contributed by Karen
written by Mr. Common
A LETTER FROM DAD
to our four wonderful kids
Janice, Jim, Robby and Shirley
Merry Christmas (1974) and Happy New Year! Though addressed to you, this letter is also meant for your wives and husbands, your children, their children, and theirs in turn yet to be. In a way, this is an unusual letter-the first of its kind I've ever written. And I'm writing it because of a question one of you asked-"What were things like when you were a kid? Yes, we'd like to know—but probably more important, I'd like our children—and their children-to know. Unless you supply it, they will never have an answer. And don't just tell us—write it down.
When I took on the task of answering your question, I sure learned something. I learned I just couldn't sit down and say, "Now I'm going to remember.” No-sirree, bub. I learned I could put the question to my memory bank (to use today's computer jargon), but I couldn't make it spit the memories out. I learned the "bank" released memories only when something triggered them-and not always at my convenience. To accommodate, I outfitted myself with a stack of note cards and prepared to "note down' memories whenever and wherever released.
Another point-when I "fed" that question to my memory bank, the word "youngster" apparently was a very definite control of feedback-the released memories were specific for the age period of five through fourteen (time wise 19l4-1923), the formative period of my life. Further, in collating the releases, I found they fell into two main groupings, these being memories related to my grandparent's home in Gilby and memories related to our (the Common) home in Grand Forks. Because they are so distinct, I'm going to record them separately. (Some of the memories as related to my grandparents' experiences will be memories though "I was told").
I assemble these memories at an age of sixty-five plus years-and I wouldn't trade those twenty-four thousand days for their equivalent in any other period of time since Creation. My lifetime has been a fountain of technological developments and changes-developments which probably had no bearing on who we are but which did have a forming impact on what we are, both as individuals and as a society-materially, politically, and spiritually. How could life go unchanged in the face of technological changes which my generation fostered-the automobile, radio, telephone, airplane, plastics, television, the computer, electric power and lighting, sanitation and the indoor plumbing, atomic energy, chemical fertilizers, mass production, mass transportation, etc. These developments affected not only us here but were worldwide in their impact. Some, such as the airplane, automobile, radio and TV had the combined effect of "shrinking" time and distance with the consequence that people of countries once isolated and protected from each other by distance were brought face to face faster than they could adapt to the change.
If you find even one memory helpful to your knowledge of the past, to your acceptance and understanding of the present, and to your anticipation and constructive planning of the future, then the time I have spent writing this letter will have been well spent. Again, Merry Christmas and may all the days of your life be as full of joy as mine have been by God's grace.
My maternal grandparents were James D. and Alice (Davis) Van Dusen. Their respective birth dates were: James, November 6, 1852; Alice, May 14, 1856. Both grew up in Smith Falls, Ontario, Canada. They were married at Smith Falls on August 16, 1876 and stayed in the Falls for less than a year.
In the spring of 1877, they packed up and moved by horse and wagon to the Dakota Territory where they claimed a homestead on the then unbroken prairie. Their first home, handmade from available material, was a sod hut. From their description of their homesteading experience, one can only wonder how they and others had the will to "stick it out."
The first job they had to do, preparatory to breaking (plowing) the sod and planting, was to pick up and pile up the buffalo bones. As Granddad put it, "The bones were like a carpet-so many that you walked on bones, not the earth." (Note—I can well believe his statement after reading of the exploits and slaughters carried out by the "buffalo hunters in their mad quest for hides.)
The homestead was about thirty miles northwest of the town of Grand Forks, located on the bank of the Red River of the North. It was to the Forks that they had to go for food, staple, and other material supplies. The trip, not easy, involved a wheelbarrow. Granddad pushed the empty wheelbarrow from the homestead to the Forks and pushed it filled from the Forks to the homestead-a round trip distance of sixty miles. Grandmother said when she was able to perceive him in the distance, on the return trip, she then knew he would be home in about three hours time.
The sod hut was soon replaced by a small wood-framed house, trees were planted, neighbors built homes nearby, the number of farms increased and to meet their needs the farm community-town of Gilby was created.
Memories connected with their house and home at Gilby are precious. My recollections start when I was about five or six years old (1914-15). During my youth. I spent several summers with them. I remember the house situated well back from the roadway. It was small-very small-by today's standards. The walkway leading from the road to the house was flanked on either side by towering cottonwood trees and these in turn by stretches of lawn. To the right and rear was a tall dense hedge of lilacs. This was to the north side of the house and had been planted by design to shelter the house from the winter winds and snow.
Well, the following come with no order of intended importance.
Sleeping on a
corn-shuck filled mattress. The mattresses or
Grandmother's beds were all stuffed with corn shucks so you had no
choice. The mattress was a good twelve inches or more in
When I got into bed, the mattress seemed to enfold and snuggle me into
its depth. It was sorf—but so noisy—like
that of walking through
dried leaves. However, when I lay near still the sound was as
taking me to sleep.
Watching my grandfather and my father also, shave. Looking back, I wonder why I was so impatient to "grow up!” so that I too could shave. In order to shave, they needed: a tea kettle full of water, a hot stove, a wash basin, a razor (straight-edge), honing stone, leather strap, shaving mug containing the shaving soap, shaving brush, tilting mirror that could be placed on a table, and two kerosene lamps if shaving was done after dark in the evening.
The procedure of shaving involved: hone the razor to sharpen its blade, strop the blade to finish the sharpening, wash the face thoroughly (water from teakettle), place mirror on table, place lamps on either side of the mirror, fill basin with hot water and place in front of mirror, work up lather in the shaving mug with the shaving brush, sit down at table, adjust mirror and lamps if necessary, lather up the face with the shaving brush, take razor in hand and shave, hoping for no, or the minimum of cuts. "Swish" the razor in the pan of water when necessary to clean it of lather, and finally, wash the face again to clean off any remaining lather. I later understood why so many men of that time had either full or partial beards—my grandfather had a full (tea strainer type) mustache—my father, in contrast was clean-shaven. Today, when I shave with either the electric razor or the safety razor along with the aerosol can of shaving cream, I admire their willingness to undergo their daily torture of shaving.
Sun Jam. Grandmother made this each summer when the various berries were ripe and available—my preferred was strawberry but that from currants and gooseberries was very, acceptable. She made the sun jam by first washing the fruit, stir-mixing the berries with sugar, placing the mixture in large but shallow granite pans, covering the pan with a pane of glass. The covered pan and contents was then placed outdoors in full sunlight. On a good, clear day the jam would be “cooked” by the late afternoon. The jam was then filled into clean glasses, sealed with melted wax poured atop, then stored away for later use.
Dairy Products. Grandmother always had milk, cheese, and butter on hand—each originating from the milk Grandfather got from the cows he milked every late afternoon.
For milk, we used it just as the cow gave it. To make butter, Grandmother first had to separate the cream from the milk and she did this by pouring the milk into large granite pans that were then placed in the coolness of the earthen cellar. Before the cream rose to a layer atop the milk and with spoons, we carefully skimmed the cream off the milk. Boy, how thick and creamy it was! Most of the cream was set aside to make butter. If the skimmed milk was not needed, it was slopped to the pigs. However, if we needed cheese, it was allowed to turn sour, then placed on area of the stove to help the curd to firm up. The curded mass was then poured into a cheesecloth bag and hung up to let the watery whey drain off (the whey was slopped to the pigs). When there was no more dripping, the curd was turned out from the bag and broken up with a fork into big white chunks like popcorn. That was wonderful pot cheese. I believe we had some at every noontime and evening meal.
To make butter required more work than either skimming the cream or making the cheese. To get butter, we had to churn it out from the cream. First Grandmother had to clean wash the churn, its top, and the dasher. It was all made of wood. The tub of the churn was round and high-about 12 inches across and 36 inches high (it looked like a hollow log and maybe that's what it might have been at one time). The cover was round, flat, with a hole in the center. The dasher consisted of a long handle (like a broom handle) with a dasher attached to one end (the dasher was flat with large holes cut through it to allow the cream to pass through). Grandmother poured the cream into the churn (never more than half to two-thirds full), put in the dasher, then slid the top down the handle and set it in place. Then the churning—we all took turns. The worker had to sit there and work the dasher up and down, up and down and up and down until finally a change in the sound from the inside the churn told you the butter was churned. Grandmother than took off the cover, lifted the dasher up and out with whatever butter was atop the dasher plate, then "fished" out the rest of the butter with a strainer. (At that point, I wasn't interested in the butter; I wanted some of the buttermilk—thick and creamy, little flecks of butter and the most refreshing flavor.) Grandmother then put the new butter into a large wooden bowl, added cold water, and worked it with a wooden butter paddle to remove all traces of buttermilk. After the washing water remained clear she then added salt and worked it in with the paddle. Boy, that was butter! (What buttermilk we didn't drink or want to save for a day or two was slopped to the pigs.)
Foot warmers. We learned early on the farm that nature provided a natural foot warmer for bare feet-a warmer that was sought for on cold fall mornings in the barnyard and pasture. The "warmer" was a freshly dropped pancake of cow dung. I well remember how nice it felt to stand in the "pancake" and wiggle the toes to get the warmth up in between them. Running in the damp grass soon cleaned the feet.
First aid. First aid to cuts on bare feet was equally primitive but apparently effective—we simply held the wound open and "peed" into it. A bandana, if available, might be sacrificed as a bandage. After all, this was how the adult treated cuts sustained by horses and other animals from barbed wire, etc.
were born to my grandparents in that little house.
They, in sequence, were:
Anna Callista. (my mother) -September 9, 1879,
Margaret Mellissa -October 1, 1884
Harold Alan -November 26, 1895 was adopted into their family to share their love.
Please note that The Dakota Territory was divided in 1889 into what we now know as North and South Dakota. The fact that Mother (Anna Callista) was born in 1879 shows that her birthplace was Dakota Territory and not North Dakota as the state did not exist until ten years after her birth.
The area was still relatively undeveloped even when Mother was a young girl. She frequently mentioned that her path to and from school took her through an Indian village. Also, that it was not unusual for an Indian to appear at their door to beg for food. This occurred so frequently that they learned to simply open the door when an Indian appeared. The Indian would walk in, seat himself on the floor against a wall, would be served anything the grandparents had available. He would then get up and leave as silently as he had come—no word was spoken. This was part of the evidence of the Indian being reduced from a proud being to a homeless beggar—a change that we should not be proud of accomplishing.