It was in the late-summer of 1883 that fifteen-year-old Johanna Kildahl arrived in the Mauvais Coulee Valley, near Lake Alice, about twenty miles north of Devils Lake. She traveled from Minnesota with her brother, Andrew, to meet the rest of her family who had homesteaded on the land in the spring of the year.
After a week of traveling in a prairie schooner behind a team of oxen, Johanna stepped off the covered wagon into a billowing sea of prairie-grass. She smiled happily at her new home, a small framed house and a tent.
Johanna immediately fell in love with the Dakota scenery. She later recalled the virgin prairie as rich with water, grass, ducks, geese, and prairie chickens, in beautiful sunsets, sunrises, mirages, and glorious northern lights – “a garden of the gods.”
Coming from a land where trees were endless and greatly missed, her family was among the first to plant the many groves of box elder and cottonwood trees on the slopes around the Mauvais Coulee Valley.
It took five years before Johanna Kildahl had a town nearby, with Maza (MAY-za) established in 1888. It was on this date in 1893, when the Grand Forks Herald noted that Maza was expanding by adding a Methodist church to its cluster of buildings along the Great Northern branch-line to St. John.
Homesteading for Kildahl family was not always beautiful and breathtaking, except perhaps in memory. Johanna wrote that the weather was harsher during those times, for winters were “longer and more severe; blizzards more frequent and of longer duration.” Frost came earlier in the fall and later in the spring. Thankfully, their sod house provided a cozy comfort for it was “warm in winter, [and] cool in summer.”
Despite the hardships, Johanna described her pioneering days as a time “to feel befriended by the ‘peace of the morning, the light of the sunset and the happiness of the sky’; to find time to think, to pray, and to give thanks. These were the days of real neighborliness, accommodation, cooperation and friendliness. There were no locks on doors and nothing was ever disturbed or taken.”
Johanna’s recollections still resonate within today’s North Dakotans, for they carry the experiences of many ancestors who settled on these rolling prairies. Johanna and the Kildahl family’s experience was not one of a kind, but it was admirable, once for all.
Dakota Datebook written by Cando, ND, edited by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.
Sources: “Maza,” Grand Forks Herald, November 12, 1893, p. 1.
“Reminiscences,” written for the Golden Anniversary of Towner County, held at Cando, 1936, N. Johanna Kildahl, UND Special Collections, Kildahl Papers (1895-1951).
Mary Ann Barnes Williams, Origins of North Dakota Place Names (Washburn, N.D.: Bismarck Tribune, 1966), p. 213.