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.

_____

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.

Finding Our Place, Planting Love . . . by Linda Whitesitt

Finding Our Place -- Gustaf Elof Johnson

Gustaf Elof Johnson (1903 wedding photograph)

From Linda’s upcoming memoir-in-verse, Chasing Honey: A Legacy of Hope from a Prairie Grandmother, 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.

      Forever, Gedia,
      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,
      I thought.

Turning to my new husband,
I smiled.

      Yes, Elof, 
      forever.

_____

Read “Belonging to the Land,” another poem from Linda’s forthcoming book as well as her story about looking for information about her grandma Gedia — “Looking for My Grandparents’ Story.”

Linda has a summary of her grandparents’ story here.

Linda is the story gatherer for TreeStories.