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…

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

Visitors to the Parsonage: Goatmen, Drunkards, and Convicts

In our last episode of Feeding of Folly, the blogger hinted she was “busy,” and therefore would have difficulty posting on a regular basis.

“Busy with what?” readers demanded.

She didn’t say. The only morsel she offered was that for the next few weeks, she would be supplementing her blog posts with found writings from her Great-Aunt and Great-Grandfather. (Leaving readers with the profound hope that not only will Great-Aunt Clara be a good storyteller, she’ll also know the proper use of a semicolon.)

First, by way of introduction, here is the short bio for Clara that appears in Pioneer Memoirs:

Clara Jacobson (1863-1949), eldest child of Abraham and Nicoline Jacobson, studied at Monona Academy, Decorah Institute, and Valder College. She taught both public and parochial school for many years in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. She wrote a great many accounts of the pioneer days and her work appeared in Norwegian-American journals and newspapers.

The passage below is an excerpt from “Minder fra Perry Prestegard” — Memories from Perry Parsonage. It first appeared in print in 1911 in the Norwegian-American journal Symra. Clara’s father, Abraham, served a congregation in Dane County, Wisconsin from 1868-1878.

Here, Clara describes a few of the guests her family entertained at the parsonage. (I have to say, I rather like these people. Their guests, too.)

In those days the parsonage was a stopping place for itinerant people of various kinds. Father and Mother never asked any pay for keeping them, and it was in exceptional cases that anything was offered for their trouble.

Many queer personages visited the minister. Among others may be named Gjeitemand (the goat man). He had gotten this name because he had brought goats with him from Norway. These he sold to Americans, but after a while they returned to their former owner, who sold them again. He loved to tell local stories, but when they did not receive the desired appreciation his visits ceased.

Jonsebergen was also a well-known figure. He was very fond of strong liquor, but as he lived far from town he could not get it easily when the longing came over him.

Mr. Dahle, who kept the store, always had spirits on hand, together with various patent medicines, but he only sold them for medicinal purposes. Once when Jonsebergen was somewhat drunk, he went to the store to get liquor, but Dahle would not sell him any.

What did he do then? Yes, he actually came to the minister and asked him to write a testimony saying, Let Jonsebergen get a pint of whiskey. “The pastor in Valdres wrote this for me,” he added.

“No,” Father said. “If I were to write, I would have to say, ‘Do not let Jonesbergen get any whiskey.’”

Jonsebergen left, stumbling along. Later he said to his friends, “What in the world was the matter with me that I should think of going to the minister when I was drunk?”

Haavelsongutten, who was well known among people from Valdres, Norway, also visited the parsonage. He had a bad record, for he had served a prison sentence at Christiania (Oslo) for his misdeeds. When he was released he left for America.

He had acquired a citified speech and did not use his native dialect when he visited the minister. He spoke of the “institution,” and Father understood that by this he meant the prison. Once he told Father that his daughter was married to a cavalry officer in Christiania. When Father could not conceal his surprise, he said in his stiffest book language, “Do you not know, pastor, that a black sow can have white pigs?”

Here is a picture of the whole Jacobson clan: Mom, Dad, and all 11 (eleven!) children:

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Great-Aunt Clara is the woman seated on the far right. The young child leaning into her is my Grandmother.

Tune in next week when Great-Aunt Clara tells of more visitors, including a schoolteacher of whom a farmer says, “We might just as well have a cow to teach school as this Berentsen.”