Pioneer Town Building in the West
An America Letter Written by Frithjof Meidell at Springfield, Illinois, IN 1855
Translated with a foreword by Clarence A. Clausen (Volume IX: Page 45)
The 1850's were a great boom period in America. The decade had been ushered in by the discovery of fabulous riches of gold in California, which raised the gambling instinct of the nation to fever pitch. Close upon the gold rush followed the first great railroad building era in our history when the meager eight thousand miles of 1850 were developed into complex nets of more than thirty thousand miles ten years later. Several great railroad systems had sprung up, which bound the main economic centers of the country together, while subsidiary lines had been flung into the less developed West to exploit its resources.
As the railroads helped open up the West by connecting it with eastern American and European markets, the boom spirit of the fifties found still another form of expression. Land speculation became a mania. Men of ambition and business acumen, probably bolstered up with a little cash, rushed into the West and, by means of the easy credit system and the convenient laws of the time, made themselves "owners," of great stretches of public land. Some of this was sold immediately at a much higher price to speculators (also on easy credit terms) or to prospective farmers. But the most promising scheme was to advertise the land as the site of a future flourishing city and to sell lots. "New towns were laid out in every direction. The number of towns multiplied so rapidly that it was waggishly remarked by many people
that the whole country was likely to be laid out into towns and that no land would be left for farming purposes."
In order to realize as quickly as possible on their investments individual speculators, land companies, and railway companies advertised the tremendous possibilities of the West in glowing terms both in the eastern states and in Europe, where the "America fever" spread with unprecedented virulence.
Among those seized by the fever was Frithjof Meidell, the author of the letter translated below.
He was the youngest son of a prominent Norwegian official family
and had studied both in his native land and in Scotland, but in 1854 we find him hard at work in a lumber yard in Springfield, Illinois. He was not satisfied with working for others, however, but was eager to accumulate sufficient capital for a venture of his own. Farming and land speculation (though on a safe scale) appealed especially to him, for these were prosperous years for the landed classes. Thus he writes in the spring of 1855:
"Everything indicates that the crops will be good this year, but we need them badly. All things cost about three times as much as they did a year ago. Yes, some things, potatoes for instance, cost six times as much as they did last spring. The farmers here are preparing to provide Europe also with grain, more this year than ever before because of the [Crimean] war."
He finally bought land in Kansas but decided to let it lie fallow, for the boom years of the earlier fifties found their Nemesis in the depression of 1857. To quote Meidell again:
"And now we are having our fill of hard times. The unrestrained extravagance which has characterized life here, the positively insane land speculation, and a too liberal credit system were the main causes of the crisis. . . . Farm products do not
bring half the price now that they did last year. Some things, in fact, like butter and potatoes, sell for a fourth of last year's price. These low prices have been a godsend to the laboring classes in the cities because little or no work has been available. But our farmers (who peculiarly enough can never get their farms "rounded out" but continually buy more land --- N. B. on credit --- in order to secure geometric symmetry) look very sour, complain much about the depression, and only wish that the Germans and Russians would start tearing each other's hair."
In view of continued hard times he decided late in 1858 "to grease his joints," as he put it, and leave for California to tempt fortune as a gold miner. He settled near the town of San Andreas in Calaveras County, where he worked several claims, but the results were not encouraging.
"The fat golden days in California are gone. There are mighty few who do particularly well here now. My mine pays better than any other in the neighborhood, but that is not saying much. I will likely remain here another year, but then I am through."
Thus he wrote in the spring of 1861. He labored on in the mines, however, until the summer of 1863, when he evidently left for St. Louis. There, the year following, at the age of thirty-four, he is said to have succumbed to the dread cholera.
Meidell's letters give an intimate revelation of the man. As an immigrant he was torn between longings for his old associations and a determination to make good in the New World. Apparently the formalism of party polities did not interest him, but the spread of Know-Nothingism in the middle fifties seemed to arouse his concern, and, like most Norwegian immigrants, he was a determined foe of the southern slavocracy when the Civil War broke out. Neither did he take much interest in organized religion; he never refers to the American churches nor to the numerous sects which at that time divided the Norwegian-Americans into different shades of Lutheran orthodxy. But religious sentiments would often find utterance in terms of tenderness when he wrote to his aging mother, or of reverence when he was moved by the sublimity of nature. Above all he was
a man who could observe the stirring life about him with understanding and humor. On one occasion he warned his brother
to beware of the weakness for exaggeration that characterized "us Americans." If we keep this warning in mind and have regard for the spirit rather than the exact word of the letter translated below, it will probably give us a good impression of how an American town sprang into being during the booming fifties.
FRITHJOF MEIDELL TO HIS MOTHER, August 7, 1855
[Historiografisk Samling Mss. Oslo - A. L. S.]
SPRINGFIELD, ILL., August 7, 1855
I received Hansine's letter a couple of days ago and was indeed glad to hear that all of you are getting along so well. The same is true of Christian and me; both of us are feeling fine. I have tried many a ruse to get him to write home, but all in vain. A real porker, that fellow! You must thank Hansine ever so much for her letter. It was very interesting. I sent her a letter about two months ago by a man from Arendal who was returning home. Likely she has received it by now. I must admit that I felt quite flattered by her praise of my epistles, and least of all did I expect that Ditmar would find anything in them worthy of printer's ink. But there you see: do not judge a tramp by his rags. How pleased I should be if I could only secure copies of Aftenbladet from time to time. Could not this be arranged? In the Norwegian paper, Emiigranten, which is published in Wisconsin, I find many articles from Aftenbladet. In the same paper I also see that you now have both railroad and telegraph. Hurrah for old Norway! How is the railroad getting along? Here in America it is the railroads which build up the whole country. Because of them the farmers get wider markets and higher prices for their products. They seem to put new life into everything. Even the old apple woman sets off at a dogtrot when she hears
the whistle, since she wants to sell her apples to the passengers. Every ten miles along the railways there are stations which soon grow up into towns. "Soon" did I say? I should have said "immediately" because it is really remarkable how rapidly the stations are transformed into little towns. I can but compare it with the building of Aladdin's castle by means of his wonderful lamp, only that things move still faster here, since it is not necessary to sit and rub a rusty old oil lantern. Here you can buy houses all ready to be placed on the freight car, and in half a day's time they can be nailed together.
Since I have nothing else to write about this time, I shall attempt to describe how these towns spring up. First --- that is, after the two old log houses that stand one on each side of the tracks --- first, I say, the railroad company builds a depot. Next a speculator buys the surrounding one hundred acres and lays it out in lots, streets, and a market place. Then he graces the prospective town with the name of an early president or a famous general --- or probably his own name --- holds an auction, and realizes many hundred per cent on his investment. A young wagonmaker who has just completed his apprenticeship hears about the station, that it is beautifully located in a rich farming country, is blessed with good water, and, most important of all, that it has no wagonmaker. Making a hasty resolution, he buys the barest necessities for setting up in his profession, hurries off to the place, rents one of the old log houses, and is soon at work. One absolute necessity he still lacks, however: a sign, of course, which is the most important part of a man's equipment here in America. The next day he hears that there is a tramp painter aboard the train; he gets him off, puts him to work, and the very next day the farmers are surprised to see a monstrous sign straddling the roof of the old log house. The sign is an immediate success, for the farmers rush to the shop and order wagons, wheels, and the like. The poor man is overwhelmed with more work than he can handle for ever so long. He is about to regret that sign notion of his, but suddenly he has another idea. He accepts every order, and no sooner are the customers away than he seizes his pen and writes to the editors of three different newspapers that three good apprentices can secure steady work with
high wages in the "flourishing town of L." Within two days he has help enough, and the work goes "like a song.
The train stops again and off steps a blacksmith who went broke in one of the larger towns. He saunters over to the wagonmaker's shop as unconcerned as if he only wished to light his cigar. In a casual way he inquires about the neighborhood and wonders what its prospects are, without indicating that he intends to settle there --- by no means! But the wagoner, with his keen Yankee nose, soon smells a rat and starts boosting the place with all his might. This inspires the smith with ecstasy; he thereupon starts to jump around and make sledge-hammer motions with his arms. Off he goes and rents the other log house and nails a horseshoe over the door as a sign. The horseshoe, to be sure, cannot be seen any great distance, but the smith has a remedy for this, and he starts to hammer and pound away at his anvil so the farmers for miles around can hear the echoes. They immediately flock to his door, and there is work enough for the blacksmith. Within a short week a carpenter, a tailor, and a shoemaker also arrive in town. The wagoner orders a house from the carpenter and rents the second story to the tailor and the shoemaker. Soon the blacksmith also builds a house, and things progress with giant strides toward the bigger and better.
Again the train stops. This time two young fellows jump off, gaze about, and go over to have a chat with the blacksmith. One of them is a doctor, the other a lawyer. Both of them rent rooms from the blacksmith and start business.
Once more the locomotive stops. But --- what's this that comes out? Be patient! Just let it come closer. It is nothing more nor less than a mustachioed, velvet-frocked German with an old, overworked hurdy-gurdy strapped to his back. On the hurdy-gurdy perches a measly little monkey dressed in red. The German goes over to the blacksmith shop and begins to crank his music box while the monkey smokes tobacco, dances a polka, and grinds coffee. But the German receives no encouragement for his art, nor does the monkey --- except some rusty nails which the smith tosses to him. The artist realizes that his audience is very unappreciative and the poor man's face is overcast with sorrow. Then he looks about inquiringly as if searching for
something and steps up to the doctor to ask if there is a restaurant in town. On receiving a negative reply, his face brightens up again and after a short conversation with the doctor and lawyer, he steams off with the next train and jumps off at the first big town, where he sells his hurdy-gurdy and monkey and buys a barrel of whisky, another barrel of biscuits, two large cheeses, tobacco, cigars, and sausages --- miles of them. Thereupon he engages a painter to make an appropriate sign, and in three days he is again back in the new town. Now he rents the blacksmith's old log house and rigs it up as a shop. Soon the sign swings over the door, the whisky barrel is already half empty, and the sausages are dispatched by the yard. But how could it be otherwise? Our clever German calls them egyptische Brautewurste, an irresistible name, nichi wahr? And what of the sign? Polz tausend noch einmal. In the center rests a large barrel adorned with the magic word Lagerbier. On one side of the barrel is a large cheese and on the other a necklace of sausages. Between these German Valhalla delicacies we read in large yellow letters, Wirtschaftshaus zur deutschen Republik, by Carl Klor. Fortune smiles upon the German innkeeper.
His best customers are the railroad workers, most of whom are Irishmen. They discovered the shop one Sunday afternoon while it was closed. But fortunately there were two Germans in the crowd who were attracted by the sign and interpreted its mysteries to the Irishmen, who at once burst into frenzies of joy and started to dance about to the accompaniment of war whoops. Then they stuck their thumbs into their mouths and pulled them out with thuds like the uncorking of bottles, after which they hammered at the door. The German immediately opened both his mouth and his door and commenced to murder the English language and to tap whisky. He is now well on his way to become a capitalist, because these fellows have tremendous capacities and swallow a quart of fire water without batting an eye. I believe I must have mentioned them before. They consist mostly of the worst riffraff of Europe, to whom America is a promised land where you earn a dollar a day and are not hanged for stealing. When these roughnecks get together it is a pretty dull party unless there are a couple of fights and someone gets a
good "hiding." As you go along a railway under construction it is easy to detect the places where they have had their frolics by the torn-up sod, the tufts of hair, the broken bottles, pipes, pants buttons, blood, and so forth, which they have left behind them. I imagine that if the most brutish hog in the world could express himself he would do it something like these fellows.
But to get back to my town again. The German, the blacksmith, and the tailor do a rushing business. The train stops again, and this time it is a printer who makes his appearance. He gets in touch with the doctor and lawyer; an old printing press is for sale in the next town; they buy it, and with this new event we can really say that the town has "arrived." Some little trouble there is, to be sure, concerning the political affiliations of the paper, because it develops that the lawyer is a Democrat, the doctor an Abolitionist, and the printer a Whig. But a compromise is soon reached and the new paper announces itself as "independent." The lawyer volunteers to write the editorials, while the doctor promises a wealth of death announcements, and the German and the blacksmith undertake to fill the rest of the paper with advertisements. Within a few years the town is very large. The wagonmaker owns practically one-half of it. The German deals only in wholesale. The lawyer is mayor of the town, and the blacksmith does nothing but smoke cigars, for he is now a man of affluence.
I sent Hansine's letter to Christian as soon as I had read it. I shall not let him know that I am sending this letter. Probably this will help induce him to write.
From Hansine's letter it appears that I may expect letters both from Ditmar and Gyritta. It certainly would be a wonder if Ditmar should write to me. I have waited patiently for the long letter he promised me months ago. Has he been to Leven yet? When you write to Trondhjem you must greet Gyritta and her family for me. Tell her that I am expecting a letter quite soon. Every time I receive a letter from you folks back home I get lonesome and want to see you all again. If I can only retain my present resolution and health for a few years more I shall make a trip home. I wrote to Hansine about sending me some newspapers through a company in Boston, Massachusetts.
If this can be done then be sure to send me some numbers of Aftenbladet --- and I believe you once mentioned that Ditmar had written a comedy. Send it also if it is not too big and weighty. Address the package to M. L. Shubart and H Lyen, care of C. H. White, No. 50 Court Street, Scollays Building, Boston, Massachusetts.
Farewell for this time. Greetings to you all from
Next time I expect a letter from Ditmar.
<1> Thomas Ford, History of Illinois, 182 (Chicago, 1544).
<2> This letter is one of a series written by Meidell to his mother and brothers during the years 1854-63. Through the kindness of Fru Gudrun Steen of Oslo, niece of the author, transcripts of the letters were secured by Professor Theodore C. Blegen while he was gathering America letters in Norway in 1929. The Norwegian version of the letter herewith translated was published by Mr. Blegen in Norden (Chicago), December, 1932, with a brief introductory statement.
<3> His father was Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Pritzie Meidell.
<4> Meidell's brother Ditmar was editor of the Norwegian newspaper Aftenbladet. Frithjof Meidell contributed several articles descriptive of American life to his brother's paper. They were reprinted in Skillingsmagasin by the famous editor Hartvig Lassen and were favorably noticed by no less a man than the poet Bjørnson.