Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Homestead on the Prairie

After spending most of my life hearing about Minnesota and my mother's early years on a Norwegian American farm, I finally got to visit that state in 2002, and again in 2004. As a self-respecting family historian, I took along a list of important people and places to see within a short period of time, or... die trying! One place high on my list was the old homestead property in Chippewa County, where my great grandfather, Ole Martin Johnson, cut his farming teeth. The property originally belonged to Ole's parents, Baard and Thibertine Johnson. The Johnson family, which included Baard, Thibertine, and their children, Ole and Julia, emigrated from Grong Parish, Nord Trondelag, Norway in May 1866.

The homestead property has not been in my family's possession since about 1901, but it is easily accessed via an existing county road, and the current owners seem to be aware of its historic value to a myriad of Johnson visitors over the years. My visit was made on a pleasant and dry day in mid-September. The once carefully cultivated fields surrounding the old homestead have been left for nature to reclaim, and the tall domestic grasses swarmed with little black grasshoppers and their rhythmic summertime clicks.

The entrance was blocked with debris and the door could not be opened without risk of damage. I was able to look inside the windows of the cabin, stepping gingerly across broken glass in my open-toed sandals, and was excited to find that the appearance of the interior matches the description of the original dwelling on the homestead application. In the photographs below, note the Scandinavian style gable over the small entry way. The 12 ft. by 14 ft. cabin has only two rooms, and there is no running water or electricity. Tucked underneath a large oak tree near an old barn, it could easily be mistaken for a shed. The tree looks to have been planted shortly after the cabin was built, which would have been in 1868. [1]

Johnson Homestead Cabin, Chippewa County, MN,
photographed in September 2004, by Chery Kinnick

Johnson Homestead Cabin, Chippewa County, MN,
photographed in Winter 2007, by Susan Montano

Baard and Thibertine Johnson were some of the first settlers in the Granite Falls Township area of Chippewa County, Minnesota. In the fall of 1868, the Johnsons left Goodhue County, Minnesota, where they lived for two years after arriving in America. They headed west to New Ulm and then turned to the northwest and followed the Minnesota River for 85 miles or more to the area near Chippewa City. Prior to 1870, it was easiest for all travelers with goods to follow the river upstream, not by boat, but with a wagon and oxen. Upon reaching their destination, the Johnsons filed homestead papers on 80 acres in Section 18 of Granite Falls Township.

A federal census taker called at the Johnson homestead on 17 June 1870. It was the start of summer, and Baard Johnson was probably hard at work in the fields. His wife, Thibertine, may have been the one who answered the census taker's questions, still struggling, no doubt, with the English language. The 1870 census listed the family members as: "Bard Johnson, age 35 (farmer); Bertina, age 30 (keeping house); son, Olie, age 10; and daughter, Julia, age 7." After farming for less than two years, the value of Baard Johnson’s real estate was recorded as $220.00. [2]

Although the popular image of a prairie evokes vast expanses of flat land, part of the Johnson property slopes gently to Hawk Creek, a Minnesota River tributary. Its proximity to the creek ensured that there were some trees to be taken for lumber in the early years of settlement. The Johnsons had an advantage being near to water, but according to the current land owners, the acreage is quite rocky and must have required tremendous labor to till and prepare the soil for farming, especially with the primitive equipment Baard Johnson had to use.

Unfortunately, Baard Johnson never saw his American immigrant dreams come to fruition. He died from typhoid fever on 28 July 1872, one year short of fulfilling the required five-year homestead period. He was initially buried on his own land, but his grave was relocated in about 1900 to nearby Saron Lutheran Cemetery, in preparation for the sale of the property. His widow, Thibertine, remarried in March 1874, but not before the federal requirements were fulfilled under her deceased husband's name. When Baard and Thibertine's son, Ole Johnson, was old enough to farm independently, he was deeded the homestead as his rightful inheritance. [3]

I consider this old cabin to be one of the most important legacies of my family's history. Oh, if walls could talk, I would sit right there with a recording device for as long as it takes! But, all I have are these wonderful photographs, a few facts, my imagination, and the memory of the thrill I felt when first standing upon the same ground as my immigrant ancestors at the beginning of their American journey.

[1] Description of original building on the Johnson homestead: Land Entry File, Cert. 2749, Johnson, Berndt, “Final Proof Required under Homestead Act May 20, 1862,” NARA, Washington D.C.

[2] Baard Johnson household, 1870 U.S. census, Chippewa County, Minnesota, population schedule, Granite Falls Township, Chippewa City post office, page two.

[3] Baard Johnson’s name is incorrectly listed as “Barnett Johnson” on his death certificate, Chippewa County Deaths, Book A: 2.

1 comment:

  1. Your pictures are worth a thousand words Chery. They really tell the story of different time and lifestyle don't they? Thanks for sharing them!