Breakfast at Six
Anna Oien came over in 1907 from Norway to her uncle’s place at Halstad, and after celebrating her seventeenth birthday, promptly went out to work as a hired girl on the prosperous farm of another Norwegian immigrant. The scholar who interviewed her in 1954, Leonard Sackett (the interview transcript to be found in the collections of the Institute for Regional Studies), records that every night Anna took to her cot in an upstairs hallway and “cried in the dark for fatigue and homesickness.”
“Anna didn’t know,” recounts Sackett, “that her work day was longer than usual in this flat new country.” On the 4th of July her cousin, Ragna Johnson, came over and found Anna left at the house while the family had gone to a picnic in Climax. Ragna took Anna away and saw that she got the wages due her.
Anna worked at a couple of other places before finding a position in 1909 at a bonanza farm, Grandin Farm #4, near Halstad, operated by John Wyman. Wyman also operated the nearby Grandin Farm #3. During threshing season Anna left comfortable quarters at Grandin #4 and worked in the cook car at Grandin #3, assisting the cook, Gertie Onstadt.
The cook car, a long trailer, had a cook stove and cooking area in the front; a side door with entry steps; a side counter that ran the length of the car interior; and a table that ran almost the length of the car and seated thirty to forty men. The table was set at night for breakfast beginning at six o’clock next morning.
Breakfast at six meant getting up at 4:30, feeding a couple hundred men in shifts, and finishing the dishes by 8:00. Then began preparations for dinner, served at noon. Baking went on through the afternoon and overlapped with supper preparations.
Most of the threshers came from surrounding towns. “Transients were taken on,” types Sackett, “if they were clean. It would be apparent in a few days whether they were good men. If they were not, if they were tough or if they drank, they were let go. The foreman slept near the cook car in the machine shed, so the girls had no night fears.”
The men ate quickly, in shifts, and were forbidden to hang around the cook car at #3 or the dining room at #4 -- mostly. As Sackett writes, “an exception was made of some of them, ‘nice boys,’ friends of the foreman, the only ones [Anna] got to know, who used to come in while the girls were washing dishes. They played mouth organs; sometimes they danced--even in the cook car--with the girls. They never asked for dates. There was no rule of silence at meals, and the men could talk to the girls.”
Anna Oien recalled her time on the Grandin farms in a wistful tone, despite the hard work it entailed. She had other jobs after that and eventually married a Swiss immigrant named Scheidegger to live in Fargo, where in 1954 she sat down with Sackett. She speaks fondly of “boys” whom she had fed in 1909 and 1910 still living in the locality and recounts gossip about the rich people who had been her bosses.
Anna’s cook-car situation illustrates many of the perils of the hired girls. She was young, naïve, and vulnerable -- but on the other hand, she worked in a situation where there were multiple women on site for support, and protective men in positions of authority
This business of favored boys coming around and playing their mouth organs -- I do not read that as taking advantage. I suspect the foreman had in mind that a hired girl like Anna might be looking for a husband, and this was a regulated situation in which she might find one. As with so many situations we try to reconstruct across time, through filtered documents, we have to recognize the complexity of the past and read carefully.