Thoughts on the Simple Life and the Good Old Days of Bad Roads

Hate to say it, but I’m running behind. I’m behind in my to-do list, behind in my reading list, both books and blogs (sorry, blogging buddies). I’m even behind in my listening (You should see the number of podcasts backed up in the queue).

This is unusual for me, I need you to know that. Normally my to-do lists end their days with nary a check missing.

Despite this busyness, however, I’m still finding time to read through my family’s Pioneer Memoirs and I remain dedicated to bringing you snippets now and then. Partly because my invented deadline of Wednesdays for my blog posting has seeped into my brain with such ferocity that if I should be 98 and on my deathbed, I dearly hope it’s a Tuesday.

Along with that, reading these Pioneer Memoirs reminds me that however busy my life is at the moment, when all is said and done, I’ve got it pretty good.

On a previous post, one of the comments made mention of how wonderful it was to hear of those simpler times. I agreed at first, but then got to thinking. I wonder if it’s true? What I mean is, did they think their life was simple?

Somehow I doubt it.

Consider when Thoreau moaned on and on about all those men living desperate lives, yada, yada, yada.  That was pre-Civil War! No freeways, no rush hour traffic, no commercial television or Russians in your Facebook.

Makes you wonder what old Henry had to complain about, am I right?

Following this logic, perhaps one day people will look back on 2018 as a simpler time. Just as I might look back on this time and think, “Eh, I wasn’t so busy.”

In any case, the last two weeks I brought you tales spun by my Great-Aunt Clara. Today’s story comes from her father, my Great-Grandfather, Abraham Jacobson.

Old Abe came to the United States in 1848, when he was 12 years old. As you’ll see below, he and his “trusty legs” were rarely idle. He graduated from college, became a Lutheran minister, traveled to Quebec to help newly arrived immigrants, served churches in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, found some time for farming, and eventually ran for public office.

This particular tale tells us of when he traveled from Decorah, Iowa (in the northeastern part of the State), into the newly formed Dakota territories… by foot. It was a story my dad used to tell us kids, as it was a bit of family pride that our relation was the first Lutheran minister in the Dakotas. (If that should ever come up in a trivia contest, now you know.)

The following was written in 1908, two years before he passed away at the age of 74. I hope you find it a pleasant diversion from your busy day…

In the vast domain of the Northwest there may still be found places where roads are poor, but the ease and facility of present-day travel cannot be compared with conditions fifty years ago.

In the summer of 1850, when I was a boy of fourteen, my trusty legs carried me across the state of Wisconsin from the vicinity of Milwaukee to Prairie du Chien, a distance of more than two hundred miles. This journey was made in company with a large caravan of emigrants who were to settle in Iowa. The day’s journey was short and the roads were good, so the four week trip was an enjoyable one, though it was strenuous enough for many of the older people.

In the eleven years that followed, among many varied experiences, I was ordained into the ministry and served a congregation in Chicago. Circumstances so shaped themselves that a journey to the then new Dakota Territory seemed to me a duty, from a religious point of view. A keen desire for recreation for both mind and body was also an impelling factor in my determination to undertake the trip. An opportunity for the realization of this wish soon presented itself.

In October, 1861, a small party of eight people in Decorah were in readiness to make the trip westward to Dakota. The company had four yoke of oxen and four wagons. Three of these wagons had just been driven in from Dakota by settlers who came to meet some newly-arrived relatives from Norway.

Our wagon was constructed in a practical manner, in true prairie schooner style. The arched bows were covered with canvas and, as an extra precaution, were again covered with oilcloth, so that we were well protected against both wind and rain. We were amply provided with provisions and cooking utensils, and this later proved to have been a wise forethought.

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The first event that occurred on our trip, and which yet remains vivid in my memory, happened near Calmar. Along the main highway to McGregor came a man with a yoke of oxen hauling a load of wheat. A little boy, who was a cripple, sat on top of the load. The weather was warm and the road dry and dusty. The poor draft cattle were undoubtedly both tired and thirsty,  for their tongues protruded far from their throats.

Near the road there was a depression full of water, apparently a little pond, but in reality a so-called “sinkhole,” the opening in the bottom of which was partly closed by a deposit of clay which had been washed in from the road. As soon as the oxen saw the water they became entirely unmanageable, and down into the hole they rushed pell-mell, with the wagon and the whole load. The sides of the bank were steep and the heavy load shoved the wagon so far down that the water reached to the boy’s waist. Fortunately some of us were nearby.

We brought the boy back to dry land, unyoked the oxen, and finally helped the poor man to get the wheat and the wagon out of the water. The man, whose home was near St. Ansgar, was on his way to market his wheat and had taken his ailing boy along to consult a doctor. Now they had to spread the wheat upon the ground and let it dry before they could continue their journey.

To be continued…


Here’s Abraham with his wife, Nicolina, and their 11 children.
Talk about busy!

19 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Simple Life and the Good Old Days of Bad Roads

  1. I also had ancestors who moved from Decorah, Iowa, to Dakota, but 20 years later! One of my family photos looks so similar to this one, I almost thought it was the same. 😉

    1. No kidding? That’s amazing!
      Have you ever been to Decorah? My family went when I was about 14 for a reunion that was held at the Jacobson homestead. It’s a beautiful town, as I remember it.

      1. I went there in 2012 to research my ancestors. Yes it is a lovely town. My 3rd great grandfather and his wife were the second white family to live in Winneshiek County and he donated half the land for the town and for the courthouse.

  2. I’ve heard we think in wonder and nostalgia of our childhoods as simpler times. But seriously, we were children! We didn’t know anything of the complexity and sadness and worry that likely plagued our parents.

  3. That sounds like a bad day for the man. Simpler time huh? Well, my oxen wouldn’t ever do something like that. Well, not having oxen means it’s never likely to happen to me. Home the boy made to the doc and was okay.

    1. I like to think my oxen would be better behaved too. In any case, it’s awfully fortunate the caravan came upon the poor man and were able to help him. It does make you wonder how the story came out for him, doesn’t it?

  4. A wonderful story. 🙂 Now and then I wonder about our dependence on cloud technology to store so much of our personal communications – will much of it survive? Will we have the sorts of family records that you do?

    1. Hmm. Now you’ve got me thinking. Ever since digital cameras and cell phones, I have pretty much stopped all printed photographs. If you look at our family albums, it’s like our lives were frozen around the time our kids were in elementary school! 😧

  5. We look forward or backward to a simpler time. In a way, the hard life of our ancestors is what inspired the next to do better and give their children a better life and on and on to the next generations. So the question is have we made it better for our children and grandchildren and so on. I know one thing, I grew up in a simpler time than my kids. I wouldn’t let them do the things I was able to do and it’s not that we were out doing wrong but simply because we’ve grown more cautious and with good reason.

    Great story and post!

    1. I’ve been thinking about this very thing. Not all our improvements have made lives better, but overall life is much easier and safer, certainly. Though I wonder if a little hardship (just a little, mind you) might not be advantageous for us.

  6. Aloha! I have been absent for several weeks whilst I effected a rather major move. Now that I am settled it is a pleasure to be able to dip back into the blog-pool and over time I will catch up with all I have missed. And of course, write some of my own too, though that may be construed as a threat rather than a delight 😉

    More important than my little miss me, me, me diatribe above is to comment that this is a welcome and delightful post. We have a tendency to look back with rose tints well positioned so as not to let any reality-beams spoil the view but the fact is that life was hard. Simpler in some ways, certainly but not necessarily better nor worse. For example, we did not, presumably, suffer from extreme anxiety disorders due to mobile device and social media dependency but we had no electric light to read by, had far shorter life expectancy and little choice but to hope the primitive means available to doctors (if we were fortunate enough to live close enough to seek help in time from such a person) might be of some help, expected more of our babies to die in infancy than to survive and I imagine slept well due to aching physical tiredness rather than to dream of the rigors of an evening out well spent. As I sit listening to the dulcet drone of many ride-on lawn mowers driven by hired hands because the house owners are all at work to pay for the privilege of not doing it themselves, I wonder what progress actually is. I conclude that I would not really want to walk across Dakota to preach but that I also prefer the notion of a slow life even if it means I can’t pay a fellow to mow my acreage. Loved this, as I ever do your writing which I have sorely missed and am glad to be able to profit from again 🙂

    1. Oh, hey there lady! You’ve been missed, I assure you, and I’m ever so glad you dropped in for a visit. Now as I work my way through the mountain of blogs I need to read, I know there will likely be one from you and that makes the work lighter.
      Funny you should mention paying someone for yard work. I have considered it. Then I look at my budget and reality sets in. It’s not for me.
      Fortunately I excel at rationalizing. I tell myself I’d never be happy without dirty hands and grass-stained knees. 😉

  7. You are right about Henry and most people who won ad nauseam given an inch, Christi. Reading along, I appreciate more and more that you seem to have come by your gift to write so well naturally. Please take your time going through the history.

    1. Thank you, Roo. I wonder if the main reason they wrote well is that they wrote often? Without cellphones, texting, emails or facebook, all they had was paper and pen, so they better make it count.

  8. One of the things that always strikes me about “older” generations is that you simply did what you had to do and you didn’t complain about it. (I’m sure a few did, but for the most part, no.) Now? So many people want other people do to things for them, or at least provide a compelling reason why they should have to do it. Perhaps we should all have to walk 200 miles and rescue a wagon from a sinkhole just to give us some perspective…

    1. I know what you mean. I come from a long line of people who, when they saw something needing done, did it. Amazing. Just… amazing.
      But sinkholes. I mean, just the idea of them baffles me. Of course I lived most my life in a dry climate so I can’t imagine such a thing.

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