LEMAY TOWNSHIP, MINNESOTA
by Elsie Emily Ruth Harrington Berg
Transcribed and Edited by Stacy Vellas
(Elsie Berg was Stacy's maternal aunt. Elsie, a descendent of the Cary sisters, Alice and Phoebe, who were noted poets from 1850 to 1870, was also a gifted poet who lived to be 91.)
My folks, George William Harrington and Cora Louisa Tull Harrington, came to Minnesota from Fort Madison, Iowa. Newlon, Irene and Paul Revere were born at Fort Madison, but Revere died before he was a year old.
In 1900, Dad and Mother, with only two children, moved north into Minnesota. First, they moved to a house near Deer Creek. Times were very hard. It was nearly impossible to get any work. George found a job on the railroad in Staples, but his work meant he had to live away from home. Arvilla Pearl, another daughter, was born at Deer Creek in 1900. She lived less than a year. Mother called Dad to come home and bury his daughter.
They heard there were homesteads to be had farther north, so he set out walking north to Aitkin. At one small town he asked if he could spend the night in jail as it was cold and he had no money for a hotel. When he arrived at Aitkin, he went directly to the courthouse and looked up the land that was available. He chose a section of land in LeMay Township about forty miles north of Aitkin and set out on foot to look over the land. Finally he found a place with a good stand of white pine. He looked up the description of the land and applied for a homestead in Aitkin County in 1901.
He went back for his family and arranged to have them and all their goods loaded on a boxcar and taken to Aitkin. From there they took a tote team up to their homestead. This was in March when there was still good sleighing and roads were at their best. When they arrived at the place they thought fitted the description of their claim, they threw up a temporary shelter of pine boughs and evergreens. George went right to work in a logging camp.
On March 17, 1901, the crew from the lumber camp came out to the home stead and the men put up a one room log house. It had a dirt floor with a partition off one end to keep the cow in and away from the wolves. I remember the wolves howling at night and I'd cover up my head with blankets and pillows to shut out the sound.
My dad and mother had already cleared three large fields when the ‘Timber Cruiser' came along and told Dad he had built on the wrong location. His place was half a mile to the south across the meadow from there. My sister Olive was born on the first place May 30, 1902.
In 1904, when she was about two years old, my dad started taking timbers from the first house and began building a log house on his own land. This was a better house. It was twenty four by twenty four feet and it had a floor.
After my folks moved into the new house, they began clearing the land on this place, but they continued to use the fields they had cleared on the first place.
Next, Dad built a barn and then built a hay shed. It was an odd shed. It had cedar poles set into the ground and cross pieces fastened to the poles. Later a roof was put on with cedar shakes. These were cut the proper length and split with a frow. A frow is a long flat blade with a handle on it and is driven into the end of the cedar block with a hammer. It took thousands for a roof and was an endless job making them. The building was a tall structure that held a lot of hay. Later, shakes were used to cover the whole outside. In the early days we had a shop that had a roof, not of paper or of shingles but of birch bark, and someone took a picture of it and gave me one.
My dad did all of his own repair work. He had an anvil and a bellows which I remember pumping. He also had an emery grinder which threw sparks and was cranked by hand. We had another building he called a bunkhouse which was used for fishing in the winter. I remember a man stayed there one winter while he was ice fishing. In summer it was used for storage and tools.
One meadow had nothing but tamarack stumps on it, but between the stumps was lots of good hay. For years my dad and brother cut the hay with scythes and carried it out on poles. When Olive and I were big enough, we went down and gathered the hay into shocks for them. You couldn't take a horse or ox in there because it could fall and break a leg. If we fell we'd recover, but animals were irreplaceable.
I remember the folks telling of a stand of virgin pine that my dad had saved to cut later. He worked away from home a good deal and felt the timber would be worth more later on. One winter, while he was away from home, some loggers sneaked in and cut all that good timber on his land and hauled it away. When he came home he discovered the theft. In the spring he walked to Aitkin to find out what he could do to recover the timber. He planned to mortgage the stock to hire an attorney to sue the thieves. But while he was gone all of our animals were poisoned except for one. My parents said poisoned corn was set out and left for the animals to find. Only, one animal didn't eat any of the corn and lived.
I remember at first, we had only one cow. Later we bought a red pole ox. He was very gentle. His name was Dick. Dad needed a team, so he bought another ox from some people out by Outing. The second ox, Bill, was a stubborn, horned animal, and he was also very lazy. I've seen Bill sit down on his haunches with his front feet up, refusing to move. Other times he would hide in the brush when we wanted him to work. The only thing the two had in common was they were both red. People may say that oxen are gentle and willing, but this is not always true.
If an ox or a team of oxen smell water and they are thirsty, there is no stopping them. Once they wrecked the whole side of a wagon for us by banging into a stump on a run away to the river. For years that wagon wheel had boards nailed and wired together to make it usable.
Another time, my mother hitched the oxen to the wagon, taking Irene and me with her to Swatara. After we had crossed the bridge over Moose River and gone a short distance, the oxen decided they wanted to go back for a drink. They took off. My mother, riding the spring seat of the wagon, was thrown clear and knocked out. My sister, Irene, finally got the team stopped and went back and brought my mother to. I was just a kid and I remember I was really scared.
One time my mother walked to Outing, a nearby town, about twelve miles west of the Harrington Homestead, over a road that was nothing more than a footpath. She took along eggs and butter to trade for groceries. She carried them in a sack that had spools on each corner with a rope tied to the top and bottom corner on each side. She slipped her arms through each side of the rope and carried the sack on her back as a backpack. On her return trip with the groceries, darkness overtook her and she got off the trail and got lost. After stumbling around in the dark awhile she found an old unoccupied cabin and stayed there over night. Early the next morning she heard cowbells and followed the cows to Hakes place. They gave her breakfast and after getting her bearings she walked on home.
When she didn't come home, Newlon and Irene went out during the night. Using the phonograph horn as an amplifier, they called and called her. They said she answered them, but was afraid of getting lost again, and decided to stay where she was. Being the youngest, and used to having my mother around, I was really scared and unhappy when my mother didn't come home.
When I was about ten they had an Old Settlers Picnic in Outing and we took a team and went to the picnic. There was so much going on that it was late before we decided to leave. After dark we were so tired we parked on the side of the road, slept all night in the wagon and came home the next morning. It was a lot of fun.
In the early years there was no school. My father, aided by a black man from Aitkin, built the school. My brother Newlon worked on the school and was paid by the county.
By the time the school was finished in the spring of 1911, my sister Olive was nine years old. She started school in the third grade as she had been taught to read at home. Mother got letters from some of the family back east and they sent reading books, text books, copy books, and various other books with which she taught us to read and write.
I started school in 1913 when I was five. To reach school we took the trail from the southeast corner of the homestead to the Harrington School, later called the Green School, located north of Otter Lake. In some places there were huge burned logs cut and laying across the trail. My older sisters had to lift me over the logs and set me on the other side.
In the early days, school lasted only three to five months. There were teachers that came to work there who just weren't used to teaching in such primitive places. Some left almost before they even started. The first teacher at the Green School was Fremont Taylor, a brother of Mrs. Charles (Henrietta) Hanson. Ida Clara Alvina Lueck taught there in 1917. She married my brother Newlon Harrington in 1921. Viva Shugren taught there and also Florence Bloomquist. Another teacher was Emily DeMos and also her sister. I remember when Iva Posten, the lady County Superintendent, stopped at our school while making her rounds in a horse and buggy.
One year my teacher took us all down to Otter Lake to show us what pitcher plants were. I had never seen them before. I remember the Butterick girl who had a habit of looking into other kids lunch buckets, and saying, "Why, I have better stuff than that." That made me very angry.
My brother, Newlon, was ten when our family arrived at the homestead in 1901. He had gone to school in Iowa. There were no schools for the kids in LeMay until the Harrington School was built. When Newlon (21) and Irene (19) started school in the fall of 1911, they were both in the fifth grade. Olive was in the third.
I was fourteen when the Harrington and many other rural schools were consolidated with the new Swatara Consolidated School. Now everyone went to the newly built school in the town of Swatara. My dad wouldn't let me go the first year because he was angry with someone and being stubborn. But the next year I went and that was an experience I'll never forget. I drove a horse and buggy most of the time, hauling cream to town and bringing home supplies. The other kids made fun of me for bringing a horse, so I felt like an outcast in Swatara.
When Newlon was twenty-one in 1912, he took out a homestead about a mile and a half west of us, next to the Aitkin County line in Cass County, but he worked in LeMay Township and was serving as clerk when the town or township of LeMay was dissolved in 1932. He lived in the house above Moose River in 1932. He moved shortly after LeMay was dissolved.
One fall, after he had his homestead, Mother took Olive and me to Newlon's to pick strawberries. Going to his place we had to cross a small creek on the way, and we just stepped over it. After we had been picking berries for some time, it clouded up and began to rain, so we went into his house and picked over the berries. It kept on raining and raining.
Mother said, "It doesn't look like it's going to get any better." So we started for home.
When we got to the creek that we had stepped over a few hours earlier, now we had to throw a log across to get back to the other side, because by then it was deep and flowing fast. We finally got home. It kept on raining all the night. The next morning, at the place where we had crossed the creek the day before, it was deep enough to row a boat.
We had what was called a "snake fence," also called a worm fence. It was made with two posts and two cross pieces or poles in a zig-zag fashion. This fence served until barbed wire could be bought.
Another thing Mother had was a sad iron. It was heated on the stove and picked up with a handle or a heavy cloth. It you weren't careful you could easily get a bad burn.
There was a year (1917 or 1918) when there were many timber fires in the area, and my parents were sure the homestead would be burned, as the fire was coming closer and closer. The fires were only a few miles away when they had finished preparing for the inevitable.
They had taken all of their belongings outside and buried them: the dishes, the sewing machine, and everything of value (including a half ton of flour) to be dug up after the fire died down. They knew they'd have to rebuild the house and barns. In those days, they bought a half-ton of flour at a time and stored it upstairs, because the tote teams came through from Aitkin with supplies only in the winter and on a sled, a distance of forty miles away. They ordered all their supplies delivered at that time. In the summer, the roads were in no condition to haul heavy loads.
They set up an escape plan. They would drive the cattle into the river, taking the children into the water with them and stay there until the fire passed on by. After all the preparations were made, we waited in immense fear for the fire to reach our place. Suddenly the wind began to change. We could see the smoke turn in another direction. We felt a few droplets of rain, then a little more, then it began to pour, a great cloudburst of water, putting out the fires.
I've always thought it was more than a little due to my mother's fervent prayers. One time, they left all the small children at home while they worked in the fields in the meadow across from the house. Fire broke out from an overheated stovepipe in the roof. The dog began barking and he kept right on barking. Finally, they decided something was wrong and they came home to see. They were just in time to put out the fire. They had a well by that time and water to use on the fire.
We had several fires after that. One time after Mother began suffering with a heart condition, a fire broke out upstairs. She said, "Elsie, maybe I can pump and you can carry the bucket upstairs and put out the fire." So, she pumped and I carried each bucket upstairs and put water on the fire with the dipper until it went out.
Another thing used quite extensively in the early 1900's was the "Family Doctor Book". We always had "laudanum" in the house. This was something we only used in an emergency. If someone broke a leg you could work on it with less suffering for the person if you gave them laudanum first. One time a neighbor, Laura Stratton, was deathly ill with dysentery. My dad went over there with the Doctor Book and treated her as the book prescribed and he cured her. If you got sick, back then, you treated and cured yourself or you died.
People thought my dad, George Harrington, was a cranky, somber person. Actually, he was a very ambitious man with little money and no possibility of carrying out his dreams, no matter how hard he worked. He built good sturdy buildings and was good with his hands. He was a kind person. No traveler came by his place without getting a good meal. It was miles between towns and a traveler could starve if they were not fed. We looked out for people and they in turn looked out for others.
The Kellys were early settlers and homesteaders in the next county. To get to their own place they had to pass through our place to get to their home near Shovel Lake.
We also went that way to pick berries along the hills on the Polly Ranch. Blueberry bushes then were nearly shoulder high ~ acres and acres of them. When we went we took all the buckets, the wash boiler, the tubs and the cream cans and filled them. You could set the bucket on the ground and strip the blueberries right off the vines into the bucket.
One of those times we took the oxen and wagon. When we got to the blueberry patch, mother tied the oxen to the wagon and everyone began picking blueberries. My sister, Olive, who could generally get herself in trouble, got tired of picking and said, "Let's go for a ride." She put me on one of the oxen and turned him loose. Irene had to chase down the ox and take me off. My parents weren't too happy about that.
Besides the Kellys, there were other settlers. South of us, there were two families of Olds and the Butterick family. My parents told of the time my brother, Walter Leon, died of diphtheria, and how Dad made a nice casket for him to be buried in. But, before they laid him in it, here came Peg Olds with a casket for the boy and the folks never told him they already had one. Together they laid Leon in the small casket and carried him up the hill. Peg Olds stayed to help bury him on a small plot of land above the garden. Leon was only five in 1910.
I came down with diphtheria soon after he died, but they caught it in time. They swabbed my throat with a solution of carbolic acid and kept the membrane from covering my throat and cutting off air to my lungs. They didn't know to do this for Leon.
The casket my father made was later used to bury my younger sister, Cora Lucille.
My mother, Cora Louisa Tull Harrington (1871-1925), my brother Walter Leon (1905-1910) and my sister Cora Lucille (1914-1919), are all buried in the cemetery on the hill on the old Harrington Homestead.
The cemetery is kept up by the Vellas families of California and the Berg families of Grand Rapids. A few years ago (1970's), I learned that the state was going to plant white pine on the Harrington homestead. I wrote to the Aitkin Courthouse about the cemetery. They came to my home and picked me up. I took them out to the place and showed them where it was located. They put up posts to mark the cemetery and no pines were planted on that side and the meadow and the cemetery remains to this day.
The John Gulden family lived east of us on Lake McKenna. They were Iowa people and liked to have fruit trees. They also planted black cap raspberries. They had a neighbor who had it in for Mr. Gulden. He told Gulden he had some everlasting grass seed, and once you plant it you never have to plant it again. So Gulden planted it and the neighbor was right. He never could get rid of it. I'm sure it's still there. We called it "quack grass".
There is a strange thing about the homestead. You can still find clover that has been seeded and reseeded over and over all these years since Dad planted it in the early part of 1900. Only the deer can appreciate it now. No one has lived there since 1939. The buildings on the homestead are all gone now. They were burned to the ground by an arsonist.
My father George Harrington's buildings were burned in about 1932. We suspected it was done by his son Newlon, who met George when he returned from Iowa, and said, "There is no use going out there." The house is burned. The barn and hay-barn weren't burned.
The other buildings, owned by James Vellas and Olive Harrington Vellas, were also burned by an arsonist from the Swatara area after they went to California in the winter of 1944. That log house was there in 1947. All that is left today are the hollows where the cellars were.
On the hill is an old uncovered well, now covered with grass and could prove dangerous if someone fell in.
And don't go speeding through there on snowmobiles as there are places that have barbed wire stapled to trees and could snap a person's head off.
THE OLD HOMESTEAD
This is the place where the log house stood.
Only a hollow shows, no bit of wood
To mark the home of long ago.
But close by the red haws show
Blossoms in spring, of every year
And clover grows to feed the deer.
(Copyright 1950 Elsie Harrington Berg)
My father built the strangest barn. He had cut and hauled railroad ties to Swatara to sell, but the buyer culled out ties my dad knew to be good logs. He didn't leave them as he usually did. He knew they would wait till he was gone and place them with the good ties. He felt he was being cheated, so he put the culls back on the wagon and took them home. When he was asked what he was going to do with them. He replied, "I'm going to build a barn." And he did. When he had enough ties, he stood them on end, braced them and built his barn. He made one mistake, he connected the hay-barn to the barn. When the heavy ties on the barn began to sag, so did the hay-barn. When the barn fell it, took the hay-barn down with it.
In early times there was a poll tax. This could be paid in cash or worked out. My dad worked his taxes out by repairing and building township roads, repairing sink holes, culverts, or bridges and corduroys were built this way. Nearly everyone worked it out.
I REMEMBER, I REMEMBER . . .
Some of the things I can still remember:
Blueberries canned in gallon jugs with corks covered with hot pine pitch to seal them. It always had a faint pine pitchy taste. Dad brought home jugs from the lumber camps that had been used for syrup, vinegar and whiskey to be used for canning.
I remember rhubarb jelly and jams cooked and put in old snuff crockery jars covered with brown wrapping paper.
I can still see the root cellar, so necessary, the hop arbor, the red haws and the old plum tree.
And there was the pine tree with a many roomed bird house my brother, Newlon made.
Also, an old stump where various birds made their home every summer.
That little yellow bird that warbled so beautifully even the martins listened. Those same fighting martins once put an eagle to flight.
There was the time my mother brought home those baby minks for us kids to see, carrying them by the loose skin on the top of their necks like a cat carries a kitten.
Sometimes we saw wolf beds along the road on our way to school with steam rising from them in the early morning, vacated shortly before we came along. How excited we were!
I recall the injured deer that Mother tracked and found and the hunter only wanted the head and the skin; we ate the venison.
I remember LeMay Township.