Memories from Pioneer Times
by Pastor Nils Giere (1925)
Originally published in Hallingen [Magazine]
- Part 1 • June 1959, page 16
- Part 2 • Father’s California Trip • Sept. 1959, page 8
- Part 3 • Many Wisconsin Memories • Dec. 1959, page 11
- Part 4 • The Home by the Church Road •
[English translations by Julie Dragvold • Copyright 2008, 2009]
When father, an early pioneer from 1846 known by the name of Ole G. Nelson (Giere) had, by hard work, secured himself the rights to land in the vicinity of Cambridge, Wisconsin, he built for the benefit of his two youngest orphan sisters and himself, his long desired home, a small log cabin, in the year 1849, when he was 22(?) years old. The house was 1(?) stories, 14 x 16 feet in area and 12 feet high, with a slanted roof covered with shingles of oak. The main walls were of regular gray stone and the house was built on a little mound, sheltered from the north by an oak woods. Here stood the solitary hut charmed by blackbirds, pigeons and nightingales. The house was never painted and as the years went by it looked old and worn out, but inside it reverberated with many cheerful voices.
There was just one door, made of oak planks, swinging in on homemade hinges, without a lock but just a handle of iron to open the door. It swung to the left, and nearly overshadowed mother’s three food shelves in the southeast corner of the room. The most conspicuous thing in the room was the family bed, large and wide, standing to the right under which was hidden a larger drawer that was pulled out in the evening as a sleeping place for the family’s little ones. On the opposite wall, fastened firmly to the wall, was the family’s eating table, that could be put up when it was not in use. Only three windows gave light into the house–one upstairs on the west wall; two double windows in the lower story, in the middle of the west and south walls. An iron ring in the middle of the floor showed the way to the cellar through a trap door in the floor, an awful place in us children’s minds, because mother never went down there unless she was armed with a burning lamp in her hand and often said, “Uf, uf, it is shadowy down here.”
In the area of the ladder that went up to the second floor in the house’s northeast corner stood a large stove generously supplied with oak and pine wood. Our furniture to sit on was the best we had seen anywhere: a three-legged stool, a foot stool, two benches, a chair with a back and a swinging cradle hanging by four ropes from the ceiling.
But who can remember all these dear treasures in our humble home so many years later? The unending supply hidden down in the cellar of which just father had knowledge of. For there was the pork, vegetables and herring in large containers. There also was milk and cheese, but not much cream.
Let us get a glimpse of mother’s kitchen and not one of the admired objects escapes our glance. High in the memory stands what we called “butter and cheese and soft cheese.” In addition to this we were never tempted with the sight of “pie,” sugar or other sweet things of any kind. I had never seen white sugar; brown sugar I had, unfortunately, one time tasted under a forbidden temptation. In addition to the provisions were all our kitchen things, different than in the Montgomery catalog. A set of bone-handled knives, four horn spoons, a few wooden spoons, cups and mugs, a pair of yellow bowls and an everlasting coffee mill.
But our greatest treasure had its place on the shelf high under the ceiling. Here was the place for father’s shaving equipment and his tobacco provisions. On another shelf his books and newspapers and Dr. Ayers Almanac. Here in the holy archive rested our family Bible; Baxter’s “ The Way to True Piety”; “The Holy Everlasting Rest”; “Wexel’s Bible History” and other books, whose names I have never forgotten for they called us to the family’s devotions. There was “Luther’s Book of Sermons,” assisted by Guldberg’s Hymn Book. For us children this time set aside for devotions tested our patience, but here we got our first religious knowledge according to Luther’s Catechism. On this shelf was also placed the precious letters from Norway, or from “Eirik,” my brother in California. From summer time we remember best the frog’s song in the evening, the house flies and the troublesome mosquito.
For memories of individual joys nothing can surpass the memories of winter evenings where we sat by the home’s hearth, charmed by the crackling fire with the swirling smoke going up through the chimney and father telling us his fascinating history from Norway in the old days, where we children were taken on trips through imagination land, that surpassed our reason.
There were just two curios that adorned the walls in our home, and which were a puzzle for me and sister Mary. There was our twelve-hour clock, that always ran but never came off the spot, and a high hanging mirror, where the person always mimicked us but disappeared when we began to follow after him. A grey cat made an end to this mimicking when he brought the mirror to the floor in splinters.
But we have little time. Come with me up to the second floor to the guest room, where the family’s overflowing provisions are kept. The room reaches up to the roof, three or four feet from the floor in by the walls, but with a respectable height at its highest. On the floor are found bedsteads with straw mattresses partitioned off with curtains, that can divide the room according to the guest’s wishes. By the large west wall stands the large family trunk, flour barrels and other barrels, where mother sometimes hides her cakes.
In this home three or perhaps four weddings took place. The first wedding was father’s and mother’s, that happened December 31, 1853. Our family Bible shows that five children were born here, but no deaths or burials. Still it is now almost 76 years (written in 1925) since the old log cabin was built, it was torn down just 14 years afterwards, in the summer of 1863. It had performed its purpose and done it well. In addition to her own children, for a time mother took care of two sick orphans and always found room for needy folk. Mother told many times: “In the year 1857 there were three families living in our little home.”
Part 2 • Father’s California Trip
It was the winter of 1865 that father found it necessary to undertake both a difficult and dangerous trip. There were two reasons for the necessity of this. The first to earn money for sustenance for both himself and the family when the crops were a total loss that fall. The other reason was to obtain money to pay on a two-thousand dollar loan on his farm, that was becoming larger instead of smaller as the years went by.
Father had become interested in the promising letter he had received from his younger brother, Erick, who had become a rich man in California in the 16 years he had lived there, and father thought that he would try and perhaps find an El Dorado in the gold mines of the west. If those he owed should take his farm from him he could perhaps establish a new home in California for himself and his loved ones. These thoughts became for him as a sun’s ray through a cloudy sky, but how could a poor man without money, that didn’t have anything but debt and many small children, find the means for such a trip?
There was at this time a soldier in the neighborhood that came back from fighting in the Civil War. This man was willing to set out on new adventures, and after he had heard about father’s future plans, he was soon willing to come with him on the trip and would loan father money for trip expenses. As far as I can remember they began their trip in the month of March. The trip would go over to New York, over to Panama and then along the coast to San Pedro. I’ll never forget the day when the hour of departure came, that for us small children looked like a funeral day.
How would our poor mother, with her six small children and in wartime, find a place to stay? There were no close family members except for two grandparents, my father’s father, who was 73 years old and mother’s father, who was 66 years old. Could she ask for help from them? The day and the hour happened, the time came to say farewell, and father left. Many long anguishing weeks went by and not a word from father or his comrade.
But during this time something took place that father had not imagined. When father and his comrade had arrived at a large town in Ohio, they had to stop there because of a large flood that had washed out bridges and left destruction. This made it difficult for father; then he also had to go through another undeserved experience here that caused a quick halt to his trip to California. When father and his companion wandered around in the town, they were, by reason of the latter’s dishonesty, victims of three swindlers. It looked like the three swindlers were confused about a wallet, that they had found on the road. The wallet was opened and it looked like it was stuffed with five, ten and twenty dollar bills. “Who has lost this wallet?” cried one of the swindlers. “It is mine,” cried father’s companion. Father felt like he had met his doomsday. He understood that his companion had come out on dangerous ways. The swindlers asked for a finder’s fee. One would have 20 dollars, another 25 dollars. Because father carried his companion’s money he got the order from him to pay out the finder’s fee. “I have never been so scared in my life,” said father later, “and I felt like a criminal.” “I said to my comrade: What in all the world has come over you? Before evening we will both probably end up in jail.”
They set out on their way a five mile walk to the outskirts of the town, where they got themselves a room for the night and went then up a hill outside the town to count the money in the wallet. But what did Carl find in his newly acquired wallet? First some cut up old newspapers and in a smaller part two big copper coins. Now father felt himself much lighter but Carl cursed the swindlers, that he, because of his own dishonesty, was hoodwinked. But as far as father was concerned, the trip to California was canceled.
Late afternoon one day Mary and I came home from school; mother met us in the door and said, “Come in and see.” Yes, it was something to see, for over in the bed lay father in peaceful sleep. There was much joy over his return, yet that good future prospect went in the wash, but mother was fully convinced that this was God’s will and He had arranged it for the best.
Grandfather Himle had lived with us when father was gone, but next day, he went the six miles back to his own home. The spring had now come and time to get seeds in the ground and better times were in sight.
Part 3 • Many Wisconsin Memories
There were many reports and protests in the neighborhood when it was known that father had sold his farm, something that didn’t happen often in those days. So one naturally came to the conclusion that “Mr. Halling,” as father was called, had become a rich man and people wondered what he was going to do with all of his money and what were his future plans. A person that had never before expressed his opinion to father now came, in his torn sheepskin coat and said, “How are things today, Mr. Nelson?” There was now plenty of good advice and curious questions.
About three miles from our home was the little town of Cambridge. Right from the beginning we thought that it was a pretty name. It was here that father had learned the mill business under Joseph Keyes in 1849. It was here that we had done our occasional shopping and it was here that the whole Koshkonong settlement met. I had gone to school here one spring and many of our friends lived here. Two of our best friends were the Ford brothers. They had set up a little business on the other river bank, just above the old grain mill. Here they had, among other things, a blacksmith shop, a carpenter shop, a wagon factory and a steel smelter, and it looked as if they were affluent. They wanted father to come into business with them, and why should he not become partners with them, when he had that expertise and was knowledgeable in that line of work, and in the prime of life, just 42 years old? The money he would bring in from the business would also make it possible to expand and father was convinced that this would be the best, so in the meantime, he rented a house in town and began to dig a cellar on a site where he was going to build his own house.
During this entire year mother had been working hard on the farm. We children had to go a long ways to the schoolhouse that was quite far off, and because of a rich neighbor’s stinginess, father had been shut off from access to the main road. Now we were going to leave all of this and we were happy over our own freedom. Yes, even the day we were going to leave the farm was fixed. But then grandfather died!
The day that the sad news came to our home, father and mother were in Milford, where they were going to transfer the deed to the farm to the buyer, Fred Wolfer. So the oldest of us children, 13 years old, ran breathless into town with the message: “Grandfather is dead. Mother’s brother Stork said that he died today.” Mother took it hard. She could not talk but I could see that she had her own conversation with the unseen God. Grandfather Claus Himle, died November 9, 1868. It was natural that there was a large gathering at his funeral; among these were mother’s brother, Erik Himle, and mother’s brother-in-law, Sophus Listoe. Both of them came from Minnesota.
Now there were new plans made for the future. Horace Greeley said: “Young man, go west!” Sophus Listoe had the same thoughts and he said to father: “If you want a future then move to Minnesota. There you will find a place that will give you many possibilities.” “If you wish to go into business as a merchant, lumberman, miller or other trade, you will find good opportunities for that in Minnesota.” “If you want land to become a farmer again, then you will find good land at cheaper prices than here.”
Fortunately for our future, mother was enthused about these forthcoming prospects and was heartily in agreement with our uncle. Besides, father had understood from the beginning that mother did not think too much about the partnership in the Ford brothers’ business. There was just one thing that mother sincerely wished, and that was to move to Minnesota. That place stood higher in her thoughts than any other place. Now her brother had reached out to help convince father that it was the best for the whole family.
The entire fall had been good and mild without snow or rain but now winter was soon at our door, and a decision about what we should do must happen quickly, and in a few days we were going to be homeless. Now this day happened to be the biggest event in my life. With good courage and good health we arrived one day in the wonderful town of Rochester, Minnesota, after first having made a long trip at night and also during the day. All of us seven children and father and mother and our two uncles with all of our worldly goods, were transported during the night to Columbus, later by train to La Crosse, and from there by steamboat to Winona, Minnesota, where we traveled on the St. Peter rail line to Rochester.
Now both father and mother and all of us were happy and our joy was not lessened by the sight of all the families that met us at the train station to welcome us.
But how did it go with the Ford brothers and why did they release father from his contract? I don’t know the details of the last part, but I do know that the Ford brothers went bankrupt the next spring. They were so thoroughly bankrupt that they had to leave Cambridge. Because father changed his mind and went to Minnesota, we were saved from financial ruin, for which we thanked and blessed God.
Part 4 • The Home by the Church Road
The afternoon we arrived at Tollef Golberg’s home in Minnesota was a big event. A whole group of relatives had shown up to greet and welcome us. For us children they seemed to be foreigners speaking a little different Norwegian dialect than ours. But there was a face I knew and it was grandfather Nils Nilson Giere, who had married again in his old age and moved to Minnesota the year before—in 1867. I feel I can still see the old gentleman as he shook my hand by way of a welcoming greeting and asked me to go with him up on a hill in back of the house.
“Come with me and I will show you something,” he said, “do you see that house down there? Your uncle Nils lives there with his daughter Mary. Do you see the hill over there? In his time your father’s sister lived there but now both she and her husband have been dead for many years. Do you see the stone house down below the knoll? Your father’s sister Gunbjør lived there and on the other side of the knoll lived your father’s sister Guri. You will remember that we all live in a circle, so if you wish, then you can visit all of your loved ones in one and the same day. The only house we cannot see from here is your uncle Amund’s, but you shall soon get to see that.”
There were celebrations, the one better than the other, and before we knew it Christmas stood before the door. But long festivities with an abundance of food is not always the best. Should we not rather be occupied with getting our own home? Now father would have heartily wanted good advice for himself and his large family. It must be said to grandfather’s honor that he, at this time, had a friendship with father and his large family that harmonized with the good Norwegian name “best father.” He took us all—nine in number—into his little 18 x 20 foot home. He had, at 76 years of age, built his home of boards with his own hands, and it was built in the slope of a valley, where it stood comfortably by the edge of the woods, just a little way from Tollef Golberg’s home. Here we made our home that first winter in Minnesota, the warmest house we have ever lived in.
But sorrow and joy go hand in hand. Some weeks after Christmas, all of us, except for father and mother, got the measles. The epidemic was so severe that for several days many of us were in danger for our lives. This was an especially hard time for mother. She got little sleep and no help. There was no doctor for a long distance. It was a very snowy winter, which gave our little settlement the appearance of an arctic region. The roads were impassable except on skis. For a while we were cut off from the rest of the outside world. The winter had made our home into a prison.
But, after night comes day, the spring followed the winter and with the spring there came new hope. Fortunately we all became healthy again and, of course, we began to think about where our new home should be. Our greatest desire was, certainly, to get moved into our own home. Mother said, “If we could only get a little piece of land, then I would be happy.” The spring came late that year. March and April had slipped away and father had not decided what he should do. But such a day came, when news of a farm in the neighborhood of Uncle Amund’s home was for sale. The farm was for sale and it had to be sold within a month. It consisted of 168 acres and the price was $1900. This certainly sounded promising, but the land had not been worked for eight years and was overgrown with grass. The fences were down and, of the buildings,there was only one that was usable, a little house with one room on the first floor and a little loft above. That didn’t look grand, but the farm also had its good points, which lifted our spirits for the future. By the foot of a hill a rippling spring ran out with the clearest and best water one could wish for, and which gave enough water to take care of a large cattle farm for all seasons. We found this to be of great value. Also there was a large woodlot on the land and plenty of firewood. Through the farm there also ran a valley with springs jutting out; lush grass among large stone formations made the place one of the prettiest we believe we had viewed up until now. It was this valley that had given the place the name of Rock Dell, a name which will certainly stand until the end of time. So much water ran through the valley that father made plans to build a dam and construct a grain mill on the place.
The thing that was the deciding factor for us to buy the place was that it lay in the vicinity of Uncle Amund’s home and that it was just a mile to the church and that the schoolhouse lay even nearer. Finally, the contract was signed and we took the land that had been in the possession of the former owner Elias Stangland [Stangeland]. After the business was settled, father got the opportunity to try his muscles. He was busy with building, plowing, getting seed in the ground, repairing his fences, buying horses and cattle for his farm operation, and he got himself the necessary machinery. Everyone was so busy that the family didn’t have any rest until late in the fall.
But now we had finally gotten our own home near the main road, by the church road and near a bubbling clear water source; that made the location an exceptionally beautiful place in the area, a place we will never forget. Father and mother lived here the rest of their lives. Here the family increased with daughter Martha and son Joseph Christian. They were very happy with their new home and never wanted to leave it in their lifetime. It can be added that in 1874 father bought 80 more acres for 1,000 dollars and increased the farm, and also the same year, a piece of land that cost him 500 dollars for 60 acres. He now owned 308 acres of good land.
Although the circumstances in Minnesota were different from Wisconsin, father and mother continued with their hospitality. Two elderly people were taken into our home the first year and were with us until their deaths. One of these was grandmother Gertrude Himle, who died way up in her seventies. The other was mother’s aunt, Anna Sattre, who lived with us as an invalid for 14 years, until her death in 1883, when she was 86 years old. When our aunt, Mrs. Orning died, her daughter Gina made her home with us from the time she was eight months old until she was grown up and moved into her own home. Besides this, our home was full of guests on Sundays after services, and company often came and stopped there because the little general store, Rock Dell, was built on our land in the 70’s.
Finally, with regard to our Minnesota home it can be said that most of the children have their best memories from “the home by the church road.” It was here that sister Gertrude, in 1869, came back to her family after an eight-year stay with her grandparents Himle. It was in this little home that the youngest in the family got their first Christian teachings. Their first playground was here. It was here they dreamed their childhood dreams sitting on the doorstep on a summer’s evening listening to the evening birds sing. Here we can still see mother busily at work from the earliest daylight to the late evening. Here we can still see father give us his smiling greeting as he was busily occupied with cutting wood in the winter, or he, after work’s end on summer evenings, sat outside the door reading his “Church Tidings” and smoking his little pipe.
It was from this home that we went out into the world to take up our life’s struggle and near this home rests father and mother in their last rest.