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Overfors Family Homestead

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Grace Johnson weaves together the industrial progress of the region into which she was born, with her family history. As a result, we got not only a picture of what her family did, but the larger cultural context in which her family survived. We see the coming of the railroad to a formerly remote Northern wilderness, the timbering of “trees too big to put your arms around”, and small enclaves of mostly Scandinavian families getting together for the church suppers. What is here written is verbatim from Grace. Nothing has been altered. The spelling, chronology, etc. are precisely as she wrote them.

Text:

“Proving” a homestead in 1913 was a way of life for the early immigrants to the remote northern Minnesota wilderness. To “prove” your homestead you brought a witness to the Federal Land Office in Duluth and “proved” you had lived on the land for five years and in that timespan had made specified improvements to the property. The property was then given to you free of charge, but with the understanding you had to pay the taxes on it.

In the year 1910, when the “New Duluth, Winnepeg and Pacific Railroad” opened up the big timber country north to Canada, a lot of small towns sprang up along its route. One of these small towns, forty miles north out of Duluth, was called Shaw. Here the steam locomotive stopped to rewater, and here is where a small post office and general store materialized, and of course the giant water tower to supply the train with its water. It was here that my parents, Irene and Albert Overfors, “proved” their homestead a few years later. Irene and Albert had immigrated from Finland in 1913 and with six young sons settled in a hastily built, one room log cabin that Albert and his brother-in-law had set on the edge of a forty of land. The only access to the cabin was a tote road used by the Martin Timber Company to supply the saw mills of Duluth and Cloquet. We did not have a car or any means of transportation, other than what could be transported on the passenger train to set up housekeeping for the six youngsters.

The cabin was lit with kerosene lights, heated with a home-made wood stove, and the nearest water was a spring “near-a-forty” away through the thick woods. You had to exist by merely living off the land. The first winter in the homestead was bleak, as our parents had arrived late in the summer and there had not been any time to lay up any crops or to prepare yourself for what lay ahead. They got fresh cow’s milk from a neighbor “in-trust” that they would somehow be able to pay them back. The temperature dropped to –45 degrees that first winter, but somehow everyone made it through, small baby and all.

The next year went much better. Some baby chickens were bought, and two young calves. Some land was cleared, fencing put up, a small barn and chickencoop to house the animals, and ground broken up by hand and a garden put in. It must have been an endless job, and you had to put your priorities as to what should be done first. Rainwater was saved from the roof to wash clothes in and to water the garden. Dad had borrowed a 30-30 rifle that was a real necessity to get wild game. The bullets were really rationed, sometimes just a half a box was bought, and you never wasted them. The deer were pentiful, partridge, a lot of prairie chicken, rabbits, and fish. The meat and fish were canned and stored in the new root cellar.

I guess there isn’t any modern day invention that has the keeping-qualities of those root cellars. The “Green Mountain” potatoes kept until late spring and some used for seed that summer. The carrots and rutabagas were still crisp well into April.

When evening came and because of the darkness your other outdoor activities slackened, you took the kerosene lantern to the root cellar and sorted through the produce, as you couldn’t spare the chance of food spoilage spreading through the root crops. The shelves contained jars of berries that had been picked among the tree cuttings, vegetables from the garden and crocks of sauerkraut and dill pickles. The smell in that root cellar was just great; the damp floor, the veggies, and the kraut a-brewing. A lot of time when jars couldn’t be spared, the venison was prepared in stoneware crocks with a solution that was called “Morton’s-Tender-Quick.” It did a curing job on the meat; however, if it were kept a period of time it became slimy and had to be washed before cooking. To us, it was a “last resort” meal and no one liked it. Sometimes the butter was prepared ahead of time also, when the cows were still milking good, and without refrigeration it got pretty rancid.

A well was dug close to the log cabin, and the water didn’t have to be carried so far. The calves, now grown, produced our own milk, and butter and cream. The chickens shelled out eggs (pardon the pun). The need for larger fields to produce the hay and grain for the animals set everyone to working pretty hard. A few turkeys were given to us and a real self-sufficient atmosphere developed.

There were some close neighbors and everyone had a lot of children. Most of the immigrants in Shaw were of Swedish or Finnish descent; however there was a Danish and an Italian family, also. Everyone was poor, but no one knew it. A school was built in 1927 with 30 or so students attending. The teachers were boarded out at different homes for the school season. A community church was built and a ladies aid established. One of the greatest events was the church suppers. Everyone brought something that was their specialty and you really got a true smorgasbörd of national foods. The immigrants insisted on speaking English; after all, they were in their new land and it was only right!

Our preacher was a fire-and-brimstone, pulpit-pounding go-gettter. He scared the living Jesus out of us younger kids. Once at a funeral for a bachelor, we were assured by our parents that it would be a quieter-type funeral. But true to course, he got a-yelling again and one of his punch lines was, with the reverend pointing into the casket—“Look at him, look at him! He doesn’t feel a thing! You know why? Because he is dead!” One small voice in the rear of the church said, “We already know that, that’s why we are here.” That was the only time we had a short sermon.

Ttimber brought an influx of bachelors into the community. Some of the locals found they could hire some of these lumberjacks to cut some of the big stands of pine that grew in the area, sell to the lumber companies and still make a profit. Getting ahead of my story, I can still remember a “last stand” of pine in the late 1930’s.

That couple acres of pine was so awesome, and when you walked into it daylight became almost darkness. The trees were so tall and thick, the canopy so high above you.. The lower branches because of no sunlight were all dead, and the pine needles were 7-8 inches thick on the forest floor. An adult could not possibly put their arms around those trees, and the feeling you got there was something else, a different world. All the trees were felled with just cross-cut saws, the logs skidded out of the woods with teams of horses. The labor was done in the wintertime when the ground was frozen. When you had to cross a low spot, a courderoy was laid down. This consisted of logs cut lengthwise, and then water was poured over that to freeze. Skidding the logs over that was easier. Several spur lines from the railroad were rerouted into the area, making more accessibility to more timber.

Along with the arrival of the bachelors and lumberjacks came the need for their type of entertainment after a long day’s work. Some of the locals learned how to make moonshine and in turn sold it to the lumberjacks. I’m sure the alcohol content was near 100%. Mother never allowed any liquor, ever, near her domain, and was very much against it. It was simply from the devil! Dad, on the other hand, would go on his 4-5 day benders with the boys, and believe me, after four days on that stuff, he was pretty hard to deal with. The mash from the stills that were hid in the woods was dumped away from the still-buildings. Once when I was a kid, I came upon four bears that had gotten into the mash. What a comical sight watching four drunk bears, running as best they could, hitting trees, and stumbling around each other. They all knew they should run, but had forgotten how. The men, on the other hand, were never so funny!

Lice and bedbugs came with the lumbercamps. Because a lot of lumberjacks came to visit, buy eggs or cream, or get haircuts from Mom, us kids ended up with lice. Because this was long before D.D.T. and aerosol sprays, we got our hair shampooed with kerosene. Man, did that smart! The bedbugs were really difficult to control; it finally became a game as to how many new blood splotches were on your pillow in the morning; the wall splotches didn’t count.

The table in the cabin could accommodate six people. The younger kids knew their pecking order and we waited until the older ones were through eating before we got our chance. We were always assured enough food left by the older ones, no worry. When times were lean there wasn’t too much to eat, but now in the 30’s you could spare a cream can a week (that held 25 gallons of cream) and that cream was shipped by rail to market. In return, a few days later, you got a small cream check. That helped you buy salt, sugar, flour, and other staples. You could always trade with one of your neighbors also, if there was something you needed, in trust, if necessary. When those 1930’s were here, there were eight boys now, and one girl, Martha Georgiana. The boys really worshipped this gift of a little sister. However, tragedy befell our family. In the summer of 1932, a sickness everyone called summer-complaint hit a lot of families up there. Two of the younger boys and Martha became quite ill. Martha, five years old, lived but a few days from the onset. Her funeral was held up for quite a while because no one expected the younger boys to live, either. This was before antibiotics and not much hope was held out for recoveries from so severe an illness. But the yunger boys did survive. Mother and Dad never got over Martha’s death and it left such a big void in everybody’s life. It was a cruel blow.

Mother was pregnant again and I was born in 1933. Only by “the Grace of God would she have another girl.” I was named Grace.

My earliest recollection of life was mussing around the barn and chicken coop, and trying to find one brother or another’s lap to crawl up on – there were alot of laps around! We had alot of chores to do with all those children and animals to care for, gardens to weed, hay to rake, barns to clean, etc. I learned at an early age, with all those older brothers, to hunt and fish, and how to set a trap line. The fur makret was now lucrative and you could ship your furs to Sears and Roebuck. The running of the trap line was alot of work, trying to squeeze most of it in during daylight hours after you came home from school. You had to rely on a kersene lantern for light to finish off your line.

One time when I was about nine years old, about a mile from home, my lantern blew out. My matches were wet and I couldn’t rekindle it. The snow was really coming down and obscuring my tracks. It was so cold! Only hearing the whistle from the train that cut through the lower edge of our homestead did I eventually get my directions to find home. It was an early lesson of caution with Mother Nature.

The new school in Cotton, a near-by town of about 75 families was being built. I started school there in 1939. This was a 1 ½ hour ride in a school bus over the much-improved roads. We left home at 7:10 and got to school about 8:40 am. We got home from school about 4:50, weather permitting. It was a pretty long day, especially for the younger kids.

Mother had another girl in 1939. Dad was out with “the boys” for four days. This particular evening he came home pretty well moonshined and laid down on the ground along side an old garage we had. Mom had been in labor for most of the day; none of the older kids were around. Mom began to deliver and my brother, who was two years older than I was, was sent down the road by mother to get the midwife. Now, it was getting dark and Harvey had a deathly fear of darkness. Rather than go, he had hid behind a shed. When Mom began to scream from pain, he was more afraid of what was happening, closed his eyes, didn’t look or listen and ran and fell most of the way to the neighbors. I tried to get Dad up, but he was out senseless, so I had to help Mom the best I could. The lamp I moved down, and got the scissors and rags. The baby was born breech and did not live (I was only six years old). The midwife came, there was nothing to be done, and again everyone was in their own grief; the house was silent for weeks. Dad dug another small grave in the cemetery and I still remember thatt little white casket that he lowered down. We picked ferns and wild roses and put on her grave.

In the beginning of the war years, the older brothers began to enlist in the service of our country. Most all the young men did that; they wanted to! My first brother to leave was Walter, when he was not yet 18. He became an officer in the Air Force and a pilot on a B-24 Liberator Bomber. Soon, George, Alford, Bertel, Carl, Harold left. They were all overseas at once, some seeing action in the South Pacific, some in Europe. A flag with six blue stars was hung in the window (that signified how many members of your family were in service). In the winter of 1943 a gold star replaced a blue one. Walter had been killed on his 33rd bombing mission. The quota was 35 and then you were sent home. Mom tried to hold onto faith that there was some mix-up or mistake, but a telegram from the War Department and a letter of condolence from General McArthur confirmed what had come previous. Shortly after that, another telegram from the War Department stated that another son, Alford, had been seriously wounded. He was a tank driver in Patton’s Fourth Armored Division in Europe. This division made a wild, fighting dash across Europe. A young lieutenant in that unit rose to fame, so to speak. The fighting was heavy, our tanks had run out of fuel. When they stopped to refuel, the German attack intensified – the young lieutenant was wounded severely. Alford, himself wounded, exposed himself to more enemy fire and carried the unconcious officer under the safety of the tank. They were later moved to a hospital in England. The lieutenant in years to come, became the govenor of the state of Minnesota. When Alford passed away in 1965, Govenor Karl Rolvaag came to Shaw to pay his respects to Alford and the family.

Carl and Bertel met by chance in Linz, Austria. Carl’s unit happened to be pulled over along side a road. He had no knowledge that his brother’s unit was anywhere in the area. He happened to see a convoy with his brother’s battalion number on it going by. He stopped the convoy, looked up Bertel, found him, and had a good visit.

The war took the boys away from home and the farm seemed like a different place. There was just the three younger of the kids home. When peace was finally declared, our battery-run radio beamed out the news. We were so excited and didn’t know how to express ourselves. Whooping and shouting didn’t seem to make much impact. I remember Dad saying, “Oh, hell.” He grabbed the 30-30 and shot 5 shots in the air! Our precious bullets, but things were better now, and we could afford a whole box. Now we didn’t have to worry about going to the post office and walking in with hopes of mail from the boys, but dread also, for that yellow War Department envelope. One by one the boys began to come home. They got married and went their own ways.

In 1947 we began to replace the log cabin with a new home. Dad dug the 24 x 24 basement by hand, mixed and carried the cement in a wheel barrow, and finished the house by fall. The lumber was obtained from an old school that was being torn down. Most of the nails we salvaged, also, and we simply straightened them up and reused them. A new well was dug, and for the first time, Mom had water inside the house. Dad and I varnished the blonde flooring with seven coats of varnish. We had a modern-looking icebox in the kittchen. (There wasn’t electricity yet.) I had my own bedroom now. I was 14 years old and tired of going around a corner to get dressed. We had our first couch ever, with a matching chair. Trapping had been super, so I had enough money to buy a new bed, mattress, and bedspread (my first) and a bedspread for Mom and Dad. We had a modern looking woodstove in the kitchen. The biffis (outhouse) was still down the trail a bit, but heck, you can’t progress all at once. We had five milking cows, 25 chickens, and 2 pigs. All was going great!

In late 1948, Dad found out that he had tuberculosis. He was sent to a sanitarium to recover. Later that year, Harvey, my youngest brother, was bored with the country life and the work it involved. He tried to convince Mom to “sign” for him so he could get in the service, and finally he wore her down and he left, followed by his older by two years, brother Melvin. Now it was just Mom and me on the farm. One by one we began to sell the cows and use up the chickens. The feed and upkeep for animals was too much for two women. I was still in my senior year of highschool and Mom had a disabling stroke. I wanted to leave the farm and get a job in town where she could get the proper medical attention. I got a job in the Standard Oil office. One of my brothers who was still single came home and helped during the week and I took the passenger train home on weekends. I saw Mom was not too happy with the arrangement; she was pretty lonely. Dad was still in the sanitarium, the days were long for her, and her physical condition was certainly frustrating. In that following year we vacated the farm and rented a small house in Duluth. That following June, I met my husband-to-be. We were to be married that September. Mother died three weeks before the wedding.

It was a good childhood, a lot of physical hardship, but coming from a large family, there was more happiness than most small families can experience. You learned to share, and that material things were not all that important. There was much comfort in Mother’s peacefulness, her close tie to God and nature, and most of all – “there was always room on somebody’s lap!”

One by one, within a matter of a few years, the boys passed away in their 30’s and 40’s from heart disease. Carl, 68, and I are the only ones left. I’m 54 years old now, and recalling and reflecting in my older years: the log cabin that so many of us shared at once, the kerosene lights, the wood stove, frozen water pails in the morning, the good smell of the hay in the barn, the wonderful root cellar, and all the great hunting and fishing trips shared with my brothers and special people.

I remember the beauty of the virgin land, with its glistening lakes and rivers, the hayfields swaying in the wind, how happy the cows and chickens were to see you. I came to love and respect the unspoiled wilderness of my youth, the magnificent trees, the uncruised swamps, the virgin highgrounds. Our children and their children’s children will never have that experience, and they have missed out on alot.”

Grace Overfors Johnson, 1987

June Pelo

This story was sent to me by Grace’s cousin Ken Jennings, who gave me permission to reproduce it.


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