An earlier post featured an abandoned prairie home at the Lake Johanna Eskers Preserve that dates back to the early 1900s. I wondered who lived there and what their life was like in those days of the rapid settlement of the Great Lakes region by immigrant Scandinavians.
With a little research and a phone call, my husband was able to learn more about these people, including why they settled in this area in particular.
The Homestead Act of 1862 promised 160 acres of land to immigrant farmers at little to no cost. This was particularly attractive to European farmers who sought religious freedom, relief from their own economic crises, and land for those who weren’t the first-born inheritors of the family farm. Norway sent more immigrants to the U.S. than any other European country from the 1820s to 1920s (almost a third of their population), and the family that settled in this area was one of them, arriving here in 1866.
Why did they come to this area? Norwegians, like other Scandinavians, immigrated to the Great Lakes area because the topography reminded them of home, and this family, in particular, settled on the Lake Johanna esker because the hills and wetlands were so similar to the land they had left behind. Of his 160 acres, only about 35 acres of the homestead were actually tillable, which were put into corn and oats production. The rest was too wet, too rocky, or too dry (e.g., around the esker itself). If the family had settled 1 mile to the east on the flat, rich, deep soil of the tall grass prairie, they would have lived in what is now Bonanza Valley, known for its high agricultural productivity.
The ancestor who built the house wanted enough room for his growing family of ten children, so he built a two story home, with a kitchen and family room on the ground floor and sleeping quarters for the family on the upper one. Some food (e.g., a year’s supply of flour) was also stored on the upper floor. The family bought flour and sugar but little else.
Farming didn’t provide enough income to support his family, so the farmer repaired thresher equipment and utilized his skills as a carpenter for some extra income. Although plowing was still done by teams of horses pulling the plow in the mid to late 1800s, steam-powered threshers patented in the 1830s in the U.S., were used to separate grain from their stalks much more quickly and efficiently than human-powered flails.
It was a simple life, but a hard one, trying to eke out an existence on this rather unproductive remnant of a glacial river. But Norwegians were tough, survived, and produced generations of famous Minnesotans, like Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey, among a long list of notable Norwegian-Americans.