My Maternal Grandparents: Pioneer Homesteaders . . . by Linda Whitesitt

Elof and Egedia Johnson
Gustaf Elof Johnson and Hulda Egedia Johnson (1903 wedding photo)

During the course of my research for my memoir-in-verse, Chasing Honey: A Legacy of Hope from a Prairie Grandmother, based on the homesteading experiences of my maternal grandparents (Elof and Egedia Johnson) in southern Saskatchewan and eastern Montana, I visited the Range Riders Museum in Miles City, Montana. Every room is packed with artifacts from the areas’ pioneers, ranchers and farmers. The walls of one of the Museum’s rooms—the Memorial Hall—are covered with photographs of these early hardy and courageous residents. I wanted my grandparents photograph and story to join this amazing cavalcade of history.

Gustaf Elof and Hulda Egedia Johnson were among the thousands of homesteaders who made their way to eastern Montana in the opening decades of the twentieth century. For the Johnsons, it would not be the first time they had put down roots on government-provided land. Barely a week after they were married in the spring of 1903 in Alexandria, Minnesota, they had loaded their belongings on a train and set out for a quarter-section of land on the outskirts of Midale in southern Saskatchewan. Neither would it be the first time the couple had set out to claim homesteading land alongside family and friends. Almost the entire membership of the First Swedish Baptist Church of Alexandria had joined Elof and Gedia in their move to Canada, and some of the same parishioners accompanied them to Montana. However, it would be the first time they had homesteaded after a soul-wrenching tragedy—the death in June 1913 of their two oldest children, Florence and Reubin, to a measles epidemic while stopping over in Alexandria on their way from Midale to Montana.

Heartbroken, yet sustained by their belief in God, Elof and Gedia knew they had no choice but to carry on. So after weathering the winter in Alexandria with their youngest children—Gordon, born in Canada on December 10, 1910, and Ruby, born in Alexandria on June 10, 1913, only a few days after the eldest children’s deaths—they packed up their possessions in the spring of 1914 and headed, first by train and then by wagon, for their half-section of land outside of Rock Springs—Section 24, Township 13 North, Range 43 East. Once there, they must have looked up at the broad Montana sky and asked God to protect them and their two little ones. At the same time, they must have thought about what had lured them away from Canada, prayed that the government and railroad stories of fertile soil, plentiful rain and phenomenal grain yields would prove to be true. Of course, they would have told themselves, whether the land provided or not was up to God.

For Elof and Gedia, tilling the soil ran deep in their Swedish blood. It had been the promise of good farming land that had drawn both Gedia’s family and Elof and his cousins to America in the nineteenth century. In 1868, knowing that his extended family could acquire six homesteads in the tallgrass prairie of Minnesota, Gedia’s father, Andrew Peterson, gathered his wife, Johanna, her parents and her five siblings (some with families of their own) and set out from Ljur, Sweden, to settle in Ben Wade Township, about twenty-five miles southwest of Alexandria. Then in 1876, he moved his family to Alexandria where he established the Peterson Boarding House. It was there on May 2, 1878, that Gedia was born. Elof, born on November 1, 1865, in Hässleby, Sweden, followed his five cousins to the Geneva Woods area east of Alexandria in 1887, where he hoped to make enough money working on threshing and railroad crews to be able to afford land of his own. Taking up residence at the Peterson Boarding House, he met Gedia, age nine. Eleven years later he began to court her, writing her beautiful love poems in Swedish and English that she cherished the rest of her life. After homesteading land became available in Canada, they married, and a week and a half after their wedding on April 23, 1903, two days after Gedia’s twenty-fifth birthday, they set off for Midale. Once there, they wasted no time in gathering with their friends from Alexandria to establish the town’s First Swedish Baptist Church.

Being a part of a fellowship of believers, a group that included Gedia’s brother Edward and his wife, Annie, as well as their preacher, Olaf Sutherland, and his wife, Carrie, sustained Elof and Gedia through the hardships of prairie living, first in Canada and then in Montana. Embedded in such a closely knit community meant there would always be plenty of friends to draw upon when one of the families needed a barn built, fields plowed and grain threshed. It also guaranteed there would be family and friends ready to celebrate a birthday and a wedding, and for Elof, an enthusiastic audience for his violin playing. And for three men with powerful voices—Elof, Edward and Olaf—there would always be a congregation waiting to be led in hymn singing. But most important of all, their community, grounded in faith and built up over years, gave Gedia and Elof the strength to persevere when the rains failed and the earth turned to dust.

The couple’s first few years in Montana were good ones. Weather was their friend, and wheat yield was high. Then in, 1918, the drought moved in, and along with it, temperatures of 100 degrees and grasshoppers that devoured everything in sight. But Elof and Gedia did what they had always done, they carried on. With four children to feed—Gordon and Ruby had been joined by Judith, on January 18, 1916, and Gladys, on February 2, 1919—they made do with what little grain they could grow and what few cattle they could graze. To help make ends meet, Gedia took a seasonal job cooking for local sheep herders. It was devastatingly difficult for all of the ranchers in eastern Montana, but in spite of the challenges, or perhaps because of them, they made sure their children got an education. All the Johnson children attended the Sutherland School, a one-room school house about a mile from their homestead. Gordon would later be a teacher at the school and live in the one-room teacher’s cabin.

When Elof and Gedia thought life couldn’t get any harder, the Depression hit and the drought returned. Thousands of people left eastern Montana, including their dear friend and preacher, Olaf Sutherland. But the Johnsons stayed until the drought ended in 1937. By then—Elof was seventy-two and Gedia was fifty-nine—they were ready to become, in Elof’s words, “retired farmers,” and they sold their homestead to Axel and Elna Haglof and moved to Miles City to be close to Judith and Gladys, who had jobs in town. Six years later they moved to Washington, D.C. to live with their son Gordon and help raise their grandson Raymond. Judith also lived with them while her husband, Donald Whitesitt, served in the Army. In 1944, they made one last move, this time to Ft. Wayne, Indiana, where both Gordon and Judith got jobs at Magnavox. They had been there only a few months when Elof was hospitalized with congestive heart failure. He died at home on February 16, 1945, and the family took him back to Alexandria to be buried.

Gedia continued to live with Gordon until January 1951, when she moved in with Judith and Donald in Great Falls, Montana, to help care for their new daughter, Linda. Although Gedia made occasional trips to visit her other daughters—Ruby, who lived in Butte, and Gladys, who resided in Concord, California—she stayed with Judith and her family until the end of her days, moving with them first to San Bruno, California, and then to Baltimore, Maryland. There on July 4, 1958, she suffered a stroke. Five years later, on September 14, 1963, she died. Gedia is buried next to her husband in Kinkead Cemetery in Alexandria. 

Elof and Gedia had known each other for fifty-eight years. Together, they had faced the deaths of their oldest children, shepherded their other four children through one hardship after another and worked with every ounce of strength and energy they had to give each of them a future. They had sought solace in their faith and comfort in the care and support of family and friends. And through it all, they relied on the love they had for each other to carry on, a love that Elof had prayed for in one of his courtship poems, a love that would keep Gedia “forever” at his side.

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Read poems from Linda’s forthcoming imaginative memoir on her posts—Finding Our Place, Planting Love and Belonging to the Land: Whose am I?—as well as her story about looking for information about her grandparents—Looking for My Grandparents’ Story.

Linda is the story gatherer for TreeStories.

Bobba and Grandy: Memories of My Grandparents . . . by Dianne Mason

My parents were not the most reliable people. Mama suffered from severe depression and Daddy’s mood swings kept us all walking on eggshells. Fortunately, my brother, sister, and I had our maternal grandparents, Bobba and Grandy. We lived with them until I was five and then again for three years after my parents divorced.  In between, we lived next door or nearby.

Every child should have a grandmother like Bobba, someone to tell them they’re special and loved. When she hugged me against her soft breasts and told me everything was going to be okay, I believed her. She cooked for us, kissed our cuts and scrapes, comforted us when we were afraid, and made sure we said our prayers. From her I learned about unconditional love, generosity, and consideration for others. While I loved her with all my heart, I was my grandfather’s girl. 

Grandy was a short, wiry man with bandy legs and dark, leathery skin from working outdoors much of his life. The years of hammering and sawing as a carpenter caused his arms to look a bit like Popeye’s. He cursed like a sailor, loved to fish and drink whiskey, and Bobba said that in his youth he “would fight a circle saw” he was so feisty. His nickname was Snake. Snake Jones. And I loved him desperately. 

There are many stories I can tell about Grandy and the influence he had on my life – how he taught me to be self-reliant, to stand up for myself and others, and to be honest above all else. He was not perfect, for sure, but his love for me and my siblings was steadfast and abundant. Here’s something I wrote about him in a memoir class a few years ago.

It’s Time to Tell You About My Grandfather

I will tell you about the boat he made for me out of a galvanized steel washtub and an old tractor inner tube. 

I will tell you how he taught me to fish – to gently lay a fly on the water and wait.

I will not tell you that he quit drinking Folger’s coffee because he hated Mrs. Olsen in the TV commercial.

I will tell you how he trudged two miles through a rare Mississippi snowstorm for milk so my brother, sister, and I could have hot chocolate.

I will tell you how he wrapped his arms around my grandmother in the kitchen as she cooked dinner and made her giggle.

I will not tell you that he refused to watch NBC, the entire network, because a black man starred in I Spy.

I will tell you how he ate raw oysters – icy cold, on a saltine, with a dash of Tabasco.

I will tell you that he raised chicks under a grow light and held their whispery softness next to my cheek.

I will not tell you of the sorrow in his eyes when the ambulance drove away with my mother. 

Grandy died when I was a sophomore in high school. All winter I wore his red and black flannel shirt. Its soft comfort smelled like him – Old Spice aftershave, cigarette smoke, and his own special scent, a mixture of loamy earth and fresh air. I wore it to school every day, sleeves rolled up and hem down to my knees, as if it were my coat of armor. As the season turned and it became too hot to wear flannel, I wrapped the shirt around my pillow and slept on it. 

When my children were little, each night after reading to them, I’d tell them a story about my grandparents, whom they’d never met. It became a ritual they loved. Thus, I kept the memory of those two wonderful people alive. I have grandchildren now, and I’m doing my best to be the kind of grandparent to them that I was fortunate enough to have in my life.

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Dianne Mason grew up in rural Mississippi. She has taught writing at Richland College in Dallas, Texas, and at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC. A published poet, she has also written five screenplays, two of which have been optioned. Visit Dianne’s blog:  An English Teacher’s Garden.

Some other links Dianne would like you to explore:

https://www.pinterest.com/diannehmason/

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Dianne-Mason

https://www.facebook.com/anenglishteachersgarden/

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Read another family story about a loving grandmother — Pam Pellegrino’s “Nana Takes Pam to College.”

Nana Takes Pam to College . . . by Pam Pellegrino

Nana Takes Pam to College; Nana and Her Valiant

 

I spent the summer of ’68 with her in Wheeling, WVA, working as a day camp counselor and getting to know the area around Bethany College, where I would be starting school in September.  That summer I discovered I wasn’t as afraid of boys as I thought I was.  My crushes included a fellow counselor, two lifeguards, James Taylor, and my cousin Norm.  It was a summer of daydreams and sighs.

When camp was over, I flew home to Michigan to pack for college, but within two days I was weak and couldn’t swallow.  Somehow, without even kissing a single boy, I had a severe case of mono. I was not so much disappointed that I would miss the start of my college career as I was by not having a true story to tell my friends about a summer romance. 

I was well enough to fly back to Wheeling by the end of September, where I was to stay overnight with my Nana, who, the next morning, would drive the serpentine roads of the West Virginia hills to deliver me in decent health to my first semester of college.  Bethany was where my parents met, sitting alphabetically in religion class.  My beautiful mother Joan Boyd next to the dashing young soldier Robert Boyd.  Mom loved her name:  Joan Boyd Boyd. Maybe I would meet my dream man the same way.  This is how carefully I chose my college career.

Nana was very serious about getting me to Bethany as early as possible so I wouldn’t miss another moment of my education.  That morning as I sat at the breakfast table, enjoying her town-famous cinnamon, brown sugar and butter coffee cake, she sat down across from me, her black handbag on her arm and keys jangling in her hand.  She stared at my unfinished breakfast and sighed.  “Well,” she said, “I’ll just go warm up the car.”  In a matter of seconds the engine of her ’64 navy blue Valiant roared; she revved it a few times to make sure I got the message, and a few seconds later there was the horn, that ear-shattering sound I’d come to dread throughout the summer.  

Nana was plump, and at most 4’ 10” tall.  Her head could barely be seen above the steering wheel.  Her driving was already part of family lore, how she smoked her cigarette and set it in the car ashtray, picking it up every now and then for a quick puff; how she used her horn to communicate with the mechanics checking her oil, while they were checking the oil; how she passed 18 wheelers on the highway with her foot full throttle on the accelerator and her hand on the horn the entire way. 

“Good Lord,” I prayed, wiping the crumbs from my face. I grabbed my belongings, scrambled to her car, threw open the back door, stashed the suitcase, slammed it shut. Without so much as a glance behind her, Nana gave the car some gas, and with a squeal of tires and blind determination, she and her Valiant took off without me. 

A few minutes later I saw her car heading back to where I was pretending to hitchhike. As she got closer I could see she was laughing, tears running down her rosy cheeks. Forty-five years later I still smile when I think of her lovable, somewhat high-strung personality, and how I wish I could have seen her face when she looked in the back seat to ask me why I was so quiet.

Well, I did kiss a boy or two that first semester of college, which might have caused the relapse of mono forcing me to leave Bethany before finals. Somehow that valiant car and its driver made it up the steep West Virginia hills, and there was my Nana, revving its engine, making absolute sure I wouldn’t miss my plane home.

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When Pam’s husband Jimmy passed away six years ago, she found comfort in writing about her grief. She took classes in memoir writing, found her voice, and writes memoir and poetry in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. She is also a Spiritual Director, trained through The Haden Institute in Hendersonville, NC. 

Read Pam’s moving story about her mother here.

Read a family story honoring loving grandparents — Dianne Mason’s “Bobba and Grandy: Memories of My Grandparents.”