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The Story Of Robert Sutherland


Terry Larson

Senior High Division


America is a pioneer land made great by its people. Itis a land with many stories, though its history has been short. One suchstory also belongs to that strip of fertile land which makes up the RedRiver Valley of the North and its main character is a man named Robert Sutherland.

Robert Sutherland's grandfather first immigrated to theNew World in the beginning of the 19th century and settled in Earltown,Nova Scotia, Canada. Laura and Floy Chamberlain, in-laws to Sutherland descendants,researched and discovered that "Robert Sutherland (Lubec, the grandfather)and wife came from Sutherlandshire, Scotland, for religious freedom. Afterquarreling with the Duke of Sutherland over ministers, they came to Canada,and although the Duke later tried to make amends by sending Bibles as gifts,the Lubec Sutherlands refused. They had decided to begin in a new land inwhich worship was free." (1)

Robert was born in 1858, on the family farm in Earltown,Nova Scotia, where the house still stands. His father, John, and mother,Bessie, had six other children: Bella, Marion, Christy, Margaret, Daniel,and John. Robert's father died when he was in the third grade and so atthe age of nine he left school and began cutting ship masts to help supportthe family. Their farm was small, the largest field was only about elevenacres, and it was left to Daniel, the oldest child. John and Robert decidedto move on to find life somewhere else.

They then entered the United States at East Port, Maine,in November of 1881, when Robert was 23, and eventually worked for the PennsylvaniaDutch. It is thought that here they first learned English, for they previouslyspoke only Gaelic, the native language of Scotland. They traveled acrossthe country stopping to homestead a timber claim in Wisconsin. They sooncame north to the lumbering country of Duluth, Minnesota. Here, Robert boughthis first team of four horses, animals which slowly shaped much of his lifeby being his most important resource. In the summer, he worked with themin Duluth. They pulled the grader which carved out Duluth's first pavedstreet. In the winter, Robert and his horses worked in the lumber camps.Later each fall, he would also take them to the farming regions of St. Thomas,North Dakota for harvesting. This cycle continued for many years and graduallyhe made enough to buy what was called a horse powered threshing machine.Horses actually provided power for the machine by walking in a circle whilehitched to a pulley. It drove a belt that turned a second pulley which transferredthe power to the machine. It also had a hand fed separator and a straw carrierwhich simply dropped all the straw into a pile at the machine's rear. Ina few years, Robert bought a modern advanced steam engine to power his threshingmachine (steam engines were used until about 1930). With his new enginehe increased his threshing area to include farms around Bowesmont, NorthDakota. About 1894, he first crossed the Red River to thresh in KittsonCounty, Minnesota. All this time he continued lumbering with his horsesin northeast Minnesota.

In 1895, Robert Sutherland bought his first half sectionof land in Hill Township, Kittson County, Minnesota from James J. Hill.He paid about eight dollars an acre for it.

On March 10, 1897, at the age of 39, Robert married MissMary Mordy, age 26, of Drayton, North Dakota. Mary's family had originallylived in Canada also, and moved from Forester Falls, Ontario in Octoberof 1880, when she was nine years old. They first lived in a sod house ontheir prairie farm 25 miles from Pembina where they got their supplies.

Mary and Robert moved into a frame house on his farm. Ithad been expanded into two rooms at the end of his bachelorhood. One monthafter they moved in they were forced to leave when it was flooded by theRed River. In later years, the house was flooded instead with children.John was born on January 1, 1898 and Wesley in 1899. Then in 1901, theyhad their first daughter, Bessie, who was followed by another son, Ray,in 1902. Stanley was born in 1904 and was a victim of a disease which couldnot be diagnosed at that time. After a tortured childhood, he died at theage of 13. Their next child was born in 1908 and was named Bertha. Harry,born in 1914, and Margaret, 1916, became the youngest child in the family.The children were all named after close relatives. Soon the children outgrewthe house. "With each baby they had to add another room to the house,"Bessie said. (2) Finally, in 1919, they built a new large farm house whichstill stands on the farm today. The oldest children spent much of theirtime with their grandparents, the Mordys, and went part time to their mother'sschool, the Pittsburg School. The rest of the children attended a smallcountry school about three miles from the farm. Their father's horses providedtransportation most of the time. Ray, Harry, and Margaret were the onlyones to graduate from high school. Eventually, they all moved away or beganto work on the farm.

Robert Sutherland gradually built up his farm as his familygrew. His property increased to about 1,100 acres of land in Hill Township.Some of this, he cleared himself and most of it he "broke". Thismeans he was the first man to plow the soil so that it could be cultivated.To do this, a special "breaking plow" was required. It was pulledby several horse teams or the steam engine. Water had to be hauled regularlyfrom the river for the engine. Breaking land became Robert's specialty andhe was employed by many others. Wesley estimated that about 3,000 acresof land around Hill Township were broken by his father. (3)

The buildings on the farm were built by Robert and thefamily. One of the granaries is made with the tamarack beams hand sewn byGrandfather Mordy in the early 1900's and it is still standing.

On the farm, a great amount of small grain was harvested.Much of it was wheat, but barley, flax, and oats were also included. Harvestwas a busy season on the farm. Grain was cut with binders and shocked byhand. Then it was fed to the huge threshing machines. At the height of thisseason, Robert employed as many as 25 or 30 men at one time. To solve feedingproblems of such a crew, he utilized a lumber camp trick and brought thefirst cook car and lumber jack cook to Kittson County. The other importantfarm crop was hay which was used for animal feed.

The animals raised contributed much to the farm. RobertSutherland usually raised about 200 head of Aberdeen Angus cattle, plusa large flock of sheep, but, of course, the farm's major feature was thehorses. He had from 65 to 80 head and during busy days about 50 horses wouldbe harnessed in the morning. Each year he bred from 12 to 18 mares. Thehorses were used throughout the farm in the spring, summer, and fall butthey were not left idle in the winter. Each winter, Robert would ship manyof them to northeast Minnesota to the lumber camps by train. He broughtthem there personally late each fall and journeyed to bring them back eachspring. Other teams he would drive to the wooded land of Roseau County withseveral other farmers. They would gather together and bring firewood backon their sleighs. Robert Sutherland was first of the area men to have thesafer and more easily handled cross chained sleigh. It could haul sevencords of wood in one trip and Robert made up to eleven trips in a winter.Each year at the county fair, Robert would exhibit his prize stock. A specialcontest was held each year at this time. It was called a horse-pulling contest.Teams were harnessed to weighted sleighs pulled on bare ground and peoplewere added as the contest progressed. The horses that pulled the heaviestload the farthest won. Robert's horses continually won the contests andeventually a standing bet was made that no horses in the upper Red RiverValley area could beat them. The only challenger was Walter Hill, son ofJames Hill, and his horses lost. Robert's reputation for fine horses waswidely known and is still remembered. "I remember going with my fatherto the fair and seeing your grandfather's horses," said Russell Corey,son of a fellow pioneer. (4)

The life on the farm was not without its problems. Therewere crop failures and insect plagues. One threshing machine was lost whenit caught on fire from sparks of the steam engine. Several horses were burnedwhile stable in an old barn on a temporary camp site. The old house wasbothered by rats who got into any uncovered food and occasionally frightenedvisiting travelers.

I've told of most of Robert Sutherland's life and the farmhe carved out but I've said little about the man. Physically, he was slight.He weighed only about 150 pounds and was about 5'9" in height but hewas very strong and wirey. He loved to dance and was a marvelous step dancer.He could jig and clog and do the Scottish High Land Fling. He danced atthe fairs and is said to have performed before the governor of the state.Robert was a very strong Presbyterian and a member of the Northcote PresbyterianChurch. At one time he belonged to the Orange Lodge, an organization whichoriginated in Northern Ireland and was rather anti-Catholic. He liked tojoke and tell stories of his experiences. Robert became a United Statescitizen by taking out his naturalization papers and he enjoyed arguing overpolitics. He called himself a Republican until the days of Hoover at whichtime he became angry and switched his loyalty. Robert can well be calledan action man. He did little reading and such quiet activities, particularlybecause of his lack of education. He had little patience with poor workersor lazy men. He liked to be busy and on the move, consequently, he was nothome a great deal. However, he kept his body and mind healthy, alert, andactive.

In the mid 1920's, things on the farm began getting rough.The farm depression had started. At the same time, more machinery, insteadof horses, was needed and bought for the farm. Robert Sutherland's quitecomfortable living standard was lowered. In 1930, at about 72 or 73, whilehauling feed with horses and sleigh, Robert caught his leg and it broke."It must have taken a year to heal," Harry remembers. (5) Abouta year later he began to get sick. He pout off going to the doctor and thencouldn't be persuaded to see a specialist, for times were hard and therewasn't enough money. His problems finally developed into cancer of the prostateand there was nothing that could be done. As his physical condition degenerated,he also became depressed. He died at the age of 76, on October 1, 1934.His obituary appeared two days later in the local paper. "Mr. Sutherlandhas long been classified as one of the bonanza farmers of Kittson County.He worked hard throughout his life gradually accumulating considerable property.His farm home today is one of the finest in the county, with large buildingsand a beautiful home built thereon. He had a great many friends throughoutall parts of the country who regretted to see him pass away. During hissick period he suffered considerable." (6) "Wesley considers himto have been a victim of the depression."(7)

In the same paper as his obituary, there was also an advertisementfor an auction sale which John, who had taken charge of the farm, was holdingto reduce the farm's machinery and cattle. (8) Four hundred acres of landhad been lost when a government lending agency foreclosed on a loan andall the machinery was no longer needed.

Robert's wife followed him in death eight years later in1942 at 70 years of age.

The farm was left to the family, and John continued tomanage it until he retired.

This has been the story of one of America's pioneers whocame to the Red River Valley to spend most of his life. Robert Sutherlandis part of the country's growth.

(1) Laura and Floy Chamberlain, personal letter, 1969

(2) Bessie Sutherland Gillie, Interviewed, January 25,1975

(3) Wesley Sutherland, Interviewed, January 25, 1975

(4) Russell Corey, Interviewed, January 18, 1975

(5) Harry Sutherland, Interviewed several times in January,1975

(6) Kittson County Enterprise, October 3, 1934, p. 1

(7) Wesley Sutherland, Interviewed, January 25, 1975

(8) Kittson County Enterprise, Op. Cit. p. 3



Chamberlain, Laura and Floy, From personal letter writtenin 1969

Corey, Russell, Interviewed, January 18, 1975

Gillie, Bessie Sutherland, Interviewed, January 25, 1975

Kittson County Enterprise, October 3, 1934, Pages 1 and3

Sutherland, Harry, Interviewed several times in January,1975

Sutherland, Wesley, Interviewed, January 25, 1975

n County Enterprise, October 3, 1934, Pages 1 and3

Sutherland, Harry, Interviewed several times in January,1975

Sutherland, Wesley, Interviewed, January 25, 1975