the first soil and tamped it down around the roots. There was a lot of work to digging all those holes by hand, hauling water in barrels to keep them growing, and keeping the trees free from weeds.

There was a big gate to the south of the house, so Papa could get in with horses and machinery to mow, rake, and haul away the hay. No cattle were ever loose inside the grove.

I have mentioned the homesteaders’ continuous search for water. I remember how in the early years mounds of clay about farmyards or near sloughs testified to the laborious quest for water. Papa dug twenty-two wells by hand without finding as much water as we needed. Pause a bit here, and think about digging with spade and pickax, a few inches at a time, foot by foot, into the hard earth! The hole had to be quite large to allow a man to stoop and work in it, and someone had to wait above to pull up the dirt and stones by hand. I am sure that this was often Mama’s job. I don’t remember how deeply he dug usually -- about twenty feet, more or less, I think. After all that labor and no water he just had to try somewhere else. He found water down on what was called the state’s land, a strong half mile from home. From there they hauled water in a barrel on the stoneboat (a flat sled), summer and winter, for many years. They must have hauled water in the early morning before Papa went to work in the field, [168] as I remember waking up and finding myself locked in the house. I was undoubtedly well accustomed to being alone while they were out doing chores, but being locked in was a different matter. I stood by the window, yelling and screaming. When I saw them coming up the road I yelled even louder. Whether all this noise was caused by fright at being locked in or mostly from anger, I don’t remember!

Because of the scarcity of water, washing clothes was always difficult in early days. Most well water was hard and unfit for boiling clothes. All summer long, rain barrels, washtubs, and wooden water troughs were kept beside buildings to catch every drop of rain water. In winter they melted snow for clothes washing -- and what a slow job that was! Mama carried water from a near-by slough or from the rain barrel to fill the big copper boiler. It took a long time to heat it, even on a hot stove. She brought in wooden washtubs and set them across two kitchen chairs. When the water was heated she had to put it back in pails to carry it to the tubs. The scrubbing surface on her washboard was of a bluish, corrugated glass.

Water was kept heating on the stove while the white clothes, after rubbing, were boiled in soapsuds. The clothes wringer was a clumsy affair that had to be held just so to get it screwed onto the side of the tub. As the scrubbing went on, hot water had to be added to the cooling water in the tub. After the white clothes had boiled, they were rinsed in two waters. Liquid bluing was added to the last rinse water. As we can see, a family wash took several hours of backbreaking labor. I know, as I washed clothes that way until I was thirty years old.


My foster mother was a remarkable woman. In appearance she was slight, almost delicately built, but under this deceptive exterior were sinews of steel and a will of iron. She was of medium height, slender and small-boned; she had very dark hair, brown eyes, and an olive complexion. It would [169] be interesting to know from what forgotten ancestor she had this olive skin, so different from the usual pink and white skin of most Norwegian girls.

She came to America alone in 1886. She was then twenty-six years old. While en route she had a distressing experience in Liverpool, England. The ship in which she was to cross the Atlantic was not ready to sail, hence the travelers spent several days in a hotel under the guardianship of a passenger agent. Every day he took them for a walk or down to the quay to see if the ship was ready. The sidewalks were thronged with people and suddenly one day Mama realized that there was no familiar face anywhere. She was lost in a crowd of English people.

She did not understand a word of English and was horribly frightened. There followed what seemed hours of confusion and fear, during which the agent evidently did nothing to find his missing passenger. Finally a man who looked trustworthy seemed to understand that she was a Scandinavian and gestured to her to follow him, saying, "Swede, Swede." Outside of a factory he motioned to her to wait. He went inside the building and soon came back with a man who spoke Swedish. When the Swede learned where Mama was staying, they called a boy and instructed him to take her back to the hotel, and also gave her money to give the boy when they got there. They had gone only a little way and turned a corner when Mama knew where they were, but the boy would not leave her until she was safely inside the hotel. When she joined the other girls, one of them was crying, saying she thought something awful had happened to Mama and was afraid they would never see her again!

Perhaps it was after Mama came to America that she heard how bloodthirsty, merciless, and cruel the Indians were to the white settlers. This fear remained with her for many years. Still she went out to Dakota to be an early settler herself. There she did not have long to wait to see Indians, as they passed near by on their treks to powwows at Fort Totten or [170] on Strawberry Lake. I can remember seeing bands of Indians riding single file along the ridge a mile to the south of us. Every few minutes one would dismount to pick something from the ground. Mama said they were either gathering senega roots or shooting gophers, which she said they ate. They never came near our house. Out in the middle of our pasture there was a knoll which we called the "big hill." Here stones lay in a circle, just as they had undoubtedly been placed around a teepee. Before settlers’ groves obscured the view, one could see far and wide from this knoll.

West of our grove were several big hollows which Papa and Mama called "buffalo licks." Beside one of the hollows lay some big bones and a skull. These, I was told, were buffalo bones. I sometimes stopped to kick at them. They were big ones, all right. Buffalo bones, buffalo chips, buffalo hides, buffalo licks, and buffalo wallows -- but what and where were the buffalo? It was years before I had an answer to that.

One day a ramshackle wagon drawn by two skinny horses stopped before the gate. Two enormously fat squaws sat on the bottom of the wagon box while a man sat on a board across the top of it. Mama excitedly exclaimed that they were Indians! I don’t remember why they came, but I, who had heard so many hair-raising stories about Indians, forgot caution and rushed down to the gate to get a good look at them. I stared at them with open curiosity and they stared impassively back at me.

Mama had little to fear from the Indians, but she was terrified of the wandering peddlers. They were short, swarthy men who spoke broken English. Some people said they were Syrians, others that they were Arabs. Whatever their origin, I know now that they were immigrants trying to earn a living in a strange country. The first ones I remember seeing plodded along the trails stooped under their heavy packs.

If Papa was at home, a peddler could come indoors and display his wares. Setting the pack upon the floor, he pulled off the upper half of the double pack and turned it bottom [171] down alongside the full part, where it was ready to receive the goods after he had displayed them. And there beside the pack was I, all agog with excitement at the new things I would see. Out came brightly colored suspenders, arm bands, pocket combs, and strings of beads. Red-and-white or blue-and-white men’s handkerchiefs, men’s hose, cards of needles, pins, and safety pins, buttons, and spools of thread followed. Next there might be mouth organs. (On one of these he might play an experimental tune so we could note the fine tone.) In the bottom of the pack were drab work clothes, colored tablecloths, a few pieces of yard goods, shoelaces, and other everyday necessities. Sometimes we bought a few small things from the peddler. Usually he remained for a meal. Whatever his business or conveyance, the same problem faced anyone who followed the trails: where to get meals.

Later the peddlers came by horse and buggy and had a far larger assortment of goods. They always seemed to arrive at our place by nightfall, begging to remain overnight. Papa could not refuse anyone a night’s lodging, but Mama felt different. I don’t blame her if she didn’t like to have strangers who moved from place to place sleep in our clean bed. Besides the extra work, most of all she was very much afraid they would bring lice or fleas with them in their seldom-washed clothing. Strangely enough, they never brought either. Maybe they were wise and used the louse powder they peddled! Dozens of strangers must have spent the night upstairs in our spare bed. Doubtless there was a crisscross of "peddler signs" on the gatepost by the road.

If, when Papa was away, Mama saw a peddler’s cart with its thin, tired horse come crawling along in our direction, she quickly stopped whatever she was doing and we left the house. She locked the door and hid the key and I had to promise that, whatever happened, I would not tell where the key was hidden. If she thought the peddler was too far away to see where we went, we hid in the stable, where she watched him through the small, four-paned windows laced with spider [172] webs until he had gone out on the road again. Sometimes we met him in the yard, Mama holding me tightly by the hand. They spoke a few words to each other in their broken English. Doubtless he sensed her fear. I was disappointed not to see all the things in his packs. I recall the annoyed lift of the reins and flick of the whip across the poor horse’s back, with which a peddler sometimes showed his displeasure at not being allowed to come in to display his goods.

Once two men came at nightfall. Each had a buggy and a team of skinny horses. Both wanted to spend the night. Papa said one could stay but he had no room for two teams. They begged and pleaded, but Papa said we had two near neighbors and they could try one of those places. Finally one left. In about an hour’s time he was back, and seemed the most surprised person imaginable to see that he was back at our place again! Since there were no curtains drawn, he could well know where he was, long before he got up near the house. Now there was nothing for it but to let him stay. After the two partners had gone upstairs to bed Papa and Mama had a little talk. Mama had been outdoors while the peddler was supposedly driving around looking for a place to stay; she said she thought she had heard horses rattling around down by the haystacks, and doubted that the man had left the place at all. Sure enough, the next morning we could see where a team had been standing by the haystack, eating for some time. Mama was up in arms about these two swarthy men and their deliberate deceitfulness. Luckily this was about the end of peddler visitations. At times there could be as many as three rigs coming into the yard throughout the day.

Next came the beggars, tramping along the wagon trails. Almost every one of them carried a small book in which there was a poor photograph of himself with, also, an account of his disability and the accident that had caused it. Looking back, it seems to me that some of these men might have been far more dangerous than the peddlers. I remember one big, hulking fellow who removed a wide bandage to show us his [173] injured wrist. All we could see was that it looked as though he had smeared it with a liberal amount of axle grease. Papa did not believe there was a thing wrong with his wrist. Most people gave them a quarter or fifty cents just to keep them moving on. Begging his way about, far out on the prairie, would be one way for a wanted criminal to remain undetected, too.

When women came selling what they said were handmade linen lace and insertion and fine pieces of yard goods for a few cents a yard, people supposed that the goods had been stolen, and were reluctant to buy from them.

Because I began to wander about the prairie, Mama kept me in red calico dresses so she could see me at a distance. My cousin Anne had the same roving habit, so she too wore red calico most of the time. Sometimes, as when she washed clothes, Mama tied me to the clothesline post. I remember running in a crying rage until the rope felled me flat on my face, getting up and running in another direction until I fell again. But no amount of tugging and screaming did any good. I stayed tied. I had a little homemade wagon that I pulled about the prairie. Into it went all kinds of wild flowers and pretty stones. Soon I would hear Mama’s clear voice calling me, and reluctantly I would turn homeward again. I put the flowers in tin cans full of water and set them in the sun to wilt forgotten while I ambled off again.

Since there was not a twig of wood anywhere, we gathered "prairie chips" (cattle droppings) for fuel. At first I merely accompanied Mama, but later I was sent out alone with a gunny sack to gather the dried dung. When I read in the National Geographic Magazine or another magazine about travelers in foreign lands eating food prepared over dung fires I shudder. Then I remember that all the settlers used it too, in their stoves. Another thing we gathered on the prairie was a growth I can liken only to large mushrooms. When these were ripe they were full of a bright brown powder which was used to stop the flow of blood when horses or cattle cut [174] themselves on the barbed-wire fences. Papa always tried to keep some of this dried powder in the barn.

Looking back, it seems to me that I spent a lot of time in a dream world of my own. Only children are truly happy. For them there is no yesterday or tomorrow, just the lovely present. Many events that I neither saw nor heard left lasting impressions on my mind from my hearing the grownups discussing them. In the vast stillness of the prairie I wondered and wondered about some of the things I heard. I early knew there was something different about me, but not what it was. (People talk too much in front of children.)

The pasture became my real playground. I remember every gently sloping hillside, every slough, and even the big rocks on the knoll. Below the hill was a small, deep slough, around which grew the most brilliant green mosses. Just the thing for floors in playhouses! I had a nodding acquaintance with the burrowing owls that Papa and Mama called "cat owls." They came up out of burrows in the ground and marched stiffly around on the clay mound. As I drew near they would bow and bow to me in the most precise and decorous manner. They seemed to be able to turn their heads far around on their short necks. They were so tame I could approach within a few feet of them, and I enjoyed them very much.

The cows grazing near by tolerated my petting but otherwise ignored me. I suppose I knew about every strawberry plant on the place, and I picked the berries as they ripened. Years later we bought a white team, Kate and Nellie. Kate was the most wonderful being in the world to me. When she was in the pasture I could get her to stand beside a rock and I would climb upon her back and she would carry me about the pasture. Upon urging, she would trot, but never gallop. It was as though she knew I had nothing to hold on to except her short mane. I was very sad when I came back to the farm, a few years after we sold it, to find that the pasture, with its strawberry patches and many wild flowers, had been plowed under into field. [175]

But I am getting ahead of the story. We will go back to October 15, 1898. This was a happy day in our neighborhood. On that day Cousin Anne was born. She was a first child. At our place Marie was born. She was Papa and Mama’s only natural-born child, and Mama was then past thirty-eight years old. Near by a third girl, Mathea, had been born a few days before. I know that I remember Marie’s birth, though strangely enough I remember nothing from the following year. I was six weeks short of three years old when she was born.

One day in November Pastor Nils O. Fjeld came out from Harvey and baptized the three little girls, in the same water, at our house. Mathea remembers her mother telling her how she had made the baptismal dress by hand, with tucks at the shoulders and a ruffle at the hem.

I suppose the year 1899 was the happiest year of Papa and Mama’s life. Marie was a beautiful child with brown hair and eyes, very precious to them. One small notation from an old record book remains for the year 1899, only because one of the bachelors had gone back to Norway for the year and Papa rented his land. So the record reads:

"Wheat 609 bushels on rented land 176 bushels
"Oats 566 bushels    
"Flax 235 bushels on rented land flax 101 bushels
"Threshing bill $73.98."    


Early in March the following year Marie became ill with a throat infection. I remember her illness and the pretty pink pills the doctor left for her. Probably she had something sulfa or penicillin would easily cure today. But Marie died. I am sure no one can measure Papa and Mama’s grief in losing this especially lovely child. Not so much as a photograph remained. It would be expecting too much of human nature to assume that they never asked themselves why their own daughter should die and I should live. [176]

The funeral services were held in our house, there being no church near by. People tried very hard to keep Mama from going out in the snow and cold for the long trip to the cemetery, but she went. When they prepared to go I found out I was not going, and I suppose I cried and screamed. Some man took me out to the stairway and showed me pictures in a book which was given as a premium with Decorah-posten. They were colored illustrations and they made such an impression on me that I remember them to this day. They were pictures of Norwegian women in the colorful peasant dresses worn in different parts of Norway.

Very soon after this Mama and I went to visit relatives of hers in Minnesota. Five of us left together, and it was a sadly bereaved little group, although naturally I did not understand it at the time. Germund T.’s wife had just died and left him with a tiny baby and a little boy younger than I. Germund was taking the children to Rothsay, Minnesota, to relatives there. Mama took care of the baby on the trip. When we arrived at Germund’s brother’s home in Rothsay we found that one of his sons was seriously ill with pneumonia. Women were making vests from cotton batting for him. Evidently they had to be changed often. We could not have arrived at a more inopportune time. It must have been at dusk. Anyway the whole house appeared very gloomy to me. They pulled together some dark drapes to shut off part of the rooms and, being restless, I found my way around the drapes and seemed unwelcome there. The impression of gloom and depression exuded by the house, and the houseful of grieving, bereaved, and worried people, has remained with me all these years.

The next morning someone came for Mama and me with a sleigh and fast horses. After a long ride we came to Mama’s sister’s home in a small town. This was like a different world. The large rambling house had many, many rooms, with wall-to-wall carpeting in several of them and stiffly starched lace curtains at every window.

The plush-covered parlor furniture was most elegant, I [177] suppose. There was a green settee, with an armchair in red and one in orange-brown color to match. Each piece had lovely ball fringe in matching color. There was a bay window filled with plants. Oh, how lovely they were -- white primroses, purple ones, geraniums, ferns, and other kinds! Their crisp fresh leaves showed the best of care.

The large dining room table was always covered with a white linen tablecloth. The dishes and silverware were much finer than we used at home. Layer cakes and other tasty desserts were plentiful.

They had a curly-haired brown dog, named Rex, that could come right into the house! Unfortunately he did not like strange little girls. One evening Uncle’s brother, having returned from a trip, was sitting beside the coal heater in a rocking chair when Rex came into the house. Here was someone Rex liked! With a great bound the heavy dog leaped into the man’s lap, upsetting the rocking chair, which went over backward with man and dog, to land behind the heater in one confused heap. Since no dog or cat was ever permitted to set foot in our house, it was surprising to see that Rex could make such a disturbance and not even get thrown out afterwards. Uncle, a quiet, smiling man, went to his own business place every morning, clean shaven and dressed in better clothing than Papa’s Sunday best. This was a different household than I was used to and I enjoyed it all so much.

I had a keen memory for a child. I remember a tiny foster-grandmother who limped badly, and other people whom I was never to see again, and their warm cozy homes.

There were several "cousins," but best of all I remember Uncle and Auntie’s adopted daughter. No kinship existed between us beyond the fact that we were both adopted. She was a lovely girl with curling dark hair and large gray eyes. In this hospitable house, where relatives came and went, she was everyone’s pet. On the other hand, I, as a photograph from that period shows, was a solemn-faced, wholly unattractive child. My cousin was more than twice my age, and girls [178] sometimes came in to play with her after school. I, who hardly knew what a playmate was, wanted desperately to join their games. Undoubtedly these girls knew there was a vast difference between them and an orphan from the Dakota prairies. Anyway, I suffered the fate of most younger brothers, sisters, and "tag-alongs"; being rudely pushed aside, I turned to tears and bawling, which did not endear me to the unobservant grownups.

There were many things which I was not allowed to touch. There were the wonderful plush-covered photograph albums. The intricate clasps which kept them tightly closed, and which I could not open, protected them, but whenever Auntie and Mama sat down to look at them and talk about family and friends pictured there, I was close at hand, too. But it was not the photographs alone that held my attention. It was also the frames around the pictures. The cardboard frames were covered with pastel-colored paper embellished with scrolls or designs of flowers, leaves, and ferns in delicate traceries of gold, silver, or pale green. Much to my delight, I received an album the next Christmas; so the grownups had noticed what I liked. Mine even had little golden bees and butterflies in among the ferns and flowers that framed the photographs!

Mama often said that I remembered far more from this visit with her relatives than she did. Her grief over the passing of her only child may have accounted for that. Out in Dakota, spring with its extra load of work was at hand, and we had to go back home. With our return to the scene of happier times there no doubt came a long and difficult time of readjustment for Mama. I have been told that while Marie still lived, someone, seeing their pride and joy in her, had suggested to Papa that they would probably get rid of that one (me), now that they had a child of their own, whereupon Papa had lifted me into his lap with the words that he "had room for both."

I do not know how Mama felt about having me underfoot, asking questions and making extra work for her those next weeks and months. But I do remember that it was a difficult [179] time. I had very heavy, dark hair. Seldom did man or woman come to our place without mentioning how lovely it was. My hair was one of Mama’s trials. The combing and braiding took time which she felt she could have used for other tasks. She braided the two front braids so tightly that my skin was pulled taut along the temples. She then braided these two into the two back braids and tied them with store cord.

I cannot remember that Mama ever once spoke lovingly to me or laid a caressing hand on me. But she did not neglect me. I had good food and warm clothing. I learned to obey without question, else I was punished on the spot. She laid down the laws and meted out the punishment.

Papa held some small offices on the town board, the school board, and in the congregation when church and school were organized, and as there were no telephones he often drove around the community on these errands. He began to take me with him whenever he could. I remember someone remarking to Mama that I was with Papa a lot of the time, and she answered, "She does as she pleases around him." Undoubtedly I behaved much better around Papa because between us there flowed a current of affection and understanding.

I was no doubt a difficult child to raise. I was full of curiosity, for one thing, and got into various scrapes, such as when I went to look at "my" little pigs. When my natural father left Dakota he gave Papa a sow. She had a litter of pigs every spring, which were sold by twos and threes as soon as they were old enough. This had made the old sow vicious when she had piglets around; so when the little pigs were taken from her, several men would keep her at bay. There was much talk about all this around the house.

Everyone had gotten into the habit of calling the piglets mine. One day Mama, busy about the house, heard the sow begin to make furious noises. A quick check showed me to be nowhere in sight and she immediately surmised that I was the cause of the old sow’s rage. The pigpen was made of several boards nailed one above the other with an inch or [180] more of space between boards. I could not see the little pigs without climbing to the top of the boards and from there I had toppled over into the pen. Fortunately for me, the little pigs dashed into their house as I fell into the pen. Whether I had been stunned momentarily by the fall, or whether I was too frightened by the ferocious beast poised above me to move, no one knows, but I lay quietly. Mama said she hardly dared reach in to grab for fear the sow would lunge for her hand. However, she grabbed me by my clothing and yanked me out. She said that if I had fallen between the mother pig and the piglets, the sow would have killed me before Mama could have gotten there.

Another incident concerning animals happened one evening at milking time. Mama, tired of having me run around amongst the cattle, told me to go outside the fence and sit still there. She set down a pan of fresh milk for the cat, so I could pet and play with this, my constant companion. At this time we had a young gray mare that jumped fences. To keep her from getting out of the pasture, Papa kept her front feet hobbled. Papa, coming from the field with two teams, was driving them right up to the well beside the fence. The gray mare saw the other horses and came running. She made a flying leap over the fence and me. They said her hind feet came down within inches of my head. The mare was sold very soon thereafter.

If, rarely, we went to the neighbors for an evening, we walked. Going home Papa often had to carry me "piggy back" while Mama went ahead with the lantern. Errands between neighbors were often made with the stoneboat, a horse or even an ox pulling it, the driver standing with feet widespread on the sled to keep his balance. Stoneboats had many uses in those days, besides the original one of hauling rocks and stones off the fields.

During the early years Papa and Mama were surrounded by bachelor homesteaders. I remember thirteen of them, eight of whom were more or less distantly related to Papa or [181] to me. Papa’s relatives were at our house quite often. I loved some of them dearly. Having no playmates and seldom seeing another child, especially in winter, I no doubt pestered these young men intolerably. But then some of them seemed to like it. There was Herman, who never married, and in later years became somewhat of a recluse. He would lift me up in his lap and talk to me. He also brought me little gifts. I remember a chain and locket with a heavily perfumed heart inside the locket, which he gave me. This I adored. He brought me a few pieces of candy in striped paper bags, but most important of all, as long as he remained around our settlement he always declared that I was his girl. This gave me a feeling of gladness and importance. Then there was John. He was a great tease and kept me imprisoned with his arms and legs while he rubbed my face sore with the beard stubble on his cheeks. For many years John played with and teased me whenever he came. He played rough and I would often retreat in anger, but always went back for more!

At times Mama baked bread and washed clothes for some of the bachelors. Once she made a quilt for Martin and we drove up to his claim shanty with it. I was quite excited about seeing Martin’s shack, as I had heard so much about it, probably because he kept it so neat and clean. However, when we got there Martin was not at home, so all I could do was to press my nose child-fashion against the windowpane and stare in. I could see only a spoon holder and a sugar bowl on the middle of an oilcloth-covered table.

It was no doubt due partly to Mama’s good cooking as well as to Papa’s genial hospitality that we saw so much of our bachelor neighbors. They brought laughter, news, excitement, and music with them. Herman was an outstanding musician. Several of Papa’s cousins played musical instruments, and so they began to assemble on Sunday afternoons in summer and practice together. Often refreshments were a pony keg of beer brought up from the cellar. The beer could not have been very cold by today’s standards. The only cooling method [182] available was pouring well water over the keg and keeping it in the cellar. There was not much beer for each one in the pony keg, either, but they enjoyed it. I was a big girl before I knew that there were other musical instruments than the violin, clarinet, cornet, guitar, and the like.

Another Sunday afternoon pastime was target shooting. Soon I was learning to shoot also, and Papa’s pride was great, I know, when I became a fairly good shot with the .22, which was the only gun we had.


I believe it was the summer after Marie’s death that Auntie and her adopted daughter came to visit us. Several things got the visit off to a bad start. The once-a-day mixed train brought them to the little station in the night, and Papa met them with horses and the lumber wagon. They had eight long miles to drive in the dark. Then a sudden wind and heavy rainstorm overtook them. They sought shelter near a settler’s small house, but they were drenched, and Auntie was thoroughly frightened by the terrific lightning and thunder that accompanied the storm. Proceeding on their way after the storm had passed, they soon came to the river. There was no bridge and I am sure Auntie was terrified to feel the horses and wagon plunging downhill and into the water in the darkness.

Auntie and Mama had one trait in common. Once they had made up their minds about something, no power on earth could change them. Auntie made up her mind about Dakota that night and never changed it to the day of her death. I have described her home and, in comparison, ours must have seemed Spartan indeed. The barrenness of our home, without a window shade or curtain, a rug on the floor, or a picture on the walls, was not the fault of Dakota, or because of Papa’s inability to provide such things. It was due entirely to Mama’s passion for spotless orderliness. Anything that was not in daily use or would gather dust she banished.

Auntie’s visit ended and she never came again, but she did not forget us. She was the kindest of women, and from time [183] to time big boxes arrived containing discarded rugs (lace curtains too, no doubt, although they were never hung), and clothing that my "cousin" had outgrown. I still treasure lovely gifts that she sent me while I was a child, but the dozen quart jars of wild raspberry sauce that she sent us were the best.

I have mentioned the well next to the barn fence. This was drilled by machinery and has now been supplying the farm with water for over fifty years. I think that a stranger working with a divining rod, a forked stick cut from a willow tree, indicated that water could be found on the ridge near the stable. He held one of the prongs in each hand, the main stem pointing upwards. He walked around the yard slowly, leaning forward, seemingly intent on his work. I think the rod must have reacted to a water vein far below: the settlers usually dug near sloughs for water, but here a well was drilled atop the ridge. There was a lot of talk about the stranger and his mystic powers, so much that for days afterwards I kept breaking off willow branches; I would walk about the yard, holding a forked piece in my hands, hunched over my divining rod, expecting it to dip and quiver as his did. I was intensely irritated and disappointed that I could not "find" water the way he could. It had looked so easy!

Uncle Andrew had bought a well-drilling outfit and had bored many wells throughout the settlement, and now he was to drill a well for us. It seems to me they went down 165 feet. I must have been six or seven years old, and for some forgotten reason Uncle Andrew had me stand beside the drill pipe and pour water down it. Suddenly a heavy, sharp-edged pulley broke loose from the rigging and came hurtling down. Uncle Andrew probably saved my life by grabbing me by the neck and yanking me backwards just as the pulley fell. Instead of hitting my head or neck, it struck a glancing blow along my right thigh that took clothing and skin with it. The next thing I knew I was standing over to one side crying about my bloodied leg and torn clothing. No one was paying any attention to me. Up around the rigging, heated conversation [184] bounced back and forth. Uncle Andrew was angry because the pulley had come down, so was Papa, and so, seemingly, were the other men. I thought that, considering what had happened to me, I was getting too little attention, and bawled a little louder with pain, fright, and frustration. Then I was sent in to make my peace with Mama about the torn skin and ruined dress!

The water in this well was good, and free from the rusty content that coated pails and dippers in so many places. Whenever there was anything wrong with this well, Papa lost his good humor until it was in working order again. Only those who have hauled water by the barrel for years could fully understand his problems.

Soon a windmill was put up. When the wind blew this was a wonderful convenience, and it provided me with another outlet for my restless energy. I climbed the spindly ladder up to the platform over and over again. I had been forbidden to step out on the platform, as they said a sudden shift of wind might cause the great wheel to change position and sweep me off. Once from the ladder I saw a coyote chase a fox with a long plume of tail, as fast they could go. Up they came from the state’s land, across the pasture, and into the field until they were out of view. The coyote was close behind the fox all the way. One winter day I stuck my tongue on a rung of the ladder. Immediately it froze fast. Bawling did no good -- no one could help me; I just had to pull it loose. Sticking one’s tongue on frozen metal seemed to be something we all had to do once, and one lesson was enough for always, I think.

I remember people pounding on the door and yelling at Papa in the night to come out and fight a prairie fire. The fire was sweeping northeastward, they declared, and might reach the church. The church had been built in 1902, so we had prairie fires later than that year. Getting ready to fight fire took time. Horses had to be harnessed to haul water, sacks for wetting had to be found, and then the men had to catch up to the fire. Mama and I stood in the doorway and watched as [185] they hurried away. We saw the fire flare up along the ravine with its long grass and weeds and diminish as it reached the higher ground where the grass had been mowed.

Once in the daytime Mama and I watched a prairie fire sweep down from the Viking Hills to the Big Slough. This was a real blaze, and was an imposing sight as the grass and great weeds along the slough burst upward in flame and smoke. How thankful we all were that there was enough water in the slough to keep the fire on its far side!

Several times peddlers were blamed for setting fires by throwing cigarettes or matches into the dry grass. The last fire I saw was one of these -- creeping slowly across the state’s land. Helge’s boys and I went along with the hired man and thought ourselves real fire fighters as we helped to put this one out.

In those years the most important day of the summer was the Fourth of July. Possibly many of these people, not long away from Europe, with its freedom-restricting practices, really appreciated America’s Independence Day. The celebrations held in our immediate neighborhood were tame and sober indeed compared to those of earlier years. Those wild festivities possibly explain why our gatherings were small.

It seemed that for many men the big object of the day was to get drunk. I never heard of a man in our neighborhood who absolutely refused a drink of liquor, but our nearest neighbors, or closest friends, rather, were not heavy drinkers.

At this big celebration down near the "Jim" (James) River there was an oversufficiency of beer and whisky. However, some had not waited to get to the celebration before they started drinking. As Mama so often told about it: Two neighbors and their families came in sight of the crowd, one man holding the reins and the other man using the whip on the team. The terrified horses flattened themselves under the whip and ran as fast as they were able. The wagon careened from side to side and the back wheels leaped into the air as they struck rocks and other obstacles. As they swept into [186] the yard people held their breath, expecting the wagon to turn over. The driver used his weight to pull the reins and brought the horses up on their hind feet in an abrupt stop, and the terrified children and their mothers quickly tumbled out from the wagon box. With so much drinking ahead for the day and night, it seems that these men cheated themselves. Surely they were lying somewhere in a drunken stupor before the merrymaking was at its height!

Uncle John was still a bachelor and therefore saw more of the rowdy parties than the married men. It has often been said that when Nels (a bear for strength) was not present, Uncle John was the strongest man; sometimes when he thought fist fights had gone on long enough, he would step in and part the combatants. He had made enemies in this way, and three of them were said to have arranged that when John got drunk at the celebration two of them would hold him and the other beat him. This all went as planned, up to a point. The two men got John down, but as the third was about to strike him, Papa saw the knife blade glinting in his hand and dived at him. That was the end of the fight. Fighting with knives was unknown in the neighborhood, and indignation ran high. But it was Mama who, for the one and only time in her life, stepped forward and spoke out in public, and told the man what a despicable creature he was for attacking a helpless person with a knife. Several, Papa among them, decided they would have to remain on the sober side the rest of the day to avert further trouble. Toward evening Mama and I went home with Helge’s family.

After that the Ole Dovre, Helge Anderson, John Bergrud, and John Flotlien families, and others, met at one home or another for their Fourth of July celebrations. The women brought dishpans full of picnic foods. The men chipped in to buy oranges and candy for us children, lemons for lemonade, and a keg of beer for themselves. There were firecrackers purchased from this common fund as well. Each of the girls got one good dress each summer, which was called our "Fourth [187] of July dress." The dresses were usually made of thin white material, possibly lawn, and how we enjoyed them! At last the day would come and we would start out in the freshness of a July morning. Along the roadside wild flowers bloomed and perfumed the air, and as we jogged along each was busy with his own thoughts. I, in my wonderful new dress, probably bounced up and down on the wagon seat as I pictured the delights of the day ahead.

The women immediately set to work getting the big dinner ready, while the men unhitched and fed the horses. They worked slowly, as this was a holiday, and they talked and laughed. Then stakes were put down for several horseshoe games, and they played a desultory game or two. The real contests would wait until after the dinner had been enjoyed. The beer waited too, down in the cellar. Everyone had coffee with his food except the children. We had lemonade, and there never was such good lemonade as was made at these gatherings! The lemons were sliced into a large earthenware milk crock and squeezed with a wooden potato masher. Sugar was added generously, and the mixture stood thus until they were ready to use it. Then cold well water was added. When we were handed the filled glasses there was usually a slice of lemon floating on top.

Sometimes, during the afternoon, our sedate parents might play "last couple out" or "widower wants a widow." Great was our delight if some grownup pulled us into the game. Sometimes there were gunny-sack races and such for us children. Toward evening many went home to do chores and returned to watch the fireworks and have a last cup of coffee and some of the goodies still left from the picnic basket or dishpan. Then everyone went home. Tomorrow was a work day again. We had enjoyed a pleasant day without drunkenness or fighting to spoil it.

The winter that I was five, I learned to read. Papa and Mama both had a hand in this. They had bought a Norwegian ABC book; first of all I had to learn the letters by heart. Then [188] K-A-T was the large gray cat pictured above the letters, and so it went on to mouse, horse, and dog. They said I learned very quickly and enjoyed every page of the book. Mama brought out squares of old material on which I sewed small squares of bright calico. I still have a few of these old quilt blocks and it is interesting to see the color and design in these calico pieces, left over from our dresses of that time. One day a neighbor boy came to play with me and I tried to make him sew, too. When he did not get the sewing done to suit me I remember scolding him in the very words Mama used when she was dissatisfied with my work!

Because of the ever-harrying winds, the women wore sun-bonnets, and so did I. They were made from leftover dress materials. The stiff part of the sunbonnet was made double, with seams sewed across it about one and a quarter inches apart. Mama cut cardboard strips from shoe boxes to push into these spaces, and they worked very well. The bonnets tied under the chin and had back flaps that kept our necks from getting sunburned.

A little notebook that has somehow escaped the fire all these years since Papa used it bears proof that he was an excellent farmer and seedsman. He used this book to (as he would have put it) "keep track" of his business dealings with neighbors and friends. I have been surprised to find the names of all but two or three men in our vicinity, as well as those of people living over ten miles away. In "lumber-wagon days," ten miles was quite a distance to go for seed, when people all along the way also were raising grain. I have picked some of the entries at random. They give some idea of prices paid at the time. Unfortunately many of the items are undated, but the first ones stem from 1898:

"1902 sold to Andrew H --25 bu. seed oats @ 45¢ a bushel
1903 sold to Nels W --2 bu., 38# millet seed
1904 sold to John C -- 123 bu. seed wheat @ 86¢ a bushel [189]
1904 sold to John S --70 bu. seed wheat and 6 bu. 44 pds. flax seed
1904 sold to M. J. S. --20 bu. seed wheat @ 83¢ a bushel
1910 old to Ben W --50 bu. seed barley @ 45¢ a bushel
1910 sold to Nels H
          sold to Jack P
          sold to Jack P
          sold to Jack P
          sold to Nels W
--5 ton and 200# hay for $27.80
-- 39# beef for $3.34
-- 5# butter for .75
-- 1 sack coal .50
-- potatoes $6.25
1904 sold to John D -- two heifers $27.50
1910 sold to Hunt -- hogs $82.00"

In 1903 (or 1904) Papa sold 69 pounds of pork for $4.83. In 1904 he paid "T.T." $10.25 for 10¼ days’ haying. In 1906 he cleaned (fanned) 38 bushels of bluestem wheat for seed.

Most surprising to me are the great number of entries concerning small and large sums of money loaned to people round about. I do remember that many people had a hard time, having come out there without machinery and the many other things that Papa had freighted with him. Credit was extremely hard to get at the stores, and I notice that several seed sales carry the notation that the price would be several cents less per bushel if paid within a certain period of time. Sometimes the interval was two years, indicating that the buyer had no hope of being able to pay in the same year for the seed and other things that were received.

The first building to be put up after the first year, when the house was built, was a granary. Oddly enough, it stood near the road and I cannot remember that it was ever locked. Next came a large machine shed along one side of the granary. Then in 1904 a kitchen was built onto the south side of the house. Much discussion preceded the job, whether they should raise the roof of the present house so there could be nice bedrooms finished off upstairs. This project was dropped, [190] the new part was the same height as the old, and the upstairs was never finished.

All summer long I slept up there and sometimes I was scared stiff when it came time to go to bed. That happened when we had company and Mama got started on her Norwegian stories. She told about the superstitions that people in Norway had had in the past, and still had, to some extent, in her youth. There were the mischievous little nisser (gnomes), who are often shown in Norwegian illustrations wearing pointed red caps. Then there were the huldre (enchantresses), who lived inside the mountains and moved about everywhere unseen, as they had the power to make themselves invisible. They loved mingling with people but they had long cowlike tails, which sometimes escaped from their clothing and gave them away.

When young girls disappeared in the mountains, it was always assumed that the trolls had taken them inside the mountain, where they lived in beautiful homes with gold and jewels glittering everywhere naturally, no one would want to come back from all this golden luxury. Of course there were men who claimed they had found an open door in the mountainside and had glimpsed all the glory within. . . . There were ghosts that moved about inside and outside the venerable old church near Mama’s old home. Underneath the church and in the old cemetery, bones rattled and danced about. Sitting near the stove and facing our three uncurtained windows, I gazed from one dark window to the other, expecting every moment to see something hideous peering in at us. Mama told how a big timber wolf had come one winter day to put its paws on the window ledge of a cabin where relatives of hers lived, staring at the people within. Now, when guns are common, one wolf would be quickly disposed of, but these people had no guns.

Some farms were bothered with nisser far more than others. They did most of their mischief in the barns. In the morning the budeier (dairymaids) would find two cows squeezed into [191] one stall, while other stalls were empty. Some cows seemed to get extra feed, and grew sleek and fat, while others had their feed stolen and became skin and bones. It was wise to be friends with the nisser; often food was set out for them, and by morning it was always gone. Some hired men evidently enjoyed worrying the young dairymaids!

Trolls had a special hatred for churches and would hurl huge rocks down toward them from up in the mountains. The huldre girls were exceedingly beautiful and winsome, and longed for husbands from the people. One such lovely stranger appeared at a dance. She danced gaily all night, but suddenly her cow’s tail peeped out from below her dress, and abruptly she was gone! Everyone was frightened and ill at ease, and the dance ended.

When Norway first became a Christian country, the power of huldre over newborn infants was greatly feared. A tollekniv (sheath knife) with a steel blade was stuck in the wall above the infant’s cradle, or a steel brooch was pinned on the child’s dress. When the infant had been baptized, the danger from huldre and trolls was over. My maternal grandmother sent me one of these handmade steel brooches that had been in her family for many generations.

Mama also used to tell about a knoll near her home that was believed to be an ancient burial mound. In olden times important people were buried with things that they were believed to need in Valhalla. It was decided to open the mound. Soon after the men had gone to work, they saw that all the buildings at a near-by gaard (farm) were on fire. The workers fished off to help put out the flames, but when they got to the place there was no sign of fire. The superstitious people decided that "the spirits" did not want the mound disturbed, and gave up digging. Many years later, other men tried to open the mound. Exactly the same thing occurred and they also left off digging; and so far as Mama knew, the mound had not been disturbed since.

These and other similar tales fascinated and frightened me. [192] At bedtime I tore off my clothing and dived under the covers, head and all. I shivered and shook as I held the covers tightly about me for fear I would feel a ghost’s or hulder’s touch on my shoulder, or hear the rattle of bleached bones near by. Fortunately, sleep was close at hand for anyone as active all day as I. These stories probably accounted for my fright one evening: I was outdoors alone and heard a piercing shriek above me. I ran for the house, but was unable to open the door. Papa, hearing something, opened the door and comforted me by saying that I had merely heard a screech owl!

On long winter evenings Mama kept her knitting needles flying. I was growing fast and needed longer stockings continually. Papa also wore home-knit stockings, except in summer. The women, Mama included, knitted as they walked along the road on errands or going visiting. Mama had a queer sort of safety pin, the back strung with beads and the pin itself well curved, which she could fasten deep in a ball of woolen yarn. She then pinned it to the side of her skirt and unwound yarn as she needed it.

Sometimes I could coax Papa to play hide-and-seek with me while Mama sat knitting. A button, a thimble, a spool of thread, or my homemade top might be the thing we hid. To me it was great fun, but I can sort of sense after this long time that it was sometimes pretty boring for Papa! As the years passed, Mama had become less harsh with me as her memories of Marie faded, and we got on reasonably well, or better.

The year 1906 was an important one for us. Plans had been made to build a barn. A lot of figuring and dickering with lumbermen in Manfred and Fessenden went on before Papa decided to get the lumber. Material for the foundation lay in the large stone pile near the gate, where Papa and Prince had deposited rock and stone from all over the place those first years. Some of the rocks were large and it had taken much digging, prying, and tugging on Papa’s part to get them onto the stoneboat, and some heavy pulling on Prince’s part to get [193] them home. By the time the foundation had been laid and after a lot of the stone discarded by the mason had been used inside the barn for fill, there was little left of the big pile.

Papa bought the lumber in Manfred. I went with him every trip. Once Mama went along, and that day the lumberman invited us to go home with him for dinner. This was a special honor; I think this may have been the only time Mama ever set foot in Manfred.

The prairie along the way had been turned into field or fenced into pasture, so we had to follow whatever trail there happened to be along section lines. It was not much of a road for hauling heavy lumber loads. A little grading had been done over some of the many small sloughs; frequent rains made these grades almost impassable. I would sit leaning over the wagon seat watching the mud ooze up around the wagon wheel and hang there in big chunks that fell off as the wheel turned, while more mud arched upwards to cling a bit and fall again. We did not meet many people on this road.

Three carpenters lived with us that summer. Whenever my little tasks permitted me to stay around them, I led an adventuresome life. They were men from the settlement whom we knew well, so I climbed around on the scaffolds, watching and listening to them. Repeated warnings about going up where they were meant nothing to me. They did not know how much practice I had had climbing the big cottonwoods! But one day when they were busy I went higher than ever before, where even I knew it was risky for me to go, when one carpenter, who was working at the end and very peak of the roof, lost his footing and fell.

I heard his thin cry echoing inside the barn and saw his body dropping clumsily downward, and for once I was thoroughly shaken. I held on tightly for a moment before I began to make my way to the ground and around to the back of the barn, where the men had gathered around the fallen man. They had propped him up against the foundation. His face was white as snow. He fell about forty feet and narrowly [194] missed a rock pile. It happened that no bones were broken, but he did not work again that day.

And then the barn was finished, even to the little cupola up on the peak of the roof. The haymow seemed huge, with its immense arching roof high above me, and its smooth, clean expanse of floor. One day the floor was swept and planks were put up for benches along the side walls. There was going to be a big dance in the barn! Ordinarily I would have been wild with excitement about all the people coming to enjoy themselves, but I knew that Mama had been very much against having the dance. I knew who had kept after Papa until he had given his consent. Mama then requested that no beer or liquor be brought in for the dance. The promise was given, but early on the evening of the dance Papa’s one horrid cousin came, bringing supplies of both. What was a promise made a woman to him! Mama was furious. She locked herself in the house and left Papa and me outside, and that was that. Through a blurred memory of many lanterns burning up near the roof of the great room, of music, dancing, and gaiety, runs a thread of disquiet -- Mama had locked herself in, Mama had locked herself in the house. Neighbor women who went to find her came back and asked me what was wrong. I suppose I told the truth, as I had been taught to do. Then I had to go with some of them and we stood outside the darkened house talking to her until they persuaded her to open the door so they could come in to cook coffee and prepare lunch. Not everyone, they said, wanted to partake of beer and whisky outside the barn in the darkness. I am proud of Mama for taking this stand against drunkenness. After she had unlocked the house door I went back to the barn with an entirely different feeling and enjoyed the rest of the party.

Of course people were immediately after Papa to have another dance there the next Saturday night. He felt that he had owed the neighbors a chance to ta sig en sving (give themselves a whirl) and they had had it; so several loads of timothy hay were put in the haymow immediately, and there could [195] be no impromptu repetition -- beer barrel, whisky, or anything.

In winter the barn was a world within itself. Some of the creatures who wintered there never set foot outdoors until the snow was gone in the spring. Among these were some small calves who occupied a big boarded-off section at the back. The rooster and about twenty hens had no home except for a few poles nailed across the corner above the calf pen. Being messy, they were unwelcome, but there was no other place for them to spend the winter. The roosters of those days were lordly fowl.

Purebred animals of any sort were unknown. These people were glad to have ordinary stock. So also with chickens. In the spring neighbor women would exchange settings of eggs. A setting was thirteen eggs. When an old hen became broody she was given the eggs to sit over, and after three weeks she would usually have thirteen lively little chicks to raise. Thus new strains were added to the flock, in all possible colors. The roosters that did not end up in the soup kettle in their youth were big, beautiful birds, and they knew it. They rivaled the pheasants of today in the glory of their feathers. Greens, deep reds, golds, and purplish blacks shimmered and shone along their necks, wings, and tail feathers. Some had tail feathers so long they almost swept the ground. I remember one big white rooster who had a rich display of colors, even black, on wings and tail. The roosters strutted proudly about the yard and were absolutely vain.

Pussy was mostly a prisoner, too. There were always a few mice lurking near the feedbox, so she had work to do, but sometimes on nice days, when the big doors were open while the horses were taken out to the water tank, she might try a trip along their hard-packed, manure-spotted trail toward the well. As the great beasts came trotting by, Pussy reluctantly dived into the snow. When the path was clear again she would stand there discontentedly for a moment and then go dashing back toward the barn. She paused for a moment on [196] the doorsill, displeasure evident in the set of her tail and her close-laid ears, while she daintily shook the snow off one paw after the other before she fled back into the warm, steamy interior.

At precisely one-thirty every winter afternoon it was time for Mama to water the cows. Not even our infrequent Sunday-dinner company was allowed to interfere with this chore. On cold days the cows drank very little, but hurried back to crowd together near the barn door. By the time the door was opened for them one dignified old bossy with wide horns had usually butted and pushed herself into position nearest the door. I have seen two of them so determined to be first inside that both became wedged in the doorway and had to be pushed and prodded out again. Big old "Skaute" who came from Minnesota was long since gone, but there was always another "Skaute."

A black-and-white cow with a white spot in her forehead was named "Stjerne" (Star); a red-and-white one might be "Hjertros" (Heart Rose).

The horses were my favorites. Their big eyes shone with pleasure when I played with or petted them, and they nuzzled their velvety lips and noses against my face and hands. If they all stood dozing I had but to touch the cover of the feed-bin and every horse would take a step forward and every head was turned hopefully toward me, waiting for a handout of feed. As soon as I could lift the harness over their backs I harnessed some of them. It was easy without the fly nets, but they made a heavier and more complicated chore. Some of our horses had fly nets made from long strips of leather. Attached to the harness, they moved when the horses moved and effectively kept the flies off. Most fly nets were made of an open mesh material, orange yellow in color. Teams wearing these gaudy fly nets could be seen for long distances.

Then suddenly there came a day with warm spring sunshine and a drying wind. The barn doors were left ajar, and the hens came one by one to stand cautiously on the doorstep. Standing [197] one-legged, they cocked their heads this way and that, wondering if they dared step outdoors. A few days later they were scurrying about the yard, the strutting rooster stopping often to arch his neck in a loud, clear "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" The hens made an awful din in the otherwise quiet yard with their shrill cackling about the eggs they had laid.

Then came the day to put the reluctant and contrary calves outdoors. The bright sunshine, everything, was different from their dimly lit winter home. Once forced outdoors, they stood spraddle-legged for awhile. Then, after cautiously moving their feet a bit and sniffing at the ground, they suddenly seemed to realize they were free; then their jumping and capering, waltzing and running about, with their tails held stiffly erect, were laughable indeed.

The cupola on top of the roof had been painted last of all, and when the painter finished the white trim and was about to start down the ladder, he tipped the pail of paint and a white streak ran down the new shingles. Fortunately the streak was on the side toward the house and not readily visible from the road. It was good paint and was visible for, possibly, twenty-five or thirty years!

Later we found out that the barn was indeed complete --even to a nisse as real as any of those Mama told about from Norway. One of my uncles was about to step off the ladder-like steps from the haymow when he saw it. He saw the puckish, gray-bearded face and the pointed red cap before the nisse grabbed him by the ankle and pinched him as if with fiery tongs. Uncle yelled and kept right on yelling until he roused the household, and was himself awakened. He said then and years afterwards that this was the most vivid and the most painful dream he ever had. At the time Papa gave Mama a cool look, as much as to say: "Ja, now look what comes of your storytelling!"; but a tiny smile lurked in the corners

<<   Previous Page   |   Next Page   >>

To the Home Page