Monday, February 15, 2010

Give Me a House on the Prairie

In 1886, at age 25, my great grandfather Ole Martin Johnson married and brought his 17-year-old bride, Malla, to live on the farm his parents had handed down to him. Located in Section 18 of Granite Falls Township 116-N, Chippewa County, Minnesota, the homestead was begun by Ole's parents, Baard and Thibertine Johnson in 1868. It bordered tree-lined Hawk Creek, a tributary of the Minnesota River.

The Johnsons, along with their six-year-old son, Ole, and four-year-old daughter, Ellen Julie (Julia), arrived in America in 1866 from Nord-Troendelag, Norway. They first stayed in Goodhue County, Minnesota for a couple of years before deciding to settle on newly available land along the Minnesota River to the west. In order to "prove up" his homestead, Baard Johnson built a two-room cabin on the property in Norwegian cotter style, with a decorative Scandinavian gable over the small entryway. I believe it is the same cabin that still stands on the property today, though the land has not been owned by family members since about 1901.

After Baard Johnson died in 1872, his widow, Bertina, remarried and began another family. It was soon after this marriage that a new and larger farmhouse was built on the property, but it was located farther from the creek and closer to the road. When Bertina and her second family moved to Duluth in eastern Minnesota so that her husband could pursue a career as an attorney, she offered the homestead to Ole, her eldest son, as his rightful inheritance.

The farmhouse Ole Johnson inherited, and probably helped build, had an L-shaped floor plan commonly used on the Midwestern prairie at that time. Downstairs was a kitchen with an entrance off a back porch, a parlor with tall windows to let in as much light as possible, a front porch, and a bedroom that drew some warmth from the kitchen. The upstairs consisted of two unheated bedrooms that could get quite chilly in winter. Ole Johnson's mother, Bertina, must have brought some of her children into the world in that back bedroom behind the kitchen, as would his wife, Malla (Larson), probably attended by her sister-in-lay, Julia (Johnson) Larson.

House on the Johnson farm in 1941.  Granite Falls Township, Chippewa County,
 Minnesota. (Photographer:  Doris Johnson)

The kitchen of any 19th century farmhouse was the hub from which family members and others constantly came and went between endless rounds of chores. Children and hired help lingered at the farm table as long as they dared, drawn by the comfort of the trusty black stove and compelling aromas of freshly baked bread, warm lefse and butter, or a simmering venison stew. At most hours of the day, Malla Johnson could be found there, busy with cooking and canning, washing, knitting and darning, churning, chatting, and preparing baths, as well as nurturing, while her husband, Ole, took care of the farm and farm buildings.

The photograph above was taken by my mother while she still lived in Minnesota. During the summer of 1941, a group of relatives went to visit the old homestead property. Years later, the old house was torn down because it was in a state of disrepair and had begun to be used as a "party house" by local youth.

I like to dream about owning one of the houses my great grandfather built, either this one, or the one he built some 35 years later, near the village of Leonard in Clearwater County, Minnesota. It is sad that more houses of this character and age have not been preserved for the sake of history.

I doubt that future generations will ever look at a house I've lived in and think quite the same nostalgic thoughts, for there was something very special about the first immigrant generations in America. Their homes were simple and functional, and their way of life, well, there was nothing cushy about it. My farming ancestors sweated for each gain and every meal on the table. Early American pioneers experienced a connection to land and community that we do not often find in modern times. They had an intense appreciation of the acreage they acquired to plow, sew, and reap, and to form as one willed. After the limited availability and nearly impossible prospects of land ownership in Norway, new life and opportunity in America was a dream come true for my great great grandparents.

If I were given a time machine, the first place I would want to visit would be the 1870s homestead on the southwest Minnesota prairie, where this house was built. Hand me an apron, tie back my hair, and sink me up to my elbows in flour on the rough hewn table by the cast iron stove. I'll try not to mind too much when my arms become solidly black and blue from chicken pecks while collecting eggs, just like Malla. In the spirit of my ancestors, I would carry out my days uncomplaining, knowing that my work and sacrifice would bring a universe of opportunities for my children, and their children. And, so it has. How lucky we are that we no longer have to work so hard in order to live, and yet, how we yearn for the straightforward, sincere toil of our ancestors, and their infinite hope.


  1. I just discovered your blog. I am going to follow your blog. I had the Olsons at Hazel Run. Maybe I will notice something I need to know. I also have some pictures of school children. I am not sure just where the children were from.

  2. After reading more of your blog, I was confused. I said to myself, I thought it was Yellow Medicine county. So I googled to see how many Granite Falls there are. And i read that it is in three counties. How many cities can boast that. I visited once and was quite impressed with the area.