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A Pioneer Diary from Wisconsin
    by Malcolm Rosholt (Volume 21: Page 198)

Knut Halverson passed our house many times when I was a boy. A small man with a short, full beard, he was then living in retirement north of the Rosholt millpond. On his trips for groceries he followed the path along the gravel road running south into the village. When he had more groceries than he could carry for Berthe — his serene partner in marriage — he pushed a small wooden wheelbarrow, but with the wheelbarrow or without it he walked with short, shuffling steps, head slightly askew and shoulders hunched forward as if at any moment he might stumble on a pebble and fall. Yet he never did. In retrospect it seems likely that this posture of his marked a certain dogged persistence.

He was a pioneer settler in our county and in his younger days he had kept a diary which may be the most significant early document relating to Portage County, Wisconsin, in the Norwegian language.{1}

In the ordinary humdrum of life a man who starts a diary seldom finishes it. Knut Halverson, who emigrated to Wisconsin from Norway in 1865, kept on with his. Perhaps he was turning a page in time that should be recorded. And yet [199] in all he wrote he seldom made any significant comment about his adopted country, its politics, or its economic opportunities. For example, at various times in 1876 he mentions that he attended a town meeting or a fall election, or had a visit from the town assessor, but he does not remark on whether the meeting was interesting, whom he voted for, or whether the assessment was a fair one. On the Fourth of July, 1876 —the centennial year of American independence — he mentions "America’s Independence Day," but makes no reference to its significance. He had spent the day clearing land with a Polish neighbor. He makes no special comment about the Seventeenth of May, the Norwegian national holiday, but writes, as usual, about the weather and having finished sowing the oats and harrowing.

The first entry in the diary, kept in a ledgerlike book, is dated May 6, 1872, but it begins on page 79, which suggests that earlier entries are missing. The last entries were made in 1878, and here too it appears that a number of pages are lost. The years between 1872 and 1878 lack many pages; nevertheless, the remnants make up a fairly comprehensive picture of pioneer farm life on the Wisconsin frontier through at least one year — 1876 — and, to some extent, for the entire six-year period. If Halverson kept a diary in the 1880’s after he moved east into Alban Township, Portage County, there is no record of it, but one for portions of 1889 and of the early 1890’s does exist. Excerpts from it first appeared in translation in my Town 25 North ([Rosholt, Wisconsin,] 1948). At that time none of the surviving members of the Halverson family knew that their father kept a diary in the 1870’s. This was discovered in 1953 when Mrs. Nellie (Halverson) Peterson found a ledger in her home in Ironwood, Michigan, and, knowing of my interest in local history, sent it to me.

What, then, is there about this diary, that we should take the time to translate its almost illegible Norwegian into English? At first glance it appears to be primarily concerned with the daily weather report, which, to a later generation [200] interested in tomorrow’s weather, not yesterday’s, is scarcely worth reading. But the comments and information that often follow the weather report do interest us, for here we learn, not what effect the diarist has on the weather, but how this weather and his new American environment influence him.

Probably the parents of Knut Halverson, Halver and Margit Brekke-Pladsen of Lower Telemark, had considered emigrating to America with their seven children for some time. The Civil War had scarcely ended before they were preparing to board the sailing vessel "Laurdal" at Skien for passage to Quebec, Canada, en route to their final destination: Scandinavia Township, Waupaca County, Wisconsin. The future diarist was then eighteen; after the family arrived in the big Norwegian community, he probably hired out to the neighbors as a farm hand. For several years he called himself Knut Halverson Brekke; then, like many others, he dropped the family place name from Norway, retained his father’s given name, and added "son."

On December 7, 1869, at Scandinavia, he married Berthe Ostensdatter (Berthe, daughter of Osten and Marit Ostensen). Sometime, probably in the early spring of 1870, the young couple left Waupaca County and moved west about 25 miles to Sharon Township in what was to be known as the Tomorrow River settlement, in northeastern Portage County. It was a settlement because there relatives either of Halverson or of his wife were already making their homes or preparing to do so. During the twelve years or more that the Halversons lived there they had neither pump nor well, but, like their neighbors, hauled their drinking water from the Tomorrow River, almost half a mile away. Their land was sandy, covered with stumps and stones, somewhat hilly, a tangent of the terminal moraine running through central Wisconsin. Nevertheless, there were compelling reasons for their choice. Most of the better farm lands in Waupaca and Portage counties had already been taken; yet, as newcomers, these people wanted to be together where they could help each [201] other, now alone in a strange and wondrous land. There on the Tomorrow River was such a place. Moreover, they probably did not wish to be too far from relatives in Scandinavia Township and their church in New Hope.

There was an economic advantage to offset the fact that the land had yet to be broken, for a big sawmill had recently been built across the river, a short distance into the wilderness, by Nathaniel Boyington of Stevens Point. This meant spare-time work and wages, especially in winter and spring, when logging and lumbering were in full swing. Finally, the move into Portage County was made when hop raising was reaching a peak in productivity; on a single acre of cleared ground a man could realize a cash crop of $150 or more. Raising hops, even on one acre, was nevertheless a backbreaking, tedious job.

Despite these opportunities, the benefits were meager. After nearly seven years on the Tomorrow River place, in 1876 Halverson, according to the Sharon tax roll, had only eight cattle valued at $100, six sheep at $6.00, three swine at $6.00, and two wagons and/or carriages at $10. (No horses.) All other personal property was valued at $5.00, bringing the total assessment to $127. Clearly, the earning or spending of every dollar must have been a matter of deep anxiety. The story is still told that Marit, Halverson’s mother-in-law, and her daughter Karen churned butter and cheese which they sold in Stevens Point, fifteen miles away, walking barefoot as far as the city limits; there they put on their shoes, taking them off again when they left the city.

Under these rigid circumstances a man today usually turns either to God or to Marx, and as Marx was still an unknown, Knut Halverson turned to God. He became almost obsessed with the certainties he found in the Bible, yet he wondered, begging God for further clarification of his purposes. Had Halverson remained in Norway he would probably have been a staunch member of the local Lutheran parish, but his new environment in America undoubtedly brought him into a [202] relationship with God he never would have experienced in the old country. Here he struggled as much against his environment as against himself, and at times seemed fairly to writhe under the glare of God. It is not clear what brought on these moods, probably not the same circumstances in every case. He was known, however, to have a temper that could die down as suddenly as it flared up, but not before he had given expression to some of the most rounded-out oaths in the Norwegian tongue.

That, like most pioneers, he was often lonely, is brought out on the only occasion he ever mentions of his wife being away. This was September 28, 1877; while he surely had the children — at least four of them by now — with him, he says of his "dear wife" that it is "so lonesome to be home alone. O God, grant that I shall never have to be without her!" Another time, he looks back to the land of his forefathers and sings its praises, wondering, no doubt, whether he should have left it.

But his deep religious convictions fortify him. His awareness of God and of the problem of divine justice bothers him more than his loneliness. In an entry made September 24, 1875, after reporting the weather, he fairly beats his breast, and cries out, "O God, help me, that I may see my own distress and desperate need in the right light! I want so much to hate sin and become a Christian, but my progress is slow in this respect. I am so wicked and so sinful and full of impurity. Other creatures lack understanding and know no better, but to me the Lord has given understanding and an immortal soul to be concerned with."

Two months later, on November 17 (the weather "gray and cold"), he says, "Sorrow and sin follow me incessantly and I am tired of this miserable earthly life. Often I feel myself exceedingly tired. Life is a true burden to me. God grant that I may cast my anchor in the heavenly land where all things can be achieved." On November 21 he realizes that this is the twenty-sixth Sunday after Trinity, and says, "The gospel talks about eternal judgment. God grant I may be ready! My life’s [203] path is for me troubled, difficult, and narrow." And on November 30: "Knut Halverson, oh, you poor man who does not know how to use his time better and who knows that eternal salvation depends on the kind of life one lives in this world!

On March 19, 1876, he remarks that this is the third Sunday in Lent, and adds: "Oh that I could find a little corner in the world where I could live undisturbed by these evil spirits and instruments which the devil uses!" (One wonders where he could have found a spot more isolated than the one he was in.) A few weeks later, June 28, he says, "O you earthly life! How heavy it is to come through!" This last sentiment is repeated several times; for example, on March 29, 1877, he says, "O thou miserable dissatisfaction and wretchedness; thou wretched and dissatisfied world! How shall I get through it?"

These are but a few of his expressions of concern for his spiritual welfare. At times he seems to be arguing with God, but through all this runs a deep and sincere feeling, colored by the harsh realities of frontier life and the resultant self-pity. The effect of the panic of the early 1870’s, first felt in the cities, may have reached the frontier by this time, yet Halverson never mentions being hard pressed financially, nor blames anyone for his situation. He accepts it as a circumstance over which he has no control when he thanks God on Christmas Day, 1876, "for this wonderful grace and love which has been bestowed upon us." And, on February 20, 1877: "I thank the Lord for his benefits for ever and all time."

To go back a couple of years: On December 7, 1875, after cutting rails in the swamp, he says: "Again a few days have passed of this life that is so burdensome. Today it is just six years since I was married. God knows how it will be, another six years from today." This last sentence suggests his disappointment, probably not in his marriage, but in his early dreams of a quick rise to riches — a hope which he no doubt shared with other immigrants when he came from Norway a decade earlier. He forgets what his status might have been [204] had he remained in semifeudal Norway, and naturally is concerned with the present, not the past. But his resignation or acceptance of the odds against him is reflected in a comment made February 16, 1876, when he says, "There is so much in this world which I would like to do but cannot quite do." Thus it seems that in his constant "wrestling with the angel" he is not only struggling to satisfy his relation to God but tries to use him to meet the problems of an environment which tried a man’s nerves almost to the breaking point. When his crops suffer because of too little or too much rain he implores God to intercede for him. He had no one else to turn to except his few relatives and neighbors; they could help him only as much as he helped them, and no one dreamed of applying to the government. This was the bargain they made when they came to the "land of their choice."

As to the daily weather report, it should be borne in mind that the weather was all-important to this man because he was out in it all day, nearly every day, including the Fourth of July, and his bread and butter were directly linked to its whims. The great concern he expresses for more rain or for less rain reflects his fears for a poor crop and the resultant hardship for his family, which had been increasing almost every year since 1870. The nature of the weather even colors his thinking; on February 14, 1877, a cloudy day, he says, "O thou cold and gray earthly existence — skies over our earthly life! What a difficult struggle to get through it all!"

But there was probably more to this discussion of weather than meets the eye. We know from other pioneer diaries, not necessarily of Norwegians, that the weather report was indispensable. It has been suggested that these early diarists kept such logs so that they could compare one year with the previous one, and plan their farming accordingly. This is not entirely unreasonable, but I wonder whether this preoccupation with climate was not also an unconscious recording of the flight of time. Halverson makes numerous references to the passing of time, and by noting the changes in the weather [205] he seems to be trying to hold time in its place. There were days when he failed to accomplish much and there was little of significance to record. Yet the diarist felt he had accomplished something in reporting the weather, which is an indefinite part of time. And from this intangible, the fact that the pioneer farmer was out in the weather all day and usually had little protection from it would tend to emphasize his relation to it.

Knut Halverson speaks of his deep consciousness of time’s passing again and again; for him it seems to add to life’s meaning. He does not enter the names of the weekdays but always writes in "Sunday." He notes most of the main Protestant church holidays as they appear, year after year. When the month ends, he is apt to address it, saying, "Farewell, August month." On November 8, 1875, he says, "Another day has gone, with its worries. That is the way time gallops ahead without stopping." On December 31, 1875 ("heavy and thawing weather"), he says, "Farewell, you old year"; on May 10, 1876, "Another day has gone and passed into oblivion"; on March 21, 1877, "Time flies without cease." A few days later, on March 31, he writes: "O thou blessed time! Oh, that I could accept Thee in the right manner!" (Here he capitalizes "Thee," which suggests that he is equating time with God.) On his birthday, May 13, 1877, he says it is "thirty years since I was born to this world in lamentation. O you most valuable time, you have disappeared in the great woe of eternity and insatiable ocean! 0 God, if I only could make use of the time that I have, so that it may be to my eternal well-being and my soul’s salvation!"

He keeps track of the seasons in other ways, noting the arrival of the first whippoorwill in spring and the passing of the geese overhead.

This preoccupation of Halverson’s would lead one to believe that he was already old, not a young man in the prime of life. The evidence suggests that he had too much time to think about time; in winter, for days on end, he was alone [206] in the swamp, either cutting wood for the family stoves or splitting cedar rails; in spring, summer, and fall he was usually alone with his constant grubbing, brush cutting, stone picking, plowing, planting, and harrowing. He had neighbors, true, but it is clear that communication was infrequent, confined mostly to intermittent work exchanges and to occasional church services held either in New Hope or at the home of a relative. Certainly it was not far to go to a neighbor; yet, walking half a mile after a day of grubbing, or of plowing with a yoke of oxen, was a long way for a tired man. And there were no telephones to keep people in touch with one another. Each family, by the very nature of things, lived much to itself, and there were practically no distracting influences to disturb a man’s thoughts except the cries of the children at home, or the caw of a crow in the field.

As a result of the conflict with himself and with time, and with the struggle to maintain his family, Knut Halverson, like most pioneers, grew old before his time. On May 13, 1876, in the only direct reference he ever makes to his reader, he says, "Today is my twenty-ninth birthday, dear friend who will read this. It may not seem like many years, but I am already fed up with time. I long to go home and be away from the hardships of life." A few days earlier he had said, "These days are hard for me, with trials and tribulations, both outwardly and inwardly." Thus, even his self-pity seems to be part of his perplexity about time and his inability to make God understand his problems or for him to understand God’s inaccessibility to him. As the years advanced, he became prematurely less energetic, his body often attacked by real or imaginary pains. When he retired to the village around 1910, at about sixty-three, he walked with a cane. He was scarcely able to keep a garden, although a few years after his retirement his health improved and he became more lively. Acquaintances always had a feeling, however, that he had once modeled for Millet’s "The Man with the Hoe." Ironically enough, and despite his oft-expressed desire to be done with [207] it all — almost a death wish, as he expressed it on May 13, 1876 — he lived to the ripe age of ninety-two and, with his wife, celebrated both golden and diamond wedding anniversaries. This was an exceptional couple, as tombstones in our pioneer cemeteries so clearly reveal.

From this diary we get a fair idea of what crops were raised on a pioneer farm in Portage County just before the great revolution in farm mechanization began. While the tax records of 1876 list eight cattle on Halverson’s place, at least two of these were probably oxen used as draft animals, although he never deigns to mention the creatures as such. When he left the Tomorrow River in the early 1880’s and moved to Alban Township, he was still using oxen, as a photograph taken around 1890 indicates.

In the 1870’s Halverson used oxen for breaking, plowing, and harrowing, hauling in and hauling out, even to market, to the grist mill on the Plover River, or to the flour mill at Stevens Point. Apparently he cultivated his corn on one occasion but he also mentions hand hoeing the corn. The few potatoes he raised, obviously for domestic use, he hoed. Besides potatoes and corn, he raised hops, oats, rye, and spring and winter wheat. He also had a few pumpkins and sufficient peas to thresh — for seed — almost certainly with a flail. He had no binder, but cradled the grain with a scythe and tied it by hand with straw. Afterwards he shocked it and then hauled it back to the barn, to be stacked outside pending the arrival of the threshing outfit. This was probably a primitive separator or "agitator" driven by a four-wheel machine, fitted with five sweeps for ten oxen. Or it may have been operated by a crude steam engine, pulled by oxen or horses from one farm to the next.

Halverson fanned his own grain before sowing and also before taking it to the mill. Most of his hay was cut on a swamp forty he owned on the Tomorrow River, although he did raise a crop of timothy "on the lower field" in 1876, his first note about this crop. [208]

On May 18, 1876, he mentions that he "hauled a load of manure away." This is the first instance I have found in the history of Portage County that barnyard fertilizer was used on the new land. But it was an isolated item: the next time Halverson mentioned hauling manure was on December 19.

Besides his crops, Halverson was raising some cattle — we know he had a calf that got loose one Christmas Eve and had to be chased — as well as a few sheep and swine, but no brood sows, apparently, as he mentioned buying two small pigs from a distant neighbor. In the fall he butchered, and salted the pork.

But what impresses one about the farm work is the inordinate amount of time devoted to keeping the wood box full. During the winter months Halverson spent day after day chopping, cutting, or splitting wood. It is true that he supplied the district schoolhouse — a quarter of a mile away from the farm — but school terms were short and this job alone does not account for the many days he had to keep at the woodpile to assure his own house warmth and kitchen fuel.

He never mentions milking cows, a task usually reserved for womenfolk in pioneer communities when there was only a cow or two to milk, but he never found a spare minute in his working days. He was constantly busy with one thing or another, and when he could not do field work, he was grubbing, burning brush, building fences, or chinking moss between the logs of the barn. On rainy days or when the snow blew, he was inside the house mending shoes for his family or making repairs on his limited farm equipment. And once a year he worked on the public highway in lieu of paying the poll tax.

While Halverson lived on the Tomorrow River, he appears to have been a member of New Hope Church in eastern Portage County. (The records of this congregation were lost in a fire.) But the church was at least ten miles through woods from his place, and his attendance was usually reserved for festival occasions or communion services. He mentions, several times, attending services in the home of John Furuvold, [209] a neighbor and relative who lived in the Tomorrow River settlement. The earliest mention of divine services there was made May 13, 1872, when Halvers on attended in the morning, and in the afternoon watched his second child baptized. He does not mention the pastor until 1875, but it was probably the same man all along: Nils Bringelsen Berge, who served the New Hope congregation 1871—83, and in 1878 became the first pastor of the newly organized congregation in East Alban.

Aside from Halverson’s attendance at church, he mentions no diversion from his daily work except once attending a Polish wedding, presumably that of a neighbor in Sharon —a township destined to become the most predominately Polish in Portage County.

Knut Halverson struggled not only with his God and with nature, but also with a new language; and we can well imagine the conversation when he met one of his Polish or German neighbors, as each tried to make himself understood in a third language unfamiliar to both. But as Halverson learned new English words, he attempted to incorporate them into his diary by "Norwegianizing" them. In this he was following the pattern so ably demonstrated in Einar Haugen’s The Norwegian Language in America (Philadelphia, 1953).

For example, he uses the word "swamp" throughout the diary; he has no suitable substitute for it in Norwegian because there are, strictly speaking, few swamps (flom) in Norway; mostly they are myr (marshes or peat bogs). He attempts to adapt "swamp" by spelling it svamp. When he has been in the swamp, he says he has been i svampen. After swamping out rails (that is, snaking them to a skidway) he has svampede ut rels. To say, "I have grubbed," he writes jeg har grubbede. The word "field" he naturally slurs to fila. Repairing a fence, he says he fixsede fens. He krillede (cradled) winter wheat and he haaede (hoed) some weeds in kornet (the corn). He hauled his water from krikken (the creek) in a baril. He took his oats to be ground at the fidmøllen (feed mill). He bought groseri (groceries) at storet (the store). [210] He splitted (split) some wood and he kliret (cleared) some fence line. He kattetede (cut) corn and he hauled ponkis (pumpkins). As for logs, he was not sure whether to call them log or tømmer. He repaired the sjanty (shanty) roof, built a corn kryb, helped his brother Ole cut sjingels (shingles), and was often in the swamp cutting sqver stik (square sticks —actually hewed timbers) for sills of houses or barns. On February 6, 1877, the snow was almost gone from farmene (the farms), and one afternoon he suverte (surveyed) some land. And on April 25, 1877, he heard the hyprevil (whippoorwill) for the first time.

In the early 1880’s Knut Halverson left the Tomorrow River and moved to East Alban, about seven miles away, where he bought two forties of cutover land and began anew. Considering how many stones and stumps he had already cleared, this seems a strange decision. Asked why Halverson moved after so many years, Mrs. Maren (Halverson) Paulson, his first child, said: "Father thought it was too far to go to church. We had to go ‘way to New Hope, you know, in those days, and all our people were settling in the east part of the township."

The expression "all our people," meaning Norwegians, gives at least one clue to the reason for the transition. Sharon Township was filling up with Polish immigrants, and while the Halversons got along with them, as the diary reveals, the feeling of living among an alien people obviously grew as more and more of them came to settle there. Even the one early German neighbor moved away.

But there was probably more to it. When the Halverson Brekke clan first arrived from Norway and sought a settlement of their own, they were attempting to duplicate a situation they had known in Norway, where an entire community could be related and bear the same surname. This was tried in America by many European families; some succeeded, most did not. The fact is that after the settlers on the Tomorrow River got their feet on the ground, so to speak, they began to realize [211] that the grass was greener elsewhere and that living in groups in America did not have the same advantages it had had in Norway. Halverson’s diary reveals that long before he left the Tomorrow River place, his brother Ole Halverson Brekke was moving to Minnesota, another relative to Pierce County in western Wisconsin, another to North Dakota. As for the diarist himself, while he no doubt wanted to live with his "own people," the fact is that the land in Alban was better, less stony, and level, and altogether easier to work. Finally, the hop industry was petering out in Portage County and the farmer was turning to dairying, which required food hay and clover fields as well as corn.

Around 1910, as has been mentioned, Halverson retired to the village of Rosholt. In the early 1930’s I visited him several times; he was an interesting man to talk with. I still had no idea of his literary accomplishments, and as I was recently back from China, we discussed, not pioneer days, but rather China and Biblical events, which he was apt to quote in reference to what was happening in the Far East. In 1939 the diarist died. His wife had preceded him in death by five years. Thirteen children had been born of their union, all in the first sixteen years of marriage; two had died in infancy.

Knut Halverson’s diary, notwithstanding its mistakes in spelling and punctuation, is a valuable clue to the economic and religious pattern of life in what was called the "Indian Land" of central Wisconsin in the 1870’s. From the portions of the diary that survive, we know that he never missed a single daily entry in these, no matter how tired or ill he may have been. That is an achievement indeed!

On the inside back cover of the diary are many evidences of practice writing, presumably done by children, but two lines in Halverson’s own hand stand out. They read:

 

Knud Halverson er mit navn
Mig til ere og ingen skam.
(Knut Halverson is my name,
Mine to honor, not to shame.)

Notes:

<1> Through the courtesy of Mr. Rosholt, the Halverson diary has been presented to the Norwegian-American Historical Association. K. O. B.

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