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Part III  


Memories from Bear Lake



We have now been going through a period of drought; if it is over we do not know. But as we look at its great extent, this one must be one of the worst that has hit the country. This drought is nothing new; all the old settlers in the state can tell of dried out lakes that filled up again when the rainy periods came back again. That the drought this time is worse might possible be caused by the extensive draining that has spread like an epidemic over the country, and has tapped all natural water reservoirs. The ground water level sank, and what influence it has had on the rainfall is an open question.

We had a drought of this sort in 1894, over great parts of the Middle West and the year will go down in history mostly because of the terrible timber fire that among other destruction wiped out the village of Hinckley, Minnesota. I have reason to remember those days, and as later I often had to fight fire, the pioneer's cruel enemy, maybe a word to the younger generation about pioneer life would not be amiss.

My two brothers, Lorentz and Cornelius, myself, and companion Carl Johnson, left Colfax, Kandiyohi County, in the latter part of April, 1894 to go up to the wildwoods east of Mille Lacs Lake. First we went to St. Cloud where my father also filed on a claim. He returned home from there. My younger brother Cornelius and I had been up to that section the fall before and located the land and built a cabin. Now we went up to build houses so that in the fall we could move up with our horses and cattle. We had good road until we came sixteen miles east of St. Cloud where we got into the timberland, and found mud roads that got worse the father we got east. Foley, a small sawmill town, was slush and mud from one end to the other. The sawmill was in full activity. The logs were mostly big oak logs. To get the big logs over to the saw, two yoke of oxen were hitched to a plank dray. The oxen waded in the mud to their bellies while the dray floated on top. While we struggled through the mud, the foreman, John Foley, came over to us. He asked where we were going. We answered that we were going to the Mille Lacs Country.

"You will never get there this spring. Frost is going out and the roads are bottomless."

Cornelius, who stood nearest, answered, "We intend to go there and we will get there too."

"You can try. Old man Carter was nine days getting to the lake. He got there. Oh, yes."

We went forward at a snail's pace. No one travelling on the splendid highway between St. Cloud and Mille Lacs now can have any idea how the tote-road looked. Not a bridge between Milaca and Isle. A stump on one side of the road lifted the wheel up, while the bump made the other wheel dig a hole in the mud on the opposite side. The wagon bumped along as a boat in a heavy sea. Our horses used to the smooth prairie roads got almost crazy from the wagon poles hitting on their shoulders. Later they learned, like all horses in the woods, to slack up when they passed a stump, they would walk slow and spread out and hold the neck yoke stiff between them.

Three men with a team of horses had joined our company to look for homestead land. The more they got in through the woods with the poor roads, the more discouraged they became with the prospects. The soil they found good enough but the wildness of nature took the heart out of them. We told them if they wanted free homeland they had to take it where it was to be found and not hunt around after it. On the fourth day from St. Cloud about noon we reached Bradbury brook about seven miles south of present day Onamia. The day was grey and raw, and now we found the road blocked as the water in the Rum River was dammed up for the log drive, so all the lowland was flooded. We were observed from the other bank and a man with a ferry came over. We rolled our wagons on the ferry but our horses had to swim after us. After we got over it was to harness up in a hurry as our horses trembled after the ice cold bath. We wanted to buy some hay from him, but he had so little himself he didn't like to sell any, but said a mile further up the road you will pass a deserted logging camp. There you can help yourselves to all you want. The road now became only mud and waterholes. The only thing that kept us going was that the wheels went clear down on the frozen ground, which kept them from going completely, stuck. It started in now with small squalls of hail and sleet, but at intervals the sun broke through. In the camp we gathered some hay but it was wet and mouldy. We now resolved to try to reach four miles farther north were there should be a farmer, we were told, who had a lot of hay. After we got about half the distance we got into a deep hole where we were really stuck. Our horses that had had a hard day of it were too tired to pull the load out. We decided to camp for the night where we were. Our companions with the other team now got scared and decided that the Indians could have all the land there for all of them, and turned around and left us in the hole. They drove homeward as fast as they could. After they got back they had a terrible tale to tell of their toils and sufferings. "It surely is a relief to get rid of them." Said Carl Johnson as they disappeared down the road.

We took our blankets and bed quilts and wrapped our horse in them. I wrapped my overcoat around the neck of old Dolly, she needed it worse than I did. We had a good supply of oats but hardly any hay for them. The wind turned around to a cold northwest but as we were in the timber we did not feel it very much. We built a big fire to help us keep warm and kept the coffeepot going all night for our comfort. As soon as it became daylight, we carried our feed sacks and provision boxes to a dry place and lifted up the wagon and our horses that were rested took hold with new strength. The road on higher ground became better, the sun rose clear and bright and Sabbath rest prevailed over nature. After crossing Rum River where the village of Onamia now lays we reached a settler that sold us hay. Now we found a sheltered place in the sun and after a well-earned breakfast we laid down to sleep, the sleep of the righteous as our horses filled up with fine hay.

Finally we got into a settled district; two townships at the south end of Mille Lacs. It had been an Indian Reservation opened a few years before for settlers and as there was a lot of pine forest on the land it had been settle in a jiffy and now there was a man on every quarter and roads already showed improvement. A couple days later we reached John Skretting at Opstead. This man had been there five or six years and had cleared up quite a lot of his land and established a post office. He was the postmaster. He was from Jæren, a district south of Stavanger, Norway. He was a wide-awake man and energetic and driving. Opstead got its name from the farm Opstead some miles south of Stavanger, John's home place in Norway. John had an offer to run a store business in the southern part of the state, and wanted badly to go for a time to a place where his children could get better schooling. Carl Johnson who had been just married rented the land and took over the post office. His wife took the train to Aitkin where he met her the day Mr. Skretting went out.

We went five miles farther east to our homesteads and began the struggle to build our homes. It began to get warm and the mosquitoes were a constant plague at day as well as night. A little later came the horse flies. We had to take our horses in one end of our cabin and then keep a smoke smudge going at all times. To be choked on smoke or eaten up of mosquitoes was not so easy to choose. Our homestead lay around the charming little Bear Lake and as we had a fishnet along and caught all the fish we could eat, we Norwegians thrived well. During the summer we got up a good log house and cut some hay. The fifth of July we were ready to start for home and harvest our crops and make ready to move up in the fall. The day before we left we got a letter from home that most of our crops were destroyed by a hailstorm but some could be saved. The roads were dried out now so the homeward journey took hardly half the time it took us to get up to Bear Lake. Now it became a busy time to gather in our crop and do other things that had to be done before we could leave. The last of August we were done and had our wagons loaded, but as it was Saturday we decided to wait until Monday before we started. On Sunday we noticed a blue-black cloud on the eastern horizon. We thought first it was an electric storm, but came later to the conclusion it must be timber fire. Monday evening we camped a little west of Painesville. In the morning we drove through town the mail was just in, and there seemed quite a commotion and people were running here and there swinging the morning paper. One came over to us asking where we were going. If you are going to Mille Lacs Lake you will never get there, he said. A timber fire has ravaged the whole of eastern Minnesota. The village of Hinckley and other towns are burned and thousands of people are burnt to death. It is senseless and dangerous to go a step farther. Now good advice was precious. We had sold the old farm and the new owners had moved in so there was nothing to go back to. So there was nothing to do but go forward. Father also concluded that the first news was always sensational, and the best for us was to drive east to St. Cloud and find out for sure about the situation.

The next day we reached St. Cloud. We found some pasture for our stock. It was decided I should take the train to Mora and find out the destruction and the danger. There was a work train leaving St. Cloud in the morning at a sawmill at Mission Creak which was burnt and now he was on his way to see if his father was alive or not. Otherwise the wagon was packed full of workmen.

When we got east toward Foley we saw the signs of the fire's ravages. The railroad grade was burning yet where the track went through swampland and ties and rails hung loose so the train only moved at snail's pace. People were put off here and there to put out the fires smouldering in the peat. At Milaca we came in the fire zone. They had fought the fire several days and for their lives, and what now had helped them was that some years before they had been in danger and then had cleared a big firebreak which they now had plowed up and had backfired from it. And the wind had shifted at the critical moment. When we were there, a train came from Hinckley, with quite a few workingmen aboard. They had been sent up there a few days before to clear up the ruins and bury the dead. They were a superstitious gang and told the most hair-raising tales of what they had seen and heard. A burnt over and smoking landscape and dead bodies everywhere. Superstitious as they were they had taken to flight the first chance they had, and showed us half melted silver coins they had picked up.

When we reached Mora a relief train came from St. Paul. On it were many who were looking for relatives and dear ones. All the schoolhouses and churches were packed with refugees and there were many sorrowful and grieved faces to see. Some were looking after parent, other for children. I took particular notice of a man, evidently a Scandinavian, who stepped off there. He had a basket of fruit on his arm, and with an anxious voice inquired after a certain family. He finally contacted a man who belonged to the relief committee. He said, "I believe there is a family by that name over in the Methodist Church, but I am not sure." A gleam of hope spread over his face as he started to run, and he was just one of the many that day.

I was fortunate to meet a man that came that day with the mail stage from Isle Harbour. He told me that although it still was burning east in the woods there was no immediate danger for the Mille Lacs district. With that report I turned back to St. Cloud.

Early the next morning we were on the way again and the next day we got to the fire zone. The danger was over for the present but the fire was still smouldering and all the men were out on fire patrol. The water situation began to be felt. The wells failed on account of the long drought, and we could scarcely find enough water for our stock. Saturday evening we camped a little west of Bridgeman, the present day Forreston, and in the morning we drove the cattle into town to get water. A Swedish family in the outskirts of town thought there might be water enough in their well and the housewife came running with her washtub so the poor cows could get a drink. As we found good pasture nearby and we knew there would be a long day's drive through the fire zone north of Milaca, we decided to rest for the day there. The Tuesday before they had fought to the limit for their lives and homes. The fire had in many places been in among the houses. It was God's providence that the town didn't burn up. All the towns along the line were small sawmill towns and dry as tinder. A big horse team belonging to the mill company had been hitched to the water tank for two days and nights to haul water. There as other places the wind shifted at the critical moment. Early Monday morning we turned northward along Rum River. A burnt over and dreary land, it smoked yet of burning windfalls. Late in the forenoon we found a place where the river had divided in two and left in the centre a little green island. We drove the cattle out for to rest awhile. While we rested there, a Swedish man came over to us and asked us if we had seen any cattle along the road. We had seen none. He told us that he and his wife took the horses and drove to town the day the fire started. His place was a few miles east of where we were resting. They knew there was fire further east, but didn't think there was any danger to them. After they had made their purchases, they started homeward. A mile or two out they saw it was hopeless to reach home. By forcing the horses to the limit they reached Milaca again. Not long after flames encircled Milaca. There began a fight for existence, as only those that had been there can only know. In the morning they had left two half-grown girls at home so you can just imagine their state of mind. All day and most of the night was a fierce struggle with the elements. Towards morning he set out running for home. There he found nothing but a smoking ruin and ash heap. As he stood there and wondered if he should look after some remains in the ashes he heard a call behind him. "There is Papa." When I saw them, all was well. The girls had noticed the danger in time and remembered there was a cellar dug about half a mile from there and they ran to it and got there in the nick of time. The flames went over them, but the sparks flew around them so they had to keep rolling around the cellar floor to prevent burning to death, so it had been a terrible night for the girls. He took them back to town to the waiting mother who received them back as from the dead. He didn't expect to find anything but the carcasses of his cattle, but someone had told him they had seen them along the river. The instinct had driven them to seek refuge there and now they were wandering about homeless. If the losses among the fire-sufferers were great, there were also many helping hands, and the courage to keep on. New houses were built and the clover grew well in the burnt over land. As was often said the safest place to live is where the fire has run over.

We proceeded onward. About twelve miles north of Milaca we got near the fire line. The wind was down and it just smoked and burned slow in the brush. Now we made a mistake. The wind blew against us so it was not dangerous to drive through and the cattle were used to follow the wagons so we thought they would come right along behind us. We speeded up and drove through in a minute, but the stock became bewildered in the smoke and ran right into the fire. We got them out in a hurry but not before some had burnt their hoofs rather badly. We had to kill two calves on the spot. Now we were out of the danger and fire. A couple of days later we reached our destination. It had taken us ten days on the road. It was a journey of one hundred and fifty miles. We didn't travel fifty miles an hour then. After we got to Opstead we got help to cut hay and in the later part of the month we moved in on our homesteads, where father now began to fix up the house for the winter. I got the task of going back to Kandiyohi County to bring mother up and get some things we couldn't take along in moving. We had left her with a relative as we had considered it was to hard for her to ride in the wagon.

I took to my legs as the saying goes. The nearest railroad station was Mora, close to forty miles off, after the winding roads of those days. I started in the afternoon. About a mile from home in a sharp turn in the trail I just about ran into a she bear and two cubs. I froze still behind a tree. The bear rose on two legs, sniffed around and scampered off through the woods. As a rule the black bear is not dangerous but with her young ones she is not safe. We often saw bears that fall but they seemed so scared after the fire they didn't stop to look at a man. As soon as she got out of sight I ran, and when I noticed she did not follow, I breathed easier. A young man in the neighbourhood saw thirteen bears that fall. I kept on walking until late in the evening. I stayed with a settler over night and the next morning before daylight I was off again. The train passed Mora ten o'clock in the morning. There I got on a freight train going west. It went slow and after awhile the coupling of the caboose we sat in broke, and the locomotive and the rest of the train was away off before they noticed we were left behind and came back after us. A little later the locomotive sprung a leak and the end of the story was that half of the train was left behind and we limped into St. Cloud late in the evening. Now the train to New London was gone, and no train going west before Monday, and as I had to be back in Mora in the middle of the week as my brother should then meet me there with horses and wagon, I had to be on my way. As fortune would have it a train went westward past Sauk Centre. It was better than nothing and I got there twelve o'clock at night, but as I was well acquainted there and the moon was bright I struck out southward. I had only thirty miles to tramp. Out in the night the moon went down and as I began to feel sleepy and tired I crawled into a straw-stack and went to sleep. At sunrise I was at it again. Later I went into a German farmhouse and got some breakfast, it was a nice warm Sunday morning and in a few hours I reached my destination. In two days with part of the night to help I had travelled more than seventy-five miles on foot. Now we travel the whole distance from Aitkin County in three hours. But we pioneers had a different tune to sing. Thursday afternoon we were back in Mora where my brother and Ole Thorsen were waiting with our two teams. Mr. Thorsen had taken land near us during the summer but had later been working in North Dakota. Now he had just returned with his young bride and got the chance to get one of our teams to bring up his household goods. It took us nearly two days to get home. It was a tiresome trip for mother to sit on the wagon that bumped along on the rough trail. We were again gathered in our new home after a whole year of discovery, planning and struggle. We went, so to speak, through both water and fire to get there. But we were young in those days and maybe too self-confident in our plans. The nearest town was forty miles off, and the roads miserable or there were none at all. We surely started in the beginning. We got the land from Uncle Sam for nothing but we paid him in full value for what we got, by doing our part to change the wilderness to charming farming and tourist districts in our beautiful state.

T. G. Thomsen
Bear Lake Farm
McGrath, Minnesota
written August 1934


With written permission from Carolyn Thomsen Mutchler
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