My great-grandfather Jens Naeseth, Anglicized to Nesset, was a contentious fellow, a landowner in Norway who for reasons unknown (but not beyond surmise) sold out and moved to the new world of Minnesota. Here, he and his sons homesteaded a good farm near Delavan, in the south central part of the state just south of Lura Lake.
At some point, Jens had a falling-out with his sons Young Jens and Ole. John, Jens’ youngest son and my grandfather-to-be, had already left home for more peaceful pastures. For spite, Jens went a half-mile down the one-lane gravel road and homesteaded a much poorer farm, two tillable fields and an unfarmable slough.
Jens died in the 1920s. When the agricultural depression of the later ’20s swept away the good farm, Young Jens and Ole moved down the road to work their late father’s not-so-good spite farm. During the Great Depression, this farm fed a number of people, including my grandmother’s brother Tom and my grandfather’s three sisters, Anna, Hannah and Rhoda, who lived in Hannah’s house in Delavan. (When I was five I saw my centenarian Great-Aunt Rhoda, witless and toothless, gumming pancakes in Hannah’s kitchen — she who as a teenager had witnessed the Great Northfield Raid of 1876, my living link to the James-Younger gang).
In the mid-1930s, future grandfather John returned from ventures in western Minnesota to take over the farm, his brothers being in their mid-80s by then and he in only his mid-70s. In 1940, my future grandmother returned to the farm from Decorah, Iowa, where she had been running a boardinghouse while their sons attended college. She would cook and clean and sew and garden and put up preserves, manage house and home while my grandfather worked in the fields.
The stage was set. In 1945, my father, newly home from World War II service and with a teaching job in Mankato, brought my mother and me to the farm, where we lived for several months until he could find us a place to live in crowded, postwar Mankato. I was 2½, and this farm, without electricity or running water, with its corncob-burning potbelly stove and kerosene lamps and board sidewalk to the outhouse, was the setting of my first memories and of many more memories in the course of the eight summers that followed.
And what amazing memories they were. My grandfather farmed with two immense Belgian workhorses, Queenie and Dickaboy. I remember being placed on Queenie’s back, like a wide white floor, and other times riding beside my grandfather to the upper field behind those two massive rumps. There were dangers on the farm, menacing hogs I was warned to stay away from, and a rooster who flew into the faces of children, pecking at their teeth (the rascal was dispatched by my uncle with a 12-gauge shotgun when it pecked one of his children).
Yet the darkness on the farm was not fearful, but magical: deep and everywhere at night, with a sky full of more stars than I had ever seen, even in the small Iowa town where I lived with my parents. The sun rose over an eastern field with a white church in the distance, the West Church, where Jens and Brita, my great-grandmother, and Anna, Hannah and Rhoda lay buried beside Young Jens and Ole. I played with my cousins in the front yard of the farmhouse, across the gravel lane from that green field, that white church, enfolded by that eastern light. I still dream about it.
Even this primitive place had its labor-saving devices. My grandfather pumped well water with the help of a one-cylinder, gasoline-powered motor whose bright red flywheel was the most mysterious and wonderful object I had ever seen. This engine was Grandpa’s “mota.”
Grandma’s “mota” was a gasoline-powered washing machine that sat on the back porch of the farmhouse, filling the countryside with its washday roarings, shaking the house and spewing clouds of exhaust. Early one morning, when I was crying with the pain of an ear infection, my grandmother asked me what she could do to help me feel better.
“Start the mota,” I cried through my tears.
So my grandmother fired up the mota, filling the wee hours with its roar, an act of love if there ever was one, and I felt better. I feel better today remembering it.
She also had a kerosene-fueled iron that sometimes flared up in a frightening way, and she cooked huge and memorable holiday meals for her three-generation family on an iron kitchen range that burned corncobs. I remember her replacing and trimming the mantles on the kerosene lamps that lighted the house as brightly as the electric lights of my parents’ house.
Links to the outside world were a battery-operated radio and a telephone connected by party line to every farm in the neighborhood; the Sunday after I sang “Happy Birthday” to my grandmother over the phone, several women approached her at the West Church to tell her, in Norwegian, that her grandson was sure a good singer. On shopping days, my grandfather would drive an ancient Ford to Delavan, or to the bigger towns of Amboy or Good Thunder, to buy what could not be grown or made on the farm.
My other grandfather was a station agent for the Chicago and North Western Railroad. He presided over Sac City Junction, or Sacton, a mile east of Wall Lake, Iowa. Two railroads intersected at Sacton, so my grandfather supervised a crew of switchmen and was responsible for the semaphore that towered over the station and for the telegraph that tied the stations together and ensured the orderly passage of trains.
Sacton was also a coaling and watering station, with a huge black storage tank rising out of the station building, in one wing of which were the mixing tanks with their great splashing arms. There were also a wood-framed water tank further down the track, where the locomotives took on water, and a coal chute at the end of the yard.
My cousin Grant and I spent the day at this wonderful place every chance we got.
There were maintenance crews at Sacton who slept in old Pullman cars, mysterious and slightly scary men, the “gandy dancers” of legend and song, who came and went and didn’t have much to do with the Sacton regulars. And there were gravel pits on the other side of the yards, and steam-powered switching engines that pushed and pulled cars of gravel to the scales, where my grandfather weighed them, and then pushed the loaded cars to the siding where they awaited the big locomotives that would haul them to the outside world.
The men who operated these switching engines were a friendly bunch, glad to take the agent’s grandsons along to the pits and back again to the yard. I remember riding in the cab of a steam locomotive, the gaping doors of the firebox and the heat that hit my face when they opened, the fireman shoveling coal into the inferno, the engineer strenuously moving his levers and the sudden jerking motions that were hard enough to throw me from my seat if I wasn’t holding on. It was a harsh masculine world of elemental forces, fire and steam striving to move massive weight, all contained and controlled by these friendly giants who laughed at our discomfiture and treated us, Frank’s grandsons, so gently.
Although my grandmother feared that these gravel pits would be the death of us, dragged under their water by weeds and drowned, the pits were the least of Sacton’s dangers. There were several trains every hour, mile-long freight trains and passenger trains, the Chicago to Sioux City expresses that never stopped and the local “Puddle-Jumper” that did. Any one of these trains would make short work of a grandson teetering on a rail like a high-wire artist. But I don’t remember that my grandfather ever warned us about approaching trains, or that we had any close calls.
And there were boxcars to be climbed on and jumped down from (ouch!), gravel cars and tank cars on sidings to be explored, rabbits and pigeons to be hunted with BB guns and later with .22 rifles. In those pre-helicopter-parent days we were trusted to make our own way in a sometimes dangerous world, to solve our own problems and avoid trouble by using our wits, which were considerably sharpened by the freedom of our distantly supervised world. This same world used up a few of us; the rate of child mortality was twice as high in the 1940s and 1950s as it is today.
In 1952, my father’s parents moved from the farm to a cottage in south Minneapolis, a new world of electric lights and running water and a kitchen range that didn’t have to be stoked. My grandmother adapted quickly to city life, taking the Bloomington Avenue streetcar to buy lutefisk at Ingebretsen’s and to watch Verne Gagne wrestle at the auditorium. Meanwhile, 50 years with my grandmother had enabled Grandpa John to adapt serenely to any conditions whatsoever.
The farm, electrified and with water and propane laid on, passed to other owners. It is probably a country residence in a rural suburb of Blue Earth or Mankato, its two good fields rented or sold to the big operators or the corporations.
And Sacton is no more. Trucks and automobiles reduced freight and passenger traffic to the point of unprofitability. The north/south line is now the Sauk Rail Trail, a paved bicycle trail that runs from Lake View to Carroll, 30 miles to the south. The diesel locomotives that we occasionally saw in the ’50s have entirely replaced the steam locomotives that consumed Sacton’s coal and water. The C&NW still ships gravel from the ever-expanding pits, whose predatory weeds my cousin and I managed to escape, so there is a single railroad track running past broken foundations; but Sacton is a junction no more.
And my grandparents are long gone. My cousins and I, now grandparents ourselves, were lucky to have these children of the 19th century in our lives, not just to listen to their reminiscences but to experience the lives they lived in the past, on a farm little changed from the pioneer homesteads of Willa Cather’s novels, in a world of railroads little changed from the days when rails were the only way to move people and freight around the country.
I think about the past that we Boomers and pre-Boomers are telling our grandchildren about: a world of small-screen black-and-white TVs, of cars with manual transmissions and no air conditioning or seat belts, of coonskin caps and duck-and-cover, of landlines and party lines. Our past of peace and prosperity and stability seems trivial compared to the heroic age of railroads and pioneer farms.
Is my sense of a diminished legacy the effect of the safe and stable world I grew up in, so different from the world of global wars and economic depression and sweeping change that my grandparents and parents survived and saved us from? Or is it the sense of a diminished present common among people my age?
In any case, I hope that we have more to offer our grandchildren than their first experience of grief.