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.

Looking for My Grandparents’ Story . . . by Linda Whitesitt

Looking for My Grandparents' Story; Elof and Egedia Johnson

Elof and Egedia Johnson (Linda Whitesitt’s maternal grandparents)

From Linda’s forthcoming book Chasing Honey: A Legacy of Hope from a Prairie Grandmother based on the life of her Swedish-American ancestors. 

I have prairie dust in my bones — dirt from the sod my Swedish great-grandparents broke on the tallgrass prairie of Minnesota; traces of soil their youngest daughter, Gedia, and her Swedish husband, Elof, tilled on the Saskatchewan plains; bits and pieces from the plowed earth of their second homestead on the shortgrass prairie of eastern Montana — every speck as much a part of me as the stories Gedia tells in this book.

Born Hulda Egedia Peterson, my grandma Gedia (pronounced Gid-ja) came to live with her daughter and son-in-law (Judith and Donald, my parents) shortly before I was born. It would be her job to take care of me while they worked, her labor of love to feed me and change me, play with me and potty train me, read to me and teach me how to read. I am who I am because of my kind-hearted, steel-willed grandmother. 

Today I’m almost as old as she was when she first held me in her arms, and I’d like to see her again; hear her strong, gravely voice tell me tales of her life on the prairie; have her introduce me to Gustaf Elof Johnson, the grandfather who died before I was born. What would she tell me about her parents’ and grandparents’ immigration to America? What tales would she share about how she fell in love with a man thirteen years her senior and decided to follow him in the great turn-of-the-century adventure of transforming grassland into the world’s granary? How did she and Grandpa live through the deaths of their children?

Thinking there must be something left of their rugged, pioneering lives, I started to root around in my attic for remnants of who they were and what they did, gleaned box after box for any shred of family history. In a large trunk, I found a shoebox from Penney’s department store labeled “Daddy’s things,” recognized the writing as my mother’s. Seeing the curve of her letters was a treasure all its own. Inside, I picked out Elof’s love poems to Gedia; his small, red-velvet autograph book filled with greetings from his first American friends; a few letters and documents; a couple of photographs; his diary, in Swedish, from his last years; his funeral album; an old Baptist hymn book. Stacked around the shoebox were letters Grandma wrote to my mom during World War II, Gedia’s favorite book of poetry, my mother’s high school diary, the journal of family stories she started to write a few years before her death, and an envelope marked in Mom’s hand — “Linda, you will want this. Aunt Minnie’s story about their Swedish parents.” Grandma’s sister! What a delicious discovery!

Returning to the Penney’s box, I picked up in my hands what Grandpa had touched with his own. “You have his thumbs,” Mother used to tell me as she outlined mine with her finger. “Even when you were a baby, I could tell they were the same.” Perhaps, I thought, Grandpa and I share the same memories as well.

I turned to the Internet, scoured it for information not only about Grandma and Grandpa, but also their prairie friends, the ones they knew in Minnesota who went with them to Canada and then to Montana, and Grandma’s brother Edward who, with his family, accompanied Gedia and Elof on their homesteading moves. Slowly, click by click, I uncovered memories of my grandparents tucked away in local histories, and most astonishing of all, I found Edward’s grandson Jim Peterson, who shared family photos along with his meticulously researched book on our shared ancestors. Equally as fortuitous, I stumbled on the family in eastern Montana who bought the old homestead from Gedia and Elof. They still live there and invited me to put a visit to “the old place” on my bucket list. They’d show me around. Tell me family stories.

I basked in what I’d found. Gathered the stories around me. Started to write. Stopped. Realized I would always want to know more. So I listened. Listened for Grandma Gedia, who always was eager to put in her two cents. Heard her say she’d like to tell me about my ancestors’ pioneering lives in her own words. I paused, then I started to write again, this time in her voice, imagining myself inside her story. 

Knowing her love of poetry, I chose to write in verse, and after many attempts at different forms, I decided couplets were the best fit for her book of memories. The white space reminded me of the emptiness of the prairie; the couplets, the intimacy of their love and the furrows of dirt she and my grandfather spent their life turning.

Hearing Gedia’s “two cents” has filled me with awe for my grandparents, dreamers called “honyockers” — chasers after honey (land and opportunity). With hope as wide as the prairie sky, they chased land to grow a future on, then fought to keep going when the unthinkable threatened to tear their lives apart. As I’ve continued to gather information and sift through memorabilia, all the while trying to discern how Grandma would describe her life on the prairie, I’ve become filled with gratitude for all my prairie ancestors and the dust they’ve mingled in my bones. In searching for their lives, I’ve unearthed endless nourishment for my own.

After years of looking and listening, writing and rewriting, I’ve begun to share Gedia’s story with others and in the process, I’ve noticed how hearing about her life has encouraged them to recall anecdotes from their own family history. It’s as if her memories have triggered their own. Then, like me, they want answers to long-held questions about their ancestors’ lives and wonder what information they might uncover on their own Internet treasure hunt. As I tell them about my adventures finding Gedia and Elof, they embrace the possibility that if I’ve been able to forge a link with my grandparents who have been gone for more than half a century, then perhaps they can as well. 

I coax them to start looking, tell them that perhaps they’ll find stories related specifically to their forebears. If not, I’m certain they’ll chance on bits and pieces of what their grandparents’ lives must have been like in stories about other people’s ancestors. They might even light on their own story. I suggest that as they take on their own pilgrimage of discovery, they’ll learn, as I did, not to be surprised by the connections they come upon, relationships past and present that feed their soul. And finally, I urge them to take counsel in Frederick Buechner’s reminder that “all our words are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here.”

_____

Linda is the story gatherer for TreeStories. Read her poem about her immigrant great-grandparents — “Belonging to the Land” — another selection from her forthcoming book Chasing Honey.

_____

Read Linda’s reflections about her husband’s battle with lung cancer.