Memories of Minnesota
by Richard H. Berge
My grandfather Erick Torger Berge was born in Fjarland, Norway, in 1866. He came to America when he was 18 years old. My father was the oldest of the family and he married in 1915. Grandpa’s wife Sarah died shortly before my folks married and they told Grandma Sarah they would keep the family together. That meant four young children plus Grandpa. We three oldest were born in Minneapolis, where Grandpa worked for the railroad and Grandma did hair work. She went out on the streetcar, took orders, and did the work at home. She made hair "switches" for ladies and wove some of them like a small rope for watch fobs.
When I was a year old, we moved up north to a large lake, Mille Lacs. Grandpa liked it there, as it was much like Norway. He lived with us until his death in 1935 when I was 15. He talked Norske only when we had company. My Aunt Tillie was another story. She talked it to her boys all the time. I got onto it a bit from my time there. Pa grew up near Fairfax, where he went to church sometimes 3 times on Sunday. Oh, yes, "Norwegian Lutheran" and they preached in Norske until perhaps the 1930s. The old folks became Americans, though, and gave their kids all "proper" American names like Stanley, Harry, Richard, Violet, Kenneth, and Keith, although Grampa Erick had a brother named Knute, a fine Norske name.
Dear Grandpa’s last ride from the farm was on a sleigh pulled by our neat little Indian pony. The trip was necessary because he had passed away in January and the undertaker couldn't get to the house. We had one of those blizzards and his funeral had to be held back several days. He lay in the summer kitchen frozen like a board until the undertaker got as close to home as he could. Peterson fixed Dear Old Grandpa up so fine. He looked very happy laid out in his casket at the Wahkon Presbyterian Church for services.
There were six of us kids, five boys, one girl. My father worked in the Milwaukee Railroad shops all his working days. It was down in south Minneapolis. I was born at 2220-25th Avenue, South, and close to his shop. When the family moved to Mille Lacs in 1921, it was a major problem for him to travel back and forth; railroad was the only way and no direct line. How well I remember when the bus company started, about 1926. It was called Graylines. Greyhound had started but only went between a few towns up north, like Grand Rapids and Virginia. We saw the first Greyhound; in fact, I took a picture of it in a museum years later. We three boys would walk with Pa about a mile to where the driver picked him up. We called the little bus "Sugar Top" as the top was white.
Every Thanksgiving, Pa would always invite a man named Baker Olson from town. Pa and Mr. Olson would smoke cigars. Was a pleasant aroma. Olson gave my folks $100 to get a cow and things when we were beginning to scratch out an existence. Grandpa bought a cow, a horse and a buggy. That old Swede Baker Olson had a pure white mustache. I have one now, perhaps in memory of the dear man.
I have no idea how my little mother got all the things done for the large family. All those diapers to wash, mostly by hand. No water heater but a wood burning stove and kettles to heat water. She was a bit less than 5' tall; Pa was 'bout 6’. What a contrast. "Tiny Grandma" as the grand kids called her wasn't near 5' tall as she got older. She had curvature of the spine, old folks called it.
Dear Pa left us in 1957 at the age of 62, cancer. In the later years we got to be quite good pals. Wish he was here now so I could give him a big hug. In those days, boys didn’t hug their dads. Now my boys and I really hug when we meet.
Ma was alone most 30 years. At 93 she went to be with Pa. Now, my grandkids are all grown up and great grand kids take their place. We can always have the memories.
I was the number three boy. I had 4 brothers; one died when he was only 10 months old, the other died when he was only 53. He was a surgeon who practiced at Mora, Minnesota, after Army time in the 40s. We were very close. My oldest brother Stanley lives near the old farm on Mille Lacs near Wahkon. I’m only half Norsk, the other half Swede. Mother's folks came from Malmo, Sweden. My father's grandpa took out a homestead in southwestern Minnesota, in 1867, I think. They lived in a dug out. Their farm was close to the Minnesota River so they had timber to build the second year. The trees were a soft wood so easy to hew out the logs for a house. That is 7 miles from Fairfax, Minnesota. The farm remains in the same name: "Boyum" from the same area in Norway my grandpa was from.
After 2 brothers had their year use of the trap door underwear it was my turn. In the early 1920's things weren't wasted and clothing was no exception. Beside the 2 suits of underwear clothing of all descriptions followed. Coats, overalls, etc. Ma washed once a week if the weather was good to hang them out. If weather was too bad for a long time washing was hung on lines in the basement. The wood-burning furnace was down there so it gave off enough heat to dry the clothes. Ma only had a kitchen stove to help her on washdays. The wood fire was stoked up to heat the clothes boiler full of water. Then tubs were brought in from the snow, warmed a bit, the hand ringer attached to the backs of 2 chairs back to back, a tub on either side. All this was done in the kitchen. The clothes were boiled in the big clothes boiler, fished out with an oak stick and run through the ringer. I hung clothes up for Ma sometimes if I was not outside working with my brothers. As fast as you could get them on the line they were frozen stiff. We had a month of January once that never got up to zero in the heat of the day. Sheets had to be bent to get them in a door after freezing dry in a very short time. I have a couple irons Ma used. That work was performed on another day and the things that had to be ironed were gone over with irons heated on the kitchen stove.
We didn't go to church in winter. Weekends were playtime like ice skating, skiing, or building houses in snow drifts. One time, the ice piled up on the islands about two miles west of the old farm, so my brother Harry and I went to explore it. We climbed all the way to the top of the mountain of ice. It was higher than the trees. When the ice started breaking up, it would sometimes take out buildings when it began to move, pushed by the wind.
We used a ski to push down into the snow and cut out blocks. We had a few good, fast skiing slopes by the lake. Some winters the lake would mist and freeze a good hard crust on the snow. We could pick up speed then. Those old one-strap skis had no stiff binding, so it was easy as ice skating to come to a stop.
Once we were to the bottom of the hill, we would sit down in the snow to stop. One day, we were doing fine until there was a rock or small stump that hit my tailbone. Laid me up for a few days. I have had back trouble all my life from skiing accidents and construction jobs.
The school bus couldn’t run in the winter time. We had to ski to school through the woods. Our road was impassible with its high drifts of snow always blowing off the lake. Mille Lacs is about 28 miles long so snow was in the air making drifts most of the time. Even city folks put their cars up on blocks in winter. Our old 1920 Chevy touring car had a long rest. Grandpa had turned down a pulley on a back wheel and could use it powered the circle saw for sawing wood.
We both have seen the difficult and the times of plenty, perhaps too much. I think we were fortunate to see those early times in life when it was a struggle to survive almost. Stanley, my oldest brother now 83 is a fine craftsman. He has made violins and played since about 10. We 3 older boys played together and would go with the pastor and family to other churches. What fun, eat that fine food they had for such occasions. We three were only 1 year and 9 months apart. No family planning in those days, as soon as one was weaned another little on was on its way. I was 5' 9". My wife Virginia was about 5' 6". When we were growing up, they weren’t making many big kids and I was about the average.
To get to school in Mille Lacs, we had to ski through the woods. When the snow was gone, we walked the same route. There were no snowplows so we were isolated as far as the road went. We had chores to do before school.
Our school was a dandy. Built in 1913, all 12 grades in one building. You started at 6 years of age and with good behavior and much luck you got out at 18. Due to consolidation with the large (500 and a few) town of Isle, it was closed. My class had the distinction of being the last—1938.
Generally fine teachers too. The large 2-story building had a full basement. Furnaces were fed coal, making steam heat in radiators in all rooms. Gym was in the basement too. Ceiling wasn't really high enough for basketball. The WPA days made a change possible. This was Works Progress Administration, a federal venture to help end the long Great Depression and paid small wages to workers. There was a wide stairs going outside. After hauling all the floor out, the WPA workers took teams of horses down and got scraper loads of dirt. The dirt was used to make a very nice skating rink. When enough dirt had been taken out the new concrete floor was poured.
The school owned most of the band instruments. I started school in 1926 so by about fifth grade was playing in the band. I started on a "peck" horn as my brother Harry called it. The music would go mm--peck--mm--peck peck. Really was an E flat Alto. As older members would graduate we might be lucky and get to play a baritone, a fine instrument. In our family of 5 kids we all had a time at playing one of two baritones. The school had about 130 kids in all 12 grades. I graduated there in 1938.
We had a fine janitor, Mr. Neth. He was a pal to all there, could stop a bloody nose, just do anything. He controlled the heat in the rooms by the amount of coal he shoveled into the furnaces. The coal supply was hauled in using horses and wagons. Loaded, unloaded and thrown into the large bins near the furnace room all by hand. We started school about September 1st and got out the last of May. There were a few days off for real bad snowstorms, none at harvesting time. Two weeks off at Christmas and New Year’s, then a week at Easter.
We had one special teacher and he was the superintendent also from 1930 to 1937. His name was Henry Stanley Catron. He was a super person who gave his all to his job and a fine bandmaster who could really play the clarinet. Our little band under his direction got to the State Music contest in Minneapolis. We played over WCCO, WEBC and a radio station in Hibbing. I like all kinds of music. My mother played the old piano and at family gatherings all sang. Ma's family was very musical. Pa's were also.
Mr. Catron also installed an interest in building models out of wood. My brother Stan, who was then 15, caught the fever and built a miniature model of Napoleon Bonaparte’s royal coach. He sent it to Minneapolis for state judging. He won first place in the junior division and received $100 gold certificate. His model coach was sent to Detroit for national judging, where the stakes were high. Stan got a four-day, all-expenses paid trip. The top prize in the junior and senior division was a $5,000 scholarship, a high sum in 1932, during the Great Depression. Well, Stan didn’t win the top prize, but he made my brother Harry and I prick up our ears for a try ourselves. The minimum age for entry was 12, and I was just that age. We three brothers were at it again, building coaches. We each got prizes, but no big ones. The knowledge we gained was the main thing. I still have my prize-winning coach on my mantel.
Mr. Catron taught Algebra, Chemistry and Plane Geometry. What a man. He was also a fine duck hunter though a bit small for his double 10-gauge shotgun. Heard he pulled off both at once, pushed him somewhat off balance. Oh we had several dandy teachers, but the teacher in the 4th and 5th grades was a tough one at times. She was an old sourpuss who was married to a milquetoast. She would start the new school year with her new ruler, which had a metal edge. She very proudly showed it off to all and let it be known if anyone gave her trouble, the metal edge would make contact with their knuckles.
When I was in the 5th grade, a new boy came to the country who was about twice the size of the other boys. He had been out of school some due to surgery, so he was older than the rest of us. He was fit as a fiddle and we took to each other. He was a clown and aroused Dear Teacher to the point where the ruler came out for a show. She attacked Billy. As the ruler came down, he grabbed it and broke it in half. Dear Teacher turned white. Perhaps she had met her match and then some, for the show ended. Billy was my hero forever.
I came from a family of good students—well, that is except me. I was only an average student, if that good. Pa told me in my senior year that if I would make top of the class like the two before me, he would give me $25. Now that was a bundle of money in 1938. I told him if he thought I would miss all my fun for a measly 25 bucks, he was mistaken.
I did enjoy those years in the country. I attended college a bit once. Thought I wanted to become a full time teacher but soon realized it was the free life in construction for me. I was a building contractor in California until I retired. I was always building things at a very young age. Made a weather vane and got up on the barn roof to fasten it where there was plenty wind to show what was in store for the day’s weather. It was a bi-plane with propeller that went fast in storms.
When we were kids it was a job to pick all those wood ticks off. Generally didn't do that until they began to itch. You see we really lived in the woods, where small fields were cleared to make room for pasture and a few crops. Had a 40 acre section that was mostly covered with small stuff. I cut with the trees with a double bitted axe and just let them lay with branches on, and the sun started a natural pasture. In the fall we took the wood off and sawed it with a saw rig. It was poor wood for cold weather but we had the sugar maple to mix in with it.
My older brother didn't have much wood so we cut it up for both places. I didn't like elm, too hard to split so when they were in the way had a neighbor pal and we pulled the 6' cross cut saw together. Just let them lay and rot. By the time I got that part of the farm cleared up we had some nice fields.
Really that part of Minnesota wasn't all that good for farming but it was a fine place for vacationing people. We lived on the end of the road, the only farm. From our place to town the shore was lined with summer cottages and the city folks came up often. We supplied them with milk and cream, did little odd jobs for them. In winter the icehouses had to be filled for them, another chore. When Grandpa did it he had to cut the ice all by hand. Later it became easy as ice was cut in town by a saw rig set up. I hauled ice off the lake with the old farm truck. It was scary the first trip so left the door open in case we went through the ice. I soon found out it was much warmer with the door closed and forgot the fear for the comfort. I believe one very cold winter, perhaps 1935 or 6, the ice was 60" thick before spring. Ice was cut during Christmas vacation so young ones could help. At that time it was nice to handle and only about 24" thick.
We got our fill of those BIG fish in early spring as they spawned in our bay and it was no problem to spear them. Some weighed as much as 30 pounds or more. It wasn’t legal but the game warden thought it should be OK for families that put up with the winters to be excused from the law so they could eat. Luke, the game warden was a big man and was so nice to kids. In the Great Depression, he would buy 22 shells and give them to us kids to hunt rabbits. He would take the rabbits to Minneapolis and give them to people in need. We loved Old Luke; just another nice guy who seemed to be around to make life nice for us kids.
I have been known to eat that Norsk Fine Fisk. My brother Stan keeps it in the freezer at all times hoping that after he voted for BIG JESS Ventura, he might come for lunch. In Isle, on the south shore of Mille Lacs, was a store on the corner. Herb Nyquist, a fine Norsk owner, did much business there and especially on the holidays. He had that fine fisk stacked up like cordwood on the sidewalk. There were many dogs in and about town. Well their fine smellers told them it was time to check things out daily. They all went by Herb's place to make a small deposit on the stack. To this day Isle is the same, ready to supply that favorite of the Northland. I really am not all fired up about that fine Norsk jelly-like fisk, but don't tell that when visiting Minnesota. We had it every Christmas season when young. Yes, it had to be soaked in water overnight then it thawed out and was like jelly.
I had many dear aunts in Minneapolis. One aunt, Ruth Olson, lived near the Shortline RR Bridge. A few years ago, she took me on a tour of the old neighborhood on 25th Avenue South. I took pictures of old 2220 where I was born and also up the street to 2313 where Ma lived when she met Pa when they were in their teens.
Auntie Ruth married this fella Olson, a good-sized Swede of a good 6' 2". He was a businessman and liked us little underprivileged punks from up on the farm. In 1928 he had a very fine home built at 2712 West River Road. Had a 3-car garage even. Ma had a couple cousins who were builders so one did the job of building the large home. We were always welcome there even though my wife Virginia, our young son and I would drive from the lake down to see the city life in our 1926 model "T" coupe. Ruth would say, park it in the garage and take my Olds!
Outhouses at Mille Lacs were so vital. We had a three-holer, one hole for the little kids. Nothing fancy but did the trick. The Sears Roebuck catalog was the only convenience. Our outhouse was up a little hill from the house and close to the Old Pine tree. That dear tree made music as the wind rustled through its branches. What a pleasure to sit there and reminisce the happenings of the day. It wasn’t lonely because my brother Harry and I made the trek evenings after milking. The view was terrific. No need to put the door back and if it was in place we wouldn't have been able to watch the evening Greyhound on its return trip from " The Cities".
There came a time when company, "City Folks," were coming up. Pa said we should move it forward to a nice clean smelling spot, do a little repair like hang the door, strengthening up the floor too. We were all skinny folks so no need for worry but Ma had 2 big Swede brothers, each some over 200 lbs. They were both in at once and their combined weight caused a sag in the floor sometime back.. All the repair was accomplished and the big affair went off like clockwork.
My folks were all for helping others. This couple named Stets and Josephine came into the area with no place to live. The man seemed to have a little money to buy a tent at Sears Roebuck and Co. Well Pa thought it all right if they put it up at some distance from our house." Stets got some lumber delivered, made a nice frame about 10' x 14' floor. Put up rafters about 2' apart then stretched the tent over it. Looked snazzy. No charge for them to live there.
Stets would help some in putting up hay. Well he was a constant pipe smoker. Grandpa said no smoking on the job but got assurance there was no danger. Well one day, ashes fell on the dry hay shocks, as he was about to pitch it up on the load. They got the fire out but no more pipe smoking.
Now getting back to that outhouse. It became a community place now and at the time was dressed up with a door. One day, grandpa yelled out "The toilets on fire!" We ran up to save that dear structure and what a surprise, Josephine came out smoking a cigarette. Women weren't supposed to smoke anyway. They weren't even given the right to vote until 1920.
One day a letter came with a strange name on it. It was in our box number 201 at the Wahkon post office and Mr. Halgren said it was for Stets so Pa took it down to them personally and found out they weren't even married. Well, Pa was rather straight laced so let them know it was time for a move.
There was a neat guy down our road toward town; name was Ira Huftiland. He was very creative and made the best bows and arrows. Sold them for a good price, perhaps three, four dollars. He was a trapper, too. We boys could learn much from a guy like that.
Then there was Ole Tronson, came from Norway, like Grandpa Erick. They were buddies. Ole had built a couple cute little cabins up the hill. He was a bachelor. Lived a real rugged life, slept between two mattresses, and slept well he said. He had a boat or two, rented out to fishermen from the City on opening Pike season, the 15th of May. He would get us boys to hold one end of his minnow seine. We did that part from the transom of his boat. Ole walked out into that ice water in a circular pattern up to his neck to get those much-needed shiners for bait to sell.
Ole didn't talk much, but later became my pal after grandpa’s passing. We went whitefishing together out on the Islands, netting that is. That's a cold sport. You go out in the boat, drive a long hard maple pole into the bottom, which couldn’t be over 6' deep. The net was fastened to the pole and I rowed the boat while Ole was at the transom gently putting the 100' of gill net out. I had to row hard to stretch the net as Ole lifted the heavy weight that sunk the bottom. Nets had floats at the top and sinkers at the bottom keeping them steady for the fish to get in.
Picking a net was no snap either. Ole had ice in his veins so on his knees at the transom, he gently went through the 100' squeezing the small fish through the net. They would go between his legs to the floor of the boat. We smoked several fish for a real treat. Most were put down in salt in a large wood barrel. When Grandpa was in good shape he would put up a couple barrels or so. He ate fish and potatoes every day. He taught himself to drive the old '20 Chevy touring car when I was about 4.
Grandpa and I were buddies after my brother Harry began school and when we boys went to Isle, he would buy a ring of baloney and eat it on the way home. I was an adventurous little guy. Grandpa said pull the levers when he started the car. I wondered what that thing was for, called a shifting lever. Gramp took his position to crank; I monkeyed with that funny lever, pulled down those funny handles. The car started jumped backwards and into a big tree, killing the engine. If it had been in any forward gear I would have lost dear Gramp. An Angel cared for him and me.
I met my wife when she was 16 and I was 19. Love at first sight for me. Took me over two years to get her interested enough to say she would hitch up with me. My wife of nearly 59 years and I live in Oregon. We left Minnesota in1946, moved to California, where stayed 43 years and moved to the northwest over 10 years ago.
We hated to leave the farm, but we knew it was a tough way to eke out a living. I enjoyed being in the building business. I did little extra things for people at no charge. It is fun to leave happy folks that know if something wasn’t just right, I would fix it. I think some of today’s young people are so nice. I think they will be able to care for the Good Earth, even make it better.
I was born rich, not in money, but-REAL WEALTH: good parents, Grandpa Erik, many uncles and aunts, even including my only sister (shy little Violet), brothers, many real friends. Plus, I was raised on Lake Mille Lacs, Minnesota. I am happy to have had that old-time way of life to fall back on now.
Richard H. Berge, 80, now "retired," lives on the Pacific coast. His grandchildren convinced him to buy a computer and he now corresponds at length with people all over the world, when he is not being an artist or providing musical entertainment in nursing homes and schools, although he recently had to give up his bowling league.
1. Grandpa Erick Berge, 1930
2. Edith and Henry Berge, 1910
3. Richard, Harry and Stan, getting ready for their walk to school
4. Richard, Violet, Ken, Stan, Harry, Uncle Gene and school bus
5. Richard with model coach
6. New barn, built by Stan, 1935
7. Virginia and Richard Berge, 1999
8. Richard, Aunt Ruth Olson, Geanie and bicycle
Ó Copyright 2000 Richard H. Berge, All Rights Reserved, Used with Permission
Transcribed by Ann Dea Hogan