The Dakota Icelanders Project

The Lean Years

by J. M. Johnson

March 1976

I. Introduction

This story is an effort to draw a mental picture of the various modes of living which were the everyday customs in the days of my childhood, and over the years at the turn of the century. The various customs and methods were so entirely different from those of later years and of today.

The younger people reading this may be skeptical, and may even doubt the truth of some of the statements made. But I am telling it “as it was”, not in anyway detracting from, nor adding to, anything. I was there and grew up during these difficult times. So I saw and heard how these happenings came about.

I decided to name this narrative “The Lean Years” because the period after people had arrived in this new and strange land was a very difficult and perhaps at times seemed a hopeless experience. As far as I know my parents and others came here to this country with very little money. But they had faith and a very strong will to make a start in farming, so they could make a good living for themselves and families.

I am Jon Magnuson Johnson. My parents were Magnus Jonson and Oddny Johannesdottir. They came to this country from Iceland in 1876 and after living for a while in Canada, came to and settled on the land four and a half miles south west of Mountain, North Dakota. On this farm they lived all their lives after arrival in the U.S. It is in this Mountain, Gardar, area that this story unfolds. At first our post office was Mountain; the post office was housed in a corner of Elis Thorwaldson’s General Store.

Although Mountain was our home town, we would do trading in Gardar, Edinburg, Milton, and some in Crystal, as well as Hensel, which was then known as Canton. Later, about 1903, we had Rural Free Delivery Route established from Edinburg.

There were five people in our family: father, mother, and three sons. I was the youngest, then Geirfinnur, and Joe the oldest. Geirfinnur passed away when he was 70 years plus, and Joe when he was 55 plus. Joe followed the old Icelandic custom by going by the first name of his father, which was Magnus. So, he was best known by the name Joe Magnusson, while the other two of us brothers went through life as Johnsons. The neighbors were almost all Icelanders except two whose names were Ole Skrogstad and another whose name was Michael Paulson.

Being that Joe was the oldest of us brothers, he really became the head of our family. The first few years my parents lived in a sod house. Then they were able to buy a timber house from a Vigfus Hanson and this house was moved to the farm. We lived in this house for a number of years.

The land where our and neighboring farms were located was mostly light sandy soil, so there just had to be plenty of rainfall to insure good crops. Some years rainfall was not nearly enough, so the wheat and other crops would be very light, then hay land and pastures would suffer too. Wheat, oats, and barley were the main crops.

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II. Transportation

The big problem those days was transportation. Being this was before the automobile, these were truly the “horse and buggy days.” The good old “top buggy” was drawn by one, or sometimes two, horses. Then there was the spring wagon, called a Democrat. (Please don’t ask me why.) It had seating to carry two, four, or even six people. This vehicle’s back seats could be removed to make it a handy, light, and useful wagon.

The bicycle was very popular and widely used by young and old. There were also a few tandem cycles that carried and were pedalled by two people. Motorcycles came in much later but were not popular in the old days, the reason of course being lack of good roads.

Speaking of bicycles, when I was about twelve years old I was able to come by three dollars to pay for a bicycle bought from Palli Bjarnason’s brother Bogji, whom I mention later on in this story. This was a Columbia make, one of the oldest firms in the bicycle business. There was another make, the Crescent, also a King and Imperial.

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III. Winter Evenings, Etc. At the Turn of the Century

One would imagine that the long winter evenings would have to have been very dull and boring, since people didn’t have any of the now popular means of entertainment. This was before radio, and, needless to say, before television. But we never had a really dull evening that I can remember.

Evenings would often be spent playing cards. Among the games played was an Icelandic game called “Alkort”, also checkers and dominoes. Sometimes one of us boys was elected to “read aloud” for the rest of the family to listen to. Sometimes we would sing Icelandic and other songs accompanied by brother Joe on a parlor organ that he had brought from Jon Thorlakson, a neighbor.

Later we got a disc record phonograph that was put to use quite often. Visiting among neighbors was difficult in winter as deep snow and blocked roads were common. If it got too cold in our house, we couldn’t go and “turn up the thermostat.” Instead, we would add more wood to the fire in the old wood burning stove which furnished the heat in those days. Later on we had a soft coal heater and still later a hard coal “self feeder” that had the nice windows where you see the glowing coals which made a very cozy picture to watch.

Among the many labor saving devices that we didn’t have was the cream separator. So I can well remember how Mother would pour milk into several shallow pans that she kept overnight in our cellar. Then the next afternoon she would “run” the cream that had by then all settled on top of the milk.

Then the cream would be put into a hand operated churn, and the butter would be molded in a wooden mold into round, one pound molds. These would be for home use. Some would be traded in the store for merchandise. Other things the farm brought forth that were taken to a store to trade in on goods were, besides butter, eggs were packed twelve dozen in a crate.

During the summer Mother would knit men’s socks. By fall she would have knit one hundred pair to take to Waldo’s Department Store in Crystal, where she received 35¢ a pair in merchandise.

In those years, there were none of the labor saving modern conveniences that we have now. The farms had no electricity. Kerosene lamps were used exclusively. The smaller towns did not get electricity until later. Small generators driven by a gasoline motor were installed in some towns to produce electricity.

We had no telephones until later when Edinburg and Gardar Telephone Company was organized about 1902-4, and they installed hand cranked wall phones, with a flat rate of $18.00 per year, in farm houses and business places in towns.

Mail was delivered once a day by horse drawn vehicles from Edinburg to Mountain, the post office being a corner in Elis Thorwaldson’s General Store. We had box #12 and we tried to get to Mountain at least once a week to “get the mail”, of which the Winnipeg Icelandic papers “Logberg” and “Heimskringla” were always important to us. Mother would get the Decorah “Posten” as she could read Norwegian quite well.

Horses were used to pull the various farm implements as tractors were unknown until later. Horses were also used for transportation as automobiles had yet to enter the picture.

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IV. Many Products of Farm

Our farm brought forth a variety of good things. In summer, we could go out and soon pick a gallon pail full of rich, juicy strawberries. Also there were many plum trees by our house, loaded down with red plums. Blue, (or June) berries were very plentiful up in the Pembina Hills west of our place, a mile or so.

People would go up there and pick these berries by the milk pail full. There were also choke-cherries that were very good for making jams and jellies. Also we had lots of raspberries and gooseberries.

Brother Joe built an ice-house on our farm and in winter we harvested ice from the creek which ran through our farm. We packed the ice in sawdust gathered up from wood sawing. So we had ice through the summer.

Home-made ice cream was enjoyed by all. We always had a good sized garden. In this garden we would raise potatoes enough to last through the year, also all kinds of vegetables. We had this cellar underneath our house which was always cool, so we could keep things there. The water in our wells was always real cool so sometimes we would lower things down in there to keep cool.

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V. Habits and Customs

Most Icelanders were heavy coffee drinkers. Mother used to buy green coffee beans in bulk and roast them in a frying pan. I can well remember the aroma of these as they were being roasted to the right color. Then these roasted beans would be ground as needed in the coffee grinder, either one fastened to the kitchen wall, or the one that was held in a person’s lap.

Let me say right here that this was real coffee. People would sometimes add a small chunk of chicory to every pot of coffee brewed. This would give the coffee extra flavor. This chicory came in round sticks. Most people used sugar and cream, and often loaf sugar on the side.

When relatives and friends came to visit, besides coffee, which was a must, then chocolate would always be served too, and Mother would make a generous batch of “Lummur”, a sort of pancake about 5-6" in diameter, rolled into a role, first being generously sprinkled with brown sugar.

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VI. Schools and Education, Etc.

Education wasn’t easy to come by those years. Very few had the means to send their children away to high school and college. So the only schooling available for most of us was the little one room school house which was half a mile from our farm. This is where I received by very limited education.

The first teacher that I can remember was Runolfur Marteinson, who later was pastor of various churches in Canada and elsewhere. Then next was my cousin, Joe Bjornson, whose parents lived on a farm next to ours. His parents were able to send Joe to Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. He was a college professor for a great many years.

Other teachers in our little school were: Miss Pauline Thorwaldson from Akra; Paul (Palli) Bjarnason, Magnus F. Bjornson, Freda Snowfield, and John Samson. I noticed a write up in “Heimskringla” on Paul (Palli) Bjarnason. I know him and his brother Bogji well. They were from the Mountain area. Their parents lived west of Mountain. I believe the brothers were in the newspaper business in Wynyard, Saskatchewan and elsewhere. Both of these men have passed away some years ago.

Our school house stood on open ground. There were no trees or shelter to keep the howling winds away, and I remember very well the eerie sound the wind made was very depressing at times. Heat was furnished by a cast iron heater that stood in the middle of the room, the fuel being cord wood, mostly oak. This wood was stacked outside.

The teacher would order one of us boys to put on our overshoes and winter coats and go out and dig some wood out of the snow, bring it in, then put some on the fire and stack the rest up by the stove to be used as needed. Siggi Sigurdson, who was county commissioner for some time, and lived close to our farm, had oak timber on his land. Brother Geiri and I would work for him cutting down oak trees, some being maybe 12 to 30 inches in diameter. We used the old two man cross cut saws, being that chain saws were yet unheard of. After trimming off branches, we cut the tree into four foot lengths and split the logs into suitable cord wood, using wedge made for that purpose.

Then in the spring men would bring their dynamite and equipment and blast the stumps that had been left in the ground. The man I remember doing this rather dangerous work for Mr. Sigurdson were Oli Thordarson, Bjorn Olgeirson, and Gunnar Gunnarson.

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VII. First Snowfall

The first snowfall was always a real treat for us boys. Brother Joe would hitch a team of horses to the bob sled and take us out for a ride. Sometimes I would ride on my little sled that I had tied back of the big sled. We did a lot of skiing and skating. A creek ran through our farm and when that froze over neighbor boys and I would skate and play hockey. We had a neighbor, Mr. Olgeirson, who made skis, using oak wood, I believe, very elaborate ones with carved figure heads.

This man also made a “cutter” out of lumber. This was a sort of passenger sleigh that would seat two or four people. This cutter was pulled by two horses, the harness being fitted with a set of sleigh bells. I will say the music created by these bells on a cold, crisp moonlit evening is something hard to describe and hard to forget.

The winters were rough, snowfall sometimes very heavy, temperatures down to zero and often far below zero, with north winds blowing. It was cold. We had blizzards those days that would last two and three days and nights, and everyone was really “snowed in”.

At first we got our mail at our home town of Mountain. Later we had Rural Free Delivery (R. F. D. 3) from Edinburg. The mail was delivered to boxes we had installed by the roadside as close to the home as possible. This was fine, except sometimes after a severe snow storm the roads became impassable, so many times we didn’t get mail for many days.

The mail was delivered by horse drawn sleds or other vehicles. Sometimes the train that brought the mail from Grand Forks to Edinburg couldn’t make it through the snow filled “cuts”. When we had these big storms it made living a little difficult. But my people always saw to it that we were well prepared, and well able to carry on and live comfortably through these emergencies.

There were some things to do that were entirely necessary, such as shoveling a path from the house to the barn, also clearing a path to and around the wood pile. Then there was also clearing to the wells, one for water for livestock and the other for household use.

We always had a good supply of frozen meat kept in a small granary where wolves couldn’t get at it. We also had frozen fish that would be ordered from Lake Winnipeg. A barrel of flour was kept in the kitchen corner. Mother would always bake bread for the family.

Speaking of water for the livestock, I can well remember how we would carry water in those big candy pails we got from the store that would hold at least five gallons each, and how the animals would drink!

Things in those days were difficult at times, but people were content with little, and made the best of it with what was to be had to make a living. Let me say here that I am sure people were more appreciative and thankful and more humble than we find people nowadays. There were crop failures but people didn’t rely on the government for disaster help, and didn’t receive, nor ask for, any help.

There were occasions when hail would wipe out whole fields of crops in a few minutes. Then there were dry years when crops were almost a total loss. But people would tighten their belts and get along the best they could. Use of dope or “tranquilizers” was un-heard of then.

Pipe smoking among the men was common. But as far as I can recall there was no cigarette smoking, except some used “Bull Durham” and paper to “roll your own”.

Please don’t anyone ask me how these pioneers were able to start working their land, building houses to live in, obtaining equipment to work with, and the many things needed. As far as I know, these people arrived in this country with empy hands, very little if any money, so you can see that it took a great deal of faith and sheer will and determination to succeed, which they did remarkably well.

My father, Magnus Jonson, took great pride in taking good care of the horses and cattle. He also would see to it that there would always be enough wood fuel for both heater and cook stove. I can see Dad now, standing there splitting wood and stacking it into neat piles outside and also in a shed back of the house. Brother Geirfinnur left home when a young man, lived and worked in Winnipeg for a while, then moved to Arborg, where he married and lived the rest of his life.

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VIII. Medical Help

One very real problem in the earlier days was that of getting doctors and medical help. My brother Joe fell under the wheels of a threshing machine (separator) that was being moved from one job to another. It was being pulled along the road by a steamtraction engine. One of the rear wheels of separator passed over his upper right thigh and his arm, both limbs being mangled very badly.

There was no telephone, no cars, so someone went to a neighbor, Magnus Benjaminson, who had a fast team of horses. He drove to Edinburg, 8 miles. He described what happened to Dr. Brandson and Dr. Bell. They in turn hired a fast team from the livery barn and drove to our place.

All this took some time. These doctors brought the necessary things with them and set brother Joe’s leg and arm. He was bed fast all that winter from September till spring. Eventually these breaks healed up fine and he was able to walk again.

This Dr. Brandson later became a very famous surgeon in Winnipeg. We had no doctors in Mountain except a Dr. Johnson for a short time. So we had to depend on these doctors in Edinburg, or Dr. Halldorson in Park River, also a Dr. Scott from Crystal.

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IX. Mountain

I’ll try to tell a little about my home town of Mountain, and the general area around there. Our home was situated half a mile east of the edge of the Pembina Hills. There were people from Winnipeg and elsewhere who would like to drive up on these hills and stop to admire the scenery looking east over the “flats” towards Hensel and Crystal. Towards evening and sunset when the sun was near setting, this was a very beautiful picture. I often heard visitors remark about this.

Mountain is, always has been, and will be a small town (population 220 in 1960). Our farm home was, as I have stated, 4 and a 1/2 miles southwest of Mountain. I’ll name a few of the closest neighbors: Magnus Benjaminson, Geirmundur Olgeirson, Jon Bergman, Siggi Sigurdson, David Jonson, Bjarni Dagson, Ole Skrogstad (not Icelandic), Sigurdur Krakson, Sigurbjorn Gudmundson, Hannes Bjornson, Grimur Steinolfson, Sigurgeir Bjornson, Jakob Eyford, Johann Sigurdson, Kristjan Geir, his mother Anna Geir and Kristjan Julius (Kainn), who lived with the Geirs.

These were our close neighbors. There were many more in the Gardar, Hallson, Akra areas.

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Revised Addition

In going over what I have written so far I find that some incidents I didn’t describe fully, and some things I didn’t get into this story at all. Now looking back over the years, I have found in my distant treasure of memories many happenings and incidents that should have been included in this narrative. So the following will be some loose ends I have picked up, and also some new items I have gathered up.

X. Threshing

In the September-October, 1970, issue of the “Iron Men Album” I wrote an article about threshing. I had many letters of compliments on this article I called “Threshing Time”. But this time I will go more fully into the various aspects of grain threshing as it was done in the olden days.

Threshing time was really very important, as it might be called the “Grand Finale” to the whole season. From the seeding of the grain in the spring to the harvesting in the fall, it was “pay day” for the season’s labor. If the crop was good, fine, but some years crops were poor; then, of course, the pay was poor.

The machinery used in threshing consisted of a steam traction engine, separator, water wagon, and cook car. The crew consisted of the following: engineer, fireman, separator man, water hauler, two spike pitchers, four to six field pitchers, ten to fourteen bundle rack drivers, then last, but not least, the cooks. Generally there were two ladies and cooking for a crew of twenty hungry men was a gigantic job.

The engineer and fireman had important jobs. The engineer’s job was to see to it that the engine was in good running order and would always be ready to furnish the power needed to keep the separator running. The fireman’s job was to get up at four o’clock in the morning, knock on the cook car door to wake the cooks, walk maybe a mile or so to the engine, fire up and have 150# P. S. I. (pounds per square inch) of steam so everything could be started to hum at six o’clock.

The water man (most often called the tank man) had a most important job as the engine’s boiler had to have water and lots of it. The tank held about 12 to 14 barrels and was mounted on a regular wagon running gear, drawn by two horses. Four to six tankfulls would often be used in a day.

The tank man had to scout around and find his supply of water. This would be a creek or pond; sometimes in a dry season these sources of water would dry up so then the water man sometimes had a problem.

The fireman also had to know how to run the engine if the engineer became disabled. He had to know how to use different kinds of fuel: coal, wood, or straw, which in our area was most commonly used. There were various kinds of straw: wheat, oat, barley, and flax of which flax was the best for keeping up steam.

Coal was sometimes used on long distance moving. In other areas coal and wood fuel was used.

The separator man had a very important job to perform. First of all he had to keep all gears and bearings well lubricated, as all of these were high speed. He also had to know how to put in use the correct concaves and seives for the many different grains, also to keep track of the number of bushels of each kind of grain threshed. The spike pitchers job was to help the rack driver to pitch the bundles into the feeder for the separator.

I will now name some of the men in our area which held these different jobs. Pitchers were: Jon Hinrikson, Bjorn Bjornson, from Hallson, Oli Olason, his brother Gutti Olason, Hannes Anderson, Geirmundur Olgeirson, and many others.

Separator men: Sveinn Gislason, Chris Geir, Joe Magnuson, Sigri Steinolfson, Laki Steinolfson. These men were very good at these different jobs and really knew what it was all about. There were of course many others perhaps equally good at these jobs.

The hours were long, a threshing day generally from 6:00 A. M. until 7:00 or 8:00 P.M., with one to two thousand bushels of grain threshed in a day. The price of wheat was down to 75¢ a bushel at one time. The grain was hauled to the elevator as soon as it was threshed, except some was stored in the granary for the next spring seeding.

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XI Automobiles

Automobiles didn’t come into use in our area until after the turn of the century, and not into general use until 1905-1915. I owned a one cylinder 1904 Cadillac which was the first car in our area. There was one other of the same year and make owned and driven by Gisli Goodman of Edinburg.

These cars sold for about $850.00, when new, with no top and no windshield. There were no service stations then. Gasoline had to be obtained where you could find it, mostly in hardware stores. There were no places to have repair work done, so the blacksmith had to the best he could in auto work.

Later on, around 1910 or so, people would start buying cars. About that time a man from Park River set up a dealership selling Overland cars in Edinburg. The most popular makes of car those days were the Overland, Buick, and Reo. Then about 1908 the Ford model “T” came on the market.

Of the above makes only Ford and Buick weathered the storm and stayed in business. Oldsmobile was one of the early ones still in business now. There were a great many who went into making cars but most fell by the wayside after turning out only a few cars. Stanley Steamer was one of them.

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XII. Farmwork and Harvesting

As I have stated before, we had none of today’s modern machinery and equipment. Nowadays farming is strictly “power farming”. Oh yes, we had power all right, but it was man and horse power; no tractors or combines.

Plowing was done with, at first, a two horse walking plow; later with a sulky, and then the gang plow pulled by four horses. Then, after plowing, the ground had to be gone over with a harrow which was also pulled by four horses.

Then, after plowing and harrowing, finally the seeding was done with a drill or seeder, which also was pulled by four horses. The seed used was mostly wheat, oat, barley, and some flax. So from seeding time in spring to harvest time in fall, people hoped and prayed for rain and good growing weather, so the fall crops would be good.

So much depended on a good crop, as the fall harvest was the “pay day” for all this work. In the fall, August and September were harvest and threshing time. Cutting the grain was done with a binder, also pulled by four horses, that cut the grain an tied it into bundles, left on the ground. The bundles were then picked up and stacked into “shocks” of five to eight bundles. The shocks were then left to dry so grain would be suitable for threshing.

There was shock threshing and there was stack threshing. Instead of leaving the bundles in shocks, they were sometimes put into stacks to dry. Stacks were generally in sets of four, placed so there would be room for a threshing machine between.

These stacks, 10 to 14 feet high, had to be built in such a way as to shed rain water. There were instances when these stacks were left all winter not threshed and were good as ever, not hurt by snow or weather.

Threshing was a very busy time for everyone. The machines were moved from one farm to the next. The season lasted 30 to 50 working days, but sometimes rains would delay the work.

The threshing rig owners and operators in our area were Chris Geir, Siggi Melsted, Geirmundur Olgeirson, and others. The first threshermen to thresh our grain was Oddur Dahlman from the Gardar area. All these had steam rigs.

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XIII. Traveling Library

It would only be right that I should make mention of what we would call a travelling library we had in our neighborhood. People in those days did much reading, being there was no television to turn on. Geirmundur Olgeirson’s father Bjarni, being a carpenter, made a book case that was about six feet wide, six feet high, and about two feet deep.

This bookcase was filled with Icelandic books and was moved from farmhouse to farmhouse, kept in each place for one year. The subjects in these books were many: fiction, poetry, old Icelandic stories, etc. Our neighbors came to select their books to take home with them. When it was our turn to keep the bookcase at our house the neighbors came often.

I was only in the neighborhood of ten to twelve years of age then, but I took great delight in taking care of these books, keeping track of out and in books. A small fine had to be collected on overdue books. I believe two weeks was the limit. So this helped immensely, providing these books for people and I am sure a great many hours were pleasantly spent reading these books. Where the books came from originally, I am unable to explain.

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XIV. Businesses in Mountain, Gardar, Etc.

Mountain has always been a small town, population between two and three hundred, but I believe there will always be a Mountain. At one time Mountain was a “boom” town, when a railroad was built from Edinburg to Concrete, 21 miles, but this boom was short lived, as the cement mine near Concrete did not produce cement of the quality required.

So the railroad was abandoned in a year or two. Tracks were torn up, grain elevators that had been built both at Mountain and Gardar, population 62, were sold or torn down. So the towns settled down again to the old routine and have been the same small towns ever since.

Here are the business places as they were in the better times: Elis Thorwaldson, General Store and Post Office; Haldor Reykjalin, General Store; Svein Thorwaldson, Bank; Dr. Halldorson, Drug Store; Jacob Arason, Harness Shop; Ole Olason, Blacksmith; Jon Sigmar, Meat Market; Asgeir Byron, Dray Line; Byron Bros, Garage; Bjornson Bros & Co, Farm Implements; Christ Gudmundson, Auto Livery and later a Cash store; Joe Koerner, Barber.

Gardar was only a general store, owned by Bergman and Breidfjord Hardware Store, Hans Einarson, and years before a small general store.

Notes added by ADS. It was certainly fortunate that John took the time to add the supplement, which contains much of interest. Hopefully, this is transcribed exactly as it was written. An ‘original’ was loaned many years ago by Jón’s (the author’s) grand-niece, Grayce Walter, whose mother was given a copy with a written inscription “Dear Winnie, with best wishes from Uncle John.” Winnie was the daughter of Jóhannes Magnússon (referred to above as Joe Magnusson), John’s brother, and his wife Ingibjörg Ágústa Pétursdóttir, both of whom were children of pioneer settlers in the area. For someone with the ‘limited education’ which he describes above, John certainly demonstrates an amazing ability to write. And remember, he was 86 years old when this was written!

Incidentally, this was a farm that I knew quite well growing up. Jóhannes Magnússon's sons that took over operation of the farm were apparently either not as proficient or not as interested in farming as their father, and eventually the farm was lost. In the 1940s the farm was acquired by Hannes Bjornson, and this is the name most people of my generation would associate with it. He was my half-great-uncle (his father was the husband of my maternal great-grandmother), and I spent much time on the farm, staying out there fairly frequently when young and occasionally working there. The creek was also a beaver creek and during that time the dam was just a short ways east of the farmstead; this was one of ‘our’ (the kids from Mountain) three swimming holes. The others were on Cart Creek, just southwest of Mountain and on the creek that was the south branch of the Tongue River a mile north of Mountain. Although the home on the farm was completely refurbished in the 1960s, it was later abandoned and now is in a state of near ruin.

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