Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Dirty Thirties: No Easy Street

Ernest Johnson Begins Farming

During the Depression era, independent farmers like my maternal grandfather, Ernest Johnson, found it increasingly difficult to earn a living from planting and harvesting, and frequently supplemented their income through other work. The following story tells how he coped and managed to keep his small farm through difficult economic times in the 1920s and 1930s.

Ernest and Esther Johnson in March 1917.
Fosston, Polk County, Minnesota.

My Grampa Johnson was a farmer in rural Minnesota from 1914-1945. Like his nine brothers and sisters, Ernest Johnson had a Norwegian accent all of his life, even though he and his siblings were all born in America. English was something primarily used at school and social functions, while Norwegian was spoken at home. Upon leaving his parents' farm in 1914, Ernest purchased a plot of land about three miles outside of Leonard, Minnesota in Clearwater County, where Mississippi headwaters trickle from Lake Itasca, mirroring lush pines and running crisp and clear on the long journey to the Delta in the Gulf of Mexico. When Ernest married Esther Agnes Berge on March 22, 1917, he brought his shy, deferential, and bespectacled bride to live on that small farm. In a little clapboard farmhouse with one room up and one room down, my aunt and mother were born, in 1918 and 1920, respectively.

The farmhouse where my mother was born near Leonard, Minnesota, ca. 1920.

Ernest Johnson lived down the road from his parents and some of his siblings. For many years, the creed among farmers, including his grandparents as Norwegian-American homesteaders, was that neighbor helped neighbor, and especially, family helped family. Family is the main reason Ernest's parents left behind a picturesque and productive farm in the green and forest-rimmed fields outside Fosston in Polk County, so that they could follow him and his older brother, Bennett, to Leonard, over twenty miles away. Keeping the family together was not only ideal, but prudent, especially when there was hard labor to be done on a regular basis.

Though the newlyweds were off to a good start, Ernest and Esther's marriage was tragically short. Before their younger daughter celebrated her second birthday, Esther fell mortally ill with tuberculosis and died in January 1922. As per their mother's deathbed request, the young girls were sent to live with their paternal grandparents down the road, Ole M. and Malla Johnson, in order to be close to their father as they grew. It was painfully obvious that Ernest would not have the time nor resources to care for his two young daughters as long as perpetual and solitary work awaited him in the fields. And, what of the autumn and winters, when he must travel here and there to bring in some kind of income? No, it was far better that the little tow-headed girls, Phyllis and Doris, be watched over by their grandparents and a maiden aunt, Mabel, who could help supervise them and make their clothing.

Phyllis and Doris Johnson, Sept. 1921.

Once again a bachelor, Ernest applied himself to whatever would bring in enough money to pay the bills and buy seed. He helped on his parents' and brothers' farms, grew what small crops he could, and took pleasure in training and caring for his horses. Ernest's young nephews and their friends delighted in visiting someone who was "batching it." They could also ride horses away from the critical eyes of their mothers, and Ernest helped their fun along with some of his tricks. His horses were trained to stop dead in their tracks when he snapped his fingers, which sometimes left young riders clinging frantically to whatever they could, like real bronco busters. Ernest Johnson's farm was also a place where boys might find some privacy to steal a taste of their first cigar, or make successful raids on the cooky jar without the usual repercusions at home. Ernest may have been a longtime widower, but he knew how to fend for himself in the kitchen. He made his own doughnuts and canned apples, peaches, and other fruit... and he always kept the cooky jar full, too.

Ernest Johnson shows off his prized team of horses, Tony and Birdie.
My grandfather was very fond of this photograph, taken on his farm
near Leonard, Minnesota, May 2, 1943.

Whenever he could, Ernest Johnson raised sheep and planted seed crops such as flax, clover, and alfalfa, using only horses and a plow. He hunted game and fished to supplement both his larder and his income. He often traveled away from Leonard to help with late summer harvests in the fields of South Dakota and also drove drays for logging companies in the forests of northern Minnesota--hiring himself out however he could. He was often away from home for months at a time, leaving family and neighbors to tend to his livestock, and he returned such favors for them. Truth be told, he even attempted a little bootlegging on the side, but it was thankfully a short-lived venture that ended when others blew up the still during his absence.

With the onset of the 20th Century and increased industry, family-run farms began to struggle. Ernest's father, Ole M. Johnson, had made a success out of his own farm without once using a tractor, but he'd had decades of early midwestern development to build upon his success and reputation. For Ernest's generation, when so many small farms reached for a foothold in existing markets, independence by farming was harder to achieve, especially when the stock market crash of 1929 darkened the forseeable future. When the money was gone and seasonal jobs were harder to find, Ernest Johnson, bachelor farmer, began to look long and hard at new federal programs created by President Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and the promise of jobs with the Work Projects Administration (WPA). Unemployment insurance would not become available until after 1935, but even then, many farmers who were independently employed were not eligible for the "Dole," as it was often called.

To be continued in Part II...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wordless Wednesday

This WPA poster from the late 1930s, designed by Vera Bock, is just as applicable today as it was then. It's also the perfect segway into my next blog entry.

Image source: American Memory Project. Reference: Posters of the WPA / Christopher DeNoon. Los Angeles : Wheatly Press, c1987, frontspiece.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

New Book Review of "A Long Way Downstream"

Much to my surprise, I found a short new book review of my family history, A Long Way Downstream: The Life and Family of Thibertine Johnson Winje, Norwegian-American Pioneer at the Minnesota Historical Society. Oh wait, can it get any better? Apparently, the curator at the library recommended my book to the National Library of Norway, in Oslo. My great great grandmother Thibertine is now off in the mail, returning to the Old Country. You'd better believe that I'm tickled purple over that!

Friday, February 13, 2009

I'm In Print!

I am very pleased to announce that an article I've written, "The Naturalist and His Camera" has just been published in Old News, a publication of Seattle's Museum of History and Industry (Spring 2009, vol.9, no.1). The "naturalist" refers to Lawrence Denny Lindsley, a Washington State photographer and explorer. Although this has nothing to do with my family's genealogy, it has a lot to do with Lindsley's family history, and I am thoroughly enjoying the research involved with a much larger, related project.

For information on membership and/or events at MOHAI, see the website at

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

High School Survey

I'm out of practice and need to get the blogging brain juices flowing again after a long respite. To help me do that, I've chosen to participate in Randy Seaver's Saturday Night Fun--Your High School Years at Genea-Musings. I hope no one minds that it's actually Tuesday.

Randy wrote:

Hey there, genea-funsters! Are you ready for some Saturday Night family history fun? I realize that many of you are reading this Sunday morning or even later, but that's OK. You can still participate.

There is a great meme going around the genealogy community on Facebook right now - it's called High School Survey. It's 25 questions about your high school senior year, so it's a bit long for our purposes here. I've modified it a bit and picked ten questions for you to ponder about your high school years.

1. What was your school's full name, where was it, and what year did you graduate?

El Cerrito High School, El Cerrito, California (San Francisco East Bay), 1971. They just refurbished the old buildings and created a new campus, so it doesn't look like it used to. Onward into the 21st century...

2. What was the school team nickname, and what are/were your school's colors?

Gauchos, green & white.

3. What was the name of your school song, and can you still sing it?

I never paid much attention to that, though if you hummed a view bars I'd probably recognize it. There was always too much Jimi Hendrix blaring in the background and it was hard to hear :)

4. Did you have a car? How did you get to and from school?

Car? Oh, no! It would have run on vapors, if so. I didn't get a car until I inherited the old Corvair my grandfather owned. In high school, I walked. It's that tried and true method: 1) first, put one foot out, 2) transfer balance, 3) put other foot out, 4) transfer balance, 5) repeat as often as necessary to reach your goal.

5. Did you date someone from your high school? Or marry someone from your high school? Were you considered a flirt?

My first date was to go see "Romeo and Juliet," newly released at the Berkeley Theatre. I married that first date, Dear Reader. No, I wasn't a flirt... I never had the confidence or bravado for that. If I was interested in someone, I used the intent gaze under the eyelashes trick, at least as long as I could stand it. There were precious few honoraries, however. Fred the french horn player was the first, but he never quite got it. What's up with that???

6. What social group were you in?

Somewhere between the outcasts and the in-crowd. I was part of the silent majority and had my own little group of girlfriends: most were "betweens" like me, others were budding intellectuals, whose company I craved. Many of my closest friends participated in Camp Fire Girls activities together.

7. Who was/were your favorite teachers?

I'd say Mr. Rust, an anthropology teacher. He was different, enthusiastic, and definitely loved his topic. He taught about the past, but looked toward the future.

8. What did you do on Friday nights?

Not much of anything, really. I sat at home and watched TV or looked at the moon until I met my boyfriend. He was a little socially-challenged, too, so we just hung out together. A few times, we went to home games where I obviously did not pay attention to the school song.

9. Did you go to and have fun at the Senior Prom?

Gads, no. I've never been into the dresses and glitter thing, but if someone had encouraged me I probably would have gone.

10. Have you been to reunions, and are you planning on going to the next reunion?

I keep in touch with a few old school friends and I love to connect with people from the past, but the reunion situation has never appealed to me. Too many judgment daggers thrown about in that scene...