Langdon Long Ago

Both last week’s column and this week’s have been sandwiched between the eye drop routine that precedes and follows cataract surgery so will spare you the details.  The pre-op literature plus stories of family and friends had prepared me to sleep through this event.  As it happened, there are newer methods in use today, so I was wide awake to hear the operation room chatter and hungry enough to enjoy a good lunch before making the trip home.  For those who told me they drove home from similar surgery, I left that challenge to the bus driver.

Posted 11/14/19

By Rita Maisel

Some earlier comments on impeachment led readers to ask why I had not included former President Richard Nixon in the story. The truth is that while the media of his era did use that word off and on for about two years, President Nixon resigned his office in 1974, and the nation was spared many hours of impeachment proceedings. Ongoing at the time were the Watergate Hearings which kept American viewers glued to their television sets during that same general time period and indicted many of the key players in that scandal. The controversy coined a new word “unindicted co-conspirator” for President Nixon. At issue were tapes of a conversation with the President and others involved in Watergate that contained probable grounds for impeachment. Tom Brokaw has a new book out on his years with the press corps during the Nixon presidency which is available at the Cavalier County Library for those who would like to read more on this topic.

1880s Weather

When researching the topic of historically severe weather hampering farmers and the rest of us, the years 1936 and 2019 appeared to be some of the worst on record. Another era that ranks right up there with current and past weather records came just before and after statehood. Being a territory and then a newly organized state, record keeping was minimal, and many of the stories might have been in the very early newspapers but just missed getting into the record books through oversight or lack of essential statistics. In the early 1970s Mildred Rutledge assigned me to read some of the earliest Cavalier County newspapers in search of good stories that we could use someday in a local centennial book. I am sure she mentioned this task to others as well, and because of the people who did study the fragile and now fragmented papers, many important stories surfaced. Fortunately, a lot of those stories did make their way into the various centennial books.

When you read the life stories of early pioneers, you will often find a statement about pioneer life being so difficult that many of the earliest settlers wished they could go back to Norway, Germany, Iceland, Ontario and so on. There would be tales of both individuals and entire families who had gambled on a better life in Dakota Territory and spent all the money they had or could borrow just getting here. When disasters struck, they simply did not have the money to return home. A lady from England had written a letter to family there asking for money for possibly a return trip but did not have the money for a stamp. Later she wrote that her husband received pay for work he had done, and I believe they remained in Cavalier County the rest of their lives. Some mentioned feeling trapped by a lifestyle that differed from what they had known in the country where they were born. Weather was a major factor in this frustrating existence and so was the fact that they may previously have lived primarily in cities and now they were out on the open prairie in a hastily built shack or sod house attempting to follow an occupation they knew very little about – farming. Those coming from Canada or eastern states may have been shopkeepers, masons or carpenters, politicians, bankers, teachers, and so on. Others might have worked in mines or been part of the armies each nation raised to protect their ever-changing borders. Many of the Scandinavian settlers had been fishermen. Two groups who came to Cavalier County had spent a generation or more in the logging and lumber industries in different parts of Ontario helping to clear the land for farming.

We know Germany, France and England had factories. A great-grandfather in our family had worked in a factory in Germany described as a “mill”. Because of wars and religious opposition that group of immigrants took apart the mill in Germany and immigrated as a group to Elmira, Ontario, where they rebuilt the mill and continued to operate it. That building was still standing when I visited the town in the 1970s.  Inquiring about what product they had produced, I was told cloth or yarn, but whether these items were plant or animal based was never uncovered. Today Canada produces many yarns including acrylics which initially were a by-product of forest wastes. Others from France built mills which produced a special kind of jacquard blankets which came to Pembina and Cavalier counties as part of homesteaders’ household belongings. The design of the weaving was unique, and several of these blankets are displayed in North Dakota museums today – often with the name and date of the couple who might have received the blanket as a wedding gift.

Other factory-related immigrants were French Canadians whose parents had settled in the province of Quebec. During and following the Civil War, families migrated into the New England states to replace the workers who were in military service. Men, women and children worked in these factories under unsafe conditions and for very low wages. Several local families have ancestors who left that work and came west on some of the earliest railroad lines to our area. A comment made in more than one story told of the trains being so slow that at times they got off and walked alongside for exercise. Food for the travelers had to be purchased or brought along. They welcomed even a short stop along the way when they could pick berries to add to their meals.

Three of my great-grandfathers had military training in various parts of the German Empire, and two of them had additional service in the Civil War shortly after arrival. Many of the Civil War veterans were not paid while in service but did receive a tract of land in lieu of unpaid salary at the end of the war.  Sometimes this “pay” was received as much as a generation after the war service and might be in the form of a tree claim given to the widow and children. Notations of this kind appeared in several deeds on file in the county recorder’s older books.

My brother and I had three sets of grandparents, since our father was adopted as a small child, and grew up knowing some of the stories of all the families. Two of those grandfathers had been apprenticed to blacksmiths and the third one, growing up in Switzerland, had been apprenticed to a bakery. The blacksmiths had no trouble finding word in farming country and initially got their start helping to produce and repair farm equipment. The one trained as a baker came on his own from Switzerland because his father had settled south of Jamestown and was, at that time, trying to raise cattle. Neither of those ancestors had previous farming experience and had to learn by doing. Like many others, their farming stories were trial and error tales.

Fortunately, most of the early homesteaders were young and healthy because the tasks of breaking the sod, planting crops that blew away in the strong winds, building shelters, planting garden-type crops for food and other unusual chores had to be learned to survive. E. J. Fox, who was Langdon’s first permanent resident, kept a journal in which he told about a diet of moose and samp he survived on with no nearby stores for groceries. Samp was the name for syrup (not readily available) poured on bread (baked by a lady three miles east of Langdon) and eaten with moose meat cooked on top of the shack’s heater – lacking an oven. Fox was one of several early residents who had a classical education of that time in Ontario so was able to teach school, work at the courthouse and make a living without relying solely on farming knowledge.  Another who felt over-educated in the wrong things was Fred Borusky who spoke several languages when he came to teach at Olga – none of them the French Canadian or native dialects his pupils spoke. Both Fred and his mother homesteaded land they rented to other farmers.  Fred entered politics and had other occupations to fall back on along with assisting at the Borusky Hospital which his wife opened in their home. She was a legendary nurse and midwife in Langdon. Each family has stories of homesteading ancestors who used the talents and training they had to farm, become carpenters, teach, open banks, operate dry goods and grocery stores. Several young men read law under the tutelage of attorneys and joined that status themselves, while others began as a deputy sheriff and moved up the line in law enforcement. An early doctor got much of his training from books and watching others operate – or so the story goes.

The storms of the 1880s became legendary.  One known as the Children’s Blizzard recorded the deaths of 200 children in North and South Dakota because it came about the time school was dismissed and children were lost trying to find their homes. Crops were lost when the wheat froze year after year. Many did not have funds to purchase horses or oxen to till the soil.  Interest rates on machinery were very high, and without the needed implements, some farmers simply could not feed their families. The years 1888 and 1889 are spoken of as baby-boom years, and knowing family members and neighbors born in those years, there are memories of them bragging about their longevity. One born in that era told me with twinkling eyes about a quarter of land near the homesteads of his father and grandfather. A single man had homesteaded that land, and after a particularly bad blizzard, family members had gone to the farm to see how the young man had weathered the storm. They found his lifeless body, a storm victim. A trip was made to Langdon to report this to the sheriff, and since the former neighbor had no relatives in the area, his land was now available for pre-emption. The man telling me the story shared that he now owned that quarter of land which might still be owned by his own grandchildren. A quote from homesteading days was that many kept the Sabbath and anything else that came their way.  In good or bad weather, it was survival of the fittest – lessons many farmers knew well.

Post Comment