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Eli Johnson (1891-1967)


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Picture courtesy GSF
Eli Johnson was born in Nedervetil, Finland in 1891. He had one brother and five sisters. At the age of 19, he came to America because he had relatives here.

Ragna Lasenius also was born in Nedervetil, Finland in 1893; she had two sisters and one brother. Her mother wanted her to take up nursing in Helsinki; instead she went to America with a girl friend (16 years old then).

Eli and Ragna met in 1913, were married in 1916 and lived on Garfield Avenue in Duluth, Minnesota. He worked in a sawmill at first, bought 80 acres of land in French River and built a log cabin there, spending weekends clearing and plowing land getting ready to move up there, which was in 1921. His two sisters, Mrs. Abrahamson and Mrs. Jackson, were already homesteading in that area.

They had four daughters. This one-room cabin eventually became their home, and so a room would be added on now and then to accommodate them. They were fortunate to find a couple of springs on their property, later digging a well (by hand). They built their own barn and chicken coop from lumber from their land. Kerosene lamps were used for many years until electricity was brought in. Their first radio was bought during the Hoover-Roosevelt elections year.

When Saturday night came around, each one would take her turn for a "wash tub" bath in the back room. Since they did not have any boys, the girls had to help farm too. Haying time was the worst, getting up at 4:30-5:00 a.m. to sit on the hay mower trying to beat that rain cloud! But at the end of the day a great reward was waiting, cold homemade root beer which Mrs. Johnson always made.

It was a struggle getting up before sunrise to care for livestock, farm work, then scrubbing clothes by hand. They got their water from the well by carrying a yoke on their shoulders, with two ropes which supported the pail in each hand.

All homesteaders pitched in to build the new Bloomingdale School, which was ready when the oldest daughter started school. In the winter, the children dressed warm in long underwear and long stockings. They would have a big bowl of hot oatmeal before going to school, either walk or ski - three-fourths mile one way. They was very little sickness, otherwise Mrs. Johnson had the knack for being a wonderful nurse, which is probably why two of her daughters became nurses in later years.

Mr. Johnson was a "natural" barber, always cutting his girls' hair plus everyone's in the neighborhood. He even managed to trim his own. Later on he was employed at the Duluth grain elevators, which is where he retired from. To get to work in the winter, he would ski five miles down to the railroad depot, packsack on back (food, clothes), stay in a boarding house in Duluth and come home on weekends. He was laid off during the 1930 Depression; they were lucky to have enough to eat off the farm. The milk and cream cans were picked up regularly which brought a little money to buy a coat or shoes for someone. Mrs. Johnson did all her own sewing, had a small stocking-knitting machine, also would get "wood batts" which they carded to make fillers for the quilts." This is written by Bernice Johnson Dahl.

"Tragedy hit one day during Christmas when their chicken coop burned down, losing 300 chickens. So much depended on the sale of them and the eggs. Several farmers had a huge dinner bell set on a post which would signal meal time for the workers. It was also used for distress, which Mrs. Johnson used the day of the fire, and all the neighbors came to help. It was a sad day.

Mr. Johnson came from a musical family - couldn't read music but played a harp, violin, organ and accordion, and would get the whole family involved. Sunday afternoons Mrs. Johnson would bake her "special" cakes. They always had company, and their nephews would come and join in the band. In those days the children would go wherever the parents went.

He also made his own toboggans and skis. The back hill was cleared and neighbors helped build a ski and toboggan slide. It was a popular place; people would come to watch or use it, bringing their own equipment. At night bonfires were built to see by; their house would be like Grand Central Station for changing, drying of clothes, warm-up, or a hot cup of cocoa and cake. The school had their Winter Frolic events there too. The toboggan slide, having two hills, had been clocked at 70 miles per hour.

Just before dinner on Christmas Eve, the tree would be trimmed. Small candles in their holders were placed on the end of each branch. When lit, everyone would sit around and watch and sing carols. New Year's Eve was a celebration of taffy-pulling with friends.

In spite of hardships, they did well toward educating their daughters. Bernice became a beautician, Lorraine a secretary, and both Margaret and Nancy registered nurses, and they are very grateful.

To this day, Mrs. Johnson is still active; you no sooner walk in the door and the coffee pot goes on, plus all the goodies! She has seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She still knits mittens, etc., and bakes her own bread. At the age of 83, a true Christian, she is a most wonderful, remarkable, loving person still living on her own farm and is very happy there as long as she can go out in her own yard and garden just one more time."

From: Roots in the Past - Seeds for the Future

Published 2001 in Duluth, MN by Clover Valley/French River Community History Committee.

June Pelo

Eli Johnson was born Otto Eliel Johansson Pirttiniemi, 8 Apr 1891, Nedervetil, son of Johan Gustaf Fredriksson Pirttiniemi and Anna Sofia Henriksdotter Emmes.

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