St. Louis County MN Pioneer Story
Submitted by: Jan Mackey - email@example.com - October 30, 2000
I hope you'll enjoy this story as much as I did. It's taken from a
booklet entitled, "70th Anniversary Celebration of Ely", 1888-1958 so
was probably written in 1958. My ancestors settled in Ely in the early
1890's so this description helps me to visualize what life was like "at
the end of the world".
A Pioneer Teacher
Vida Squier James
(Miss Vida Squier of Pennsylvania came to Ely to teach in 1890. She
lived with her sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Frank James. The
following story of her experiences begins when she boarded the train in
Duluth, on the last lap of her journey to Ely.)
It took all day to get to Ely, for the train stopped every few
miles, taking on or off lumberjacks or workmen. I was a very tired,
disheveled looking young girl greeting my sister that evening.
The next morning, after a refreshing night's rest, I looked out the
window. Such as contrast to what I had been used to greeted my eyes!
Instead of rolling hills, cultivated farms, and beautiful maple trees, I
saw log cabins, large boulders, winding paths, and a mining shaft
appearing above dark pointed topped pine trees. For Ely was a typical
new mining town. The Chandler mine was in full operation. There were
two streets with high board walks. The trees in town had been cut but
the stumps left standing. Paths led from house to house around the
stumps and large boulders. Many people lived in one room log cabins.
There was one hotel and several boarding houses. Saloons were many and
provided a meeting place for miners and lumberjacks. Men greatly
out-numbered the women. I was terribly homesick. I knew I was at the
end of the railroad but I felt I was at the end of the world.
It was difficult for me to swallow my breakfast that first morning
and as my sister and I walked along the old cow path to the school
house, tears filled my eyes. I could not look up when I was introduced
to the school principal and when my sister left me, I wanted to follow
her and tell her I would have to go back home to Pennsylvania.
The principal took me to my room and there I saw a sea of smiling
faces of all nationalities greeting me. There was no time for tears, no
time to think of home; just eager, happy children who needed a teacher.
There were seventy enrolled in my group from the ages of five years
to eight. The rooms were very meager and there were no supplies. In my
room there was a teacher's desk, some small desks and several long
benches. Children had to be placed wherever there was any space. An
old fashioned coal burner stood in the corner and a movable blackboard
in front of the room. There were no books. Reading was taught from a
The children were very interesting to teach even though only a few
knew the English language. They were from all nationalities and their
native tongue was spoken in the home. They were honest, obedient and
respectful. Discipline was no problem. School was the one bright spot
in their lives. They loved it and their teachers spent as much time
there as they could, coming early in the morning and counting it a
privilege if they could stay after school and help.
One morning, a mother came to school leading her little four year
old and said in broken English, "Please take my boy. He is so noisy.
My man works nights. He sleeps days. Can't sleep. Don't care if he
don't get learning." Even with my seventy, I couldn't refuse knowing
that they lived in a one room cabin and had other small children. When
the little fellow became tired, I would carry him over to one of the
benches for his afternoon nap.
Teachers, pupils and parents all enjoyed outside activities
together. We skated, coasted and went snow shoeing in the winter. In
the summer we enjoyed the beauties and pleasures that the lakes and
woods had to offer in this unique country.
The Indians lived not far from town and they supplied us with fish
and berries in season. The Indian squaws, when coming in for supplies,
would park their papoose, strapped in their Indian cradle, along the
buildings on the board walk. It was not an unusual sight to see eight
or ten in a row. We often bought interesting baskets, canoes and
moccasins made by them.
One of the most hazardous disasters that has ever visited this part
of the country have been forest fires. In the spring of 1893, it looked
as if Ely would be wiped out. Heavy timber stood very close to the
town. My sister and her husband with whom I lived, dwelt in a little
square house across the street from the Presbyterian Church. Tall pines
stood right behind the church. The wind was carrying the flames from
tree to tree and advancing directly toward us. Dr. Shipman sent word
that he had the horses blind-folded and would take as many as he could
to the lake. He told us to pack our most valuable possessions and be
ready. The fire had reached the very edge of town, when suddenly the
wind turned and made a pathway around the town. So Ely escaped.
I taught in Ely from 1890 to 1896, a period of six years. Now as I
look back, it was the happiest time of my life. I dearly loved my work
with the children, the life-time friends that I made and the interesting
experiences of community living which Ely had to offer in the wilderness
of northern Minnesota.
I wish to extend sincere greetings to all those still living who
were a part of the early life of Ely during those pioneer days.
Vida Squier James
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