Gustaf Elof Johnson (1903 wedding photograph)
From Linda’s upcoming novel-in-verse Hope as Wide as a Prairie Sky based on the homesteading experiences of her maternal grandparents in Canada and eastern Montana, Elof and Gedia Johnson. (The poems are in Gedia’s voice.)
Elof filed a claim for land
in Canada’s Western plains —
one quarter section of land
a half-mile square,
one hundred and sixty acres
in the District of Assiniboia,
five hundred miles northwest of Alexandria,
fifty miles north of the Canadian-North Dakota border.
In return for our square of earth,
we paid a small registration fee
and promised the government
we’d “prove it up” —
cultivate the land, build a permanent
dwelling on it within three years.
Of course we’ll live there,
I said to Elof.
Where else does the government think
we’re gonna live?
Elof always had such patience,
especially with me. He had to.
A farmer can’t survive without patience.
Neither can a husband.
When I stop to think about it,
Elof was a mixture of patience
and a let’s-get-it-done-now attitude.
It just depended on what he was up against,
and that spring, he was keen to leave Alexandria,
catch prime plowing and planting time in Canada.
So he bought two tickets for a train leaving on May 4,
only a week and a half after our wedding,
two days after my twenty-fifth birthday.
For our fare, a fare made cheap by the railroad
so homesteaders could afford to take all their belongings,
we had half a railroad car for our four head of cattle,
four horses and stock feed; half a car
for our wagon, farm equipment, fence supplies,
seed grain, household goods and food stuff;
and two seats in the “colonist” car,
a car with pull-down sleeping berths
and a kitchen I could use.
It’ll more than do,
I told Elof.
It was a long, stuffy, bumpy trip, every seat taken
by people from more countries than we could name,
air filled to bursting with the aroma of strange food
and languages we didn’t understand.
When finally the train pulled into a baby-of-a-town,
a town we’d soon name Midale,
we unloaded our property, tied up our animals
and tried to sleep in an empty railroad car
left alongside the tracks by officials.
I don’t think either one of us slept.
Too excited. Too tired.
Too much unknown.
In the morning, we set out to find our land,
using a compass to calculate direction,
counting the revolutions of a rag tied
to a wagon wheel to gauge distance.
It was well past noon before we spotted
the survey mound and stake marking the location
of our homestead — North East section 32,
township 05, range 10 west of the second Meridian.
Overcome with gratitude for land
that was ours, Elof and I knelt down,
planted our palms on the warm,
spring ground, promised God we’d seed
love as well as wheat in the soil
He’d entrusted to us.
Elof said as he helped me up.
Standing with him, I looked over our land,
filled my lungs with sun and blue sky.
For a moment, the emptiness disoriented me.
But far from the dread that had overcome
Mama when she first saw Minnesota’s
unbounded prairie, I relished
the grassland’s openness, its freedom,
its unharnessed energy.
I knew I could grow a family there,
in that earth, under that sun.
I am made for this place,
Turning to my new husband,
Linda is the story gatherer for TreeStories.