Monday, April 29, 2013

Sam's Desk

In the first entry to this blog, I think I observed the tendency for old men to have more difficulty with remembering their stories. In particular, separating the important and germane from the irrelevant details. Also, I have found that they repeat themselves. So, ...if you've heard this one...

I'm sitting at the desk my paternal great grandfather brought to the farm when he moved there in 1884, which means that next year the farm will have been in the family for 130 years. Quite a ride for a piece of furniture. It sat in our "front room" for all of my childhood and eventually was in a flood at Marcee's apartment in Minneapolis in the late 1990's. Then to Kansas City, Portland, across the country to its current home in Virginia Beach.

It bears a resemblance to a lot of us who sat here behind it; kind of weathered, a bit worn, dented and wobbly, but still serviceable.

The original purpose of this blog was to pass along some stories, mostly about family and my experience, and I have of course digressed to offer opinions which is either the curse or the privilege of us older guys. Here are some things about "Grandpa" Sam.

I have it somewhere, but don't exactly know his date of birth--somewhere in the middle of the 19th century in Sweden, and he came to America as a young man, probably about 1870. The ship's captain was the only law on the open seas, and this one, as was somewhat common, decided to exact additional "fees" from the passengers. Those fees were extortion, basically all the money they could steal, so that Sam arrived in New York's harbor, probably near where the memorial sits today at the end of Manhattan Island in Battery Park with 25 cents in his shoe. He intended to walk to Illinois where he had relatives, and basically did so.

Marcee and I visited that place in Battery Park where the immigrants arrived before Ellis Island was opened in 1892, and it was an emotional event for both of us.

He apparently soon made it to Pennsylvania, took some odd jobs, caught a few rides, walked a lot and made it to Illinois. In the next few years, he amassed enough money (and this is somewhat of a mystery, whether he earned it, borrowed it or got it from an inheritance or something) to take the train to Nebraska, intending to buy something near the Salem Church, east of St. Edward, where there was a Swedish community. He looked at the piece of land where the Nebraska capital sits in Lincoln, but dismissed that as a useless, salty place. And he also looked at the farm he eventually bought from a man he met on the train.

The name of that person escapes me right now, it was something like Hoskins, but in any event he sold it to Grandpa Sam. Nance county was originally an Indian reservation for the Pawnee Indians, but when Nebraska became a state, they rescinded that grant and shipped the Pawnee off to other places, principally Oklahoma. The state then sold the land to investors, versus the story that I always heard that it was homesteaded, who speculated on the land by improving it. For instance, the house where I grew up was at least partially built by the investor. Sam's purchase was more than the 160 acres usually associated with a homestead.

Eventually, Sam came to own over 1,000 acres, mostly contiguous in the valley and south. My dad, Wallie, was always so grateful that he decided to settle in the flat, fertile valley instead of "those damned hills up by Salem." Anyone who plodded behind horses, used old tractors with little horsepower and old trucks disliked hills, but he was passionate about it. "The Lord must have liked hills and homely people because he sure made a lot of them."

The one-room school where I went to school was attended by four generations of my family, my grandfather, my dad, my brother and me and my brother's children, Kevin and Peggy. It was called Big Cut, Nance County District 12. Presided over by my teacher, Mrs. Lucille McKillip, for eight of the nine years I attended it, and the Nance County superintendent of schools, Jesse G. Kreidler. An imposing woman who supervised all the rural schools in the county.

Funny, I remember both of those women wore similar shoes, a sensible shoe that looked a lot like a man's wingtip with a small heel. No fashion, all business. Watch out, wandering into irrelevant details!!

During Sam's day on the farm, he assisted in carving the cut out of the hill for the railroad, the cut that gained the nickname for the school, Big Cut. Not much of a construction project in our time, but back then it was a big deal and Sam was hired to do a lot of the work because he had oxen, and they were more effective than horses, I guess.

I always heard that he built the barn, but I suspect that it was at least partly built when he bought the place as it was in the most unlikely place to put livestock, in the far northwest corner of the farmstead. He immediately moved it to its current location. Added on to the house. Bought land. It was the heyday of the farm and the farmer in that part of the world. Very prosperous.

Not a very big man, he was short and wiry, he apparently had a lot of energy. It is said that when the men came in for dinner at noon, they would rest along with the horses or other stock for more than the customary "noon hour." They were walking behind the teams, it was probably hot, so rest was a good idea. Sam couldn't sit still, so he would mow the grass on the lawn in front of the house with a reel-type push mower that was still in the shed when I was young, 50 years later. That lawn stretched 1/8 of a mile, over 200 yards from the western edge of the property beyond the cattle pens.

Still standing on the property are many of the trees he planted. There were no trees on the prairie in Nebraska when the white settlers came--the prairie does not tolerate woody plants, it is a place for grass. The prairie fires in particular would wipe anything out before it was mature enough to last, except for the rare tree that was established in an ox bow bend of the creek. So, he took a team and wagon 25 miles to the Platte river near Silver Creek and harvested some trees from the islands in the middle of the river. Those are the ones around the farmstead today, although the cottonwoods have mostly died of old age. The maples are about the only ones to survive long term.

The farms were bequeathed to his children upon his death, and the large enterprise was broken up. When my dad graduated from high school in 1930, my grandfather and he bought more of the place and started farming--just in time for the Depression and the Dust Bowl. More on that elsewhere.

My brother's son, Kevin, and his family live in the Omaha area, and his son, the sixth generation, is named Samuel (his daughter is named Emma, and she shares a birthday with my paternal grandmother, Emma).

The sixth generation of our family will visit the farm over Memorial Day weekend. My oldest granddaughter, Anna, wanted to visit the farm, so she and her mother, my oldest daughter, Amy, will do so.

My ties to that place are strong. It is important to me. There is a sense of place, of roots. So much of my life has been sort of transient, but that is the place that speaks to me of home.


  1. Great post.

    I absolutely don't believe you remember the name of Jesse G. Kreidler. I only went to country school for all or a part of the 1st grade. But Jesse G. Kreidler is one of my memories, although I have no mental image of her footwear. I remember her coupe...probably about a 1948 Plymouth (based on a Google image search I just did).

    Since I remember Kreidler, it must be because our teacher knew she was coming and was terrified. I mean, I remember Jesse Kreidler, but I have no idea who our day-to-day teacher was, not even a hint of an image.

  2. I am astounded that you remember her CAR! After all, she was a part of my school life for most of those nine years, and the rest of my life was not too exciting or stimulating, so understandable that I would remember an authority figure, but you remember her car having only been in country school very briefly.

    The car, if I had seen it, and I don't know that it ever imprinted, would have been recognizable to me as my grandfather, Homer, had a black 1949 Plymouth coupe which would have been similar, I think. I had that car for many years and finally sold it to a guy in Kearney who was going to restore it.

    Since we remember these things 60 years after, do you wonder what children today are remembering about us? Or, do they just remember things they see on TV?

  3. And another thing, do you think we are spelling her first name correctly? Is there a masculine and feminine spelling to that name?