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Part I Part III


Memories from Bear Lake


Part II

As far as housing in those early days was concerned, it was, of course, primitive but substantial. The forest was around us and with a sharp axe, and an auger at hand the housing was not a problem. After the timber was felled, a neighbour helped and in a day or two the log structure was up. On both sides of the ridgepole was laid either poles from the nearest tamarack swamp or split balsam. On top of this were laid layers of birch barking that old ageless fundamental material for roofing. Clay on top of this made a warm and snug roof. A window or two was carried on the back from the nearest store. A hole was left in the roof for the stovepipe and if a piece of lumber was not available a log was split chinks and plastered with clay in the inside. The wife saved and begged all the newspapers she could lay her hands on and that were her wallpaper for years. It was remarkable what a few simple hand tools could create in the line of furniture. The old Norwegian spinning wheel had its time-hallowed place in most of the houses. It had followed the families from the old ancestral homes in the northlands and found its place in the new homeland. It meant warm socks, sweaters, and other clothing for the cold winters. Now it dwells in the attic or had found its way to a museum. Floors were at first made from split logs (puncheon) but as sawmills were started (I think in 1892 at Isle Harbour) most everyone got a load of lumber for flooring and doors, but the ripsaw was the usual way for years as very few of the settlers had teams.

Some of the settlers were without cows for awhile, but they planted potatoes among the stumps and also small vegetable gardens. The men supplemented their incomes by working in the lumber camps during the winter at wages ranging from $20.00 to $25.00 for swampers and sawyers, and $40.00 to $45.00 for loaders and sled teamsters. The families had to, in the meantime, live on the lonesome homesteads. When one or two cows came to the homestead it began to shape up as a real home. The necessities of life were carried home from the store on the back of the purchaser, and it was really a Herculean achievement. Here is a story told the writer by one of those sturdy people. Mr. Sandberg, Mr. Lundquist and Mr. Westlund of the first pioneers who settled east and little north of the present day village of Malmo, had been out in the harvest fields in the Red River valley. They came into Aitkin on their way home on the morning train. There they bought a one-hundred pound sack of flour each and a few other necessities. They arranged their purchases in packsacks, put them on their backs and started for home. They trudged homeward tired and hungry, and towards evening they reached Mud River (now Ripple River) just north of what is now Wealthwood. They decided to camp there, but as there was no bridge there as yet, they desire to cross the river before making their night camp. It was late in the fall so the water was cold. But there was no choice so they disrobed and got their clothing over safely, then with the precious flour sacks on top of their heads they started across again. Mr. Sandberg and Mr. Lundquist were tall men so they made the crossing without mishap. Mr. Westlund who was short and stocky did not fare so well. He put his sack of flour on his head and waded in, but in the deepest place the water was over his head and misstep made him duck and his flour got a wetting. He got up and over in a rush. The other two made ready to cook supper, but Mr. Westlund just put his wet flour on his back and walked the remaining twelve miles to his home during the night. The others came home late the next day. This experience was but one of many of pioneer life.

When you read the list of the original homesteaders in Idun Township you will notice that all of them came either from farming districts or cities. Whatever the state of their finances, because of the drouth or the so-called Cleveland times, they brought besides their clothing a few family treasures like a bureau or a sewing machine. An oilcloth soon covered the homemade table. Newspapers were cut up as trimming for the little bookshelf nailed up on the wall which always contained the old family Bible and a couple of hymnbooks besides the other books or papers the family might possess. Around the stove those same trimmings ornamented the shelves for the few dishes and cooking utensils. If the quarter for a broom was not found, a broom made of fine split birch twigs and tied solidly to a handle served well and had its place right inside the door.

A great help for the settlers at that time was mail stage from Aitkin to Opstead. It was established in 1892 and it enabled the homesteader to get most of his supplies that way. The stage driver charged fifty cents per one hundred pounds, which was very moderate when you consider the road. Of course he had good pay for hauling the mail for the government so the additional hauling was extra profit for him.

One thing that helped the settlement and kept want from the door was the abundance of the fish in Mille Lacs Lake. In the fall of the year the white fish came inshore to spawn and was caught by the barrel by the settlers. If the weather was cold enough they could be kept fresh for a long time, otherwise were salted for winter use. In the spring we had the pike and pickerel, and there were plenty suckers in the lakes and creeks. The suckers were speared by the thousands and were a great asset to the summer diet. They were salted down mostly. Father who was a fisherman from the old country knew quite a lot about curing fish. He split the fish, spread them flesh side up on a wide board, salted each layer lightly, and when the pile was high enough, he placed another board on top. After two or three days he rinsed them and hung them up in the smokehouse and was careful to keep the smoke going until they got a little hard and the danger of flies was over. Well cured and served with fresh potatoes in the late summer they were a dish that anyone would enjoy, not only Scandinavians, who will face any road or weather to get to a lutefish supper served by some enterprising ladies who want to make some money for either church or charity purposes. An occasional deer for those who were handy with the rifle also helped to fill the larder. The distance from any market prevented any serious misuse of the game and fish laws.

I will tell a little story about an experience my brother and I had. We had been over to Mille Lacs fishing and I came driving up from the lake with a wagonbox full of fishing gear and fish. After I got up on the main road I was met by a team of horses and four men. I could see they had come quite a distance by their rig. When we met, one exclaimed, "Wouldn't you be a fine catch for the game warden." I looked at him, and answered, "Evidently, I would." "Don't you know you are a lawbreaker?" "Maybe," I said, "and if the state wants to chase the settlers out of the country, all they would have to do is to send a couple of over-zealous game wardens up here and I suppose we would all land in the lock-up, and our dependents on the country poor farm. As for crime, I see no virtue in going hungry when the woods are full of game and the lakes flooded with fish." They shook their heads and drove off. I hauled my catch home. When we got the railroad and a new set of people came in the game wardens done a good job in preserving our riches in natural resources intact as it seemed some people had an insatiable thirst for destruction. However, in the first days we depended on the game and fish for existence.

Now a few words about the Thomsen family on section four at Bear Lake. We were a large group by ourselves. There were three unmarried boys. Father and mother's house was the centre. There were three men to bring victuals to one place, when most had to bring them alone to feed several mouths. We also brought several horses. That saved us from the drudgery of carrying so much on our backs as we could get things in the winter on sleds. They were also a great help in hauling hay, most of which we had to haul four or five miles. In the summer time, those horses were a liability and a nuisance, because of the mosquitoes and later in the season there were the horseflies. It was like the plague of Egypt. We built huge smudges all day and banked them last thing before we went to bed. The cattle suffered some but their thick hides saved them somewhat, but the poor horses lived in a torment most of the summer. We tried to darken the stables, but then the horses almost suffocated. We never hitched them up during the summer unless it was a dire necessity. A man who had come into our neighbourhood as a small boy with his parents went on the Alaskan highway. When he returned I asked him how the mosquitoes in Alaska compared with those here when he was a boy. The mosquitoes in Alaska were gentle in comparison, he said. He had gone equipped, and among other things he had a both of mosquito netting in his trunk, but he didn't have to take it out. They were bad enough in the day, but when evening came they quieted down. Here they were never quiet day or night. The fly sprays we have now were non-existent at that time. As the country was cleared the situation became a great deal better.

Now a word for and about those loyal helpmates who followed their husbands into the wilds and surely had their full share of the struggle to build up the country and their homes. It was a task worthy of a place in our county's history. To come, so to speak, barehanded into a new country and to build a home out of next to nothing was no easy task. To be alone in a cabin for days at time when their men folks were off to work or on some trip, and in the long winter months to live alone with the children while the husbands were working in lumber camps. One woman said that after they got a cow and she could hear the bell, it was a great help because it told of a home and a coming farm. It was quite a distance between settlers and the trails were poor, so it wasn't very safe to venture out very far to go visiting. It was easy to get off the trail, and be lost. To tell a couple of pioneer episodes would not be out of place. Our neighbour, Ole Thorsen, who came up here with the group from Kandiyohi County in the spring of 1894, found himself a homestead on section 10 in Idun Township. After he located his claim he started to cut timber for cabin and to cut a road. In October he returned from North Dakota where he had worked during harvesting and brought with him his bride of a year. She stayed at Melbys while he finished putting up the cabin and cutting the road. He stayed at Melbys while he finished putting up the cabin and cutting the road. He stayed with us during the week. We were a mile and a half from his claim.

One Monday morning when he came he told us he expected his wife to come on Thursday with provisions, and that he would by that time have the road so well finished that she would find the place easily. If she did not come he was not so worry because it would mean she did not dare to start out alone. You can imagine his consternation when on Saturday evening he got to Melsbys and found she wasn't there. They told him she had started out according to the agreement, but when she did not return they had thought she had stayed with him and didn't think anything was amiss. Mr. Melsby came back with Mr. Thorsen and we started out with them to search.

We took our guns along. We could not do much in the darkness except to call her name and to fire our guns at intervals. In the morning the whole settlement was aroused and out hunting for her. Mr. Melsby who had been raised in a backwoods settlement in Wisconsin and was a trained woodsman, took the lead. In the forenoon he found her tracks and followed them east a couple of miles to a big rock formation where she had spent the first night. She had gone eastward and got into a section where a big forest fire had gone over earlier in the fall (a part of the Hinckley fire). As we had trouble to find her tracks we divided and I went with a party who went northeastward. Those who went southeast were luckier. She had gotten on a new-cut logging road Sunday morning and the foreman of the lumber camp who had gone out in the morning to blaze a new branch road saw her travelling eastward to the river several miles off. He took her to the camp where she was given the best of care. A little later in the day the searchers found her there. She was, of course, much exhausted, but otherwise had made out well. The fright and wild loneliness had been the worst. When she had left she had put on her heavy Norwegian woollen clothes and a pair of light men's boots on her feet so she had survived the cold nights of late autumn rather well. Her husband thought it would be best to give up the homestead, and go back to civilization. But she said, "No, I will try not to get lost again. We will build on that land and make a home out of it. "She was from Helgeland in northern Norway, and had all the native grit and endurance. No hysteria there! Just the right sort of pioneer spirit. He built his cabin and they moved in. A logging camp was started nearby where he got work all winter for $15.00 a month and board.

Someone would get lost frequently in those days, but not as badly as she had. I have often been lost for an hour or so. The worst thing you can do is to start running. You think you see an opening ahead and run to it, and discover it isn't there. The best thing to do is to sit down and try to study the situation. You are much more likely to get back on the right course. It was also a big help if you could get a glimpse of the sun and figure out where it might be at that time of day, and try to get your course from that. If it was dark we had the big Dipper and the northern star, but the first year when we often had to go for miles after our cattle in the evenings or dark days it was far from pleasant. You thought you heard the bell in a certain direction, but when you got there the cows had lain down and you were left puzzling in the dark woods. Sometime after we had moved up there we could not find the cows. I thought I had heard the bell a distance south. Father thought it was to late to start out after them, but I started out. After I had gone a mile or so I knew I was caught, because the cows had lain down and rest for the night. I stood there not knowing what direction to go. The weather was foggy. I walked in what I believed to be a northerly direction. I came to a little ridge and I stopped and looked around. Then I noticed something bright rise up in the dark. I thought at first it was a campfire, but who could build such a big fire? Not Indians surely. Finally it came to me that it was the full moon rising among the trees. The fog was lifting and the air was clearing up. Now I had to consider and think where the moon should rise. East, of course. North was now easy to figure out. It now became fine starlight. Twenty minutes later I was home. Not much to relate maybe, but get lost some dark evening and have the task of finding your way out or spending the night alone in the darkness, resting your head against a tree. You will use the brains you got to get out of it. One thing we learned soon was never to leave home for a distance without a watertight matchbox well filled, and a compass in the pocket. Often I have lighted myself along the trails with a torch made of birch bark. We did not have electric flashlight in those days. That woodcraft we often read about in pioneer history was acquired by along sojourn in the woods and by constant practice brought up to perfection.

Now we get the world's news every morning in the newspapers and over the radio. Shining cars flash by on the roads, planes land in our fields, tractors plow the fields, electricity is in most homes, but are we happier?

A new time is here, most of the old-timers have passed over the river, and we who remain are old and bent, and the poet's words fit us.

"Those who go foremost,
In the strife of life,
He does not conquer,
Only fights and falls."

Our children and grandchildren I most cases till the old homesteads, and so our memory lives on. Or as the song says.

"In the woodlands, son
I still do see,
A branch of those sturdy forebears,
Who willingly bore the strife of life.

In the maidens eyes as yet, I see
Sweet innocence and charming firelight,
And Idun's everlasting spring
Upon her cheeks written in."

Did we live in vain?

T. G. Thomsen
Chicago, Illinois


With written permission from Carolyn Thomsen Mutchler
Copyright © 2003 - 2019, Roger Fossum
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