Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Gem That Sparkles Still

The topic for the 47th Carnival of Genealogy is: A Place Called Home.

It's time for a geography lesson. Pick out a city/town/village where one of your ancestors once lived and tell us all about it. When was it founded? What is it known for? Has is prospered or declined over the years? Have you ever visited it or lived there? To a certain extent, we are all influenced by the environment we live in. How was your ancestor influenced by the area where they lived? Take us on a trip to the place your ancestor called home. The deadline for submissions is May 1, 2008.

Leonard, Minnesota
The area surrounding Leonard, Minnesota in Clearwater County is the kind of place you'd want to raise your children... a place where time stands as still as you want it to. Though the population of the town proper now hovers at less than 30 people and the median age resident is 61.5 years, the area is still as good a family environment now as it was 91 years ago. In 1917, my great grandparents, Ole and Malla Johnson, packed up their children and belongings and moved from their farm near Fosston in Polk County to three miles east of Leonard in northwestern Minnesota. (See the Google map.)

My mother and aunt were officially born in Dudley Township, since the village of Leonard was not incorporated until after their births in June 12, 1922. Leonard was named after the first child of an early settler, George H. French. French’s trading post and post office was a log house on the shore of nearby Four-Legged Lake.

"Many settlers came and some stayed, but many moved on. They were well acquainted with the saw, axe, grub hoe, shovel, grass and brush scythes. Fields came slow in the rocks and stumps. This was a difficult land to make a farm in."[1]

I suspect that my great grandparents moved to the Leonard area from their lush farm near Fosston because they had helped their two eldest sons, Bennett and Ernest (my grandfather) acquire cheap farm land there in about 1914, and then moved to be near them.

Leonard was, and still is, a rather secluded village, and looked a bit like a "one horse" town is the early 20th century photograph shown below. But, it was active hub for farmers who made a living from the surrounding territory. The early village included a Trading Post, a Soo Line Depot (beginning in 1911), Cooperative Creamery Association, Community Hall, a blacksmith shop, two Lutheran Churches, and later, Strand's Store, Monson Oil Co., and the Leonard Cafe, and not a whole lot more. Anybody who is anybody can still be found at the Leonard Cafe at some point during the day.

The area conjures up visions of "rolling farmland, green pastures, verdant forests, and placid blue lakes and streams abounding in wild migratory birds and variety of game fish." The soil runs from very sandy, sandy loam to heavy clay--suitable for hay, pasture, livestock, and farming, but the land will not carry anyone with cash crop farming. Success was derived only from individual farming. [2]

Five years ago, I visited the place where my mother was born and grew up. It was like a homecoming for me, though I'd never set foot on the soil before. Every building seemed familiar, though a bit more worn than what I'd imagined. The first stop was the farmhouse my great grandfather built in 1917. Though the property now lacks a barn and many of the original outbuildings, the house still stands straight and true with a dignity that shines through peeling and graying layers of paint.

The house built by Ole M. Johnson near Leonard, Minnesota.

Ole and Malla Johnson have not lived there for many decades, and it shows. (The photograph here was taken during the 1930s.) Gone now is the garden where Malla grew vegetables and little yellow ground cherries to make sauce with. Gone is the windmill that heedless young grandsons used to try and climb when Grandma Johnson wasn't looking. And, where was Colonel, the farm horse who lived to be as old as Methuselah, and constantly carried children to and fro on his dark, gleaming back? I could picture it all in every detail--standing on the very soil where my mother's paternal grandparents raised a large family, toiling every day and never letting up until the day they died. I could almost hear my great grandmother humming Norway's National Anthem as she made her daily crossing in the yard to the chicken coop in order to scrap the roosts clean.

The entrance to the Johnson farm on Rural Route One used to have maple trees that turned beautiful colors each autumn. Across the road was the Old Mogster Place, which served as the home for several Johnsons in turn, including Bennett and his sons, and Oral and Agnes and their large family. The local church and cemetery were just down the road from the farm, on the way to town, and the little schoolhouse was a hop, skip, and a jump in the opposite direction.

The land for District No. 31 School was donated by the Mogster family, who were early settlers in the area. Ella Stevens was the first teacher, receiving $5o a month as her salary. Among the 15 or 16 students who attended the school's first year were my grandmother's four younger sisters: Cora, Mildred, Clarice, and Stella Berge.

The school was never closed because of weather, since there was no communication and small children walking up to several miles needed an open building and warmth on arrival. However, my mother told me about a day when she and her sister and two cousins bundled up in 50 degree below weather to make the walk to school. The snow was so hard it was like walking on cement. When they finally made it to the school house, they were red, raw, and stiff. But, the teacher had not made it to school that morning and the door was locked, so the children turned right around and backtracked to their grandparents' farm right away.

Johnsons on the back steps of the school house, ca. 1930.  L to R:  Phyllis Johnson (holding a Brownie camera), Wesley Humberstad, Doris Johnson (my mother), Bennie Johnson, Mabel Johnson, Harvey Moen, and Marie Rinde--a neighbor.  Standing in front:  George Johnson and Thea Humberstad.

School District No. 31, outside Leonard, Minnesota, where
 my mother, aunt, and many other relatives attended school.

When I visited East Zion Church, the Lutheran Church my mother attended as a child, I was amazed to find the door unlocked. The minister's podium stood right where is had for years and years. Instead of pews, the floorboards held bunches of flowers, both real and artificial, each carefully laid out. Every time the caretaker prepared for mowing the cemetery lawn, new floral groupings appeared. Walking outside, I visited my great grandparents double headstone, where they were buried together in April 1948, having passed away within a few hours of each other. If they could raise up and take a nostalgic look around, they would be content to still find their farmhouse just about in sight across the road.

When my own mother passes away, it is her wish to be buried in that little East Zion churchyard next to her grandparents. In her heart, she has never left her childhood home. Leonard is the gem that sparkles in the memories of many of my relatives, some of whom still live in the area. It is an icon of days gone by, and a tribute to the dreams and efforts of pioneering settlers who sought an honest living on land they could call their own.

Life was simple and very few felt deprived. They had their card parties, quilting bees, Ladies Aid, church services, school programs and picking blue berries in groups, and picnics. Families worked together sawing wood and threshing, with a few ladies helping with the cooking. A good deal of time was spent getting ready for the Fourth of July and Christmas holidays, easily the big events of the year. [3]

The local historical society for Leonard, Minnesota is the Clearwater County Historical Society in nearby Shevlin, of which I am a proud member and supporter.

[1-3] George and Winifred Boorman. The History of the City of Leonard, Dudley Township (self published), 1982?

(The Boormans were neighbors of the Johnson family and were acquainted with my great grandparents, Ole and Malla Johnson. I obtained a copy of this self-published book directly from Winifred Boorman, who passed away last year.)


  1. I enjoyed reading your description of Leonard. You made it come alive. How fortunate that you have had an opportunity to visit the place and how familiar it felt to you.

  2. Chery,

    You've written a delightful story. I feel like I know your family.

    Now, all I want to know is how did Four-Legged Lake get its name!?!


  3. If I ever get to Minnesota, I'd like to visit Leonard. Your descriptions remind me of my husband's ancestral land in North Central Missouri that has been in the family for generations. Thanks for sharing!