Here to return to
ON THE MINNESOTA PRAIRIES
I WAS at Dobbsdale, a country village in the southern part of the state. It was just after breakfast and I had sat down in the office of the town’s one hotel with the intention of starting out for a ramble, presently. The room was rather dubiously odorous of more or less ancient tobacco fumes; but that is to be expected in the average hotel. The big stove was flanked on either side by a spittoon box — a shallow wooden affair with the bottom sprinkled with dirt, and the dirt sprinkled with burnt matches, cigar stubs, old quids, and other filth. The hotel was a clumsy two-story wooden building only separated from the street by a board walk. Several hitching posts bordered the walk and also a stout plank, which had been adjusted to serve for a seat when weather and inclination favored such use. There were board walks all through the village, though many pieces were shattered or missing. In the village centre was the usual straggling cluster of low stores, some of them brick, some wooden; but what was especially distinctive about the place was its of trees. Every street was lined with them, and there were many others in yards and along boundaries. They were well grown, and made the town a kind of human bird’s nest, with an aspect charmingly peaceful and shadowy.
The region had been settled within the memory of persons still living, and Mr. Dobbs, the ancestor of the town, was not only alive, but hale and hearty and good for many years yet. He was the town’s chief citizen, just as he had been from the first. It seemed odd that he should have called the place Dobbs’s dale; for there was no dale, and the country about was almost as level as it possibly could be. But I suppose dale appealed to his fancy. He evidently had a touch of poetry in his nature, as it was due to his hobby that the hamlet was so well wooded. He began planting trees when he first came, and had never ceased planting them since.
“The way I happened to settle in this country,” said he, “ware that my father fit in the War of 1812, and he got a warrant from the government for a quarter section of land. So my brother and I come here in 1856 and brought a sawmill and got out timber and built us a house.
“Game ware very plentiful — thousands of prairie chickens and partridges and abundance of mink and deer. The streams ware full of pickerel, pike, and bass, and at first we just about lived on fish and what we shot. There was lots of beaver in the cricks, and the dams they made with their mud and moss was wonderful. I’ve seen popple trees a foot through they’d gnawed of. The popple ware the tree they seemed to like best; but they cut down willow and soft maple some too.
“There’s game around here still; but it’s been a good many years since I’ve had a first-class hunt. The last ware when a cousin of mine ware visitin’ me. He ‘n’ his wife and me ‘n’ my wife hitched into a double express wagon and took our dinners and went after prairie chickens. It ware about the first of August. The young chickens are two-thirds grown then and are as nice eatin’ as anythin’ you could ask. We went out on the prairie, and then my cousin and I took our guns and commenced to walk. The ladies drove the team and follered us, and they’d keep track of where a covey lit. We had some good dogs, and we bagged a hundred and twenty chickens that day.
“When I settled here there was just one man in this region, and he had a cabin in the timber by the crick. But the emigrants ware arrivin’ all the summer, and by winter we had a dozen families right around.
“Every spring and fall the Indians used to come here and stay a couple of weeks hunting and fishing. We never had no trouble with ‘em until 1862. Then they made war, and for two hundred miles of the frontier they fell on the whites, and in thirty-six hours had killed nearly a thousand and took hundreds of prisoners. I don’t know how the trouble began. Some say a party of Indians got drunk and murdered a man who refused to give ‘em more whiskey, and that then they fled to their encampment, and the rest of the Indians decided to protect them. So they all went and started a massacree. Others say the Indians didn’t get their rights from the government and ware neglected and ware paid their annuities in greenbacks instead of in gold or silver as had been the habit.
“Anyhow the Indians commenced to burn houses and to kill as many whites as they could. The people flocked here from a hundred miles back, and when the first refugees come I can tell you things did look scarry. We got ready every gun and all the ammunition in the place, and posted pickets. Some expected the Indians ware right behind follerin’ of ‘em. However, they didn’t show up that night, and we didn’t really know what they ware doin’ of. So the next day we sent out scouts. They found the Indians had gone, and they haven’t disturbed us in our part of the state since.”
These reminiscences were related to me by Mr. Dobbs one afternoon while we sat in the shade of the trees on the plank bench in front of the hotel. The sun shone clear and hot on the dusty street. Three or four teams were hitched to posts and telegraph poles, and the horses stood half asleep patiently waiting for their masters. On the shadowed side of the street were a few men sitting on the stone steps or window ledges talking together or reading papers. On the sunny side the store curtains were pulled down to shut out the heat and glare. Business seemed to have come to a standstill, and in the depths of the leading grocery store I could hear the proprietor tooting on a cornet with amazing persistency.
None of the stores had signs, and I was informed that some stores had only been in business a few months and it was not time to expect them to get up signs; while the older ones were well known to everybody, and where was the need of their having signs?
On a corner across the way from the hotel was a one-man bank. When the village mail arrived the banker locked up while he leisurely visited the post-office. Next to the bank was what seemed to be a one-man store, and its proprietor, like the banker, went to the post-office; but he left his door wide open. He was a tall, round-shouldered man, with a leathery face and a brush of chin whiskers. His hat was a squatty derby of antique style, and his scant-lengthed trousers were patched on the seat. He was in his shirt sleeves and had his thumbs thrust into the armholes of his vest with an air of self-satisfied independence. In his window, amid a dubious array of merchandise, was a fly-specked card on which was stencilled the words
GOODS SOLD AT COST
I made inquiry about this sign and about his business. “He’s an old-timer,” I was told. “He was here before the flood, and he’s been sellin’ goods ‘at cost’ and makin’ money ever since. He does most of his work himself, though he has a boy around to help when he can find him; but that’s not often.”
In the evening things grew busier, and now and then a buggy would arrive in a cloud of dust, and the street grew quite populous with teams and loitering people. Some trading was done, but more visiting. The men gathered in groups on the dim-lit walks before the stores and swore amiably at each other, as they chatted, by the hour together.
In what I saw of the region on my walks out into the surrounding country its aspect varied little. Whichever way I went I found smooth, straight dirt roads, and land flowing along endlessly with a hardly perceptible rise and fall. The staple crops raised in the great fields were corn, oats, and barley. Some wheat was grown; but the soil did not sustain it as well as formerly and it seldom does really well. Flax-growing, too, has been gradually abandoned for the same reason.
The farm dwellings were always among trees — often in one of the natural oak woods, or on the edge of it; but more commonly in the midst of a planted square of poplars, willows, and maples that enclosed all the buildings and the garden. Every man apparently aspired to have a big red barn with a gambrel roof and a cupola on top. There were pretty sure to be flowers and shrubbery near the house; but in the remoter portions of the yard was much litter, including a woodpile, wagons, tools, worn-out machinery, and some more or less depleted straw stacks. The dwellings as a whole had a pleasing look of prosperity and comfort.
The Fascination of the Stream
The tillers of the soil are of many nationalities, and they show a strong tendency to gather in racial settlements. Thus, in one vicinity you will find all Germans, in another all Norse, and so on. If settlers of a particular race are at all numerous in a district they have their own church and church school, and in the school the text-books are mostly in the native language, though enough English is imparted to enable the children to speak and read it intelligently.
I stopped at a German home one noon for dinner. We ate in the hot, smudgy little kitchen close to the stove. There were three children in the family, two of them boys, and the other a tall attractive girl, who waited on the table — probably because there was not room for her to sit with the rest. We had fried ham, bread and butter, coffee and cake. German was the ordinary language of the household, and before we began to eat, each of the boys asked a blessing in that language. Dinner for the youngsters consisted mostly of bread plentifully bespread with molasses. Every time a lad finished pouring from the molasses pitcher he gave the nose of it a swipe with his tongue to prevent its dripping.
I asked the man if the Minnesota country suited him as well as his native Europe.
“Gosh, yes!” was the response; “but my woman complains about the cold long winter. It’s a little bit too long. When I come twenty-seven years ago the land around here was owned by one man. He’d got a whole section, by golly, as a speculation. The land he sold me was covered with scrubby bushes and was so wet you couldn’t walk anywhere without gettin’ your boots or shoes filled with water. But cultivation and ditches has dried it off. About ten years ago I built this house and a new barn. I wa’n’t goin’ to live in an old shack all my life. I had to go in debt some, and that’s the case with nearly all when they build; but most are gradually payin’.”
After dinner we sat for a while in the parlor, which was impressively neat as the result of a recent housecleaning. The gay rag carpet had just been put back on the floor, and there was straw beneath it which made it puff up like a cushion; but it would tread down flat in time.
“Do you think the government’ll continue this rural delivery that they been extendin’ everywhere?” queried my host; and he also wanted to know if the cost of the service fell on the farmers. “Some people here say it ain’t a good thing,” he continued. “They claim the expense is more’n it’s worth. I ain’t talkin’ much myself, because my son-in-law runs the mail car, and I don’t want him to lose his job.”
Views as to the farm prosperity of the region differed widely. I had a chat with one man planting corn in a wayside field whose comments were decidedly pessimistic. “I bought my land in this blamed country when land was cheap,” he said; “and yet it’s been mighty hard work to pay for it. I don’t know as I could have paid if I hadn’t had money come to me from elsewhere. You see when a feller borrowed fifteen years ago he had to pay ten per cent interest. Now you get lower interest, but the price of land is up to fifty dollars or more an acre. Whoever buys at such a price will never pay any of the principal in the world.
“It’s them Germans up north of the town who have raised the price of land here. The thing happened this way — some German in Wisconsin sold out sixty acres he had there for one hundred dollars an acre. That made six thousand dollars, and he come here lookin’ for another farm. Well, he struck a Yankee man up north of the town who had one hundred and twenty acres and wanted to sell. They got talkin’ same as you and me are now, and the German offered all his money for that farm and got it. After sellin’ at a hundred dollars an acre, fifty dollars an acre looked cheap, and yet the Yankee had offered me the same farm the week before for thirty-five hundred dollars. Since that sale no one will dispose of any land for less than that Wisconsin feller paid. He made a mistake, but them Germans are good thrifty people and get rich if any one can. They keep things lookin’ nice around the house, too. The German women have all got a flower garden, every last one of ‘em.
“The Norse are thrifty, too. Yes, they’re about as careful a lot of citizens as we have; but I don’t like ‘em. They’re a high-toned sort of people and honest; and yet at the same time they’re selfish and have kind of a darn mean way. They don’t have to be here long from Europe before they’re a little ashamed of being Norse. Soon as they learn to talk English they think they’re a little better’n you are, and act as if they had an idea they knew a blamed sight more than any one else. They’re great hands to put up big buildings, and once in a while one attempts a little more style than he can carry out.
“That’s the trouble with most people here. They feel bound to put on style, and so are kept in debt. They buy fancy buggies and two-seated covered rigs and other things of the sort; not because they need ‘em, but because some rich men they know have got such things. They buy expensive machinery, too; but they don’t take care of it. A man’ll invest sixty or seventy dollars in a gang plough; and the first season he’ll put it in the shed, but the next year he’ll leave it in the field just where he got through using it. Some of the machines they run under a bunch of trees when they ain’t in use, and there they stay and rot. The shade keeps ‘em from dryin’ after a rain, and they’re ruined. They’d be better off right out in the sun. Worse still, the people keep a miserable lot of stock of all kinds — horses, cattle, and everything else; and they turn ‘em out to pasture in the spring as soon as the grass starts, and the cattle keep ahead of the grass the season through and ain’t never really well fed. The buildings, too, are put up just as cheap as possible and won’t last.”
A Pitcher of Milk
The sky had been growing threatening while we talked, and I now thought it best to start for town. On the way I encountered a little spatter of rain; but it was soon over, the clouds drifted on and streaks of sunshine glimmered across the vast landscape. When I arrived at the hotel office I found several people there driven in by the shower and in no hurry to depart as long as the conversation was interesting. One of the men was the landlord. He was as much a farmer as a hotel-keeper, and he was coatless and had on overalls. Another man was a house painter, who was complaining because a certain citizen would not give him the job of painting his buildings. When he came to a pause I spoke of my cornfield acquaintance and repeated some of his pessimistic remarks.
“That’s straight,” corroborated the painter. “A man can come here with six good horses to-day, and in a dozen years he won’t have enough money to get out of the country. Suppose he takes land and farms it to halves; at the end of the season, after payin’ expenses, the profits won’t buy a bushel of potatoes. He’d be ten times better off to go up in the woods or on the railroad and work by the day.”
“Now stop right thar!” said the landlord. I’ve been here four times as long as you have, and I’ve farmed it, too, and I can tell you thar ain’t a better country lays outdoors than southern Minnesota.”
“That talk’ll do for strangers,” retorted the painter; “but, by gee! it won’t do for me. My brother has got a quarter section here, and he’d starve to death if I didn’t help him. Yes, sir, any renter who pays his rent and boards his family is doin’ a darn big thing; and you can stand such a man on his head when he’s through a season and you can’t shake five dollars out of his pocket.”
“Look here!” exclaimed the landlord, “the best land we got rents for two dollars an acre; and the man who can’t make money on it ain’t no farmer. Whar is your brother situated?”
“Four miles out on the east road.”
“Oh, well, I ain’t surprised now I know whar he is. That land is so cold and sour you couldn’t raise quack grass on it.”
The painter laughed and said: “A feller was tellin’ me a quack grass story only yesterday. He claimed he lost his hat-band one summer day and he picked some quack grass and tied it around his hat. When he come in at night his wife took off the quack grass and put it in the fire, and not long afterward she emptied out the ashes from the stove, and within a few days there come up a lot of quack grass where she throwed them ashes.”
A Pause in the Day’s Labor
“You can’t kill it,” affirmed the landlord, “and its sprouts have got such sharp, horny points that they’ll go right through a potato, or even through a pine board. You can pull up a bunch of it and hang it on a fence post, and the next year throw it down and it’ll grow.”
“You bet your boots it will,” said the painter.
“To show you what sort of a country this is,” continued the landlord, “I’ll tell you what I done last year. Thar was a part of my cornfield that I raised seventy bushels an acre on.”
“Not much you didn’t,” disputed the painter. “Thirty bushels would be closeter to it.”
“I maysured it,” the landlord declared, “and I’ll leave it to the feller that did the husking. You know Jack Searles. He did most the whole job for me at three cents and a half a bushel; and he’d do one hundred and fifty bushels in a day. He did everlastingly rip them ears out o’ the husks. Why, me ‘n’ my hired man tried racin’ with him, and we husked like cusses; but he did five bushels while both of us together was doin’ two.”
“Seventy bushels to an acre!” scoffed the painter.
“It can’t be done. Must ‘a’ been something like an ear of corn I fixed up to show in a store window. I cut off the tip of one ear and the butt of another. The places where I cut just matched in size and I stuck a stiff piece of wire in the cobs and joined the two ears together. It looked like a single ear, and I’ll be dog-goned if it wa’n’t more’n three feet long. Your cornfield was down by the creek, wa’n’t it?”
“I saw it a year ago just after the corn come up, and I never see such crooked rows before in my life.”
“My man planted it,” explained the landlord, “and I was tellin’ him we’d have to use the same horse to cultivate we did to plant because none o’ the others could go so crooked.”
“Well,” said the painter, “you must ‘a’ had to blindfold the horse then to get it through some o’ the rows.”
“You can joke,” remarked the landlord rather testily; “but I raised all the corn I said I did on that field. I can make money here, and so can others, though I will say, with the land at present prices, a man has to scratch and be a good manager to get to own it. But thar ain’t one man in ten of our farmers in debt now, while twenty years ago not more’n one in ten was out of debt.”
The discussion was beginning to wax hot again when one of the occupants of the room called us all to the window. A rusty, gray old man was walking past accompanying a pudgy old woman. He was very attentive, and there was a touch of gallantry and an attempt to make himself agreeable that was not to be mistaken.
A Rustic Bridge
“Gee whiz!” exclaimed the painter, “he’s a widower and she’s a widow.”
“Yes,” said another, “that’s goin’ to be a match sure! His son has just married her daughter, and now the old folks are goin’ to hitch.”
“He was pretty well discouraged after his wife died,” said the painter. “If he was haulin’ a load of straw and had a tipover, or if any other little thing didn’t go right, he was ready to leave this forsaken country. But he seems to have chirked up and I s’pose everything is lovely.”
“If that don’t beat the Dutch!” commented the landlord.
The dispute about the prosperity of the region had been forgotten; for this glimpse of romance had been like oil on troubled waters.
NOTE. — Any characteristic portion of our country repays acquaintance, and the prairie lands of southern Minnesota are no exception. They are monotonous, and the tourist may not be tempted to linger long, but that should not hinder getting a sample experience. Hotels in the smaller places are often rude, but rarely are actually uncomfortable, and the food, if not fine, is palatable. The country itself is in some of its aspects really beautiful, the life with its varied mixtures of peoples from Europe is interesting, and the impressions you gain have lasting value.