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Part II Part IV

 

Memories from Bear Lake

MEMORIES FROM PIONEER DAYS
IN AITKIN COUNTY, MINNESOTA

1893 - 1894

When we old timers look backward to pioneer days and make comparisons with the present day we find a great difference in living conditions. There were no roads between the homesteads then. The country east of Mille Lacs Lake in 1894 was only a wilderness. There were only a few settlers near the lake while the land fifteen miles east to Pine Lake, twenty-five miles north to the Northern Pacific, and just as far south and southeast was not settled at all. At first, the settlers had followed the railroad from the Twin Cities and Duluth, and then westward from Duluth, but even that part was sparsely settled. The great prairie country lay there invitingly and was of access so the emigrant stream was heading westward. A friend, Ole Odland, also a Sunnhordalanding, (Sunnhordalanding means a man from Sunnhordaland, district south of Bergen, Norway) and I went up to this land populated by Indians in the middle of October 1893 to find a new location for ourselves. We were looking for free government homesteads and I, for my part, also to find a milder place to live, as my lungs did not seem to stand the prairie winters so well. My youngest brother was just 21 years old so we three boys and father could take a whole section of land. We thought it would be nice to be together in our new homeland.

The first place we had to go was to St. Cloud to the land office. There they told us that the land in Aitkin County would not be listed at their office before spring, but at the courthouse in Aitkin they could give us all the information we needed. We took the evening train to Brainerd, and in the morning we reached Aitkin. There they gave us descriptions of quite a lot of land in the county, mostly east of Opstead, which was in the southern part of the county. My partner had had some correspondence with the postmaster at Opstead, so we headed southward. Before we left Aitkin we heard that two men from Opstead had been in to do some trading and had just left for home, but as they drove with oxen we knew we would catch up with them sometime. After we had walked a couple of miles we came to the conclusion we had been rather short-sighted by not having some provision to take along, and by not having eaten a good dinner before we left town, because the distance was great between settlers. We agreed to go into the first house that looked promising. After awhile we noticed a big log house up on a hillside. We decided to go in there; because we were sure the people were Norwegians by the way the house was built. Sure enough, they were from Risør, southern Norway. They were young, and their firstborn lay in the cradle. They had just had dinner, but the housewife began right away to prepare something for us. The man had been a shipyard worker in the old country and just naturally slipped over to the woods work here. His parents had come over just the year before, and the seventy-year old grandfather was full of enthusiasm over the great possibilities that could be made out of the timber and the land as it got cleared. He regretted that he had not emigrated when he was young. Now the old people bought a piece of land and were just putting a house up on it.

We were served a good dinner. The name of our new friend was Steve (Stian) Johnson and for my part this was beginning of an acquaintance and friendship that has now lasted soon fifty years. He now is a farmer on a large scale together with his two boys in Saskatchewan, Canada, but has retired from active work. He and his wife come every summer and live on the old homestead that he never had the heart to sell. After thanking them for their hospitality we left and travelled southward and stopped and chatted with all we met on the road. All bragged about the land and prospects, although we saw some poor soil also.

We came by some beautiful lakes and we were told they were full of fish. Late in the afternoon we went into a farm to inquire about the road and to get a drink of water. We met there two girls newly arrived fro Norway. They were keeping house for their brother and his partner on the farm. They told us the ox team had passed awhile ago and that it was two miles south to Mille Lacs, and there were settlers down there who would give us lodging for the night. The country we had been going through was all cutover pinewoods, and mostly burnt-over land where the black stumps stood as silent witnesses of a tragedy that had swept over the land. After we had crossed the Mud River (now called the Ripple River) we came into more hardwood timber, oak, birch and basswood. Just at sunset we stepped out of the woods and got the first glimpse of Mille Lacs Lake. There it lay in its lonely grandeur and magnitude as it had lay from the beginning, only stirred by the canoes of the Indians. The woods along its shores not touched by the lumberman's axe. Calmly it lay there in the autumn sunset, almost as untouched by civilization, as when Father Hennepin and Jean Greysolon Duluth first saw it over three hundred years before. As the sun sank beneath its calm surface the west shore hardly discernable in the autumn haze, the lake made a picture that cannot easily be erased from the mind.

About dusk we met a boy driving home some cows. He was a Swede and he said we could stop at their house for the night. His father was a cabinetmaker and had worked for a railroad company for years but was now trying it out on a homestead on the lakeshore. Later in the evening we saw the campfire of the men with the ox team a mile down the lakeshore. In the morning we went out to take a look at the land. We saw the big meadows that stretched along the lake for about five miles. Bluestem five feet high and with heads as large as oats. When I got back to the house my partner suggested going on without breakfast because he was afraid we would have to wait too long for it. There was a store farther down along the lake and we could buy something there. We settled our lodging bill and started off. A Frenchman, Carley Bushey, kept the store. We got a good breakfast, and then speeded up so we could catch up with the ox team. The men with their load of winter supplies had been up at daylight and were now a long way ahead. After we had passed another settler on the lakeshore the road turned away from the lake and now we got into heavy timber again. Now we noticed there was more pine in among the hardwood. The men with the ox team were far ahead of us so it was nearly noon before we caught up with them. After we left the lake we did not see any settlers. There was only heavy timber and the road was so narrow that two wagons could not have passed if they had happened to meet. We came, finally, up to the men. One was Hans Melsby, born in Lødingen, northern Norway, but had grown up in Wisconsin. The other was Peter Hagen who was from Gudbrandsdalen, Norway. He was born near Lillehammer but had for several years worked in the sawmills at La Crosse, Wisconsin. Now they had taken up homesteads a little east of Opstead. Hans had been there for two years and Peter about one year. Both of them were enthusiasts over the land and soil. They hoped the railroad would come soon. After we walked after the heavily loaded wagon for a couple of hours we came to the yard of a Swedish settler. There were two old men standing there threshing wheat with a flail. This looked very primitive to us from the prairie, but one of the old men showed us with glowing eyes the beautiful wheat they raised between the stumps and now intended to grind it to flour on a hand mill. They said the soil was wonderful. The owner of the place was Elg Peterson and was from Elfsdalen, Dalarna in Sweden. The two old men were his father and his uncle. Late in the afternoon we came to John Skretting's place. He was the forerunner for a lot of Norwegians that had because of drought in South Dakota returned their homesteads to the government in the latter eighties, and had returned to the timber zone where there was no lack of rain. Mr. Skretting was from Jæren that stretch of flat coastland along the North Sea south of Stavanger, windswept and storm beaten but it has fostered some of the sturdiest and most progressive farmers in Norway. Mr. Skretting has used his progressive instinct and got a piece of land that had burned over years ago, and the stumps had mostly rotted out. And now after five or six tears he had got quite a large area under plow, and was now busily engaged in his fall plowing. We stayed with him over night. He said it had been more convenient to farm on the prairie, but when it did not rain it was no use. Here he said it was apt to rain too much.

In the morning he went with us up to Hans Melsby's who went with us to show us the land. After we had looked over a few claims that did not look so bad, I asked if there was a lake nearby with government land around. He told me there was a lake about four miles further east that the Indians called Bear Lake. It was so far from neighbors and out in the wild woods, no one wanted to live there, and when the railroad came it would be at Mille Lacs. I suggested that we go and look at it. My partner thought ha had seen the timberland he wanted, but he went along. We went eastward and there was more and more heavy timber. Hans Melby's brother Engvald who also had a claim nearby went along as a guide. He had been there a few times, and had a few traps to look after anyhow. There was an Indian trail between Cedar Lake and Bear Lake that we followed, but the timber was so thick we could hardly see ten steps ahead and about us. After we came over a ridge we struck a watercourse and lowland and out on a point where we could by bending the bushes aside see the whole of the lake about a mile long and a quarter mile wide. It lay there like a star surrounded by tall pine, balsam, and fir and with birch clear down to the water's edge. A real beauty spot. When I had looked it over awhile I said to Ole, if I file on any land it would be here. I asked if there were any fish in the lake, and they told me that all the lakes were full of fish. That decided me, but I did not say anything about it then. The next morning we started for home, but took the shorter route by Mora. Again we followed the shores of Mille Lacs in a southerly direction, until we swung west through what now is the present bustling village of Isle, then just a few scattered settlers. It was then called Isle Harbour. There was at that time a large Indian Encampment on the hill north of there. Big houses of framework and covered with ash bark. The bark of so-called black or swamp ash makes good roofing and walls for outbuildings, and it was much used in pioneer days for sheds and stables. Wigwams of birch bark with the fireplace in the centre, and the smoke going out at the narrow top, half naked children running about dark as a sooted copper kettle. Squaws in all editions, old and young, and here and there a papoose tied to his cradleboard, hanging on the limb of a tree by the side of the family residence. When the tree swayed in the wind, the board the little one was fastened to swayed also, so no rocking of the cradle was needed, and the rustle of the leaves and sighing through the treetops furnished the lullaby.

There had been an Indian Reservation by the south end of Mille Lacs that had been opened for settlers a few years before, and as there was a lot of fine forest on the two townships that the Indian Reservation consisted of, people had just streamed in and all land was soon taken up. There now were settlers everywhere. A large percent was Scandinavians, mostly Swedes. Now the road turned straight south from the lake and about six or seven miles south the population grew thinner. There was a so-called halfway house twelve miles south where travellers could stop over night. It was dark when we got there, and in the forenoon next day we reached Mora, and got the train to St. Cloud. We changed trains there to go to New London. We got there ten o'clock in the evening, and walked twelve miles more to reach home and got there two o'clock in the morning.

Now there started a lively family discussion. My two brothers got enthusiastic over the prospect of hunting and fishing. None of them had liked the Dakota prairie with its snow and dustorms. They did not appeal to me either. The cold winds during the winter was hard on my lungs and father and mother decided that where we boys settled down there would be a good place for them also. So we decided to pull up our tent poles and move. My companion was tempted to go too, but his wife's family talked him out of it. He moved later to northwestern North Dakota. If he made a wiser choice than we I cannot say. They have had the worries of this world out there too I have heard. When the decision was made, it was considered best that my youngest brother Cornelius and I should go up and cut a road into the claims and build a cabin to live in when in the spring we would go up there and set up buildings for ourselves and stock. So a few days later we took a train to Minneapolis and from there to Taylors Falls, where the government land office was located at that time. We stayed there over night and on the morning of November 20th, 1893 we went up to the land office and got our homestead papers made out. Then we took the northbound train to Hinckley and so on to Mora. We reached there just after noon, then with a heavy pack on our backs we started north for the Mille Lacs country and late in the evening we reached Isle Harbor where we got a chance to stay overnight with a family. The next day was Sunday and just as we came out on the road going north we met John Skretting. He was on his way over to the reservation, as all the land on the south side of the lake was then called, to get a schoolteacher. A few neighbors and himself had persuaded the county to allow them some money so they could build a small schoolhouse during the summer, and now they had allowed enough for a couple of months of school also. We went with him, as we liked to get acquainted with the people, so it became rather late before we got back again.

Monday morning we got Mr. Melsby along to blaze a road into Baer Lake. Then began the struggle to subdue the forest and make us a home out of the wilderness. We made arrangements with Melsby's to stay with them while we cut a road into Bear Lake. We had to circle around all the water puddles and swamps, we also had to avoid as many big trees as possible, so the road went trough the woods like a big snake, and only so wide the wagon could pass, but it took time all the same. Toward the end of the month we had it finished and then we cut logs for a cabin, and then the day came we were to get Hans Melsby and Peter Hagen to take the oxen and skid the logs and raise the cabin. We had left some winter clothing and heavy footwear in Mora, and had made arrangements to have it sent up to Lawrence where there was a trading post and post office. This was a mile west of the present day Wahkon. They had a weekly mail and stage connection with Mora. There had been a spell of snow and cold weather, but had now turned milder. Since we had finished what we purposed to have done and planned to go home as soon as the cabin was up, Cornelius wanted to go hunting a day, and I wanted to go to Lawrence to get our stuff returned to Mora. The stage-driver had promised time and again to bring it up but had not done so. Now it had finally got there, and we had to have it returned. Since the snow was loose and made heavy walking I borrowed a pair of skis. When I came down to the lake I started off. I had been told the ice was safe. There was a thin crust of snow on the ice so the skis slid along easily. After I got a way out I saw there was open water a few miles north on the lake, but I set up speed and never paid much attention to it, and made the four miles across the bay in a hurry. I got to Lawrence in good time and made arrangements with the stage-driver to take our things back and he promised to keep his word, and that all should be in Mora when we got there. He had had so much goods to haul of late he could not have taken it before ha said. I now started back and when I reached the bay I noticed the ice was moving and farther out I also noticed the open water. A strong north-wind was coming up and the water began to come up and wet the snow. I was already quite far out before I realized the extent of danger. The ice was so thin in places I put holes in it with the ski pole. The skis got hard to manage on the wet ice. There was no use to turn back, so ahead and fast too. I thought though it took an eternity to reach the east shore. The last half-mile there was water over ice and the ice was breaking up. The ski pole finally went through the ice and to the bottom, but there was only two feet of water underneath. I was soon on land and in the timber. I stopped to give thanks to the Lord for letting me escape what seemed to me to be real death trap. The wind had increased to a real storm and the lake was breaking up behind me. Later when I got better acquainted with Mille Lacs Lake I learned that nearly a mile out the water was only three feet deep, and the lake was more than ordinarily shallow that year. The bay, however, was deep enough in the centre to float a steamboat. The day after there was a heavy snowfall, and some very cold days followed. The day we got the neighbors to help roll up the cabin was biting cold. At the trading post I had bought a pair of deerskin moccasins, and I put them on because they were so light to walk in. That proved a very painful experience. Out in the forenoon I was to go out on Bear Lake to get water for the coffee pot, and I stepped in a water hole and got my feet wet. I thawed out at the fire but was painfully cold all day. In the evening when we got back to Melby's I took off my socks I found that the big toes on both feet were badly frozen, and they ached so much I hardly slept a wink all night. In the morning I mad myself a pair of moccasins of grain sacks and put on two pair of heavy woollen socks and plenty hay in the bottom of them so I kept my feet plenty warm, but oh how they ached. We got the cabin logged up, but as my feet felt terrible, and the next day was Sunday we decided to wait until Monday before we started for home. Monday morning early we started out. Cornelius took the packsack. I used a pole to help me and every step I took was painful, and we had close to forty miles to walk to Mora. Later in the day my feet became nearly numb, but I lunged away the best I could. Late in the day we met two logging teamsters. One saw my queer footgear. He asked what was the matter with my feet. I told him I had frozen them. All the pity I received from him was a remark to the effect that if they were as bad as the footgear looked they were really bad.

About dark we reached the halfway house twelve miles north of Mora. My brother who had carried the heavy pack all day wanted to go in and stay over night, but I knew how I would be in the morning and we had to be in Mora by ten o'clock to catch the St. Cloud train. He was tired so I took the pack and rifle and as we now had fine packed sled road we decided to go five miles further, and stay overnight with a Swedish family I knew. So we kept going and my feet felt awful, but we made it and we were well taken care of, but the seven miles to Mora was the most painful trip I have taken. When we got to the hotel we found our stuff. I got some hot water to bathe my feet in and a good dose of liniment and with clean socks and a pair of roomy rubbers on things improved. We reached New London a little after ten o'clock in the evening. Johnny Peterson's store was open yet, so we left our stuff there and I put my shoepacks on again and a little after two in the morning we were at home. I crawled to bed as quickly as possible and stayed there for three days. Now I could see the extent of my injuries when the frozen flesh fell off clear to the bone. It took the whole winter to heal up, but my feet were sensitive to the cold for years afterwards.

Now a little about the settlement we had chosen for homes. The first white settlers on the east side of Mille Lacs were a colony of Dalcarlians from Elfdalen, Dalarna, Sweden. They came in the early eighties to the settlements near Cambridge, Minnesota. During the winter they had worked in the logging camps on the Rum River south of Mille Lacs. All the land there was gobbled up by the big lumber companies. Then someone told them that there was a lot of homestead land on the east side of the lake. Their leader Elg Peterson and Anders and Lars Olson then went to look it over. They found what they wanted. They were all from the same neighbourhood in the old country, and more or less related to each other, and here they found free land so they all could be neighbors in this new country. Good meadows, fish in Mille Lacs Lake, deer and other game in the woods all around them. For a people like the Dalcarlians it was paradise indeed. The lonely forest with its thousands mysteries was a book they were well versed in, and wind sighing in the pinewood had been their lullaby from times past. Here in this new land with a richer soil and during the winter months, wages in the logging camps that according to what they had been accustomed seemed princely, or as one of the old people once told me, they could not have found a better place to settle anywhere. They always liked to have their customs and to be among themselves. After they had located their claims, they took the railroad to Brainerd, as the nearest and only place there was a road to the lake. There they hired a team to haul their stuff and provisions to the lake. There they built a raft of dry logs, loaded their supplies, tools and household goods on it, then they fastened a long rope to the raft and some of the men walked along the shore pulling it after them and some on the raft with long stakes, poled and guided the way. The distance from Brainerd to the lake is about seventeen miles, and along the lakeshore to their destination about twenty-five or thirty miles. It took several days to get there. To build their houses, were to them a born woods people, no struggle whatsoever, or to get a potato patch started. In the fall Elg Peterson and Anders Olson travelled south to Cambridge and bought three cows. When they came to Milaca, then just a sawmill town, and the last chance to get any supplies, Anders told me they had camped overnight by a campfire in the woods. They had bought a fifty-pound sack of flour, a small of salt and a kettle. Then they took the woods. The first two days one went ahead and led a cow along the old tote-road north along Rum River. Afterwards it was just the wildwoods or Indian trails, and then the cows followed them like dogs. When they had to wade over a creek or other watershed up to their waists the cows just came right in with them, and in the evening when they camped, the cows would eat their fill and come up to the campfire and lay down for the night. Before they left they had arranged with some at home to blaze out a trail from the settlement south to where now Isle is located so they should not have to hunt for a passage through the woods, and so they would be sure to find their homes again. For provisions they boiled partridges and drank milk and were hale and happy. When they found the marked trail they made time. Now the whole distance can be travelled in two hours. It took them a week. A few years after, two young men, Pennsylvania Dutch, Jeremiah and Abraham Kilmer and Charles Burpy settled in among them. Abe Kilmer and Charles Burpy later married two Dalcarlian girls, two sisters.

Most of these old timers have passed on, and the country has changed greatly, but we old timers that yet remain doubt if the younger generation are any happier than we were.

T.G. Thomsen
Bear Lake Farm
McGrath, Minnesota
written in 1936


 

With written permission from Carolyn Thomsen Mutchler
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