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One Day on a Territorial Homestead

In a frame shanty on a homestead claim in Spink County, Dakota Territory, a Norwegian mother imprisoned by a blizzard gave vent to her hopelessness. “We are as if we were living on an island in the middle of an ocean,” she lamented, “with nobody to care if we blow away or if we freeze to death. There is not a person with whom we can talk and who understands our language.

“How you ever got me to come out here is more than I can understand and the sooner we get away from here the better it will suit me and go to some place where people do not grow up as heathens and where one can go to church on Sundays and where there are people who understand our language.”

This lady’s lament is recounted by Ole A. Olson, who was a boy on that Dakota homestead in the 1880s, proved up one of his own in Montana thirty years later, and then married his neighbor, a successful single woman homesteader named Stella Henderson. The two of them lived their later years in the Red River Valley, where they claimed place in the literary efflorescence around Moorhead State University and North Dakota State University.

Stella was a poet and an associate editor for a literary magazine, Prairie Wings. Ole wrote folk poetry (I sang one of his ballads in a previous Plains Folk feature), penned a memoir, and ventured into what some people call creative nonfiction with a narrative he titled, “One Day on a Territorial Homestead.” Ole had become acquainted with Professor Sackett, an activist within the Institute for Regional Studies (founded at NDSU in 1950), and so his writings now rest in NDSU Archives. Only their repose has been recently disturbed, as I have been rummaging through them and taking delight in Mr. Olson’s writings.

I have given “One Day on a Territorial Homestead” some study and have some initial impressions to share. First, it is full of intriguing details. The immigrant homesteaders rely on a straw-burning stove for heat and, in possible irony, named the thing “Thor.” The two boys in the shanty (the elder of whom, although called Oscar in the narrative, clearly is the voice of Ole, the author) at one point get into an argument as to who should get the piece of chewing gum left stuck under the table by a traveling preacher.

My second observation: the “one day” in question was 12 January 1882, remembered by subsequent generations as the day of the deadly Children’s Blizzard. So if Brita, the long-suffering wife, is distraught, she has cause. Still, the long dialog between her and husband Anton is the defining tension in the narrative.

“I see the storm is getting on your nerves,” Anton observes. “I am proud of being a pioneer here on this territorial prairie and I have faith in its future to the extent that I am willing to put up with a few inconveniences.”

Brita is having none of that. “No, Anton,” she retorts. “We will never get used to this kind of weather and that which we get out of it is not worth the punishment that we endure here.”

What I am reading is a memory narrative, as told by someone who would have been just a little too young to recall personally all that he has written. This leaves two possibilities for framing the story, historically. The first is that the disagreement over pioneer circumstances that drives Ole’s essay is based on decades of discussion between his mother and father endlessly re-litigating their argument in the homestead shanty.

The other possibility is that Ole, having fallen in with literary folk, is writing under the influence. He has read Ole Rølvaag's Giants in the Earth and is, consciously or unconsciously, shaping his narrative to accord with an epic trope. Or, maybe, both possibilities are true.

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