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Nelson Finney: The Pioneer


Kathleen Finney


William Nelson Finney, more commonly known as Nels, was a pioneer of St. Vincent Township. He was one of the men that helped shape this area. He was also my grandfather.

Grandpa was born at Monona, Iowa, on March 29, 1871. He was the fifth child of John and Sarah Finney. John Finney was born in Ireland and came to the United States at the age of four. When he got here, he was orphaned. It is not known what ever happened to his parents. John saw many parts of the South before the Civil War, saw Chicago when it was but a town of shacks, joined the army at the age of 16, and was with the troops that were sent to admonish Brigham Young. Mr. Finney came to this area in 1878 on a steamboat. He took a homestead, a tree claim, and got married. He married Sarah Lightfoot, an English woman, and they had eight children.

There was a particular incident that got my Grandpa here instead of somewhere else. When he was only seven years old, his father decided to move farther south, preferably to Kansas. They were to leave McGregor, Iowa, on a steamboat on the Mississippi River. This particular steamer was two days late. Mr. Finney, hearing of the great opportunities in Manitoba, took the next northbound train to St. Paul, Minnesota. From there he took a train to Crookston, then boarded a steamboat at Fishers Landing, Minnesota. They took up residence about one-half mile east of Emerson, Manitoba. There was no railroad in the area at this time. Grandpa once said, "If that steamboat had been on time at McGregor, Iowa, I wouldn't be a citizen of Kittson county today." (1)

The Finney family were some of the first white people to settle in the community. With the coming of the railroad the next year, many more people rushed to the fertile prairie. Grandpa said that his dad did manage to build a 12'x 12' frame house although he had no money. They nearly froze to death in it. While awaiting the seeding period, Mr. Finney got a job as street cleaner of Emerson. Then he obtained a position on the large Tom Carney farm a couple miles East of Emerson then learned of the Homesteading Act where he could ob-tain land in the United States and thus he settled down.

When the family settled, the land was semi-cleared though there was brush in spots. Grandpa could recall when he and his older brother would clear the prairie land with a yoke of oxen. It was "blistering" hot and often times the oxen would head for the Joe River, plunge in plow and all, to cool off. The boys would then have to chase the oxen back to get to work again. This scene would occur many times a day. They did manage to get their plowing done, though.

The first crop consisted of 15 acres of wheat which turned out to be a "bumper" crop. Threshing time was a joyous time on the prairies in the early days. The first thresher was operated by horsepower. Horses created the energy which operated the old-fashioned separator. It was capable of harvesting 1,000 bushels of wheat per day. In 1888, Grandpa and his brother. George, bought their first large threshing machine. It was a "Case" separator and "Case" steam engine. Grandpa was generally a "Case" machinery man. He once had a "Case" ma-chinery dealership. Farmers of the community were able to get parts from him.

The way in which Grandpa met his wife is really quite unique. One day as he was playing baseball, he looked into the stands and saw this beautiful woman. He said that if he'd ever get married, she'd be the one. Well, it so happened. On September 17, 1902, Nelson Finney and Clara Yeo were married. She came to Hallock, Minnesota, in 1881, from Mitchell, Ontario, at the age of eight. She stayed in Hallock and got her schooling in the two-room school. This two room school is now the Gullander's Hardware Store in Hallock.

After completing her high school education in Hallock, she taught in rural schools for five years. She saved up enough money to attend Moorehead State Teachers College for one year. She returned to teaching, then. While she taught in the rural schools, she stayed in different homes in the district.

Grandma usually taught all eight grades which consisted of about thirty pupils. There were eight subjects to be taught so it was hard work. She earned approximately $25-35 a month. After her marriage, she spent her time raising her six children. There were five boys: Gene, George, Burton, Harold, and Willis; and one girl, Grace.

Grandpa acquired a quarter of his 560 acre farm from the Reed farm. The rest of the land was acquired from a man named Britt and also from Ted Florence. He farmed this land up until his sons took over the farm.

Grandpa was not an idle man by any means. In 1910, he ran the gener-al store in Humboldt. Like most general stores in the early days, his had everything. When Grandpa retired from being manager, August Anderson took over the store. Around 1912 - 1913, Grandpa was a Chev-rolet dealer for a short time.

In 1918, Grandpa, along with some other men, started the operation of a cooperative elevator in Humboldt. He rented his farm to the Wilson Brothers in 1920, and moved to Humboldt to manage the elevator. The Finney house was completely destroyed by fire on July 6, 1921. The cause of the fire was never known. My dad can remember this frightful event. His brother Burton and he were upstairs asleep when the fire struck. Grandpa ran upstairs, grabbed them out of bed, and tossed them out of a window. Everything was destroyed; important papers and treasured articles. They then moved to the new Methodist church parsonage and lived there until 1925. In 1925, Grandpa retired as the elevator manager and returned to the farm.

Perhaps the worst years that Grandpa ever went through were those of the Great Depression when most of the farms in the area changed hands due to economic set-back. Through good management and good crops, he was able to maintain financial solvency, but the going was rough. He was a stockholder in The First State Bank of Humboldt. It was the only bank to survive the depression of the 30's. It's funds were then moved to what is now the Northwestern State Bank of Hallock.

Grandpa was a strong Democrat politically. He voted for President, the first time, in 1892. In his lifetime, he participated in seven-teen presidential elections. He was a strong supporter of Jennings Bryan. Bryan was a Democrat, a Westerner, and a champion among the common people. Franklin D. Roosevelt was probably his favorite of the United States Presidents. On two occasions, Grandpa was a delegate to the State Democratic Convention. He was also active in lo-cal politics as he served on the school board for forty-five years and was a township supervisor in the late 1890's. He remained in-terested in government the remainder of his life.

Grandpa was a great reader. All his life he took a daily newspaper and read every word from front to back. He was up with all the cur-rent events and enjoyed reading about history. He had a terrific memory; he could recall practically everything he ever read. He was also very interested in baseball which he participated in as a young man. Grandpa was a great fan of the American Humorist, Bill Nye. He had a quotation from Bill Nye for practically every occasion. He even drove his own car until the age of ninety.

Grandpa and Grandma Finney were married for fifty-six years. They had six children who went off on their own in the late 30's and early 40's. Grandma always loved flowers. She always had beautiful flower gardens. She died in 1958 due to a stroke. But Grandpa didn't let her flowers die. He was even outside chopping grass or pulling weeds when he was 93 years old. He always said about Grandma, "She was a fine woman." When he said it, you knew he meant it.

Grandpa died a peaceful death of natural causes at the age of 94, on December 18, 1965.

(1) The Lancaster Herald, "Pen Portrait of the Week", April 5, 1957., Volume 52, Number 14, Page 1