My Norse grandmother grew up in a tiny farm hamlet called Dawson Minnesota, her grandfather, the immigrant who lugged his belongings and family across the prairie for 100 acres of fertile soil. Ole built his sod hut and parleyed his knowledge of crops into enough cash to buy each of his 6 children 100 acres of their own, each farm an attachment to his.
Ruth's father Julius and mother Tobia built a fine, standard
two story farmhouse in which to raise their own 9 children, and that
white house outlived all of them but the two youngest, the last of the
Skotteruds of that generation.
Great aunt Alma's children stayed
in the area surrounding the original homestead, one in the town itself
but most, 20 miles away in the much larger Montevideo. All the boys were
civic minded and had volunteered themselves to local causes at one time
or another, and most had been volunteer firemen as well.
house fires are fairly rare, small departments need practice now and
then to hone skills, use new techniques and experience new equipment.
Generally that's done when a developer is clearing land and an abandoned
building stands in the way; rather than bulldoze it right away, they
will allow the firemen to torch it and then put it out first, leaving
less material to landfill.
One morning my second cousin Bernholt
answered the town fire alarm, leaped into his pickup and called on his
radio to get the location from the dispatcher. It didn't even occur to
him what house it was until he spied it through it's northern tree line.
was already in the latter stages of destruction, flames pouring from
the window where my grandmother and her sister slept on the second
floor, black smoke obliterating the October azure sky.
in the truck for a moment, staring at our heritage billow toward
nothingness. The extended family had for years talked about buying the
old place and keeping it at least a shell of what it was when Ole would
loudly sing bible verses and pound his massive fist in time while Tobia
would prepare dinner for 9 children, husband and his parents now too old
to live on their own.
He thought about the 13 of them in that 3
bedroom house, the boys and their endless chores and the two spoiled
girls who were doted on by both siblings and adults alike. He pondered
how difficult life had been for these children of immigrants, and the
children that followed...and how easy life had become since the most of
them had perished and left this house to die as well.
And then he
flung open his truck door and dashed to the burning hulk, past his
chief who screamed at him to stop, past his co-firefighters who only
stared in wonder at this moron who jumped the four stairs leading to the
porch and nearly went through its rickety, rotted floor.
all he could think of at the moment, the only piece of history yet
salvageable from the all consuming hellfire. Bernie ran down the covered
porch until he reached a spot where the banister and its supports were
still intact, and there he leaned back and kicked out, martial arts
style; and with one firm boot he sent flying a chunk of the hand hewn,
beaded balusters and top rail of this hundred year old porch, and saved a
sliver of our history for at least his own family.
chief was not amused, but these were small town, rural folk; they all
appreciated what he'd done in the end. It was honorable to attempt to
preserve one's roots in spite of even dangerous conditions, and once the
fire was out they'd all had a good laugh and applauded his instinct.
have a two photos of that home, my only piece of Ole's legacy. One is a
nice, wide black and white of the homestead itself that I long ago had
framed. And the other is of my grandmother Ruth and her new
husband, the Swedish émigré' Ernst on their wedding day in 1929; a
colorized photo of them standing in the yard of that building surrounded
by all of her family.
I've never seen the balusters themselves,
though I spent considerable time over the years at reunions and other
functions, and visiting Dawson's widows because I was passing by and
felt the need to honor my heritage, my extended family stopped
acknowledging my existence when my father and grandmother died. And
that's fine, I understand better than I did that genealogy is not pop
culture as it once might have been and most regard relatives as just
people like any others.
But I have the photos I do have, and I
know the stories. For some reason it's a comfort to know these people's
lives in some small way. It's only a shame it has to be the dead ones
that I know best, but that's not up to me...I just work here.