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Pioneering in Montana
    by Sverre Arestad (Volume 22: Page 104)

Radiating out from Malta, Montana, about 30 miles to the southwest, are the Larb Hills. In the fall of 1913 a young Norwegian immigrant went to this region at the suggestion of relatives who had settled there. Endre Bergsagel, then in his early twenties, was to remain for twenty years as a homesteader and farmer. In the following narrative he has recorded his experiences in this mixed settlement of Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, and people of other national origins. Some attention is also given to his nomadic existence during his first two years in America, an interesting illustration of the pattern of Norwegian settlement in this country.

Endre Bergsagel was born near Stavanger, Norway, January 28, 1890, the oldest of seven children of Daniel Bergsagel. The mother died when the youngest child was a year old. In 1910 Endre and his younger brother, Knut, migrated to America, and shortly afterward Daniel remarried. The second wife died only a year later. The father was again alone at home with five children, while the two oldest were in America.

Daniel Bergsagel, always active in community work, served on the local school board, and had a position similar to that of a county commissioner in America. There was little remuneration for the latter activity, so he sold his farm and entered the real-estate business, which proved profitable for him. One of Endre’s brothers, Wilhelm, went into newspaper work, and [105] another, Ingvald, turned to farming after attending agricultural college. One sister, Ingeborg, married a newspaper man; a second, Dagny, married a schoolteacher. Daniel died in 1939 at age eighty-two. His daughter Eli and her family now live in the old home, while the rest have scattered all over Norway.

The Bergsagels are highly respected in their native land, having been connected with public service, communications, and education. The pattern of public service seems to continue in the second generation. Endre Bergsagel’s own children have maintained an interest in Norwegian language and culture; four of them are college graduates. As he puts it, "When they could earn enough to pay their way they attended colleges and the University of Washington. After graduation they became teachers, nurses, and social workers. Like their parents and grandparents, they have had to work hard from early childhood to accomplish what they have, and it was not easy to get an education under the circumstances. Peter, a veteran of World War II, makes his home in Alaska. Like his father in this respect, he took to the pioneer life." {1}

Endre Bergsagel’s narrative is taken from a fairly complete record that he had the foresight to begin many years ago. The details themselves reveal the conditions that he and his family encountered, mainly in Montana. But the account also contains astute observations on people and events. His thumbnail sketches of many of his contemporaries reveal how often his initial impression of a person was confirmed by later experience. His appreciation of nature and his ability to convey that appreciation to his readers enhance his story.

The present version of Bergsagel’s account is based on a typewritten manuscript of 230 pages. The treatment is chronological, and in the original there are repeated recitals, with only minor variations, of the same or similar experiences; not all are significant. I have abstracted representative episodes and rearranged them for continuity and condensed some descriptions. In a very few instances, passages have been [106] rewritten, without, however, indicating this in the text. In general, therefore, the following is the work of the author, who has read this version of his account and approved it. He supplied considerable corroborative evidence, some of which has been incorporated in the footnotes.


I shall never really know what induced me to homestead on the grasslands of north central Montana, a semiarid region so different from anything I had known. I was born on the rain-soaked, fertile plain of Jæren, not far from the coastal town of Stavanger, Norway. After landing in St. John, New Brunswick, I went by train directly to San Francisco. From there I proceeded slowly up the coast to Portland, Oregon, and then went east and north to eastern Washington and Alberta, Canada, finally arriving in Montana. Most Norwegian settlers who have lived for a time in Montana have sort of stopped there on their way to the coast from one of the north central states. But I did it the other way around. And it took me twenty years, with a lot of drought and grasshoppers thrown in, to finally make up my mind to return to the coast.

After thirty years, I am more convinced than ever that the coast is where I should have settled in the first place. But I was young then, and jobs were scarce just before the First World War, so I moved east to the harvest fields. Although there were a lot of hardships connected with homesteading in Montana, I guess the open country got into my blood, in a way. And that is why I stayed. Of course, a man with a family can’t pick up and move just any time things don’t work out well — and then there’s always the hope that matters will improve. As I reflect upon my experiences, I can’t decide which ones I would have omitted, because they have all had meaning for me.


As a farm boy in Norway, I had to work for my living and learn things the hard way. But I was fortunate, because in [107] 1907 and 1908 I was able, not without sacrifice to myself and my parents, to spend a year at the Jæren folk high school. This was really the beginning of my mature life. The spring of 1908 was a happy dream, but the same summer my mother died of a heart attack. I was the oldest of seven children, the youngest only a year old. In 1910 I sold some land, and my brother Knut and I used the proceeds to buy tickets to America. {2}

It was a stormy day in April when we left on a small steamer for Newcastle, England. On the dock stood a small group of friends and relatives. There were tears on the wrinkled, weather-beaten faces of many parents. I was young and inexperienced, full of imagination, self-confidence, and pride. But that last impression never left me. Adventures in the New World were to fade the old memories, but that moment, time and again, would come before my mind, real as life itself. Such as when I had been working in the redwoods in California and became delirious with malarial fever. Then, a year later, in a hospital in Alberta, Canada, where I had been working on a construction job, and fell ill with typhoid. At times like that, memories, good and bad, would come to mind.

Crossing the North Sea on such a boat was not a luxury trip for anyone. Dinner was served below at a long table. It consisted of boiled ham or pork, and pea soup. But we got to Newcastle. Our first view of England, from the train window on our way to Liverpool, was impressive. The large farms looked prosperous. Fine young gentlemen in fancy clothes were driving well-groomed horses over large areas of land. It looked like a region of gentleman farmers.

Our first close encounter with city life, however, provided an unpleasant contrast to the rural scene. We were impressed [108] with the tree-lined avenues, the parks, the museums, and the art galleries of Liverpool; but there were slums, too, and lots of poor people on the streets. Old women walked about barefoot, carrying baskets of apples and oranges to sell. Small boys begged for food or money and offered services of some kind. These things we were not accustomed to.

On the trip across the Atlantic, we learned many things about America, especially from the young emigrants who had been there before. Wages in Minnesota and the Dakotas were not so good as farther west. A farm hand in Dakota could expect 20 dollars a month, whereas a sheepherder in Montana was paid 40 dollars. But my brother and I were going to San Francisco, and we were not interested in farm jobs yet. There were immigrants from everywhere in Europe, but most of them were British and Scandinavian. Our trip across the ocean in 1910, even on an emigrant ship, turned out to be both comfortable and interesting as well as instructive.

We debarked at St. John, New Brunswick, some distance west of Halifax, and started our long train journey across Canada and down to Chicago. New experiences and impressions were coming to us continually. As we moved southwest from Chicago, we saw an entirely new world; everything was strange as we traveled farther and farther westward. When we rode into San Francisco there were only six of us immigrants left, four men and two women. The others who started out with us at St. John had left at different destinations along our route. I have often thought of that since, because no doubt the emigrant ships, the next day and the next week and the next, would scatter other groups, who had become pretty well acquainted while crossing the Atlantic, in new 3,000-mile arcs throughout their adopted country.


My destination in San Francisco was our Aunt Theodora Auestad’s home at 22 Presita Avenue. She helped us look for jobs. It was not easy to get employment there then. The unions held us off. Acquaintances later helped us find work [109] outside the city. One job was pushing wheelbarrows for the construction of a concrete dock at 3 dollars a day, but it did not last long. I later got work with a section gang in the Sacramento Valley, near Marysville, but soon returned to San Francisco to be near my brother. He was out of work, so we eagerly listened when our aunt told of a Captain Gudmund Olsen, born in Tananger, Norway, who was willing to give us free fare on his steam schooner from San Francisco to Eureka, California. In Eureka, Captain Olsen gave us a wonderful meal, apologized for the stormy weather, which had made the empty lumber schooner bounce like a cork, and saw to it that we got to the Riverside Mill. We arrived just in time for dinner, and we sat down to the very best food we had ever eaten. {3}

When the superintendent learned that we were Scandinavians, he put us to work in the lumberyard, loading and unloading railroad cars. The foreman was a young Dane. We had a cabin all to ourselves, with two bunks, a table, and a wood stove. We were happy there; the work was hard, but we had good quarters and excellent food. Then I got malaria; I had to go to Arcata to the hospital, and was discharged just in time to return to Eureka for the Fourth of July celebration. We went straight to the American Hotel, which was operated, together with a tavern, by a Norwegian named Amundsen.

The next evening we attended a picnic in a near-by park. We found friends from everywhere. It was almost like being in the old country. One old man working at the Fortuna Mill showed a special interest in us. He was born in Wisconsin, but he spoke very good Norwegian. There were also groups from different churches. This was our first Fourth of July in America.

We returned to the Riverside Mill, but after a month or six weeks of work, we were both laid off. We then went to [110] see our Wisconsin friend at the Fortuna Mill, which had a smaller crew than the Riverside Mill, mostly Norwegians, as I recall. Although there were no openings, the old man told us about Ferndale, which was a dairy district 4 or 5 miles from Loleta. The farmers there were mostly Danish. The train went only to Loleta, so we set out on foot to Ferndale. After a few miles we came to a narrow wooden bridge across a small river. It was a little bridge, but toll was charged just the same, 10 cents for a pedestrian and a quarter for a horse and buggy. We were soon picked up by a German in a buggy. He was pleased that we could speak German, and he told us about his home in Germany and about his family and his farm in California. He said it was not like the old country. There was too much rush, no peace and quiet as in Europe. In Fern-dale we talked to several farmers about work, but couldn’t convince them that we could milk cows. They hired Swedes and Italians for that. We finally ended up in the hayfields for a couple of weeks.

In the late summer we worked for some Danish farmers near Ferndale. When my job came to an end, I went in to Loleta and was put on at the creamery, while my brother continued working for Christensen, a Dane from Schleswig-Holstein, on his farm at Ferndale. The foreman at the creamery was Hansen, a Norwegian American from Wisconsin. The other men in the plant were of all different nationalities. We worked every day, including Sunday, with a lot of overtime. Eventually my brother also came to work at the creamery. But this man Hansen was hard to get along with; just before Christmas I had a falling out with him, and both Knut and I decided to quit. We returned to San Francisco and had a happy reunion with our Aunt Theodora and her family. Work was as hard to get there as before. So I set off again.

On New Year’s Day, 1911, I sailed north to visit my uncle, Isak Knudsen, who had a store at Chinook, Washington. At that time the cabin-class fare from San Francisco to Astoria or Seattle was only 10 dollars. Uncle Isak had left Norway as [111] a young boy, but went back for a visit the year I was born. Aunt Theodora, then only seventeen, returned with him to San Francisco. My mother had all kinds of pictures of Uncle Isak, some in a captain’s uniform, some as a lighthouse keeper, and later with a young lady in a wedding picture. The marriage evidently did not work out, because we heard nothing about her. Pastor Gabriel Breivik, the Lutheran minister in Chinook, wanted Uncle Isak to give up his lighthouse job and open a store in Chinook, which he did, but it was not much of an advance for him. {4}

When I arrived at the depot there, a couple of miles by rail from McGowan’s Landing, the Washington terminal of the Astoria ferry, I saw an elderly man, well-dressed, with a gray mustache, who walked just like my grandfather. This was Isak Knudsen, who had come down for the mail pouch. He told me I looked exactly like my grandfather, and must be his nephew.

Chinook was a fishing village. There was only one street, with two churches, one Lutheran and one Methodist, two barrooms, two grocery stores, and one combined dry goods, candy, and notion store, which Uncle Isak operated. It had two counters, with a salesgirl in charge of the dry goods department. Across the street was the only hotel and restaurant in town, operated by a widow. My uncle boarded there, and I too moved in. The rooms were without heat, but they were neat and clean. A small kerosene lamp was on the dresser and a large washbasin in a corner, with clean, cold water every day.

The salmon fisheries, run mostly by large companies, gave only seasonal employment. So the winter was spent mending nets and repairing the other gear. I helped my uncle in the store. He was well liked by the people of Chinook, but he was not a money-maker. Although he had all kinds of ideas, most of his plans did not work out. He repeatedly lost money [112] in fly-by-night ventures, and what he didn’t lose that way, schemers swindled him out of.

There were a number of Norwegians in Chinook. Pastor Breivik had moved to Tacoma, and his pastorate was now filled by Otto C. Ottesen, who conducted two services every Sunday. Chris Storseth and his wife had not been there long, but the Knut Torvik family (who came from the vicinity of Kristiansund, Romsdalen) had. Torvik had a grown family, and he and his sons operated several salmon traps on the Columbia. I moved in with the Torviks and helped mend nets. This was a fortunate arrangement for me, because the school principal, Henderson, lived there and he gave me lessons in English. I finally went to work for Pete Dahl, a Norwegian, who was foreman of a fishing camp at String-town, about halfway between Chinook and Ilwaco. I started work the first of March. The wages were 80 dollars a month, less 30 dollars for board. Part of Dahl’s income came from operating a boardinghouse for fishermen. It was a family affair; his two daughters and his wife helped.

Our fishing camp was probably not much different from many others — we prepared the gear, drove the piling for the traps, tended the traps when the fishing season began, and dismantled them when it was over — but I was struck by the composition of the crew. They were mostly Scandinavians —Norwegians, Swedes, and Swedish Finns. In addition to the Dahl family and myself, there were the brothers Ole and John Olsen, Charley Johnson, an elderly Johnson from Finland, Hans Augendal (who arrived later in the summer after his crops failed), Tønnes, an intelligent young immigrant who had come directly from Norway, and numerous other Johnsons and Olsons. {5} I also remember Will Ford and Andrew McCrary, both from Chinook. There was a German, Nick, and a well-educated Scotsman, Grant, who were in the pile-driving crew. Grant was always in a good humor, and he and I became good friends. [113]

When the traps were in, the only work was splitting wood and brailing the fish from the traps once a day. The simple work made for monotony, and I can confirm the report of a general tendency among fishermen to drink excessively. Pete Dahl was one of the worst offenders, but he had lots of company. About the only diversions during the season were a boisterous Fourth of July in Astoria and an occasional movie at Ilwaco.

In October the last traps were shut down, and I was again without a steady job for the winter. Then my brother Knut wrote that in the coming winter he planned to attend Columbia College, a Lutheran school in Everett, Washington. I agreed to go with him. My first year and a half in the United States was now ended, but I still did not know what I would do eventually nor where I would settle. So far nothing had been interesting enough to be permanent.

In the spring of 1912 I returned to Chinook to gill net on the Columbia River. My partner was Cleng Holte, from Strand, near Stavanger. Fishing was poor that year, so we decided to go east to the Palouse country in eastern Washington for the harvest. We arrived in Walla Walla July 4, and I immediately got a job from Oscar Drumheller, who operated a big place near Dayton. {6} Cleng got a job on a near-by ranch, but I soon lost track of him. I later learned that he married, settled in New York, and became wealthy. While working for Drumheller, I learned wheat-ranching methods; in 1912 combines first came into common use. After two months, a letter came from Tolleif Undheim, uncle of my future wife. He was from Jæren, near Stavanger, and was now living in Carmongay, Alberta. To find another man like him would be a rare thing indeed. I joined him and had no [114] trouble finding a job. It was an exceptionally good year for crops throughout the wheat-growing country.

I had not expected to be met at Carmongay, but in those days, if a likely-looking young man stood undecided on the street in a small wheat town, he was soon spotted. An enterprising American, Mr. Males, approached me. He owned a large tract 30 miles out of Carmongay, near Sundale (a post office and village no longer in existence), and we soon agreed on wages and living arrangements. He had his own threshing outfit there and was going to thresh for the whole vicinity. Males also owned a store, a saddle shop, and considerable residential property in Dayton, Idaho. His oldest daughter managed the Idaho properties, while the rest of his family lived in Sundale. We left town in the evening. About 10 miles out, we saw the sun go down. What I saw of the country and prairie during that drive made a lasting impression on me — the buffalo grass, the white-faced cattle, bands of horses roaming loose, a coyote slinking away over a distant rise.

After working for Males about two months, I set out looking for a homestead. I first visited Medicine Hat, about 100 miles due east of Carmongay, in southeastern Alberta; then I went about 75 miles northwest of there to Brooks, a railroad town, not now listed in the atlas. I liked the country. Although I heard all kinds of rumors about roads and railroads coming through the area, I met discouraged homesteaders going back to Medicine Hat for work. Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan and northern Montana comprised the last free open land for homesteading. In Canada, 160-acre tracts were available, while in Montana one could get 320 acres and more grassland later. My construction job at a large flour mill in Medicine Hat was satisfactory enough, but a severe bout with typhoid, a letter from a cousin in Malta, Montana, and the other factors outlined above made me decide to have a look at homesteading in Montana. Besides, Montana wheat had already established a name for itself as a high-quality product. [115]


The town of Malta, as I saw it when I stepped off the train that first time (September, 1913) — young, optimistic, and receptive to the attractions of new things — caught my interest at once. An old town as the history of the cattle industry went, it was still rugged, virile, and full of the pioneer aspect. The ground was muddy with rain. Hitching racks with saddle horses tied to them lined the street outside the saloons. The boardwalks echoed as I walked over them. There were three big livery barns, and at that time the main barn and saloon were north of the railroad track. The land office was next to Thompson’s lumber yard.

The best land was yet unsurveyed. A Mr. Cramer, who had a little office up the street near the state bank, was helping people locate on squatters’ claims on unsurveyed land. His fee was a couple of dollars and you got a paper to show your intentions. You measured your own land, posted every corner, and then built a shack on it. This arrangement was all very well for squatters who stayed on their claims. Sometimes it was even enough to hold the land while a man went away to work for half a year. In other cases, leaving the claim might mean coming back and finding it occupied by someone else.

Before visiting my cousins Ingeborg and Elias, I went with a party of homeseekers to a place called Sun Prairie, a few miles from the Missouri River, about 50 miles south of Malta. There was already a large settlement of Missourians there, some of them with families. It was all squatters’ land. They already had set up a post office and a meetinghouse in the community. They were breaking ground, and already there were promising signs of farm life. They were very friendly and encouraged me to settle, but I decided on general principles to look around some more, and when the group started back to Malta, I went with them as far as Bennet Lake, an ambitious name for a rather wide-spreading slough with some water in it.

From my cousin Elias’ letter I knew that his homestead [116] was somewhere southeast of Malta. By walking and catching rides, I arrived at the shack on the second day, having spent the night at a homestead. When I looked in the window, I recognized books on the table, a trunk, and other things from Ingeborg’s old home in Norway. It gave me a start to see these things transplanted to a place so strange and different from the one they had come from.

Ingeborg was staying with a neighbor, a Mrs. Solberg, because Elias was away working — a general practice among homesteaders during the off season. {7} I looked around the place, which had a general appearance that was to become more and more familiar to me. About 100 feet from the little house was a stable, dug into a hillside with a shed roof on it. A short distance away stood a haystack. Near by was a well, which was dry. About 80 rods to the south was a replica of this homestead, with a larger house, where provision had been made to add another story. But the usual homesteader’s shack was unmistakable: a boxlike affair 12 by 14 feet, with black tar-paper sides, fastened outside with lath. Inside was the inevitable cast-iron kitchen stove that sold for 16 dollars.

I had a nostalgic visit with my cousin, and stayed on at Solberg’s a few days. I had not yet decided to take up a homestead in Montana, when one morning Carl Vikander, Emil Akerlund, and Erik Gunhus came along looking for land, Vikander acting as locator. {8} We started out for Content, and stayed there overnight. Little did I think, the next morning, that by nightfall we would have found the land where I would homestead. At dusk we located two sections lying all in one piece, with more land adjacent for our friends to stake their claims on. This land was at the north end of Township 28, Range 33 North. The township to the north had been surveyed, but it was too rough to attract settlers while there were better locations to the south.

The benchland I homesteaded on extended from the Larb [117] Hills in the east to Beaver Creek on the west. The land was quite rolling; grass was a foot high. Large herds of cattle and horses were grazing. Occasionally I saw a lonely shack. But there were no fences. On our location day we drove 30 miles without encountering a fence of any kind. This situation, however, changed as settlers moved in.

We lost no time in moving to our homesteads. Just as we were setting out, a Mr. Erdahl, a Norwegian American from Cooperstown, North Dakota, who was already settled with his large family, drove up with a team, which I bought on the spot for 300 dollars (250 dollars in cash and a 50-dollar note, which he immediately cashed). I learned two things at once: that a team should be tried out before buying it, and that a note can catch up with a man when he is least prepared to meet it. Now homesteading began in earnest.


My first winter in Montana, 1913—14, was an open one, with mild weather until a few days before Christmas. As soon as the claims were posted in the fall, I bought a wagon, harness, a mower, and a rake from John Fuller, an Easterner on Beaver Flat. Fuller later sold out to Guy Morris, a friendly and intelligent Kansan who became active in church and community affairs as the settlement progressed. Charles Hales (whose brother Joe was another rancher), for whom Hales Crossing over Beaver Creek was named, was an old-time rancher and resident. Charlie made a good impression on me the first time we met; I never had occasion to change it, and his honest, direct nature was a credit to the country I was getting acquainted with.

In October I went to work getting settled for the winter by driving 35 miles to Malta to buy lumber for a shack and a barn. Having some knowledge of carpentry, I was able to set up satisfactory buildings, a barn with space for four horses and an 8 by 10 shack. My furniture consisted of a stove, a table, a chair, and a folding bed. While I was building my shack I stayed with my nearest neighbor, 2 miles away, [118] a Mr. Rathbone from Wisconsin. One morning, bright and early, Gunhus came by with a load of lumber — he had been lost on the prairie on his way from Malta, and the old man who was hauling for him had nearly frozen to death during the night. Gunhus immediately went to work building his shack, and I, having completed mine, started to cut buffalo grass, which was still good even in October for winter hay. The Akerlunds, to the west of me, were busy moving a shack they had built on a claim near Bennet Lake. So, our settlement on the benchland was developing.

I busied myself every day, hauling water from the spring, cutting a little kindling for the stove, and hunting rabbits and sage hens. I passed the evenings reading, writing, and planning for the future. I had some taste of winter one morning; the ground was covered with snow. One night a sharp frost froze my potatoes. The days went only too fast. I was never in want of company; among others, Guy Morris, Charles Hales, Lew Vilhelm (of German descent), and of course Rathbone (with whom I sometimes went to dances at Hales’s place) helped pass the time agreeably, and I learned to know the people and the country. I’ll give another instance of the open hospitality there. A few days before Christmas, I went to town for coal, and was caught by darkness. Fortunately, I got to a log cabin, where I made myself at home. A couple of hours later Schnyder, a cowboy who owned the cabin, came in and we spent an enjoyable evening in talk.

But more important things in my life were taking shape. The day before Christmas, 1913, I went to Bennet Lake for my mail. I had a letter from my fiancée in Norway, and another from her brother, Jonas Undheim, who was working in Glendive. Jonas appeared on New Year’s Day and, since he had been working for a sheep man, his ideas had turned to ranching. I bought Erik Gunhus’ homestead shack for 40 dollars. Far more important than this, however, was that Gurina, my fiancée, and Malmfrid, who was Jonas’, were both coming from Norway. [119]

At last Gurina and Malmfrid arrived in Malta. When they got off the train, we were overjoyed; at last our hopes had been realized. Their hats and shoes, dresses and hair styles, direct from Norway, brought back memories of days gone by. The four of us had dinner at the hotel. We ordered the best we knew: roast pork, coffee, and pie. Jonas was for taking the girls — trunks, bags, and all — on top of his lumber load and starting immediately on the return trip. But I thought the occasion deserved a little more style (as much as the ways and means of the country afforded), so I borrowed Erdahl’s democrat. The girls were to go with me to Bennet Lake, where they could visit my cousin Ingeborg and get a good night’s rest.

It was early afternoon when we set out. The girls had a chance to see a new country in its best mood. It was a land of little variety: an occasional homestead, hills, prairie, birds, which were more heard than seen, and jack rabbits scattering in our way. We sang and we talked, and there came to us echoes of the fjords and mountains and clear streams and forests of Norway, which served to heighten the monotony of this strange new land of grass, sky, and emptiness. But as the sun reddened and sank in the west, we saw and felt some of the glory of this open country. We stayed at my cousin’s place; the girls must have had their own opinion of these cramped, plain quarters, so different from what they had been accustomed to.

The next day was bright and sunny. We started on the last part of the journey soon after dinner, and by this time the mosquitoes had come out in force; we were busy fighting off these busy, vicious little creatures. To correct whatever impressions the girls were building up, I began telling about the plans and rumors I had picked up at the land office, in town, and from homesteaders. I said the creeks would be bridged, the railroad would come through, and the country would change from wild prairie to fertile farmland as settlers continued to come in. There would be modern houses, [120] orchards, trees, and green pastures such as they had seen from the train windows in the eastern states. Trees would draw rain from the passing clouds. Although in 1914 I may have had reservations about some of this, there was no doubt that many changes would be seen. Anyway, the prospect made me feel less guilty for having permitted these girls to leave their homes, friends, church, and schools for an uncertain future and a lonely shack on the prairie.

That same afternoon we drove up to look at my homestead. We made coffee and ate baking powder biscuits. Then we walked back down to Jonas’ place, which was about 3 miles west.

The weeks before our marriage we spent in preparing our new homes. Jonas and Tolleif built a barn and dug a well, which produced a good supply of pure water. I had to haul water, but this always gave me an excuse to visit. I planted potatoes, cut hay, fenced, and worked on the house the rest of the time.

On the Fourth of July Gurina and I went to a picnic at Content. As we neared Jim Miller’s place, where the picnic was to be held, we saw that there was a large crowd. Miller, whom I already knew, came to meet us and led us toward the house, where a large picnic table was already set. Many of the people had already heard about Gurina, and they made her feel very much at home by manner and gesture, although she did not speak their language. Grandmother Smith was especially friendly to her. After awhile we found ourselves among the people from Bennet Lake, who, like ourselves, easily slipped into using Norwegian. Toward the end of the day we started home. After the sociability and celebration, the prairie in the evening air seemed exceedingly benign, peaceful, and mild, and a hush settled over the great spaces, so that the sound of the horses’ hoofs and the wagon wheels was unusually loud. But we sang folk and love songs and had a feeling of contentment.

The day of the wedding drew near. We had set it for [121] August 8, that being Gurina’s birthday, making it a day of double celebration. We decided to go to Glasgow, where the Reverend Alfred Hendrickson then had a small Lutheran congregation, for the event. We wished to preserve this link with our heritage. This plan meant an undertaking in the nature of a journey. The girls had made their own wedding gowns, and these were neatly packed away. Jonas and I bought new suits. We went by way of Bennet Lake, stopped at Ingeborg’s for the night, and arrived in Malta the next day. We took out our marriage licenses and bought tickets for Glasgow. We arrived there in the evening, and put up at the best hotel. The next day Jonas and I went looking for the Lutheran church. Eventually we located the little white building, with its parsonage. The church was undergoing repair, but Pastor Hendrickson would perform the marriage in the parsonage. At two o’clock we arrived for the ceremony, which was congenial and impressive. The pastor’s wife had thoughtfully prepared a little luncheon to take the place of a reception. Back at the hotel we found that they had set a special table for us, with flowers and decorations. Then we were showered with rice, which puzzled and embarrassed us until the waiter explained that it was an American custom.


The day after our wedding, we learned that war had broken out in Europe. We were a sobered foursome as we returned home. But now homestead life began in earnest. The house was not ready for the winter and we had hay and fuel to put in and innumerable things to get ready. The summer was ending. We had no income from the place this first year. But every trip to town meant taking a load home — lumber, fence posts, and supplies, and these cost money. Jonas suggested that he and I go out to work for awhile. So we folded up our bedrolls, packed a suitcase, and went. We worked for awhile as mule skinners on a dam project at Vandale, but this didn’t last long. Jonas began to worry about the women [122] at home, and I had a disagreement with the foreman. We returned to Hinsdale, and while Jonas went on home, I took a job plowing for an Englishman, a very dignified gentleman, Mr. Woolridge. {9} This one month I spent at Hinsdale was to be the only time I was away from home from then on. For this work, doing my own cooking and all, I earned 40 dollars.

It was satisfying to be back on my own place, working for myself. It was late October; I went to town for coal, groceries, and other necessities, and we settled down to meet the first winter together in a homestead settlement. We were not exactly isolated. A mile to the south another family moved in, William and Pauline Peterson, both Swedes, and except when we were snowbound we managed to visit back and forth. We enjoyed a real Christmas with Malmfrid and Jonas. We had the traditional rice pudding, a tree that resembled a Christmas tree, gifts, hymns, and violin music.

I often recall that first Christmas in our shack on the bench-land of northern Montana, and the thought of it always brings memories of the first time Gurina and I went home from a neighborly visit. As we walked over the prairie to our cabin, we were aware of the beautiful winter evening and we were content. Far in the distance we saw our house and barn. The evening sun was blinking and winking in the small window to the west. We were coming home to our own house. It was simple and plain. It had only one room then. The furniture was homemade, except for the bed and the cast-iron stove. On the wall above the table hung the kerosene lamp. With its shiny brass reflector, it threw off a cheery light. When we awoke in the morning, we heard the birds singing, and we wondered how the open prairie could have so many. We learned that no place could be drab if we opened our eyes to its hidden beauties and our ears to its song.

Soon after New Year’s, I went to work for a Mr. Reigle, who offered me 2 dollars a day for hauling feed with my team for [123] two large flocks of sheep. After doing this every morning, I took the snowplow and uncovered some of the long buffalo grass on the hills and on the benchland. There I met a full-bearded, cultured Italian, Julius Morelli, the possessor of Ingersoll’s complete writings. He was one of Reigle’s sheep-herders, and unless I had come along he might either have frozen — as his coal supply was low — or starved to death. The other sheepherder, Shorty Olander, a Scotsman, was a good cook and had a warm, comfortable cabin, but he didn’t care about that "infidel Morelli." I felt that Olander was slightly jealous of Morelli’s educational achievements and his interest in study.

I worked at the sheep camps until the first thaw in March. Deep in my memory lies the picture of coming home in the evening after those days with the sheep. Often snow had fallen, and the wind was busy sweeping it from the hills into the coulees. The big team was slow but steady. It was usually late, the night was clear and frosty, and sometimes the sky was lit with stars. The horses, when crossing the big coulee, often sank down to their necks in snow, but they always worked their way out.

As I write this, forty-two years have passed since 1915. But the memories of our first year together, planning, hoping, and listening to the early signs of spring are as clear in my mind as if it were yesterday. To Gurina the arrival of spring was a new adventure. In 1915 it came early. There had been an enormous lot of snow and cold before the first of March. But one night spring was in the air. Before going to bed I thought I heard a sound coming from the hills along Beaver Creek to the west. It seemed like a train coming toward us. The sound increased during the night, and we woke up several times. Gurina called to me before sunup to open the door. The mild, fresh chinook swept in. The snow was partly gone from the hillsides, and we could hear water running into the big coulees as the snow melted. From there it ran in big streams westward to Beaver Creek, which overflowed the [124] farms and hay meadows along the flats. While the flood lasted, tops of old haystacks could be seen sticking out of the water here and there.

Although I had taken up my homestead in 1913, 1915 was the first year that I really began to farm. We acquired another horse, a cow, and some chickens, and planted a vegetable garden. When the cow came fresh, Gurina soon earned a reputation as a fine buttermaker, and we began to realize something from the soil. I had hardly begun hauling off rocks and breaking the tough buffalo sod for spring planting when Mr. Reigle asked me to seed John the Boer’s place (John was a Hollander and a veteran of the Boer War), a 40-acre claim in a valley 3 miles north of us. Mr. Reigle would furnish the land and the seed and I would do the work. Each of us was to have half of the oat crop in the fall. This venture paid off well. It was interesting, too, living on the Boer place, because it was in a silent and secluded valley, shut off from the sight of the open prairie.

When Sunday arrived, we took a trip home from the Boer place. What a change had taken place in a few days of spring weather! The grass had turned green, flowers appeared. Along the coulees were wild-cherry trees in bloom, and the sagebrush gave off a pungent smell. Birds were singing everywhere. A robin was hopping across the farmyard. The hen was sitting on her eggs, as when we left her. In our house for the day, we held a kind of church service for ourselves, singing the psalms we knew so well from the Lutheran church we had been brought up in, and reading portions of the Bible. Toward evening we started back again, and on the way we broke the silence and the quiet of the prairie evening by singing the folk songs we had learned in our youth. As we descended into the valley, I noticed a coyote walking along some rocks above the high rim that surrounded the valley to the north. I decided to go up there sometime to look for young coyote pups. Their fur had a value and there was a bounty on pups. [125]

When I finished work on the Boer place, it was late in the day, but we loaded our wagon and set out for home anyway. We noticed a change in the weather. It was cooler, the sky was overcast with moving dark clouds. This promise of rain was encouraging for my seeding. We felt hopeful and rather elated. As I opened the gate into the yard, it started to rain, and this continued for two days. The dry sloughs filled with water. In the following days I continued plowing a piece of prairie ground, making about 2 acres a day until I had 50 ready to plant. I found that three horses could hardly pull the plow to turn the tough buffalo sod, so I arranged with my brother-in-law, Jonas, to use his big bay horse in exchange for working on his place. I could see that my neighbors to the south, Bill Peterson and Pete Jensen (a Danish immigrant), had hitched their two teams together and were plowing a few days or a week on each place. I took a trip to town, to buy flaxseed and fencing supplies, stopping at Bennet Lake on the way back to visit my friends. By the middle of June I had finished seeding and then began digging postholes for fencing the farmstead.

That year homesteaders were moving in from all directions. This was one of the last remaining free government land tracts, and the years 1912—15 had all been good ones, with abundant rainfall. The old-time ranchers shook their heads at the new arrivals, saying: "We have had bad years before and they will come again!" They hated to see the open prairie with its fine buffalo grass, so ideally suited for cattle and sheep grazing, turned over by the settlers’ plows. Many of the settlers and workers were Norwegians and Swedes. I remember that John Ohman of Bennet Lake, a friendly older man who had strong religious interests, appeared with another Swede whom he called the Reverend John Erickson. Two young carpenters, Remmen and Rasmus Teigen, arrived to do Erickson’s building. {10} In the fall Erickson’s family [126] arrived and moved into a two-room house, with attic. Joseph, the oldest boy, seemed to have all the responsibility for the farm work, although he was only twelve or thirteen at that time. I never saw him play with the younger kids, but then Erickson usually kept them busy too. The following year, two other Swedish families, the Ohs and the Chandlunds, both with many children, and two bachelors, Sjögren and Walin, also Swedes, took up homesteads near by.

The year 1915 was a busy one in all respects, with a number of new developments. New settlers arrived, and the older ones — by a year or two priority — were adding rooms to their original shacks to provide for the children that were already born or those that were expected. I had to go to Malta for lumber for a granary and also for an addition to our house, which Gurina insisted must be done before winter. She was expecting, and before winter was over, our first-born, Daniel, was brought into the world. The population on the bench-land was increasing. And this brought about a number of changes. We were going to have a post office at Larb, as we were situated next to the Larb Hills. But the word was misread as Harb, and this became the name of the new settlement. John Hunter was appointed postmaster and Strom, mail carrier. He brought the mail out from Saco twice a week. He was the only one who had a Ford, but as it broke down frequently, he had to borrow a team. On a trip to Malta in mid-July, I noticed several neighbors from the southern part of our settlement in earnest talk at Thompson’s lumber yard — old John Hunter, Bill Kost, Curly, Ed Knabel, Casper Husler, among others. They had come to town for material to build a community hall.

I shall describe a typical trip from Malta, our principal trading center. This occasion is as good as any: In the morning, when we were all lined up to leave town, the sky was dark and overcast. About halfway home a real cloudburst caught us; gulleys and dry creek beds ran with water. Before reaching the gravel crossing over Beaver Creek we had [127] to go over another previously dry creek, now streaming with water. The only way to get the heavy wagons across was to hitch an extra team on each one, so that the lead team was almost over the worst part when the next one was struggling up the slippery bank. At the gravel crossing we did the same thing, but from then on we had crossed the gumbo flat and were on the hard prairie. There was only one trail from Malta at that time. It led along the northern boundary of the township, past Rathbone’s shack and across Akerlund’s and my homesteads. About 3 miles from my place it intersected the Saco Trail.


Harvest time approached. The only crop around Harb was oats, except for a few acres of wheat which some of us had planted for seed. Harvesting machines were scarce, but our neighbor, Steve McIntee (a Scotsman, and a good one), had bought a McCormick binder, and he arranged to harvest our grain for a dollar an acre. I had about 40 acres at home, and of course a half interest on the 40-acre Boer place. All the neighbors came with their teams and wagons to help thresh my oats on the Boer place, and they followed the outfit up to our homestead. Ed Knabel and others filled their grain wagons with feed and seed for the next year, paying me $1.25 a hundred. I didn’t do too badly as a novice farmer on the benchlands of Harb, Montana, my first year. But we needed a $200 gift from my father and a loan from my brother in the same amount to see us through.

Until then, the wagon trails had been respected somewhat, as public property. But as time went on, we occasionally found fences stretched across them and we had to lower the wires to the ground or drive around. Some of the closest neighbors were particularly unco-operative in this respect.

That summer a family named Larkhoven settled near Beaver Creek, which was near the school section, still unsurveyed, and therefore unclaimed. They were a large Dutch family with ten children, all boys, the youngest a rascal about [128] thirteen or fourteen who was always riding about to see what he could swipe. He got my pocketbook containing 10 dollars from my cabin, and a lariat. The old man had a full beard and wore wooden shoes. He did not speak a word of English, and neither did his wife, who seemed to be quite old. They built a combined shack and horse barn, moving into one end of the building themselves and using the other for the horses. Close by they put up a big stack of prairie hay. This family, foreign in origin and by their way of living set apart from the other settlers, soon had a reputation for being able to exist surrounded by more dirt and unsanitary practices than could be found anywhere in the settlement.

When the harvest was over, it was time to make provision for the winter, and I decided to take my last load of flax to town. My wagon got stuck and I had to go for help. The closest farm was about a mile away, and there I learned that the owner, Andrew Røyland, had a brother who had come from Norway on the same ship as my wife. {11} On the way home I was strongly impressed by the number of new homesteads. In Black Coulee they were even building a schoolhouse. This was south of the settlement on Beaver Creek, near Bowdoin, which consisted mostly of Frenchmen who raised cattle and horses and put up bluejoint hay and alfalfa. That district was older and the life there was similar to ranching.

With winter approaching, one problem remained, to provide fuel for our stove. To buy coal in town and haul it out was a considerable expense when every dollar counted, and I had been putting it off as long as I could. But several of our neighbors were getting coal in the Larb Hills, about 4 feet underground, and there seemed to be an adequate supply of it. So Jonas and I went out about 10 or 12 miles with our wagons; we found a likely place to dig and worked hard all day. Some of our neighbors were already down to the layer [129] and were picking out the coal in chunks, carrying it to the wagons in buckets or other containers. It was as black as ink in the ground, but, after it was taken out and dried a little in the sun, it turned slightly brown. Besides the chunks, a lot of it broke up in little pieces. We managed to get out a wagon-load a day, and in a couple of weeks Jonas and I had hauled home enough coal so that we were sure it would carry us through the winter. Then we made a couple of trips to Beaver Creek and cut willow sticks from the brush along the stream for kindling; and we were all fixed up for fuel. This was a considerable saving of our few dollars. That fall I dug a cellar under the house for storing potatoes and coal, and it proved very useful, keeping everything cold and dry.

Until Christmas the weather was clear; the livestock had plenty to eat, the buffalo grass being thick and high. So far only small patches had been plowed and no prairie fire had passed over the area for a long time. The settlers were busy fencing their fields or making more shelters for their livestock. Erickson and the Akerlunds, who had seen homesteading in Dakota, followed some of the practices they had observed there. For their livestock they built sod houses, which required only a few boards with tar paper on the roof. Jonas built the same kind of barn, except that he dug his into the hillside and thus had only one wall above the ground. Another method of roofing a sod building was to string barbed wire across the top and cover it with a couple of feet of straw, which in time would pack down and keep out most of the moisture. Jonas used this kind of roof on his barn and it held up for years. But Peterson and I, and others without experience of this kind, built the common shed-roof buildings for barns, making them large enough to shelter the livestock.

As I look back over the first year, it appeared quite promising. Everywhere that we had planted something, if only in sod or wherever the plow had scratched the prairie, the seed grew and the crop was over expectations. I had a large supply of potatoes and garden stuff stored in the cellar. Our cow had [130] a calf, Ole, and he became a pet. The cow provided milk and cream; Gurina churned butter, which we sold to some of the neighbors. I had promised the calf to Jim Miller, a Scotsman in Content, for money I owed him, but when I tied Ole in the wagon and he managed to get out, we did not have the heart to send him away. Later in the winter, Jim Miller came, asking for his calf, which was then so much older that he offered 75 dollars for him, which I accepted. I did this because Ole was becoming independent and I was not sure how long he would remain manageable.

At that time it was possible to buy supplies and other items that a homesteader needed on credit at the Trafton Dore store in Malta. This store included grocery, dry-goods, and implement departments. When a settler got credit there, he was expected to pay up in full when his crop was harvested. If the crop was short or a total failure, he gave a preliminary mortgage on the homestead to the Trafton Dore Company. When the federal government issued a patent on the homestead, the settler could borrow about $1,500 from the local bank to pay the preliminary loans, but the bank charged 10 per cent interest. This was my third winter on the homestead, and my first crop the previous fall had been mostly oats and flax. Since most of my trips to town had been with an empty wagon going in and a full load of purchases going home, cash became a problem as time went on. On one trip I brought home, for example, a general-purpose walking plow, a fur cap, a sheepskin coat, and horsehide mittens. I also picked up an order from Sears Roebuck in Chicago. One book the settlers never finished looking at was the Sears catalogue. Next came the seed catalogue, which we studied thoroughly. But most of the homesteaders’ supplies were bought in Malta or Saco, where they could be purchased on time. If a farmer’s crop failed, he still had his homestead left to be proved upon. When that had been done, he could obtain a loan; so, he was good security in either event.

The war years were trying in many ways. A number of [131] worrying incidents took place, including the proposal to draft family men, which, with some of us, would have left wives and children destitute in a foreign land. We increased our cultivated acreage and were able to augment our livestock and add considerably to our farm implements, in spite of a devastating prairie fire in 1916 and drought the following year. A few days before prohibition went into effect, I bought a quart of brandy for $2.50, at the suggestion of a man who said it was good medicine. This bottle lasted for many years. Liquor was not a problem in our settlement. On March 9, 1918, I received my naturalization papers, and so did other Norwegians, including Kvale and Kjoss. In that same year I got title to my homestead.

The hardships created by the war, rationing and regulations — such as asking a Montana farmer to register his .22-caliber rifle — most of which didn’t make much sense to me, were not the severest blow for us. In spite of the usual adversities, we were getting on pretty well, and our family was increasing. We had two sons and a daughter. But influenza struck our community and our household. In 1918, sometime after the harvesting and threshing, Gurina became ill with Spanish influenza. Many had died in the settlement and the neighboring territory. The Nelson girl died, and people were too scared to go to the funeral. Mrs. Serben in Black Coulee died, leaving her husband and two small children. Lonely bachelors were found dead in their cabins. There were few doctors. Dr. Clay drove wherever he was called, but it was a wide countryside, with few roads. When Gurina became ill he came all the way from Malta. Later, Dr. Livengood, who had retired to his son’s homestead in our area, was drafted out of retirement to practice again.

During Gurina’s illness the neighbors came to help, but at first they were afraid to come into the house. As the weather changed to colder, Gurina improved. The winter was not too bad that year. Spring and warm weather came along. Gurina was not over her sickness yet. We had another child in April, [132] a girl whom we called Gurina, for her mother. This time I engaged Petrine Christensen from Bennet Lake. She was an elderly woman about fifty, Danish, with red hair and freckles, and very capable. I paid her 30 dollars a month, considered good wages in those days.

Gurina seemed to have given up hope of getting completely well. I conferred with Dr. Clay, and he agreed that as she was able to stand the trip, the only solution was for us to return to Norway. We now had four children, and she probably thought they would be safer in the old country among relatives if she did not recover. I managed to dispose of my livestock to Oscar Ohs, and he agreed to operate my farm on shares until I returned. My horses and considerable farm equipment were to remain on my place. This arrangement, in addition to a bank loan, enabled us to leave for Norway. We remained there five years, and when we returned, we had six children. We went back to Montana by way of Outlook, Saskatchewan, where my brother Knut lived. I toyed with the idea of settling there, but was dissuaded because of the recent drought. When I returned to Harb I ran into Steve McIntee, the bachelor, who chided me for bringing my family back.


That year (1924), my homestead had been rented to Oswald Ramsbacher’s young brother and his wife, who were not living on it. Oscar Ohs had given it up. I had heard that a series of misfortunes had plagued the property. One year a hailstorm had swept away my granary and the old horse barn and completely destroyed the crops, which were ready for harvest. Another year the drought had ruined everything. I had therefore written Jonas to auction off my equipment, but there was little money among the farmers, so I realized only a couple hundred dollars on a thousand dollars’ worth of horses and equipment. As a further irony, the money was deposited in the bank at Bowdoin, which closed before I returned, leaving me nothing. [133]

Bowdoin had been a prosperous town; it developed during the war when the Great Northern Railway decided to build a roundhouse there. There were several grocery stores, a hardware store, a lumberyard and a livery stable, several hotels, two drugstores, a post office, and a new bank. But what a sight the town was now! The roundhouse had been transferred, and most of the houses had been moved out to the country. The big church had never been finished; a roof was built over the basement and in that state it was used as a meeting place. Of all the business places, only one grocery store, a secondhand hardware store, the lumberyard, Le Noir’s big red livery barn, and McCasey’s poolroom were left.

Knowing these things, I wonder why I went back. Homesteaders spent most of their lives fighting hardships: the cold winters, dry summers, grasshoppers, webworms, poor transportation, and a multitude of other afflictions. The answer probably lies in the appeal of the prairie. When I arrived in Bowdoin from Minot, North Dakota, on my way back, having left my family with Knut, the open spaces looked good to me. I have always found something fascinating about the prairie in the spring and early summer. And it was so different from the places I had seen in the previous five years.

That night I lay awake a long time thinking. I wondered if this was the right thing to do, coming back to this dry land, where people still lived in car-roof houses and shacks with small windows and tar-paper siding. {12} We had been away from this settlement and had seen how people lived in older countries, where everything was well ordered. True, I had gone over these questions before, but when I saw everything in Harb again they became stark and real. How would Gurina react to moving into the old house, with no water handy and only a lean-to for a bedroom? We had six children now. Would it be fair to them? My family in the old country would have considered no sacrifice too great to keep us there [134] permanently. There was no satisfactory answer as to why I made the choice I did, except that others had done the same thing. With daylight many of my doubts of the night before disappeared and I felt more as if I had come home.

I spent a couple of weeks getting ready for the family. I went to Bill Peterson to borrow 100 dollars to pay off a debt to Frank Ramsbacher. Bill was still living in the same house, with the same barn and granary. But he was planning to build a new house with a basement. He had bought a hotel in Bowdoin, which he was going to dismantle and use. It looked like a big job, but in the whole community Bill was the only man who could undertake it without hiring help. In Bowdoin I picked up furniture for the house from Bjerke, a Norwegian, who still operated the hardware store. He had a lot of secondhand stuff, not old and still usable. I stopped in to see Guy Morris, who had always been helpful, and bought a team of horses from him. I gave him my note for 80 dollars; for another 10 dollars he threw in a set of harness. Equipment wasn’t worth much, I could see. After these preparations, I put in a garden and then wrote Gurina and my brother that the place was now ready for the family. This was not exactly true, since much remained to be done.

When Gurina and the children arrived, we all stayed at Jonas’ for a few days, although his house was small and we were pretty crowded. But then we moved on to our own house, taking along a cow that Jonas insisted we should have. The early summer was beautiful, and this was a good thing, because our house was empty and forlorn when we drove into our farmyard. Nobody had lived there in the five years we had been gone. It needed painting, inside and out. The chimney had a crack above the roof. Russian thistle, mustard, and other weeds had grown up everywhere. But the place still had the atmosphere of home. Of course our neighbors gave us a welcome-home party. There were both old friends and settlers who had come after we went to Norway. They brought us many things: chickens, grain, seed, and household goods. [135] And they had lots of food with them for a picnic. We were all back in harness, and it was good to be home.

The prospect of a rich harvest that year was very good. Some of the summer fallow land was expected to go 40 bushels to the acre, and it did. I joined the threshing crew and became acquainted in the southeast part of Harb. There, where ten years before had been nothing but prairie, with a shack or two, now stood large fields of grain. Many of the homesteads had changed hands, and the present owners were making improvements on their property, acquiring new equipment, increasing their livestock, and adding to their living quarters. The farming area did not reflect the depressed aspect of Bowdoin. I was able to replenish my needs at various auctions, ending up with six horses, a gang plow, and other implements.

The year 1926 was another good one for crops. Considerable excitement was aroused when Burt Moyland, an enterprising Norwegian, signed up for oil leases. Unfortunately, nothing came of that. This year, too, marked an increase in the use of trucks for hauling grain to town. Toward spring of the next year, automobile salesmen began calling on people, and the more prosperous became proud owners of Model A Fords. Other salesmen were pushing tractors, lightning rods, carbide lighting plants, and many other things. Prosperity was rapidly bringing mechanization to our community. I held off until the fall of 1928, when I bought a 1927 Chevrolet. I was skeptical about making such an investment, but cars were becoming quite common. Before the next crop year many farmers traded in their horses for tractors and new machinery, all bought on time. John Erickson was one of those who went in for new equipment. He had done very well. He had acquired land and cattle, and in 1928 he sold enough cattle and grain for a pleasure trip to Sweden. Before leaving, he offered me 3,000 dollars cash for my farm. I turned down his proposition after giving it considerable thought but, in the years that followed, that offer frequently returned to my mind.[136]

The brief period of prosperity that prevailed around 1928 saw changes affecting some of the homesteaders who had settled about the same time that I came to Harb. Some sold out and retired, others acquired more property. Although the year 1929 saw a meager crop because of the drought, there was still optimism among the people. It was felt that the community would continue to grow. But before that year was over, we knew that the depression had arrived. Businesses were failing and workers were being laid off. We thought ourselves lucky to be on farms and have something to eat. But we soon found out that our lives were built on an economy that required money. And where were we going to get it? The crop failed, and prices, to boot, dropped to the bottom. We could not sell either garden or farm produce. We had to take wheat to a flour mill in Glasgow and exchange it for flour. When eggs became too cheap to sell, we fed them to the calves, or to any animals that would eat them. Once I took half a dozen chickens to Malta, hoping to sell them. It couldn’t be done, and I gave them to a storekeeper whose business was very poor. He was quite moved and asked me to pick out something in his store that I could use.

A few additional examples will illustrate what the depression meant to us. I helped Peterson butcher a cow. When we had finished, he tossed one quarter on my wagon and said, "Take that home. I can’t use it all." We threw the hide over the fence, since it was worthless. The Red Cross distributed shoes, clothing, and articles for children from a relief station in Malta. Oswald Ramsbacher harvested my crop with his combine. I sold my grain for 25 cents a bushel, and when I talked about paying him, he suggested that we forget the matter; both of us were in the same fix, and could just as well forget our debts to each other. We got 10 cents a pound for dressed steers; cows could not be sold. I paid John Bruckner 20 bushels of wheat for a quarter of a pig, but he later pestered me for more wheat because he felt he had been cheated. I pretended not to remember and the matter was forgotten. [137]

The succeeding years were much the same. The drought continued and the hardships were unchanging. To alleviate some conditions, the county, trying to do something for the farmers, began some road work in Harb. The pay was 4 dollars a day for a man and four horses. But it was impossible to feed ourselves and the horses for that much, so the work was soon given up.

Use of modern combines had been discontinued because the farmers could not afford to waste the straw. Meanwhile, Russian thistles were tried as a substitute for straw, but they were abandoned as poor. Providing feed for cattle and livestock became a real problem. Many farmers lost tractors and new machinery or else let them stand idle in the yards. They went back to horses so that they would not have to buy gas. About this time John Erickson again acquired a large farm loan, the biggest and the last loan made in Harb. After he got it he went to Poison in western Montana, where he bought 40 acres of land, built a cabin, and started clearing. He had left the home farm at Harb to his son Bill, and Mrs. Erickson and the smaller children also remained there. Just before this the Cookinghams had loaded their belongings into a covered wagon, and, with some of them riding in the wagon and the others driving their livestock along behind them with saddle horses, they had set out for Polson, where they acquired an uncleared place. About the same time, Renlund, who had come to Harb from northern Sweden, sold his farm, bought a place in Wisconsin sight unseen, and moved away.

The summer of 1932 seemed particularly hopeless. The drought had hit everything. We could not even grow a garden. There were grasshoppers, cutworms, and webworms. What one thing did not destroy, something else did. We got some grasshopper poison and drove around the fields, throwing out poisoned mash, but it was futile. We plowed around the fields to stop the worms, but they moved across the ground in a blanket. The country grew desolate and barren. People began selling out wherever it was possible. Auctions [138] began to be held in the autumn, but they were soon given up as impractical.

When Roosevelt was elected, conditions began to improve a little. People felt assured that they would not starve, something that at times had seemed possible. Public-works programs were started in Malta, at Fort Peck, and elsewhere. When people got over their unrealistic pride about accepting this kind of job, matters began to improve. I worked on one of these projects for awhile, and then went back to digging lignite coal in the Larb Hills for winter fuel.

The canneries were buying up range horses at 3 dollars for a yearling and 5 dollars for a grown horse. Riders began rounding them up, and shipping pens were built at Malta. Soon the big bands were gone and only a few privately owned horses were left. Even so, the grass on the range could hardly support anything.


So far, I have commented briefly on the social life in our community, of which we have always retained cherished memories. I have neglected, however, to say anything about our church or school activities, which were by no means unimportant in our lives.

Religion didn’t seem to weigh heavily upon some of the people in our community, particularly on Julius Morelli. But this was not true of many others, and certainly not of the Scandinavians. Emil Akerlund, to the west of us, was a lay preacher who, when he had his crops in, the first year I homesteaded (1913), went preaching in North Dakota. He had a license to marry people and with his preaching he made a modest living, with some cash to spare for homesteading. During my first Christmas holidays I went to several religious services in the settlement. Solberg, a lay preacher, conducted his meetings according to the Lutheran practices with which I was familiar. His group hoped to begin building a church soon. There were also Baptists, Swedish Mission, and others. Emil Akerlund became a leader of the Swedish Mission after [139] he returned from North Dakota. For many years he drove 15 miles every Sunday to preach in Bennet Lake, and his compensation, which consisted solely of the offering, was very small; his devotion to his church was his chief reward.

During our stay in Harb we sometimes drove over to Ben-net Lake, where regular church services were held. My cousin Ingeborg and her family belonged to the Lutheran Brotherhood, which had already built a church. The Lutheran denomination to which we belonged had no church and our meetings were held at the Hendriksen home. We attended these and our children were baptized, according to Lutheran custom. Our first minister was Pastor Nelson. {13} I was there when the congregation was organized, but do not remember how we expected to pay the minister or take care of the other financial obligations. We did give what we could afford, and a little more, to an automobile fund so the pastor could get around the community. The Ford cost about 500 dollars, and probably the pastor received some help toward the expense of the church from a mission fund. But later this church was discontinued and the members joined a congregation which had already been established in the Bennet Lake district.

In the summer of 1927, when there was no school, Pastor Kingston of the Malta Community Church, with help from his wife, began summer Bible school for the children. He held services on Sundays that were attended by the whole community, as well as many people from all over the county. He held Bible school in other settlements throughout the county and undertook a rather strenuous program. Pastor Kingston’s approach was different from that of Pastor Wales, since his purpose was not revival but a continuing activity, especially among the young people. He left a permanent mark among them — indelible impressions of an amazing nature — which I think was responsible for a religious interest among certain groups that continued through the years. [140]

We had regular revival meetings in Harb. I particularly remember one in the winter of 1931, conducted by a Mr. Oliver and a young convert from Oregon. {14} The ministers of their faith went about the country, two by two. Some people, mostly Swedish settlers in our community, joined the group. One provision was that former religious ties be given up. Several of the early joiners refused to do this. I would not consider severing my church connections, although I had much respect for Mr. Oliver. The revivals and the different denominations in our community made for spice and variety, but most people stuck by their own beliefs and supported their own congregations. It always interested me, however, that there could be so many different approaches to salvation, even in the rather forbidding surroundings in which we lived. But such is man, and such too is life. Most denominations got on well together.

When I returned from Norway, a new schoolhouse had been built. It was also used for Sunday school and an occasional evening religious meeting. The community hall, which had been built earlier on a location farther south, had been moved northward and a couple of miles east from the schoolhouse. But the hall was used only on Saturday nights for dances, seldom for religious purposes. The day after I arrived, I attended Sunday school with Jonas and his family. It was well organized under the leadership of Mr. and Mrs. Jewett, who had come to Harb just the year before. It was a community affair. Members of different denominations took part, but there was no conflict. Those who were most active were Jonas, the Ericksons, and the Akerlunds. In the settlement were also Catholics of French and German descent and they occasionally attended the meetings, but did not do so regularly.

Even though we couldn’t all agree on religion, the school question should have presented no problem. But in Harb [141] it did. When I returned from Norway, there was a school there. But the next summer our youngest son, Edward, was born, and that turned out to be a prolific year for babies in Harb. With so many children growing up in the community, the matter of schools increased in importance. As usual there were two opinions, one about getting enough room and facilities, and the other about keeping the expense down. Fortunately, the former view prevailed. So we built our school; but in 1929, the question of what the permanent location of the new school should be arose.

This question was resolved when we took a vote and the majority of the people decided to cut the schoolhouse in two and haul one part to the north end of Harb and the other to the south end. Settlers living to the west still had a considerable distance to go. About four or five families were affected. It was decided to build a third schoolhouse to the west. In the summer of 1929 this task was undertaken. I donated 5 acres of ground between our place and the Ericksons’ for our school. One fine day we saw the old main structure of the schoolhouse arriving on wheels across the fields. The other section, an addition of two years before, traveled southward in the same manner. Where earlier the community had been building towards one large school, with two rooms and two teachers, we now had three separate one-room small schools, with one teacher to each school who managed everything. I think the children were disappointed, in spite of the convenience of having schools nearby.


As times were by now, I could see little future for a man with a large family in Harb. In my younger days I had worked and traveled a lot in the state of Washington. At that time there seemed to be little future for farming because of the heavy forests, but at least the country was not subject to the hardships and drawbacks which we had been going through in Montana. I read advertisements about sales of [142] farms in Stanwood and Poulsbo. I had a friendly letter from John Holbeck, a dairy farmer of East Stanwood, who had been a foreman on the Great Northern Railway in Montana. He advised me to go west even if I could not obtain any money for my farm. I talked it over with my family. Our only difficulty seemed to be to dispose of our property. I arranged to sell out to Bill Erickson, son of the man who originally settled with me; he was going into farming on a large scale in spite of the adverse conditions. Since I did not have enough money to make the trip to the coast, I took out some life insurance in a mutual company in Norway and got enough cash to finance our move.

We went to Stanwood late in July, but, after looking around, decided to settle in Poulsbo. We escaped the uncertainties of life in Harb by going to the west coast; how we fared there is another story. I want to end these reminiscences by telling of a visit I made to Harb in 1941.

Arriving in Malta without having sent any word, I found the house in which the Undheims lived. They still had the farm in Harb, but Mrs. Jonas Undheim and the children rented a house in town. Palmer worked in a store, and Gudrun taught school. In the afternoon Palmer and I went out to Bennet Lake to see Ingeborg and Elias. Few changes had been made, except for some improvements on the roads. The homesteaders who had not left seemed to get along better, had more land and cattle, more machinery and equipment. The prairie and the open spaces looked the same — empty shacks here and there, and deserted schoolhouses.

The next day Palmer, Gudrun, and I drove out to Harb. It was so nice and peaceful, this early June morning. Old familiar sights along the road. Jack rabbits and sagehens and songbirds. Undheim’s farm looked about the same. With the family in town, Jonas lived alone most of the time. Bill Erickson had made a number of improvements. He owned many sections of land, all kinds of machinery, and a large herd of beef cattle. Bill and Pauline were the same people [143] that I had always known. We followed the old trail past Cartwright’s and the old schoolhouse, over to Erickson’s old place, and then westward through our old farm, now operated by Gust Ohs. I picked up a few souvenirs from inside the house. The horse barn I had built some years before we left was gone. But the crops looked good. We did not stay long. An empty house does not have much attraction.

Washington was my home now. I felt much happier going westward this time. When I arrived, everything was green: woods, lawn, pasture, and hay ready to be cut.


<1> Endre Bergsagel to the author, October 1, 1961.

<2> Endre and his brother Knut were the only members of the immediate family to migrate; the youngest son, Isak, spent two years in Montana and Saskatchewan, but returned to Norway. Endre spent the years 1919—24 in Norway (see text) with his family, and he and his wife made a final trip in 1952.

<3> Theodora had been married in San Francisco to Ingvald Anestad, who was born near Sandnæs, Norway. On Gudmund ("Midnight") Olsen, see Kenneth O. Bjork, West of the Great Divide: Norwegian Migration to the Pacific Coast, 1847—1898, 571, 573 (Northfield, 1958).

<4> Breivik was born on Høgsfjord, near Stavanger. Isak Knudsen, his cousin. was born and grew up in Breivik, Høle Parish, near Stavanger.

<5> Ole and John Olsen and Tønnes were cousins; all came from near Flekkefjord.

<6> The Drurnhellers are an old Walla Walla family. Jesse, the founder, arrived with the Ezra Meeker train in 1852, when he was seventeen. His son Oscar farmed until 1900, and then leased his acreage, as Bergsagel suggests. In the same year, Oscar, his brother Jesse, and his father founded the Drumheller Company in Walla Walla, which retailed hardware and agricultural supplies. Washington Northwest Frontier: Family and Personal History, 3:314 (New York, 1957).

<7> Solberg was a lay preacher from Hardanger.

<8> Erik H. Gunhus, a minister of the Lutheran Brethren, was a son of Norwegian pioneers. His son became a minister in the same church.

<9> Woolridge was a commissioner of Valley County before it was divided into Valley and Phillips counties.

<10> The Teigen brothers were born in Romsdal, Norway. Rasmus homesteaded in Montana and later operated a restaurant in Everett, Washington.

<11> Røyland, who was from Bakke, near Flekkefjord, went west as a young immigrant, and was joined later by several of his brothers.

<12> Prairie shacks were called car-roof houses because of their resemblance to boxcars.

<13> Henry Hendriksen, a farmer from Minnesota, was still living in Malta at the time this narrative was written. S. G. Nelson, an ordained minister, helped organize the Beaver Creek Congregation in 1919.

<14> Oliver, a Scot, was considered an excellent preacher. His group did not believe in an organized church nor in salaries for ministers. The preachers always traveled about tandem.

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