Thursday, June 04, 2009

Bordertowns: Chapter 4

Dear Readers:

The chapter you are about to read, is very special. Once you read it, you'll understand. It is full of details of what life would have been like in our area 130+ years ago. But it gets better. Not only does the author draw a vivid picture of what life was like, but he brings it alive with amazing characterizations of the very kind of individuals that created our communities. They could be our grandparents, or great grandparents. Read on, and lose yourself in the next chapter of Bordertowns, by the one and only Charles Walker...

The next morning Patrick and Ian applied for work at the railroad contractor's shanty, and were hired to start work at seven o'clock the following morning. The job called for a ten-hour day and a six-day week, scraping dirt from either side of the survey stakes to build up the right-of-way for the rails. Each man was to receive $1.50 per day, but as Patrick furnished his own team, he was to receive an extra $2.00 each day.

That same afternoon Ian and Patrick purchased a sulky plow at the Ashdown Hardware and successfully dickered for three mules and their harness at Vance's Livery in Emerson. Ian's selection of a riding horse took more time, seeing they had to attend the corral at West Lynne to make that purchase. With his father's guidance, Ian selected a nearly coal-black gelding, a bit over four years of age, standing nearly fifteen hands.

At first, both Patrick and Maggy felt like strangers while attending the Presbyterian Church service. Reverend John Scott put them at ease with his comment after the service. "It seems strange we Presbyterians have to hold our service in the Baptist Church, but it's only temporary, until we can build. Why, the younger members are already planning a concert to raise money for an organ." He leaned to Maggy's ear and whispered, "Some of the elders don't approve, but I do like music."

Maggy grinned conspiratively, "More power to them. Pastor, and I like music too!"

That Sunday afternoon Patrick and Ian assisted Jerold in striking off furrows on the new land in Minnesota. One week later, Jerold completed plowing slightly more than the required ten acres. He also plowed a good-sized garden by their tent, which Maggy and Mary hoed fine and seeded to vegetables.

Inexperienced at letter writing, Maggy determined to write Patrick's father and mother, outlining their present situation. When she finished the letter she was dissatisfied, for it seemed dull and commonplace.
June 22, l877

Dear Father and Mother,

We made the trip in only eight days and had no trouble. All people we contacted were helpful. People are different here! Our total cost was $105 for the boat. $70 was for our passage and $35 for the team and wagons. We were four days and nights until arriving in Duluth and were fortunate in getting a small cabin. The boys slept outside for the weather was good.

We are living in Canada along the line fence that separates us from the state of Minnesota. It is only a short walk to the Red River where the steamboats run every day, and the fishing is good, if you have the time. We see the United States soldiers from the fort for they often ride along their side of the fence. They are friendly, and wave to us, especially to Mary!

Pat got two quarters of land in Minnesota and Jerold broke ten acres on it this past week. We wouldn't have had to do anything to it this year, but we are hurrying.

Everyone gets a town lot in Emerson for free. It is to encourage people to build here. There are settlers here from Orillia and Beaverton, Irishers and lots of Scots. You have never seen such soil! Anything will grow!

Mary is well thought of and boys and men come by often. She is to begin teaching at the school. The people here are different, and you are treated nasty like in dirty Orillia. We hope to build a house before fall, and then, when we move to the land in the States, sell it.

The nearest post office is at the Hudson Bay post at West Lynne, just across the river, to the west.

Hope this finds you in the best of health. Write soon.

Maggy and Mary had little idle time. They were up at dawn to feed the men, then after tending to household chores, worked in their two huge gardens. Their vegetable plots required constant weeding for the native grasses were difficult to eradicate. They had acquired the second garden, planted mostly to potatoes, when Patrick found a house for rent. When a month passed and no word came from Patrick's father and mother, Maggy began to worry. With Mary's help she composed a second letter:
July the 26, l877

Dear Father and Mother,

Why haven't you answered the letter I wrote to you a few days after our arrival here? We have been expecting a letter every day, and are worried. We are all well, but uneasy about you.

Nothing could induce us to leave this area. This is the best country we've ever seen! We rented a house for the remainder of the summer and for the winter. (Instead of building) The owner left a large garden, mostly planted to potatoes. The rent is $25 for each three months.

Food prices seem high at present. Flour is from $2.50 to $3.00 a hundred, eight pounds of sugar for $1.00, tea the same as there, butter 16 cents a pound, eggs 15 cents a dozen, and cordwood $3.00 a cord. The wood comes in four-foot lengths, either oak or ash.

Patrick and Ian are working for the C.P.R. contractors, grading roadbed. The people here call the Canadian Pacific Railway the C.P.R. Jerold is now working in the brickyard, getting a dollar and a quarter a day. Mary is teaching at the school and I am holding everything together.

Mr. Nash, the lawyer at the Canadian Registry office, says I am eligible, the same as the men, for a land grant in Minnesota. He seems to know much about the land on the States' side. There is a quarter near the border not spoken for. Patrick will see to it, but says it is quite far away, to the east. I will have to go with him to sign the papers. Jerold says he will plow the necessary five acres, but it's too late to crop it this year.

We bought a new stove for $20; it holds enough wood to last all night. Furniture is high here, so much so that we do without. We have not even a chair, but have made benches.

The land is so rich. Why people in Orillia with their big gardens would get l00 bushels of potatoes if here. Most families have only two cows and a garden, yet they live well. Our cabbage plants are growing fast and strawberries and raspberries are plentiful. Small Mike made himself four dollars picking raspberries and selling them for 25 cents a quart. We stayed too long in Orillia!

Already we have four churches, two taverns, four stores, a Masonic Lodge and an Orange Lodge. There is nothing we want that we can't get in this town. We are getting two railways next year, the C.P.R. from Winnipeg and the St. Paul and Pacific that Jim Hill is building from Crookston. They are to connect here. It is told a big railway yard is to be built in St. Vincent, just two miles south of us. They have already cleared the land for it.

Steamboats plying between Winnipeg and Fisher's landing stop here, usually four boats each day. We could have driven our team and wagon overland from Crookston, but the riverboat was quicker. Fishing is good in the river and the Indians and breeds are anxious to sell us fish.

The oats Jerold planted on the acres he plowed are already showing well. We will cut it for winter hay as Patrick plans on buying two or three cows before the winter sets...
After completing her second letter to Patrick's father and mother, Maggy's days seemed to fly by. The land agent, Alex Turner1, helped her secure 160 acres of Minnesota land in her name, although the quarter was several miles to the east. At the time Patrick remarked that it was too far away, but the agent suggested, "Hang onto it, and prove up each year. Eventually someone will come along and offer you a good price."

It took her only a few weeks to realize that heritage seemed to enter into the world of success. Although the Irish outnumbered the Scots in Emerson, Maggy noted the Scots worked and saved. The Irish, on the other hand, seemed content to hang around the local taverns, singing and brawling, constantly arguing about religion.

Maggy rightly guessed Mary's growing listlessness was due to her lack of a letter from Robert; each day her daughter asked about the mail. Gradually her expectations faded and she seemed to withdraw within herself, seldom speaking unless spoken to. Then, in her obvious loneliness, whenever possible she began to meet the steamboats traveling south.

Her days had been full until mid-July when school was dismissed for the summer. Now she was worrying herself sick because of Robert's lack of communication. He had made her feel so special and she had enjoyed feelings she'd never felt before. As each day passed, another small doubt entered her mind and her imagination ran wild. Had he been sincere in what he said, or was it his manner with every girl? Certainly he had met many other attractive women in Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec. Also, he apparently came from a moneyed and well-placed family. Had she been just another conquest? Was she to have her hopes dashed? She pondered, 'Why can't I just forget him and get on with my life?'

It was the last day of July when Mary chanced to meet the Ashdown wagon returning from West Lynne. The driver pulled his rig over and called, "You're Mary McLaren, aren't you? I've a letter addressed to you; it's from Winnipeg."

Sorting through a box beside him, he added, "Mr. Winkler of our store asked me to pick up the Emerson mail while on my delivery. It's foolishness to continue this driving across the river to the Hudson's Bay Post to get the mail. We need a post office in Emerson."

She felt a wild surge of excitement as he handed her the letter. Then, as the man drove on, she hastily tore open the missive. Strange sensations overwhelmed her, almost to the point of breathlessness as she withdrew the several pages. Nagging doubts that had accumulated miraculously vanished as she opened the folds.
Cross Lake, Manitoba,
July 18, l877

Dearest Mary,

I was hired by the C.P.R. contractor the day of my arrival in Winnipeg and left the next morning for the east. Surveys were run here years ago but no one really considered the difficulty of the swamps and muskeg. As fast as we build a roadbed it disappears, literally sinking out of sight. It is there at nightfall, but gone the next morning, as if swallowed by magic. Everyone is frustrated to see thousands upon thousands of tons of gravel and rock sink out of sight into an apparently bottomless swamp. We are working between Cross Lake and Rat Portage now, plagued by mosquitoes. Fortunately, the black flies are dwindling, their season nearly past.

The corruption, nepotism and favoritism of the contractors and their political friends are beyond belief. I believe much of the money appropriated for the railway is pocketed. (Please do not mention it further, for my opinion could cost me my job.) Best I not complain, for the final surveying is not difficult. Oh, I take my turn at cutting brush as do the rodmen and chainmen, but I don't have to do really heavy labor. Yet, I have a problem leveling a transit while standing chest deep in water. My hands and feet look like prunes at night. It's no wonder the workers take to drink. Keeping the men sober is a monumental task.

Our men are Irish, Scots, French-Canadians, Americans, Icelanders, Swedes, Norwegians, English, Mennonites, Breeds and other races, all struggling to put through the roadbed. I fear it will be three or four years before the final steel will be laid.

My pay is now $60 a month; I've proven myself. My supervisor is named Armstrong; he is a fellow surveyor, an exceptional man.

Darling, I will see you sometime this winter when work slows down. Just now there are no other qualified surveyors available. We are all working long hours; night finds me too exhausted to do else..."
She was impatient to get to their personal relationship. She gasped when she came upon the first part:
"I wrote my parents about meeting you, and of your gentleness and beauty. Oh yes, and of my plans for you. They support me, even though I disappointed them by moving west."
Deeper into the letter, she felt her face warming and found herself actually blushing at his exciting prose. After reading the letter a second time, she carefully refolded the pages into the envelope, and then tucked it into her dress, tight against her breast. Walking back home, she felt a wondrous sensation. Hers was a kingdom of dreams and bliss. Most of the first portion of the letter she would disclose to her folks, but the latter pages would remain her delicious secret.

Finally a letter arrived from Patrick's father and mother. Maggy's mind was eased. The pages passed from hand to hand until they were limp and wrinkled. After a long morning spent working in the garden, she sat down to answer.
July 30, 1877

Dear Father and Mother,

We received your letter today and were glad to hear of your being well, as this leaves us enjoying the same blessing. It has been so long that we had nearly given up on you.

Emerson is still our home and we will winter here. Pat plans to build on our farm in Minnesota next summer, that is, if he can find the time. Both he and Ian are working long hours for the C.P.R. Next summer they will lay the sleepers and steel rails. (The wood cross ties under the rails are called sleepers by the crews here.) Hopefully the trains will run by late fall of '78. Work on the other side of the line from Warren, Minnesota, to St. Vincent seems slow. Still it is said that end of the line will be completed first. Of course it was already graded to Warren, Minnesota in '72, so they haven't as far to go. When the road is finished to Winnipeg, it's expected that hordes of settlers will come from the east and Europe. Most of the land hereabouts in Minnesota is taken, except for what the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad owns, and is to sell in the future. And that is a great amount of land!

Jerold works for McRae and Ferguson, who own the brick factory. He has just turned 14 years. We depend upon him as much as we do Pat and Ian. He is almost as tall as Pat and still growing, very muscular and strong. I believe he will outstrip both Pat and Ian.

I am proud of our family and especially proud of Ian. He helped keep the wolf away while we were in Orillia, and now he is his own man. He plans on buying land when the railroad sells, for he does not qualify for a grant due to his age. Pat will help Jerold get land at the same time. Both of our older boys have grown to be courteous and kind men, no drinkers. Yet, neither will accept any abuse. The town girls are after Ian, but he seems to have no favorite.

Pat purchased three fine cows just yesterday; two are milking and one is to calf in September. This is free-range country, meaning cattle can roam anywhere, but if they get into someone's garden or crops, they can be seized until damages are paid. Mike is now our herder, with Mary to assist. Jerold will cut the oats on our acreage as soon as it gets high enough for hay. It was seeded very late. Oh, you can get thousands of tons of prairie hay if you wish. All you have to do is cut and stack it. Hay is everywhere.

There is a great demand for milk, butter and vegetables. We plan on more cattle when we move to the farm. The half-breeds are the only ones selling garden stock; nobody else has time. Of course most families have small gardens for the table.

The climate here in summer is the same as back home. Our garden is flourishing, as the Lord has been generous with rain. You've never seen better potatoes or cabbages. There are fine cows here, brought up from the south. Food prices are dropping, flour $2.50 per hundred, sugar 10 pounds for a dollar and the best beef steak only 10 cents a pound. We have a new gristmill, another tavern, three blacksmith shops and six new stores. Most of our wash water comes from the Red River, hauled by cart. Mary and I save the soft rain water from the roof to wash our hair.

Mike has a pet baby badger that Jerold found in the field. It follows Mike everywhere like a puppy dog and does not bite. In fact, except for its waddling action, it acts almost like a dog.

Now is my sad, or rather good news. You are the first to know. I am three months along with a baby. Foolish me, thinking there would be no more. I haven't had the courage to tell Pat yet, but perhaps tonight. He is working such long hours and so hard I dread breaking the news. I know he didn't plan on any more children.

Don't throw away your spare looms. If you come here I might make some rag carpets.

Patrick found the first few days of walking behind his team and handling the heavy horse scraper trying. Glancing toward Ian, he saw no slackness there. Although his body glistened with sweat, his son handled his team and scraper with ease. Ian's long, muscular legs and effortless stride made the work look easy.

Lordy, Patrick thought, it's simple for a young man! I ache in every joint. Still, I'm glad we left Orillia. Why, Maggy took to this move without a complaint, and not a murmur from either Jerold or Mary. Even small Mike thought the trip was a lark. He twisted his shoulders to slip his sweat-soaked shirt from under his armpits where it was binding.

Though he longed for a smoke, the two horses demanded his full attention. Slapping the reins on the rumps of his team, he encouraged them to climb the embankment. Suddenly the scent of his own perspiration reached his nostrils and he realized how rank he smelled. A little like a polecat, he thought. Yet, two more years of picking up extra work and we'll be independent -- then to hell with the railroad!

Already he could vision golden wheat, chest high, each head holding sixty kernels. And now the railroad was being built just in time to haul future wheat crops to the mills in St. Paul.

At noon he joined Ian for their sandwiches and cold tea. Many of the men carried only large pails of beer made at the West Lynne Brewery. It was strong and cheap, costing only fifteen cents for a six-quart pail.

"Long morning," he commented to Ian.

"A longer afternoon coming." Ian's face bore a wry grin. "Trouble is, this long day leaves us little time to work on the land."

"Jerold is keeping up."

"Pa, we can't push too much on him. He's just turned fourteen." Then he said morosely, "I hope the foreman will give me another team soon. The horses I'm driving are old and played out. I hate to force these old plugs beyond their strength."

A man resting nearby spoke up. "That boss is a miserable bastard. He won't give you anything. Seems all he wants is to work us from can see, to can't see. Hell, if his head was full of gunpowder and he had a match, he couldn't even blow his nose."

Another man broke in, "That crooked-necked whore's son hates himself!"

Patrick made no comment because their foreman was new on the job, having come down from Winnipeg. The man was huge, with a dour look that brooked no sass. He walked with a swagger, was curt with the crew and did no work himself. His only effort was to shout and curse at the men as he sat on an unused scraper, his jaw busy with a cud of tobacco. His neck deformity added to his formidable appearance.

"Time! Time! Back to work!" The cry came along the line.

As Ian stood and turned toward his team, he said, "Pa, I'll be late to supper tonight. Look at this," he added ruefully. As he held up one boot, the sole dropped limply. "Have to get new boots. Can't use these any longer."

"Stay away from the girls!" Patrick joshed as he arose.

Looking back over his shoulder, Ian grinned.

Ian was absent when they sat to the table that evening. When the last platter of food was placed and Maggy and Mary sat down, Patrick offered a short grace. Maggy glanced around, and then said nervously, "Before we eat, I have an announcement to make. I'm going to have a young one this winter."

For seconds there was a total silence. Then Patrick broke into loud laughter. Mary and the two boys were stunned and looked at their Father as if he had gone mad. Shocked at his action, Maggy stormed, "And what are you laughing at, you bloody clown?"

"Faith now!" He began to wipe his eyes. "I wondered how long it would take you to tell me. My gosh, Maggy, did you think you could hide that from me when we sleep together every night?"

Relief soared through her like a cooling breeze. "Then you're not disappointed?"

He smiled as he looked around at the others. "Why no, 'Course you're getting a bit long in the tooth to have another, but we'll manage." Suddenly he was serious. "We'll have to take mighty good care of you."

She protested, "I'm as strong as a horse. There's naught wrong with me."

As Jerold and Mike began to smile, Mary broke in, "Oh, Mother, a sister I hope!"

"Naw, I want a brother!" Mike spoke up forcefully. Jerold stood, walked over to his nother, and bent to kiss her cheek. Then he said quietly, "Congratulations are in order, Mother. We'll be happy, boy or girl."

1 - Alexander Turner (as the majority of the characters in Chuck's stories are) was a very real person who settled, lived, and died in St. Vincent. Alex was born February 14, 1832 in Tweed, Berwickshire, Scotland4, and died September 21, 1917 in St. Vincent, Kittson Co., Minnesota. He married Margaret Purvis February 23, 1849 in Bunkle & Preston, Berwickshire, Scotland. She was born July 16, 1827 in Berwickshire,Scotland, and died July 18, 1905 in Kittson Co., Minnesota.

An article in the St. Vincent New Era on October 5, 1917 reads:

Mr. Alexander Turner died at his home in this village and 5 o'clock, on Friday, Sept. 21st, 1917, age 85 years, 7 months, and 7 days. Deceased was born in Berwickshire, Scotland. He immigrated the Eastern Canada in 1851 and came to the
United States in 1867. He lived in Goodhue County, Minnesota, for several years prior to his coming to this section in 1876. Deceased was one of the first settlers in this part of Kittson County. What is now the Blair farm was his homestead. In the seventies and early eighties, Mr. Turner acted as homestead locator for those seeking government land in this section. In 1909, he moved into this village to enjoy the fruits of his many years of hard labor. He was a man of strong convictions, candid, outspoken, fearless and honorable. He was a big factor in the development of this section in the early days, being closely identified by public affairs and a hard worker in securing homesteads for any who were seeking land homes. He was the father of seven children, six of whom are living, viz: Robert John, William and James Turner of St. Vincent and Alexander and David Turner of Emerson, and Mrs. C.E. Johnson of Ellsworth. Wisconsin. One daughter Jessie, died while yet a child. The funeral service was held at the residence in this village, at 2 P.M. Sunday. The Rev. Avlward of the Emerson Presbyterian church, in charge. The remains were interred in the Emerson cemetery beside those of his wife, who preceded him several years.

More About Alexander Turner:
Burial: September 25, 1917, Emerson, Manitoba, Canada
Cause of Death: General Exhaustion
Occupation: Farmer, land assessor
Politics: Republican
Religion: Presbyterian
Residence: 1910, St. Vincent Twp, Kittson, Minnesota