HARVEST JOURNAL: Memoir of a Minnesota Farmer (back to home page)

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Cholera-infested Riverboat

About my first recollection worthy of note was the sickness and death of my mother, which means more to me now than I knew of then. Poverty was my inheritance; honesty my only recommendation. With these, at the age of seven, I was sent to the home of my mother's sister. These memories are fixed on my mind the more rigidly because I was homesick whenever I had to move, and I feared and trembled that every stranger who came by the house was going to carry me off with him. This, however, proved my permanent home and the move from Vermont to Minnesota my last move. In the spring of 1855, with a younger brother and a three-year-old baby sister, I came with Aunt and Uncle Fowler and a few neighbors to "Waukokee," south of Rochester, Minnesota. Tired--with a week's journey on rail cars to Galena, Illinois, then steamboat to McGregor, Iowa, and lumber wagon the rest of the way--I remember keeping awake in fear of getting left and lost, until exhausted nature gave way and I became as helpless as may be. When I was taken off the boat at McGregor they carried me to the hotel and put me to bed. I knew what they said to me but I had no power of locomotion whatever.

The story of the first part of our journey might be lengthened out into incident and accident but, when all told, would only be a repetition of the experience of all travelers. However, our ride up the river from Galena, which should have been the most enjoyable part of the journey, was made miserable by the presence of cholera and death on board which the crew tried to deny, but only succeeded in making the passengers distrust. They stopped by an island to bury the dead, not being permitted to carry the disease ashore, then the secret leaked out and gloom and consternation was the result. For myself, I dared not touch a morsel of food or drink water. I remember still the warning of one hypochondriac who was apparently thoroughly frightened, "The less you eat and drink on this boat the better!" A lady passenger entertained us by singing "Lillie Dale" and some other songs that I have forgotten.

Note: I nearly edited out the last sentence, then was amazed to see that Fred makes a remark about this "lady passenger" in his later years. I have only recently found the words to "Lillie Dale"(Fred's spelling):

  Twas a calm, still night, and the moon's pale light,
   Shone soft oe'r hill and vale;
  When friends mute with grief
   Stood around the death bed
    Of my poor lost Lilly Dale.

This ode to a lost love must have struck a strong chord in a little boy who had just lost his mother.
     --Sandra Wilcoxon

 

Civil War Years

The War of the Rebellion came in time to count me out so far as soldiering is concerned. I was obliged to stay home much against my will. Like many another thoughtless youth I imagined that to enlist and go with the army would make a hero of me. But the recruiting officer looked at my small stature and said, "Men are what we want." That settled me, and I tried to think I could be a hero at home by waiting on the lonely, almost helpless women left to care for themselves while their sons or husbands were gone. I cut all of one woman's wood for a year and waited on several others more or less. In fact, all who stayed at home were kept as busy as beavers winter and summer caring for the "war widows," so that I was only one among the number.

The War of the Rebellion will ever be fresh in my memory. I had four brothers in the army. Anxiety was no name for our suspense and doubt and fears. News of battle came every week, and often every day for a week at a time until the dead were past counting. Both sides claiming the victory, and neither side knew the truth of the matter till after the war was over and impartial history set us right. It was during this war period, in February 1864, that I was stricken down with diphtheria. This terrible disease raged through the land like pharaoh's plague until there was mourning in every house. I barely escaped with my life and didn't do a stroke of work until harvest. That fall was the last call for soldiers and I wanted to go with the Eleventh Minnesota Volunteers but had not sufficiently recovered from my tussle with disease to bear inspection. Thus ends my war record. But when the soldiers returned--those who lived--with their tales of suffering in battle, on the march, the tent life, the rebel prison pen, and the abusive treatment of their own officers, I was content to be only a boy doing chores for the women.

 

Impeachment

General Grant was nominated for president in 1868, but politics became a humbug. Our Congress had been at work since the first of March trying to impeach the President of the United States, Andrew Johnson. They squandered time and money without stint and acquitted the vilest man that ever wielded the scepter of authority in our land. Not only was it reported that he appeared intoxicated at the inauguration ceremony after Lincoln's assassination years before, but he pardoned many of his wealthy confederate friends after the war. Then he insisted on battling Congress over reconstruction plans and twice dismissed the secretary of war. He was acquitted by one vote only, which voter would have served the country better had he been home ill that day.

Johnson lost the Democratic nomination, and Seymore of New York announced he was running against Grant for the presidency. The state of our nation was very critical at that time--if we were to believe the papers, we came very near having another war. Of course, the usual amount of lying and blackguard went on that attends a presidential campaign. It was time such lying and tomfoolery were done away with.

The third day of November was our national presidential election. I took a day away from my work to ride to Carimona, fourteen miles away, and cast my first vote for General Grant, who was elected by about two-thirds of the legal votes of the land.

 

Our Wedding

My father, David N. Cummings, came to visit Minnesota from Vermont in 1868 and he liked it well enough to stay. Brother B. Frank Cummings bought himself a farm nearby, and I purchased some land near Uncle Fowler's property; forty acres at $5 per acre, with a first payment amounting to $38.

In October, Frank married Miss Janet Bowden. My childhood friend and schoolmate, Helen Powers, married Jim Moore on November 10th; and I, not to be outdone, married my best girl, Miss Rosannah M. Howe, on November 15th.

I first met my Rose in June--a perfect stranger. In July, I "scraped" acquaintance at their home. By chance, in passing one Sunday, singing arrested my footsteps and turned me in that direction. I heard some sweet notes and an angelic voice raised in hymn, and I had to find its source. This is all the excuse I shall ever give for our first meeting.

As might be expected, our wedding was no swell affair. No trip to Europe, only a ten-mile ride through November mud taken in a rickety lumber wagon. The ceremony was solemnized by a Methodist minister at the home of the bride's aunt; only that and nothing more. We both realized that we were poor and must work for a living, and save, if we would live in this world of selfishness and greed on the one hand and foolish waste and extravagance on the other. I came home the day following and went to work as usual and kept at it ever since, and the other party to the contract has done the same. How we succeeded in our efforts will appear later. Not without losses and many mistakes, to be sure, which only emphasizes the fact that hard work is absolutely necessary to offset the blunders made in calculation and management of the seemingly trivial affairs of life.

Dark and Dreadful Cloud

We finally had a name for that dark cloud. Rose was stricken with breast cancer, first noticeable in December 1891. A ray of light penetrated the darkness and we hoped still, and proposed to go to Wisconsin as soon as possible to try the skill of a specialist who advertised to cure cancer, and our faith was strong to accept the situation and take the chances.

We reached Eau Claire, Wisconsin, on April 4th, in a revival season and were greatly blessed by the meetings and the sympathy of Christian people. These memories will stay fresh in my mind when the care and homesickness that accompanied the long, anxious waiting are forgotten.

Dr. Fletcher, a specialist in cancers, agreed to give treatment. We found the family very kind and considerate. Although we were homesick, we settled down, accepted the inevitable, and tried to get acquainted with conditions and fellow sufferers. I saw many strange things and strange faces of all shades, and four races: Chinese, Indian, Negro, and white man all mixed up and associated together. Hundreds of people thronged in the streets. Many saloons kept open all hours of the day and night, and some didn't even observe the Sabbath. We stayed in rooms so near the tracks that a shrieking train whistle woke me every dawn.

The patients were given morphine pills, one-eighth grain, at the doctor's discretion, and I will say there was danger of a habit forming at that dose, but Rose mastered it by stopping as soon as possible. But its after-effects were a source of anxiety to me. The cancer came out on April 21st after it was killed by plasters and drawn out by flax seed poultices. The process and treatment kept us there until May 1st, just a month from start to finish. Then we went over to Augusta, Wisconsin, to visit relatives for several days and back again to get ready for home at last. I paid the doctor $50-all I had-and he would take no more. The trip cost me $75 in round numbers. I got off cheap to what some of my fellow sufferers did, but it was all I had and Lewis furnished most of it, with Warren contributing some too. So we began again at the foot of the ladder, thankful if the trouble would not return.

 

Death's Harvest

Back in 1882, there was a most splendid, brilliant, and beautiful comet to be seen in the early morning during October; it rose about 3 a.m. and was almost in the sun's path. This was when I first heard the news that my friend and classmate of 1864, Helen Powers Moore, had been sick for many months and was slowly dying in a neighboring town. This was most distressing news, as Helen had been a dear soul to me since my youth. The effect of the news on me was a dream of hearing her voice as of yore, singing as clear and sweet as ever I heard it. And it seemed to ring in my ears long after I awoke, a familiar hymn tune, but words I never heard before. The first chorus was as follows:

Don't you hear the holy songsters
As they beckon me to come?
"Zion's gates shall open for you
Welcome sister, welcome home."

The first part of the new year brought us a very severe spell of weather and a blizzard. I kept busy caring for the livestock: nine cattle, seven calves, forty sheep, five hogs, forty chickens and three horses to feed and keep their stables warm, which left me little time for anything else besides the necessary house chores such as hauling wood for myself and Uncle Fowler.

Helen Moore died February 28th, 1883, and they brought her poor, pale face to the schoolhouse where the funeral services were held, and then laid her to rest in the Waukokee cemetery. Thus passed another gentle, lovely soul as I ever knew.

She was one of the best friends of my childhood and youth, and the thoughts of those days come as near making me cry as anything that has happened for years. I loved that gentle soul with a never-dying love, and now my only hope of perfect bliss in the life to come was a meeting with Helen Powers, as I used to know her, and to hear her sing that sweet hymn once more.

This little poem written to her memory might give anyone an idea of my sorrow at the news of death's harvest, and the sense of loneliness that comes over me when I realize that those I loved most and best in my boyhood days will never speak or sing again on earth.

Sunset Musings

We shall know each other there,
Dear wife, please leave me to myself tonight
Nor watch me with such nervous fear-
'Tis sorrow and not pain-I'm not sick again.
No, I'm not sick again but, oh,
I've heard a thing that made me weep to hear,
Long years ago, you do not know
How sweet the memory is to my poor soul today,
I had a friend, a classmate, dear sweet-tempered soul.
I loved and even worshipped her; dear wife, don't call me fool
For 'twas no foolish, moonstruck love, but such as angels feel,
And now a messenger has told me she is dead.
Oh, can it be, and is friend Helen gone?
I call her friend because she was another's wife,
And I did never envy him his prize, but how
I can but think of her as standing by my side
With chalk and book in hand as we strove to win
What none might take away: a scholar's crown.
She won the admiration too, of all the good and pure in heart,
And I forever must adore and long to see that face again,
But all too well I know such wish for mortal man is vain.

It was a sad pleasure for me to visit her little grave occasionally with a bunch of flowers to leave there to wilt in a few hours, to pull weeds away, or to readjust the headstone that would settle and tip again as time changed the mound.

1903 Personal Ad

In the spring of 1903 we heard news of a horrible murder in Granger. Neighbors had noticed that one Mr. Krueger had not been seen in town for a few days, and finally notified the sheriff. Mr. Krueger's "housekeeper" stated she did not know where he had gone.

But, it was soon discovered that Krueger's woman had sought refuge two miles out of town during a big, howling storm late at night the week before. After searching around the valley for several hours, Mr. Krueger's body was found partially submerged in the river. A rope with a weight had been tied around his body and when they pulled him out of the water there were grevious wounds on the body.

The late Mr. Krueger was a decent, upstanding citizen who, after losing his wife a while back, decided he didn't like living alone and needed a female companion. He saw an ad in the paper: Decent, respectable lady, age thirty-five, would like a position as a housekeeper for a middle-aged bachelor. Krueger answered the ad, and she came; a sturdy-looking woman from Wisconsin. The following investigation revealed that the housekeeper had killed two others before. She had hacked Krueger to death with a pick ax, then pushed him into the flooding Iowa River. Had it not been for the loud clap of thunder that startled her horse, breaking the wagon hitch, she might have made it back to the house with no one the wiser. Prison was her last home.

(This excerpt was also published in Daughter of Dangerous Dames, 11th Hour Productions, 2000. Research source: Memoirs and History of Granger, by Orell Selland; Harmony, Minnesota; Big Woods Graphics, 1987.)

 

 

Preview Part II: 1904-1937

Sad Intelligence

A telegram from Grand Rapids brought us the sad intelligence that our hopes of recovery were blasted and our boy was gone.

The kind, sympathizing neighbors brought his poor, emaciated form home on a Friday night, and his funeral took place Sunday, August 22nd, at the "church in the valley by the wildwood." Miss Marian Darling from Preston preached the sermon and a choir from Preston conducted the singing and furnished the music. The singing and music was from a choir of Preston. The fact seems to be that our people were the singers of Waukokee, or musicians, rather, and he was the leader on such occasions, and with our affliction, who would sing for us? Preston came to our relief, with a choir of four singers and a splendid lady preacher to bring us assurance of sympathy and hope in our deep sorrow. If half of what we read about is true, then we could say "Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord."

All this may be easily written, but there was a side to it that neither tongue or pen can describe. It was hard for me to write while two women were talking dog and cat in a very silly fashion, which confused my tired brain and caused mixed and uncanny compositions which I tried to correct when quiet was restored. I just couldn't write an intelligent sentence on our sad bereavement. If he had died the previous winter we might have borne it better, but the thought of going through the horrors of the operation and hospital experience, the vain hope of recovery, and to lose the fight at last haunted our memory and kept our hearts sore and bleeding.

Our relatives from Austin and Owatonna returned to their homes on August 24th. I took them to the station, sisters Mary and Samantha, J. M. Pierce, and Lilly. Three days later I went again, with Florence and little Ruth bound for Grand Rapids. A good, strong, northwest wind sprang up in the early morning and must have come right off the ice. And it did--a heavy frost lay on the grass the next morning. We went to town for Verna to send an order to Montgomery Ward & Co., and all along the creek road the corn was cooked, but coming back on the ridge road the corn was all right.

Note: Which son died, you ask? I purposefully left it out of this excerpt. . .have to leave something for you to anticipate in Part II! But, regardless, it is heartbreaking for a parent to lose a child, and only those who have gone through it can truly empathize with Fred's feelings. --Sandra Wilcoxon

 

WWI

By 1916 our nation seemed on the verge of that accursed European war. It was up to Congress, and an atrocity had stirred up public sentiment to the fighting point. An Austrian submarine sank a passenger ship with hundreds of people on board--some Americans and one United States official. The tragedy occurred in the Mediterranean Sea where several such horrors had happened.

The murderous harvest began in earnest again: 60,000 killed in the first onslaught, and the battle still raged undecided. 'Twas Germany trying to break the French line somewhere on the frontier near Verduin, wherever that was. Our own United States was keeping the peace by a heroic effort. Some of our statesmen seemed to use common sense and we hoped they would keep a neutral, even temper through the raging tempest of war and insult that was being hurled at us by the crazy, blood-mad nations on the other side, and the nervous jingoes on this side who were trying to crowd us into a scrap.

Our war news continued just as meager as the censor could possibly make it. The Germans had butted against the Verduin stronghold until they were tired and exhausted with a loss of perhaps 100,000 or more men. Our Congress grew tired of the German undersea warfare of murder and piracy and at last issued an ultimatum to them that any more sinking of unarmed, defenseless merchant vessels would sever diplomatic relations with the United States. Whether this meant war for us remained to be seen--but we hoped not. As for Mexico, well, we were liable to see a nasty job there yet.

The news from Europe was too horrible to record. The bloody work still went on at Verduin and it was said that 300,000 Germans had fallen in the attempt to take that French stronghold. They were just simply tearing things all to pieces in Europe. The Germans were being beaten to a pulp and no account was made of losses anymore. The great dens that the contending armies dug for protection were literally filled with dead bodies left to rot and contaminate the air with a pestilential, sickening stench, too horrible to contemplate. How long must this go on?

By that fall, the only war news that differed from the general grind of everyday battle and slaughter told us that two more nations had joined the English allies: Romania and Greece. Then they were all in it but Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark and Holland.

Now, what of the future? And what of the past year? Largely disappointment. We had hoped for a change in the management of national affairs, but missed by a "hair's breath." And as for peace in and with Europe, not yet, for their trouble grew and danger increased of our being drawn into it proportionally, although which side we were on was uncertain. Germany appeared to be the chief aggressor. Her submarine warfare was nothing short of piracy, but the other side searched every neutral vessel it met and took possession of all mail, or anything else they could, with perfect impunity.

 

Bank Failure

In June of 1931 I went to the Farmer and Merchants Bank and drew out half of my money and deposited it in the First National Bank. Now I am evenly interested in both of them. I got uneasy about having my money all in one bank, and moved $600 of it over to the First National just to relieve my mind, yet still I worry. The next day, I worked at building fence at the cemetery in the morning. The wire and posts were there and four of us worked at clearing away the old. I came home at noon, the others stayed. I used up two days at the cemetery fence and felt my time was well spent. We succeeded in building a new woven wire fence and a twelve-foot gate in front of the last resting place of our dear departed ones.

By 1932 it is clear that we are in the midst of a strange condition of national strife. A presidential campaign is on hot, where lying is lawful and perfectly awful. But another cult has sprung up that is worse than all else, a mob called a "Farmer's Strike" for a decent price for their produce. It began by men banding together and agreeing to hold their grain from market, which was all right and commendable, but others not in the union started selling. Then war started and they were mobbed; their produce was taken and destroyed, railroad freight cars were broken in two and a truck was turned loose.

In spring of 1933 I know we are up against a bank wreck here-the Farmers and Merchants State Bank in Preston closed under duress and is being reorganized. I go to the bank and learn a thing or two, pay my box rent of $1.10 at Farmers and Merchants Bank, and put my last will there, written in 1919. Then I go to the First National Bank and get the money to pay my taxes, $77.50, which the other bank could not furnish. It is tied up for one year by some hocus pocus, very queer, which leaves me in fear and doubt.

The outcome of the bank deal is that all depositors must sign off fifty percent of their funds. Of that fifty percent, we can only withdraw but twenty-five percent per year of our savings, for four years, and ten percent per month of our checking accounts, for ten months. We might get some reimbursement of our fifty percent sign-off in the form of interest in a trust fund that the liquidating agents will dispose of for the pro rata benefit of all depositors. This is a matter of grave concern, and I am glad that I split my money up a year or so ago. There are five other closed banks in this county that expect to re-open under similar terms.

 

What has happened to our song birds?

What has happened to our song birds that came to us so regularly every spring? They come no more in such numbers, and what do come seem to have lost their song-their voice is hushed and gone entirely-even the erstwhile, noisy jay is dumb. This event has become a wonderment and a sorrow to me, and I miss them more and more as the seasons come and go. I ask why? And what has been done? This is not only strange but tragic, for it bodes no good to our world. Now an answer came to my bewildered mind in waking up this morning-a new thought so plain and simple that it seemed to me that I must record it for a memorandum. The new thought: this is the direct result of the late horrible World War with its terrible scientific means of destruction of life. Its gas-filled air killed the poor birds by the millions, and what few survived were made dumb and voiceless by the breath of death-this is my answer. And another thought: the next war will be the finish, for such is the inevitable fiat of fate. Necessity knows no law, and war creates necessity.

 

Poems to Rose

Note: Rose died in 1929 after an extended illness. Fred's time is spent finding work to do around the farm, tending her grave, and writing poetry.

1930

This closes the book for another year,
Twelve months from now shall I be here?
All are gone, all are gone that I once knew
And those that know me now are few.
My darling wife, my only friend and stay,
By angel hands was borne away.
Since she is gone I count my time
As one who sojourns in a stranger clime.
I bide my time,
I wait the promise of that shining one:
"I'll later come and take you home,
When your work is finished and you're done."
Then put her arms about me, kissed me, and was gone.
Thus I know not what for me is best,
To stay and work or pass away and rest,
I know not which is best.

Thoughts of her I miss so much and love so dearly:

Rose, My Lost Soul Mate

Tell me, Zannah, with the angels
In that far off story land,
Where that always golden summer
Brings peace and rest from Earth's travail;
Storms and wrath do burst asunder
Hope and comfort cherished here,
Tell me, Zannah, for I long to see
Some sure token that you ever think of me.

Tell me, Zannah, here I'm waiting,
With the border spirit band;
"Almost assured" with love creating
Any time you're here at hand,
Dear and near me, day or night
Present though my mortal sight
Fails your angel form to see-
Tell me dearest, do you ever visit me?

Untitled

My only hope with ink and pen
That I may meet my Rose again.
         -From one Bereaved


 

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