Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
LITERARY CONNECTION

HOME
FILM AND MORE
HOMES ON THE PRAIRIE
LITERARY CONNECTION
VIRTUAL FARMHOUSE
A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
RESOURCES

Plowing
by Orval Lund

Crawling steady at a slight slant,
smooth waves of sliced and shiny earth spiraling
behind, the engine droning, the floor-hum tickling
your feet, the big yellow Moline fenders
defining your cabin, you're much alone
on flat fields, not a tree in sight, seagulls,
a punctuation in the sky, hovering
for worms sliced and tossed atop.

At field's end, you jerk the frayed rope to raise
the plow. The shiny, scoured blades climb
out, the tractor takes its little step
up to sod, sighing from its upright pipe, and you turn
and steer your right wheel toward
the clean square trough, then jerk the cord to drop
the plow; the tractor grunts, hunkers
down, squares its shoulders, snorts and starts again.

Again, the engine's drone, the scrape
of stone on steel. You can feel
your back relax, the tingle in your feet, can smell
dark earth and remember a day
you prepared the field for growth,
the rolling sod streaming back and scouring
shares to a shine, the poetry
of straight black lines across a flat field.

from Casting Lines: Poems
published by New River Press

 
 
 
excerpt from The Music of Failure: Variations on an Idea
by Bill Holm

The history of a failed immigrant

Minneota is a community born out of failure about 1880. By that I mean that no one ever arrived in Minneota after being a success elsewhere. It is an immigrant town, settled by European refuse, the first those starved out of Ireland, then Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Holland, Belgium. Given the harshness of western Minnesota’s climate and landscape, people did not come to retire or loaf. They came to farm, and had they been successful at it in the old world, would not have uprooted their families, thrown away culture and language, and braved mosquitoes and blizzards for mere pleasure. Minneota is, of course, a paradigm for the settling of the whole country. We are a nation of failures who have done all right and been lucky. Perhaps it is some ancient dark fear of repeating our own grandfathers’ lives that makes us reluctant to acknowledge failure in national or private life.

Pauline’s father, Frithgeir, came in 1880 in the third wave of nationalities to Minneota: the Icelanders. He likely read one of the pamphlets circulated by the American government in all Scandinavian countries, describing free and fertile land available on the Great Plains for farmers of sturdy, sufficiently Caucasian stock. The United States was always particular about the race of its failures. The pamphlet probably mentioned glowingly the bountiful harvests, rich topsoil, good drainage and pasturage, cheap rail transport, and healthful bracing climate. Frithgeir Joakimsson, who took his new last name, Bardal, from his home valley in north Iceland, arrived in 1880, found most of the best and gone, and picked perhaps the hilliest, stoniest, barest though loveliest farm acreage in that part of western Minnesota.

He was 37 years old, single, and, in all likelihood, knew not a word of English when he came. Pauline, when she was old, disposed of her family’s books to good homes, and gave her father’s first English grammar and phrase book that she said he used on the boat. It was in Danish, English, and Icelandic, well-worn though intact. Pauline clearly treasured it. Leafing through it now, I imagine rough farmer’s hands, something like Pauline’s, holding the book on an open deck in mid-Atlantic, sea wind rustling the pages under his thumb– "Hvar er vegurinn vestur till Minneota?"
For the first five years, Frithgeir farmed alone. Probably he raised sheep and hay, the only things an Icelandic farmer knew. In 1886, at age 43, he married Guthlaugh Jonsdottier, a new immigrant whose family came from the wildest, most remote fjord in east Iceland., Borgarfjord, ringed with blood-red liparite mountains and precipitous scree slopes. Already 35 then, she was pregnant five times between 1887 and 1895 when Pauline, the last daughter, was born. One son, Pall, died an infant in 1889. Four out of five children alive was a lucky percentage then. But Frithgeir’s luck did not hold for long in the new world. I give his obituary in its entirety, as I found it on a yellow, brittle page of the Minneota Mascot for Friday, September 8, 1899:

Last Saturday, while F.J. Bardal was mowing hay on his farm in Lincoln Co., the horses made a sudden start, jerking the mower which happened at that time to be on the slope of a hill, so that Mr. Bardal fell from his machine. His leg was caught in a wheel and he was dragged that way for a while until the horses stopped. The leg was broken above the knee and other injuries were sustained. Mr. Bardal managed to get on the mower and drive home. Dr. Thordason was sent for. He hurried out, set the bone and did al that could be done for the unfortunate man. But the injuries proved to be so serious that Mr. Bardal died last Monday morning. The funeral took place last Wednesday from the new Icelandic church in Lincoln County, Rev. B.B. Jonsson officiating.

F. Bardal was born January 13, 1843 in Bardardal Thingeyarsysla, Iceland and came to this country in 1880 and settled on his farm in Lincoln County. He leaves a wife, three children and a stepdaughter.

Mr. Bardal was a much liked man in the community, an active member in his church, and a general favorite among his neighbors.

Done in by his own farm. He had found the only lovely hills in a flat country, but they killed him; his widow (who knew at best minimal English), was left with four children between 9 and 12 years old, and the poorest farm in the county. Nineteen years in the new world.

from The Music of Failure
published by Plains Press

 
 
 

Moofer
by Orval Lund

I remember skin the color of tea
wrapped his large-boned body. He wore
one of those short-brimmed flat hats
you see on old men or golfers, his trousers
always dark and baggy, his shoes
shapeless and wrinkled as his skin. He had a wart
on one cheek with a short gray whisker sticking
out. His name was John Magnuson
but I never knew that till years after his death.
He was simply "Moofer" to everyone. He didn’t
talk much; Grandma and Grandpa both spoke Swede
and doubtless talked to him,
and there were other immigrants around.
He'd brought his bride to the new land
which, let's say, loomed large in mind
but when he got here found, let's say,
as hard a life as he left,
and so much emptiness,
so much room on the northern prairie, without
the family that stayed behind,
which none of us knows any better than we know
ourselves. I never thought
of his foreignness or his loneliness
for his first soil. He was calm
in the silence surrounding him,
a wide man with a wide smile
wading through his great-grandchildren
who, if they spoke to him, did not understand
when he spoke back. He lived
in a side room, once the master bedroom in a house
where ten children had been raised. Why
did I never speak
to this man I unknowingly named
my first son after? Let's say
I did speak to him, said
"Hi Moofer," cute little me.
Let's say he answered back, perhaps
even my name, the names
of all the little chicks pecking
about his worn shoes, called me
by name, even picked me up
in his huge hands, and thought
something, I have no idea what. What
a waste we make of people,
such self-satisfied
little universes,
such lost children,
such Americans.

from Casting Lines: Poems
published by New River Press

 
 
 
 

Just Before Fall
by Orval Lund

If I were a painter
I'd brush in a prairie
of tall grasses, waving
pale green-yellow across the frame,
add a light blue sky about halfway down
with clouds puffy enough
to ride the wind molding the pasture
into ocean swells. The sun
would be off somewhere else,
behind my back. Two hawks would circle above
two trees, their roots exposed in the bank
of a stream rattling east. Under one, I'd sit
filling my chest with clean air, rubbing
my back against rough willow bark, naming
sky, tree, hawk, stream, cloud, wind
and you, eating an apple beside me, stretched
out on the sinuous grass.

from Casting Lines: Poems
published by New River Press

 
 
 
 
excerpt from Rosebud Requiem
by Bill McDonald

 
Tom didn't talk much with Buster, beyond giddap and whoa, but he sometimes poured his heart out to Gypsy. She was a beautiful young sorrel mare, weighed close to eighteen hundred pounds, and had the softest skin imaginable. Her golden mane and tail would often glisten and glow like two parts of a sun-lit stream as they flowed in the wind. Gypsy had huge eyes of the softest brown, flaring nostrils, and a muzzle like velvet. It was impossible not to love her. Life on the homestead was hard, but Tom had his dreams, and he told Gypsy about them as he curried and brushed her, or fitted her into the harness.

The dream that obsessed him was the dream that he would have a wife with him here someday. Waking or sleeping, this dream haunted him. It took many forms–he saw her, he saw himself, they were going through life together.

Sometimes, in the dream, they were middle-aged. The crude claim shanty had been replaced by a distinguished two-story white house with a gambrel roof. They stood on the porch, behind the railing. His arm was comfortably around her waist, she was leaning against him, they were looking out at their lush fields that stretched away into the distance. A big, red, tripped-roof barn stood to the right, surrounded by white-faced cattle and by horses that looked a lot like Gypsy.

Another time–it was after one of his evening meals of fried oatmeal–the dream was different. They were younger, not much older than he was now. The new house hadn't been built yet, the tiny gray claim shanty still stood there, but it had been fixed up a little bit, somehow. He was coming in from the field after a brutal day in the sun and wind. He had put the horses away and headed toward the house. As he neared the door, his nose caught a tantalizing, familiar odor. The nose knows. It never forgets. It was impossible, but it was his mother's pork pie. That memory, and that odor, were from his happy childhood on the farm near Mankato. But his mother had died when he was twelve.

He burst in and kissed his wife; she smiled and motioned him to the table.

There were other dreams too. Dreams too private to tell Gypsy about, or to be uttered aloud. They came to him often, over and over. In these dreams he held his wife, caressed her, marveled at the whiteness of her body, buried his face in her breasts. Tom was twenty-one and had never had a woman, but he had an imagination about it. She touched him too, in those dreams, touched him with her body, her hands . . . and then he could sleep.

In his stronger moments Tom scorned himself for being weak. He knew that, during their first years, many earlier homesteaders had endured vigils more lonely than his. Some family groups had staked claims in the fall, built and provisioned a claim shanty, and then left one man alone there to watch the claims through the winter. The others had returned to civilization. One guy he had heard of sat in and around his claim shack from the sixteenth of November until the twenty-fourth of March without ever seeing another human being. That was in 1878 in Dakota Territory, near what is now Huron. "Slept most of the time," reported that gentleman of his ursine odyssey.

This was not 1878. This was 1910, and Tom was in the Rosebud. "The Rosebud" was the former Rosebud Indian Reservation, home of the Rosebud Sioux. It was in South Dakota, along the Nebraska border, west of the Missouri River–a vast area of marginal land formerly used for cattle grazing.

It should have been left that way. The big cattle companies paid fifteen cents per head per year to graze cattle there, and the money went to the Indians, or supposedly did. Actually, it went to the Indian Tribal Fund to be used to buy houses, cattle, and horses for the Indians as the BIA in Washington saw fit. In contrast to most deals between the Indians and the BIA, this worked out fairly well by all accounts.

Some old maps show this area as part of "The Great American Desert," but there had been some wet years, and a great clamor arose to buy the reservation from the Indians and open it for homesteading. A fight erupted, but the promoters had their way. A bill, in the form of a treaty with the Rosebud Sioux, finally passed, and President McKinley signed it in a hoopla ceremony with all of the western congressmen. Each Indian of one-eighth blood received an allotment of 160 acres. The homesteader paid six dollars per acre plus a small fee. The six dollars went to the Indian; Uncle Sam kept the administrative fee.

Applications to buy flooded the land office from all over the country, so the government set up a lottery to pick those who would be allowed to buy. Tom was one of the "winners" in Tripp County. His aim was to actually develop a farm and home on his claim. Many other winners were mere speculators, anxious to sell.

Tom had a few neighbors who lived within a mile or two of him, but he saw little of them. It had always been hard for him to meet people, and the few that he knew here seemed strange to him. They were busy with work and family, and they were Scandinavians who hung together. Tom worked and dreamed and talked to Gypsy.

from Dakota Incarnate
published by New Rivers Press

 
 
 
 

Just Before Planting
by David Heath

There’s a smell to newly plowed earth
That’s not unlike mushrooms.

Walking the corduroy field,
Almost ready for planting,
There are memories of spring times long ago
When life, like the soil beneath my feet
Was ready for planting,

And the bounty of harvest time
Was a golden glow at summer’s end.

unpublished
from the author’s collection

 
 
 
 
excerpt from Horizontal Grandeur
by Bill Holm

I was raised in Minnesota, true prairie country. When settlers arrived in the 1870’s they found waist-high grass studded with wild flowers; the only trees were wavy lines of cottonwoods and willows along the crooked Yellow Medicine Creek. Farmers emigrated here not for scenery, but for topsoil; 160 flat acres without trees or boulders to break plows and cramp fields was beautiful to them. They left Norway, with its picturesque but small, poor, steep farms; or Iceland , where the beautiful backyard mountains frequently covered hay fields with lava and volcanic ash. Wives, described by Ole Rolvaag in Giants in the Earth, were not enamored with the beauty of black topsoil, and frequently went insane from loneliness, finding nowhere to hide on these blizzardly plains. But the beauty of this landscape existed in function, rather than form, not only for immigrant farmers, but for Indians who preceded them.
Blackfeet Indians live on the Rocky Mountains’ east edge in northern Montana–next to Glacier National Park. Plains were home for men and buffalo, the source of Blackfeet life; mountains were for feasting and dancing, sacred visions and ceremonies, but home only for spirits and outlaws. It puzzles tourists winding up hairpin turns, looking down three thousand feet into dense forests on the McDonald Valley floor, that Blackfeet never lived there. It did not puzzle the old farmer from Minnesota who, after living and farming on prairies most of his life, vacationed in the Rockies with his children after he retired. When they reached the big stone escarpment sticking up at the prairie’s edge, one of his sons asked him how he liked the view. "These are stone," the old man said; "I have stones in the north eighty. These are bigger, and harder to plow around. Let’s go home."

from The Music of Failure
published by Plains Press

 
 
 
 

Late Nineties Agriculture
by Beth Waterhouse

The lilac hedge was the last to go.
They were gonna leave it,
But it looked so melancholy there
In the middle of corn.

Wrapped a chain around half of it
The old tractor ripped it open.
Roots everywhere, soil flinging wide
There, in its core, a tiny nest of sorts.
And something shiny.

The young driver,
His eye caught by the glinting,
Got down off the rumbling tractor,
To get a closer look.

Inside the little cubby,
A shred of old blue rug,
A three-inch aluminum tea pot
And tiny upturned cup, its saucer jutting out of the soil
Reflected spring sunlight.

A child's secret place,
Abandoned mid tea-party
Like her grandparent's homestead
A loose stack of memories
At the edge of the corn.

The next April
Near the roots of that old hedge
A twisted hunk of swing set sprang up.
One pole,
One hook,
One sprig of purple lilac,
Rising toward the morning rain.

unpublished
from the author’s collection

 
 

 
a remembrance from Judge Lorin Cray about events in 1859

In the early spring of ’59 my father and brotherm-law started with teams of oxen and covered wagons from our home near Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to seek a location in the West, where homes could be had "Without money and without price," in the great new state of Minnesota.

In October of ’59 all of the earthly belongings of my father, being my mother, seven children and a handful of household goods, were loaded into a wagon drawn by a pair of unbroken steers, and we started for our new home with great anticipations. Our two cows were driven behind the wagon. My elder brother drove the steers attached to the wagon, and we, the younger children drove the cows, and in the short period of precisely thirty days we reached our new home in the western part of Shelby county. Now we make the trip in twelve hours. But our loads were heavy for the teams we had, and through Wisconsin sand and good Minnesota mud, we made scarcely more than ten miles a day, camping at night In and under our wagons.

The year had been a peculiar one in Wisconsin. There had been severe frost at some time in every month during the entire summer and corn and other produce was badly frost bitten. By October first all vegetation was brown and dead. But there had been much rain in Minnesota, evidently preventing frosts, and when we crossed the great Father of Waters at La Crosse, much swollen and turbid, we were greeted by green foliage and the freshness of spring. Vegetation was rank, grass tender, crops good, foliage magnificent, and boy-like, I at once fell in love with Minnesota.

We entered Blue Earth county near the southeast corner, and went as nearly directly west as possible passing Minnesota lake near the north shore, camping for the last time very close to the north shore of Lura lake, where we spent the night.

My recollection of the southern part of this county, is that it was mostly low and level, with a wonderful growth of wild grasses. The lands were nearly all taken and there were seen here and there settlers' shanties, and in some places quite comfortable homes, until we crossed the Blue Earth river west of Shelbyville, when, after leaving the settlers' cabins in or near the river timber, the picture was wild and dreary to the very limit. Save a few cabins and claim shanties in the vicinity of the Mounds, one could look from the river west, southwest and northwest, and not a sign of human life or habitation could be seen.

We were four miles from Shelbyville, and to get our mail we must go this distance, and cross the Blue Earth river, either in a canoe or by fording. I remember one occasion in the very early spring, when the river was scarcely free from ice, and was badly swollen, filling its banks, five or six of us, neighbors, started for Shelbyville on foot to get our mail, and to hear the postmaster read the news from the weekly St. Paul paper which came to him, there being at that time, I think, no newspaper taken west of the river. We reached the river. The ice had gone out, and the boat was on the other side. We agreed to draw cuts and decide who should swim the river and get the boat. The lot fell upon Jonah, and I have had chills ever since. I am not quite certain that the cuts were fairly held.

Father's claim was not a very desirable one. Soon after he had taken it a man named Sam Tait came into the country and "jumped" a claim which adjoined ours upon the east, and was the making of a much more desirable farm than ours. He succeeded in holding the claim. A few days after our arrival a prairie fire came from the west and with a brisk wind swept the whole country with a very besom of destruction. We came near losing everything we had. Sam was a loser, quite a quantity of his hay was destroyed. Very shortly after the fire he made us an informal call and in language not the most polite but very emphatic, declared his intention to leave the country at once and offered to sell us his claim. We bought it, one hundred and sixty acres of land, three acres broken, a small stock of hay not burned, his sod stable and board shanty. For the purchase price we gave him a shot gun and hauled two loads of his goods to Mankato.

This was my first visit to Mankato. We removed our shanty to our new purchase at once. Two years ago my brother and I sold the farm for $9600, and it was well worth it. It seemed at first in those early days impossible to have social relations with anyone. Neighbors as we had known them, we had none. The nearest settlers were a mile distant from us, and there were but four or five families nearer than two or three miles distant. But we soon learned that we had neighbors even though the distance was considerable. First one neighbor and then another would extend to every family in the vicinity an invitation to spend an afternoon or an evening. Someone would hitch his oxen to his wagon or sled, and going from house to house, gather up a full load well rounded up and then at the usual gait for such conveyances, we rode and visited and sang until we reached the appointed place, where perhaps, eight, ten or a dozen persons spent the afternoon or evening, in the one little room, where the meal was being prepared and the table spread. There were no sets or clans, no grades of society, all belonged to the select four hundred, and all were treated and fared alike. Friendships were formed which were never broken, and when recalled always revive tender memories.

 
 

 
 

The Ancient People and the Newly Come
by Meridel Le Sueur

Born out of the caul of winter in the north, in the swing and circle of the horizon, I am rocked in the ancient land. As a child I first read the scriptures written on the scroll of frozen moisture by wolf and rabbit, by the ancient people and the newly come. In the beginning of the century the Indian smoke still mingled with ours. The frontier of the whites was violent, already injured by vast seizures and massacres. The winter nightmares of fear poisoned the plains nights with psychic airs of theft and utopia. The stolen wheat in the cathedrallike granaries cried out for vengeance.

Most of all one was born into space, into the great resonance of space, a magnetic midwestern valley through which the winds clashed in lassoes of thunder and lightning at the apex of the sky, the very wrath of God.

The body repeats the landscape. They are the source of each other and create each other. We were marked by the seasonal body of earth, by the terrible migrations of people, by the swift turn of a century, verging on change never before experienced on this greening planet. I sensed the mound and swell above the mother breast, and from embryonic eye took sustenance and benediction, and went from mother enclosure to prairie spheres curving into each other.

I was born in winter, the village snow darkened toward midnight, footsteps on boardwalks, the sound of horses pulling sleighs, and the ring of bells. The square wooden saltbox house held the tall shadows, thrown from kerosene lamps, of my grandmother and my aunt and uncle (missionaries home from India) inquiring at the door.

It was in the old old night of the North Country. The time of wood before metal. Contracted in cold, I lay in the prairie curves of my mother, in the planetary belly, and outside the vast horizon of the plains, swinging dark and thicketed, circle within circle. The round moon sinister reversed upside down in the sign of Neptune, and the twin fishes of Pisces swimming toward Aquarius in the dark.

But the house was New England square, four rooms upstairs and four rooms downstairs, exactly set upon a firm puritan foundation, surveyed on a level, set angles of the old geometry, and thrust up on the plains like an insult, a declamation of the conqueror, a fortress of our God, a shield against excess and sin.

I had been conceived in the riotous summer and fattened on light and stars that fell on my underground roots, and every herb, corn plant, cricket, beaver, red fox leaped in me in the old Indian dark. I saw everything was moving and entering. The rocking of mother and prairie breast curved around me within the square. The field crows flew in my flesh and cawed in my dream.

Crouching together on Indian land in the long winters, we grew in sight and understanding, heard the rumbling of glacial moraines, clung to the edge of holocaust forest fires, below-zero weather, grasshopper plagues, sin, wars, crop failures, drought, and the mortgage. The severity of the seasons and the strangeness of a new land, with those whose land had been seized looking in our windows, created a tension of guilt and a tightening of sin. We were often snowed in, the villages invisible and inaccessible in cliffs of snow. People froze following the rope to their barns to feed the cattle. But the cyclic renewal and strength of the old prairie earth, held sacred by thousands of years of Indian ritual, the guerrilla soil of the Americas, taught and nourished us.

We flowed through and into the land, often evicted, droughted out, pushed west. Some were beckoned to regions of gold, space like a mirage throwing up pictures of utopias, wealth, and villages of brotherhood. Thousands passed through the villages, leaving their dead, deposits of sorrow and calcium, leaching the soil, creating and marking with their faces new wheat and corn, producing idiots, mystics, prophets, and inventors. Or, as an old farmer said, we couldn't move; nailed to the barn door by the wind, we have to make a windmill, figure out how to plow without a horse, and invent barbed wire. A Dakota priest said to me, "It will be from here that the prophets come."

from Growing Up in Minnesota
published by the University of Minnesota Press


 
 
Going Out to Get the Mail
by Nancy Paddock

across this whole prairie
nothing
to stop the wind
that bends
everything that will bend
and dries and shakes
human structures to dust

in shifting patterns snow
snakes across the road
sweeping plowed fields clean
filling ditches
the wind
an army
driving everything before it

highway signs shudder at their posts

nothing stays the same
the horizon has gone
white
leaving me exposed
as a lightning rod

nothing to stop the sky's
bare-taloned drop
to cover me with white wings

coming back
swimming hard
almost drowning in this current
breath is a dry gasp
a burning in the nostrils

thick crows yell from the bare grove
and the snow
has nearly covered my tracks
over the broken field

from Southwest Minnesota: the Land and the People
published by Crossings Press


Cottonwoods
by Phebe Hanson

In the cottonwood grove
behind Dahl's farm
the eyes of rusting cars
stare at me before
I crawl into them,
pretend I am driving;
power flows from the wheels,

I believe I am in control,
forget my mother's heart
lies fading in the little bedroom
beyond the rows of corn.

They have sent me away
from her dying to play in the grove,
to sit in old cars,
to whisper into the ears of corn,
towering above me as I sit between the rows
reading her letters
which say she misses me,
even though it is quieter without me
and my brother fighting.
He has brought her a goldfish
from the little pond
beside the pergola house
and laid it on her stomach.

Years later I return to the grove,
where the cottonwood trees
have grown scrawny,
but the old cars are still there,
their eyes stare at me,
unseeing and dead.

from Sacred Hearts
published by Milkweed Editions


---
HOME FILM AND MORE HOMES ON THE PRAIRIE LITERARY CONNECTION VIRTUAL FARMHOUSE A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE RESOURCES
Death of the Dream