Back on the Homestead: Grand Tour part 4

On our mega road trip this summer we spent a total of nine days in Minnesota. Out of seven weeks traveling through twenty-two states, that’s a big chunk of time. But it felt like we could have stayed there much longer. For one thing, I had no idea how interesting and enjoyable the state would be from a purely recreational standpoint. The plentiful lakes are not just some butter company slogan — they (the lakes not the butter — though there was a lot of that, too) are everywhere and are lovely little waystations for wildlife. Driving to Itasca State Park we saw a bald eagle dipping towards a little gem of blue water and two deer leaping across the tall cement barriers on the divided highway to cross to a shaded glen by another little pond.

I felt an interest in Minnesota for its own sake (not just as a research site) that I had not anticipated. “Let’s come back here some other time and do some exploring, ” I suggested to my son, who was, at the time, dutifully working on his scrapbook pages for Crookston, Beltrami, Itasca, and Bemidji that morning that we left for Grandma’s hometown of Thief River Falls.

“Yeh. Let’s come back and fish!”

Fish. Fish. Fish. That’s all this boy can think about now. A smile lifted the corners of my mouth. He was so happy.

On the drive up to TRF, a fairly short one, I plopped a taperecording of Grandma into the car stereo and listened to her voice telling about her grammar school years at the Busy Bee School in Smiley township, Hazel, Minnesota. Soon my son set aside his scrapbook and began to listen, too. He got particularly quiet when she talked about how the neighbor boy, Leonard, stole the honey from a bee hive and was stung all over by the angry bees. My child, for years, had an almost paralyzing fear of bees. (That phobia had pretty much gone away except — wouldn’tcha know it — he just got stung at school on Thurs.! Time will tell what fallout there’ll be from that one.)

Next Grandma launched into the story of the old haunted house in the woods by the school house. The kids explored the building one day during lunch hour and were frightened by a banging noise and what they thought to be a figure in the upstairs window.

It felt so normal to hear Grandma’s voice as we drove along closer and closer to her birthplace.

We met my mom’s cousin and her husband for lunch in TRF near our hotel and they accompanied us to the local museum/archives. Thank goodness, too, because cousin Melba was a wealth of information. We found some needed facts at the archives and then decided to head out to the house in town where Grandma lived for a year, working for her room and board so she could attend high school (there was no HS in Hazel, so she had to wait to attend 9th grade until she was strong enough and mature enough to go to hire as a maid/nanny). We walked the few blocks from that house to the school, and I could see how easy it would have been for Grandma to come home at lunchtime and make lunch for the kids and then return to school. I mean easy in the sense of do-able, though clearly this duty would be tiring and inconvenient. But when the alternative is to stop your education at grade eight…?

The next day Melba took us out to Grandma’s birthplace, the homestead her parents claimed and developed in the early 20th century. The current residents are so kind and were very happy to extend hospitality to us. We got a tour of the barn (original) and granary (original) and I walked around taking pictures. The original house had burned down a number of years ago but sat on the same site. I decided to walk the LONG drive from the house down to the mailbox because Grandma includes a story about doing this in the book. Her younger brother and her cousin (same age as her brother) joined her one day when she had to go get the mail. It was about a six or seven minute walk to the box. When it was time to return to the house, the four-year-olds refused to return with Grandma (six yrs.) But when she got back to the house sans kids, Aunt Hanna beat Grandma with a stick (she was carrying firewood into the house at the time). Grandma ran like crazy back to the kids and brought them home again. Wow!

After we left the homestead, I asked Melba to take me to the remains of the town of Hazel, thinking there would be a footprint of sorts, despite being told that there was nothing left there.

There was nothing left there.

Shoulder-high grass, a deeply rutted road looping through the area, an old mattress dumped off to the side. Nothing discernable. I was so intensely saddened by this erasure. All that those immigrants had tried to create here was utterly gone. Not even a foundation left. All had crumbled. I guess I thought that Minnesota would be more tame than out west and thus more would remain. But this wasn’t really true. A town can disappear in green Minnesota just as easily as in bleak Montana, perhaps even more completely. On the dry, rolling hills of Montana, remains were exposed to the elements, yes, but whatever was left could be viewed from far away.

But Hazel had utterly disappeared and a great sadness came over me. Grandma was gone. Her town was gone. The family farm was all carved up and gone to highest bidders. An Indian gambling casino bustled not a half mile from her parent’s homestead. And as we drove back to town through a driving thunderstorm, I discovered that one of Grandma’s tapes had been ruined. Nothing remained of the recording of her discussing her high school years and last Christmas at home before they lost the farm in 1929.

For the first time on the trip, I cried.

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2 Responses

  1. I’m enjoying your entries as I grew up less than a mile from Hazel and explored through its still-standing ruins in the late 1960s. If you’d like to see some wonderful pictures of Hazel when it was still there, take a look at http://pvillage.org and search for “Hazel” in the description.

    Otto Wedul, a childhood resident of Hazel, wrote a short story of memories that you can view at:

    http://homepage.mac.com/marisa.benson/wedul.html

  2. Hi, Marisa,

    Wow! Cool, so you are from Grandma’s area. Her farm was almost directly across from the new Indian casino. You know where that is?

    Thanks for the link. I’ll check that out for more research. And the short story — that’s COOL!

    Thanks for coming to my blog!!

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