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Farming in North Dakota at the Turn of the Century 1800-1900


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At the beginning of the 1800s the American country paid a large sum to the French for a huge territory, history’s largest peaceful acquisition. The territory was later divided into several states and one of them became North Dakota. To cultivate the recently acquired land, the American government promoted an immigration to the new territory. People paid the government $1.25 an acre (.04 hectare) for up to 600 acres. In 1862 the Homestead Act was enacted, a law according to which a new settler had the right to receive 160 acres (64.75 ha) without remuneration and it was intended that the immigrants who would become American citizens, promised to cultivate the land for at least five years. If the terms and conditions were fulfilled, the land with right of ownership was turned over to the settler. The law ended in 1890.

The states were divided into counties (län). The counties were divided into squares known as townships, sections with a length of 1 mile (1609 m) A square area became 640 acres (c 261 ha). Later a person could divide a section into four parts, whereby the area size became 160 acres. If a man wanted a smaller territory he could be content with only part of this small square. A territory could also cover W ½ by So ¼ - or 640 divided by 2, leaving 320 which in turn could be divided by four and the desired land became 80 acres or c. 32 ha. This subdividing method came during the time of President Jefferson and also applied in Canada.

Johannes Rasmus began his farming in North Dakota immediately after he arrived in 1899 and with his brother Abraham who had arrived in 1893, they farmed together. Their father probably received the farm in accordance with the Homestead Act. Their father with his family visited in America and North Dakota between 1882-1889-90.

In the beginning of 1904 Johannes sold his share of the farm, probably to his brother, but it isn’t clear from a letter his wife wrote to her parents in Finland. She said they leased a farm from Reuben Wightman (Ruben Vikman?) in Steel County, covering 320 acres (130 ha). The contract was signed 11 March 1904 and was in force to 15 October of the same year. The farm house had so many deficiencies that they finally decided not to live there. Johannes began to look for a farm with a better house and successfully found one. The farm had a lot of land and was near the place he had earlier used.

The owner was a German John Bauer. His land covered 800 acres (320 ha) that Johannes had for his animals – he had many cows. The farm work was done with the help of horses and the lease proposed that he would have at least 13 full-grown horses at his disposal. Usually he had about 20 to enable the exchange. Johannes acquired this number of horses from a visit to the horse market. He bought some foals or young animals that he raised.

The threshing was done by a traveling company that provided necessary equipment and personnel. The cost of threshing was divided between the owner and the renter, but it could not exceed the average for the harvest year of the region. After the end of threshing, he immediately delivered half of the amount of grain and the rest was delivered after autumn plowing ended. The plowing should begin at the end of threshing and end before November 1. The work was done with plows and four horses. Johannes had at his dispoal two employees to drive his rigs. Manpower was not easy to obtain in the thinly populated state with great distances between communities. Despite language differences, he often resorted to using new Chinese immigrants. The English language presented no problem for Johannes. Together with his parents, as a child he had visited nearly 10 years in America and learned some of the language even though his mother tongue was Finnish. When he returned to America as a newlywed he spoke Swedish with his wife and with his in-laws.

His educational background was a problem, it is true, with his ability to write, but with the arithmetic it was worse, since people in America had a different system of measurement than what he was acquainted with.

It was difficult in the beginning because the largest part of his capital was tied up in facilities and animals. Income, at least the major part, was received once a year while expenses were distributed over the entire year. A common alternative to avoid insolvency was to mortgage his property with a well-situated farmer or a bank. Johannes signed for a loan in March 1901 for $117 with 8% interest to be repaid the same year in October after the harvest. As security for the loan he had a gray mare, 11 years old and weighing 1100 pounds, two other horses, weighing 1400 and 1300 pounds, also a wagon and a plow. Security seems to have been meager but on the other hand, the borrower could use the horses and tools during the period of the loan.

The same year in June he took out a new loan for $84 so that $64 was repaid in October and the rest a year later. Security this time was a 4 ½ foot mower, a 10-foot horse rake with 33 tines, a red calf 3 years old and another 2 years old. With small loans a man avoided unforeseen expenses until he could successfully save enough for future expenditures. The times were good and the hard-working family managed well with what the land gave. During sowing time Johannes began work at 4 a.m. and he worked until late evening.

The farm house had 13 rooms consisting of two stories and a cellar. Rain water from the roof drained down to the cellar and could be pumped up later. The cellar was also a good place to stay during a tornado. Alina was afraid of the big storms that often blew over the area. One day she visited a neighbor farther away who used to sharpen her knives. Some days later a tornado came and when she looked at the sky she saw her neighbor’s grindstone come flying near their house. She took her children down into the cellar. During that storm the neighbor lost all their animals.

North Dakota was in the Sioux Indian territory. One winter day two Indian women and three children arrived uninvited. They sat on the floor by the door and talked with each other. Alina, who was home alone with her two daughters, was sick at heart. The Indian woman and children sat until evening, eating and drinking what was offered to them. A neighbor woman who could speak a little of the Indian language said that the Indians were hungry and their men probably were out hunting and left no food for them so they were sitting there waiting for help. The Indian woman thought Alina was a poor mother because her children did not obey her. Indian children learned to obey without being reminded.

The farmer raised cows and hens. The milk was churned to butter that was sold. Before her marriage Alina managed a dairy in her home village in Finland.

There was a long distance between houses, but a small built-up area of Galesburg was near the Elm River where a church had been built. The church served during weekdays as a nursery school and school. Both of Johannes’ daughters were baptized in the church and went to the nursery school and then the older children’s school where their mother drove them with a horse and buggy.

After ten years on the prairie the long distance from family and friends became burdensome and tedious. The wife Alina who was home alone with the children had very limited possibilities to have a circle of friends. The man Johannes wanted change and to be his own man in another place and so he bought land in Alberta, Canada. But first they decided to go home when Alina learned her father was gravely ill. On reaching home (in Finland) the learned Alina’s father had died and so, upon Alina’s suggestion, Johannes became a farmer at Åsmus because she would not return to America even though she had three sisters there, and she did not want to start anew in Canada.

Alina’s daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter visited North Dakota 60 years later, to the place where Johannes and Alina farmed. The farm was still owned by the family and a grandson John Bauer guided them around.

Börje Prest, Karlebynejdan No. 40, 2008

English translation by June Pelo

Johannes Johansson Rasmus, 1879-1946, married 1898 in Karleby, Finland to Aina Alina Leandersdotter Åsmus, 1879-1960. They went to America 1899 and had three children born in Elm River, ND. They returned to Finland in 1909 when Alina’s father died.

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