My mother (Amelia Loretta Miller Johnson, Feb. 16, 1884 - June 14, 1958) was raised in Eagle Lake Township, just down the hill west of the Grue Church. Her father had a flour mill there, powered by a water wheel turned by the overflow water from Mill (or Middle) Lake. Torgerson Lake was later ditched across to Mill Lake. When the lake levels dropped, they put in steam power, but then the mill burned and was no more. (The grinding stones, made in Belgium, are now in the museum in Elbow Lake, thanks to Ed Fuglie, who rescued them from becoming stepping stones to a house up near Battle Lake.) [2.2-1]
Pa was named Berndt Johanson, but when he started school the teacher Americanized it to Bennie Johnson, with no middle name. (He was born Jan. 18, 1881 and died April 30, 1948.) [2.2-2]
Pa's family's two or three cows were dry one winter and the kids were so hungry that when a neighbor gave them a pailful of skim milk it was too precious to drink, so they stood around and dipped bread in it and ate that. [2.159-4]
Pa said his folks told about the hungry people in Norway. They had mostly potatoes and a few herrings to eat, so they tied a string to the herring's tail and swallowed it to push the potatoes down. Then they pulled the herring up again! (I don't guarantee the authenticity of the stories I heard told, but the ones I've told about all through this "book" about myself are 100 percent true and authentic.) [2.159-5]
When Pa was a kid he was sent to one of their more affluent neighbors on some errand and she gave him a piece of pie and then she asked if he would like another piece. He was too polite or bashful to say yes, so he shook his head, no. I suppose she thought he didn't like her pie, so she said, "I'll give it to the chickens then," and stepped to the door and tossed it out to the chickens. He lamented that one many times, all the rest of his life. [2.159-3]
Pa could speak Norwegian and (at least) understand Swedish but he hardly ever called anything by its right name in English. I don't know where he got the names from, but he used them all his life. For instance, almost any animal's nose was its "snobble" and if a dog stuck his nose up to lick your face or to be petted a lot, or "smelled around" a lot, he was "snobbly."
The settlings or dirt in the bottom of any liquid in a glass or pail, etc. was always the "boom-fal."
A cookie was always a "shu-tu."
He never called a bull a bull; that was almost like a dirty word or swearing. He always called a bull an "emeral." [2.159-5]
When he was 17 he left home with 35 cents in his pocket and worked for a farmer (Frank Herman) for a while. He stayed there alone for a while when the family went over to Minnesota on a visiting trip. They had two young dogs, a Shepherd and a big St. Bernard that they used on the treadmill to run the cream separator. The only way he could fill up the dogs was to boil a big kettle of potatoes with the jackets on and they would clean up the whole works. [2.2-3]
Mr. Herman carved the chicken at the table and he had a system for having the part he liked best left until last. First he would cut off the neck and say, "I'm going to have the neck." All the kids would holler for the neck. Then he would do the same with the wings and all the other parts he didn't like. After the kids had hollered for necks and wings, he had all the best parts left for himself. [2.2-4]
Mr. Herman went to the World's Fair in Chicago in 1890 and said when he was there he bought a glass of lemonade for a nickel. When it was gone he tipped his head way back to get the ice in his mouth because it was so hot there. The lemonade vendor hollered, "I sold you the lemonade, but not the ice!" [2.2-5]
Pa also worked in a bicycle shop in LaCrosse. repairing bicycles, which was a big business then.
In the fall, Pa and his two brothers, George and John, went to northern Wisconsin and worked in a logging camp for the winter. His brothers were older and more experienced and got jobs as sawyers, cutting trees with a crosscut saw. Pa was only a swamper -- they cut roads for the teams to haul the logs out on and leveled the bumps with an axe and grub hoe. [2.2-6]
They slept in a log building that had been built that fall from green logs and it was cold and damp all winter. Pa got catarrh real bad, but his brother swabbed out his throat with some medicine every day and he survived the winter. [2.3-1]
They had pancakes for breakfast every morning and when they went in to eat, there would be big pans of pancakes already on the table. Pa discovered that the teamsters were in a big hurry and had to get their horses on the road, so they soon gobbled up all the cold pancakes. If he ate slowly he would soon get hot ones right from the griddle. [2.3-2]
He said they said it got 60 below zero there that winter. The men weren't supposed to wear coats while working; they were supposed to work to keep warm. He had a wool mackinaw coat and put it on under his bib overall. It looked like a heavy shirt or jacket and he got by with that. [2.3-3]
In the spring he worked in a sawmill in LaCrosse, piling green lumber from the saw. They had to pile it as fast as it came from the saw, and most new men lasted only one day on that job; they were too stiff and sore to get out of bed the next day. Pa hardened in, though, and stayed on the job. [2.3-4]
Pa was tall and thin and his brother John was short and stocky, more like a German. Pa could lick his brother until John got a growing spurt and could handle Pa. John said, "Never again are you going to lick me." After a little, Pa got a growing spurt and again he could lick John, and could do it ever after. [2.3-5]
John married a German girl and lived in a valley near Mindoro, Wisconsin. The valley was narrow with a creek running through it and the road went between the barn and the house. [2.3-6]
That was my favorite place when we visited Wisconsin when I was about 8 or 9 years old, because I could follow my cousin Percy around and watch him slop the hogs out of a barrel, etc. They had all sorts of poultry -- chickens, ducks, turkeys, etc. -- running around the yard and right up on the doorstep. They had a strawberry bed only about 50 feet from the house, but it was straight up a side-hill and the chickens never even found it. [2.3-7]
Uncle George came to visit us in Minnesota when I was about 3 years old. He was a camera nut and took a lot of postcard size pictures with a folding camera. Apparently the photographers in our family inherited the talent from way back then. Uncle George had been out here and worked for Gilbert Hoff for a year sometime before 1900. He married a city girl (Nina) and did just what he said he was going to do -- that was to have a good time when he was young and could enjoy it and then work when he got too old to have a good time. He raised two kids, Ardelle and Arnold, and lived in LaCrosse. [2.3-8]
Pa came to Minnesota in 1900 or 1901 and worked for Gilbert Hoff for a year. He was a cousin of Gilbert Hoff's mother. When Mrs. Hoff wanted something done, she always got Pa to do it. One day she told him to bring in a good-sized rock to weight down her sauerkraut. He brought one in at noon and set it on the porch. When she went to use it, she threw up her hands. She couldn't even turn it over. So he had to take it back and get a smaller one. He was always full of tricks, and I think he knew she couldn't lift it. [2.4-1]
All of our relatives on that side are a generation older than us on account of my grandfather getting married when he was so old. [2.4-2]
I've never heard of a big wedding at any time in my ancestry. When Pa and Ma got married, they drove to Elbow Lake with a team and buggy. Another lady rode along and while she was transacting her business, they went to the Courthouse and got married. She rode home with them again and they didn't even mention it to her. They were 30 and 32 years old, and Ma always maintained that everyone should wait until that age and had some sense before they got married. [If they married in 1911, as he says later, his mother would have been 25 years old and his father would have been 30.] [2.313-4]
My Aunt Inga married a widower with some kids and they moved to Canada. Inga for some reason had to sit in a wheelchair and was "frail," but she had some kids after that, anyway. One year Pa rode a bicycle up there to visit them. He rode across North Dakota, some places where there was no road. He had to follow the section lines, which were only marked by a pile of rocks on the corners, a mile apart. [2.4-3]
He got so thirsty when his water bottle went empty that he rode over to a slough that had a little water. The water was so full of bugs and things that he strained some of it through his shirtsleeve and drank it. He came to a settler's cabin and asked the settler's wife for a drink. She said she didn't have any water, but she had some sweet milk he could have. She gave him all of it but wouldn't take anything for it, so he gave her little kid a dime. [2.4-4]
Later on he went out by Washburn, North Dakota, and filed on a 160-acre homestead. He built a shack, which was required to prove up on it, and then worked for another settler who was already there. His job was breaking prairie sod with a walking Prairie Breaker plow and four horses. The wind blew all the time and the plow hit a lot of rocks. The settler's wife was dyspeptic, he said, and never hungry and everyone else was the same way, so he almost starved to death. They only had two chairs, so Pa sat on the sack of oats they kept in the shack for the horses. Some days the sack was full and other days almost empty. When he was plowing he could see the coyotes across the ravine and just wished he could get ahold of one and fry it. [2.4-5]
Pa came back to Minnesota for the winter and when he went back, the Russians had stolen the floor out of his shack. He worked on a steamboat that summer, hauling freight on the Missouri River. The next year they had stolen the whole shack, so he got a job on the section gang on the railroad. I guess that was pretty boring to someone young and ambitious. The tracks went on as far as you could see and you didn't feel like you had accomplished anything, whether you worked or not. [2.5-1]
Ma used to tell some interesting stories, too, from when she was a kid. John Bemis would bring his family out to the farm at Mill Lake and give her Dad a good drink of booze and then fish and hunt all day. Ma's big lament was that they had to do all the dishes and work for the Bemises, who were "company."
One day she and her brothers and sister pulled the Bemis buggy down into a hollow and filled it full of rocks, which made Mr. Bemis awful mad, but the kids had all disappeared. [2.20-6]
Another time they got sent to the field to pull weeds (mustard) but the field was near Mill Lake and they got caught sitting on the boat house fishing instead. I guess that wasn't so funny. [2.21-1]
I read a book once that a fellow wrote about his "quicksilver" uncle. We heard so many stories about our Uncle Robert that Marj and I called him our quicksilver uncle. Old Mrs. Walders used to tell that they only lived a short way from where Ma was raised in the country. She said that Uncle Robert would come down there to see the hired girl. One day my grandmother came down there and chased him home with a stick. He was only 16 then, she said. (My grandmother denied that story.) [2.21-3]
My mother said that when he was away at school he told one on himself. He was working in an ice cream parlor part time on a hot day. The place was crowded and a fat lady was sitting at a table in a real low-necked dress. Just as he was going past her, someone bumped his arm and a scoop of ice cream slipped off the tray he was carrying and right onto her bosom. He claimed he slipped quickly through the crowd before she had time to turn around, and she never knew which one of the waiters did it. [2.21-4]
I don't remember ever seeing my Aunt Nellie. She died in Rochester from a ruptured appendix before I was old enough to remember her. [2.53-3]
Nellie died when Marj was a baby and Ma took us two on the train to Austin (Minnesota) for the funeral. I don't remember much about that trip, just a faint memory of the red, plush seats on the train at night. I think we were tended by one of Ma's cousins during the funeral.
I remember Uncle Steve (Ma's Aunt Ida's husband) taking Marj and me out to see his little colt, and he took me along downtown and bought me an Ingersoll watch for a dollar.
I remember getting on the train in the night and my grandmother and a couple of Ma's aunts being there. They all looked ancient to me. Some of them had whiskers and I got special attention like, "Have you got a kiss for Auntie?" Ugh! Who were they kidding? They had to settle for a kiss on my cheek, and not with my blessing. All I got out of it was a wet spot, which I promptly wiped off on my sleeve. [2.53-1]
The year Marj and I were 5 and 8, we took a trip in the brand new 1921 Model T (probably in June) to see both Pa's and Ma's relatives. [2.61-2]
We thought it was a lot more fun to visit Pa's plain Norwegian relatives than Ma's more cultured German ones. (At school, when we were asked what nationality we were, both Marj and I always said, "Norwegian.) [2.63-2]
Ma's relatives were the more well to do type in Austin (Minnesota) and in neighboring small towns in Mower County on the Iowa border. That was too far (300 miles) to make in one day, so we camped out one night. Marj slept in the front seat of the Ford and I slept in the back. Pa and Ma slept on the ground under a plum tree. [2.61-2]
There weren't any kids among Ma's relatives (most of them didn't have any) so most of those we visited were my grandmother's age. We stayed there a few days and I was bored.
I remember that Ma had bought me new shoes for the trip. They had bows on the toes and I was wretched when I had to wear them. She finally got a pair of pliers and pulled off the bows: then I had two rivet holes over the toes instead, but that was a little better. They still looked like girls' shoes to me, and I think they were. [2.61-3]
Ma's relatives were German and the more cultured type. They always said, "Cousin this, and Cousin that," and Aunt this, and Uncle that."
We went to the Chautauqua, which was in session then in the afternoons. It was in a tent and I slept on the grass. Most of it was real boring to me, lectures and things and "high sopranos" and such. [2.61-4]
We also toured the Hormel Meat Plant. It was just across the river from Uncle Steve's and Aunt Ida's. Two men would put a big chunk of meat on a block and then step back. Another man would swing a big cleaver with a handle two or three feet long, clear over his head, and split the chunk right in two. I stood and watched and fully expected him to chop one of the men's heads off if he didn't step back quick enough, but he missed them every time while we were there. The only other thing I can remember of that was the smell. [2.62-1]
Uncle Steve took us for a ride in his car, a different, bigger make than the Model T, an open touring model. The roads were narrow and curves were blind in the woods and cuts. Aunt Ida would lean up behind him from the back seat every time we came to a turn and yell in his ear, "Blow your horn, Steve!" He was nearly deaf and didn't hear, or pretended he didn't, and he wouldn't usually get around to blowing it until he was around the corner. Then he would give it a few good "beeps." [2.62-6]
A neighbor kid and I were playing along the river there one day, and I slipped off an overhanging bank into the river. Luckily I was able to crawl out again, but it could have been the end of me if it had been deeper. [2.62-2]
My grandmother lived in her own house at that time and we had chicken dinner there one day. I thought that was the best chicken I ever ate, because she cleaned and cooked the chicken's yellow legs and feet. I thought they were the best part. I have never seen anyone else cook them, before or since. [2.62-3]
We went from there to visit Pa's relatives, scattered around the small towns in Wisconsin, just beyond LaCrosse. Pa's brother George and family lived in LaCrosse upstairs over a store, but the rest of the relatives lived on small, hilly farms scattered around the country. They had kids, and you didn't have to say "Cousin" first before you said their names. [2.62-4]
On the way to Wisconsin, we ran into places where they were building roads with horses. They were almost impassable with the Model T. One place was so bad they had to hook a team to the Ford to get us through, and the low bands were all worn out by the time we got there, on a brand new car. [2.62-5]
The place I liked best was Uncle John's in Wisconsin. My cousin Percy, who was nearly grown, lived there. He was kind of slow, and would let me go along to do chores, feeding the pigs out of the slop barrel, etc.
They had a strawberry bed about 50 feet from the back of the house and the hill was so steep to get to it that the chickens wouldn't even walk up there (probably didn't even know about it).
They had chickens and ducks and turkeys and things that came right up to the kitchen door. [2.62-7]
We had been there once before, when I was too young to remember it. One of the kids' diversions was to take a stick and tie a string to it and tie the other end to a kernel of corn. They would stand on the steps and "fish" for ducks and chickens. They said the cousins let me try it and I got so excited I hit a duck on the head with the stick and killed it. [2.63-1]
When we were at Uncle George's in LaCrosse, there wasn't much to do there, probably play some sissy game or something with my cousin Ardelle, who was about my age.
There was one kind of exciting night when they had all the relatives come in and that apartment over the cafe was really crowded and hot.
Pa's mother was still living, and she was there, but awfully old-looking. She and Pa just sat and talked. I don't remember her even noticing me. (Not like my other, younger, grandmother.)
There was an upstairs porch and country cousins, my age and older, all over the place. One cousin and I spent the evening just milling around out on the porch, inside and out again.
Uncle George went down below to the cafe and brought up ice cream cones for all the kids when the older people had coffee, and it was quite a memorable evening. [2.63-2]
My uncle George was the only "city" relative Pa had down there. He used to say he was going to have a good time while he was young and then when he got too old to have a good time he would work. And he did just that.
In his later years, he drove an old, dilapidated ice cream truck for quite a while. The last time Pa went down there, alone, to see his mother, Uncle George was eking out a living with an old cut-off Model T, salvaging junk from the dump and selling it. (The last time I was there, he had retired and was doing much better.) [2.63-4]
We visited relatives on several farms and I remember when we came to Aunt Lena Johnson's (Pa's oldest sister) place, her husband was having a bowl of bread and milk for supper. I remember him saying, "This is the best I can get." They lived in a house that had never been painted, and I think they raised 10 kids. [2.63-5]
The house was set right at the bottom of a steep hill and had a door on each side. Aunt Lena told about one of the boys opening both doors and then coming down the hill on skis and going right through the house.
Pa said when Ole built the house he bought cull lumber from the sawmill in LaCrosse for $1.50 a load and the total bill for the house was $100 or $150. [2.63-6]
I don't know how long we were on that trip, maybe two weeks or so. On the way home from Wisconsin, we went through a little town up along the Mississippi called Dresback. Pa told how it got its name. A steamboat pushing a barge was going by there and stopped for something. One of the boys on the boat swiped a dress off a clothesline along the river and put it up on the front of the barge like a flag. When they started down the river again, the lady came running out of the house hollering, "Bring my dress back, bring my dress back," so that got to be the name of the town. [2.64-1]
In the school geography book there was a picture of Sugar Loaf Hill near Winona, and when we went through there, I was wondering if we would see it. Sure enough, there it was, just like in the geography book.
I'd also seen a picture of the only spiral bridge in the world, at Hastings. When we went over that, I felt like I had really been seeing the world, following the footsteps of the early explorers who wrote the geography book. [2.64-2]
Ma and Uncle Robert inherited the land north of the ski slide between Mill Lake and Torgerson Lake, but they couldn't stand to own anything together. Ma had to pay her brother rent for his half interest and she forced him to sell the land to John LaValleur for a very small amount. I believe it was $2,500. It has changed hands once or twice since, and the selling price several years ago was $80,000. [2.172-4]
My grandmother had always said, "Hang on to the land," and she was right, but she should have known Ma and her brother could never get along and own anything together. I guess the main trouble was that Uncle Robert lived clear out in Arizona and came here to fish and sponge on Ma. Then he got so many far-out ideas of what to use the land for, like raising horses on it. I don't know who he thought was going to take care of them when it wasn't pasture season. [2.172-5]