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Farewell to an Old Homestead
    by Ethel J. Odegard (Volume 26: Page 146)

The history of any parcel of ground that has been associated for many years with one’s home must obviously be of greatest interest to the family concerned. There may be other persons, however, whose lives impinged in one way or another upon the activities of my family and who might also be interested. Thus a bit of personal history becomes a social document. In its broadest aspects, such a record relates to the legislative or governmental aspects of a particular section of the community. Viewed more narrowly, it has to do with the transactions pertaining to the ownership of the property from the very outset, the environment shared by neighbors, and the improvements and innovations undertaken in order to maintain the homestead.

As every schoolchild soon learns, Wisconsin became a state in 1848. At that time, counties, townships, villages, and towns were laid out. It was not, however, until 1874 that Lincoln County became a separate legislative unit. The legislature of Wisconsin then passed an act for the division of the County of Marathon and the creation of the County of Lincoln, to be known as "Chapter 128, Laws of 1874, published and effective, March 31, 1874." The act further stated that the territory so detached was to remain a part of Marathon County. . . until October 1, 1874, and "until the County of Lincoln is organized as provided in said Act."

Following the spurt of county organization, the towns and villages took on greater importance, both politically and socially. Sometimes it happened that a village went along for a time under a name that later was changed to one which perhaps was considered to be more in keeping with the times, or otherwise more appropriate. This happened in the community in which I was born. The delightful name of Jenny was first attached to this village on the edge of the great northern pine-tree country. {1} When in 1881 the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway came through, the more dignified name of one of its officials was adopted. Thus it has borne the name City of Merrill ever since. {2}

From this time on, the town itself became more complex. Additions were attached, streets laid out and named, wards and school districts decided upon. Areas of the community were designated. Merrill has an east side and a west side, divided by the beautiful, meandering Prairie River.

The governmental organization of the particular site of my home, as it is listed on the tax rolls, reveals the beginnings of local history. As set forth in "Conveyance No. 17" in the Abstract of Title to this property, the entire area was "surveyed and mapped by order and direction of V. R. Willard." It is also recorded that the "Instrument [was] certified by G. R. Sturdevant as city engineer." This platting is dated May 12, 1881, and recorded six days later, in the Lincoln County courthouse. The particular parcel of land to which I refer is known as "Lot Number Eight of Block Six, of V. R. Willard’s Addition to Merrill." This description of the spot where I was born is not cast in poetic language. Far from it. Nevertheless, it is the place which is the locale of my story.

One item of a personal recollection should be added. While it is extremely unlikely that I ever saw the city engineer going about his work, I am quite certain that I saw his successor, Francis E. Matthews, walking through the streets of Merrill, carrying his surveyor’s transit over his shoulder. My brother, the late Peter Odegard, succeeded Matthews as city engineer. As for Sturdevant, I am told by one who knew him well that he was a "tall, lanky, white-whiskered man, very distinguished looking."

I have no knowledge of the city officials who were responsible for the naming of the streets, nor of any arguments that took place at city council meetings. But I remember very well that I was always especially attracted to the names on our corner, Fourth and Douglas. Particularly the latter. I think I must have been learning about Civil War history at the time I first became aware of such matters. At any rate, studying the stirring accounts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, I thought that I, too, was somehow involved in national history on my own corner of the United States.

It is of interest to reconstruct that part of our history which had to do with the reasons why my parents decided to move to Merrill—and who the persons were who influenced them in their choice. When my parents left Port Edwards, Wisconsin, in the late fall of 1889, to find a new home in Merrill, they were following in the steps of my father’s oldest brother Erik P. Odegaard. My uncle had taken out his first citizenship papers in Merrill in 1888, and I assume that the family had moved there that same year. I was told that my parents, sister, and three brothers stayed with them until my father could acquire a home for his family.

What were the basic reasons for our move to Merrill? To be sure, there were work opportunities in the mills and lumber yards. This was certainly an important factor. But why Merrill? It was, of course, common practice for the newly arrived immigrants to seek a community where they would find kindred souls. There were large Norwegian settlements in both Eau Claire and La Crosse where this situation prevailed. Merrill in north-central Wisconsin did not offer this advantage.

Looking back over the years, I believe that my uncle and my father were drawn to Merrill because there they would find other newcomers who had migrated from the same vicinity in southeastern Norway. One of these was Nels P. Evjue, who came from the town of Kongsberg, which was not far from Vestfossen, my father’s birthplace. Another was Martin Foss, who ran a boardinghouse on Second Street only a few steps away from the railroad station. It was the latter who, more than likely, spearheaded the migration to Merrill from Fort Edwards, Grand Rapids, and other central Wisconsin towns. Martin Foss was a former resident of Grand Rapids; it was here that his son Ole Ludvig Foss was born, on June 14, 1876. Other Merrill residents of that early period who came from Kongsberg were Nels Andersen and Thomas Larsen. {3}

There had been several owners of our homestead lot before it came into my father’s hands. {4} The names are all familiar to me, as all were members of the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church. They were Nels P. Evjue, Nels Andersen and his wife Marie, and Thomas Larsen and his wife Carrie. These families, including my own, were linked together in a common bond, having stemmed from the same community in Norway.

On November 8, 1889, Thomas Larsen and his wife sold the lot and house to my parents for the modest sum of $537. On the same date, a mortgage agreement for $312 was entered into between my father and Larsen. Eleven years later, on April 2, 1900, the debt was paid off. Our family thus had a home and a permanent address for many years to come. {5}

However, this was not the end of mortgages. For another fifteen years, three additional mortgages were taken out to effect improvements and needed repairs. The final satisfaction of the last one was achieved in 1916. The amount was $140. These debts involved unbelievably small sums of money, at least when judged by today’s values. On the other hand—and it is scarcely necessary to point out this well-known fact—the purchasing power of the dollar was far greater then than it is today. Nevertheless, a careful watch over every penny spent for food and clothing was required. It was a struggle for existence; there is no doubt about that. In a society which has always been conscious of the position, or lack of it, of the newly arrived immigrants—especially those without a knowledge of the English language or with special abilities in the crafts—there were many handicaps.

From the foregoing account of the political and geographical background of our community, and the elements entering into the choice of Merrill as a future home, it is only a step to a consideration of the ethnic components of our neighborhood. We lived in a strictly polyglot—today we would say cosmopolitan—community, made up primarily of persons of Norwegian, Swedish, and French-Canadian backgrounds.

How well I remember the neighbors living up and down our street. Directly across from us to the east was the Jacob Nelson family, with two daughters, Caroline and Mathilda (Carrie and Tillie). The Nelsons ran a boardinghouse, and hence there was always a good deal of activity there. Today, when attending church services on a Sunday morning, a lump rises in my throat and a mist gathers in my eyes when I listen to the organ preludes and hymns being played by the granddaughter of these neighbors.

Next door to the Nelsons lived my Uncle Erik and Aunt Jørgine Odegaard. Then came the Petersons, and on the corner of Fourth and Pier streets lived the Anton Martinson family.

Mr. and Mrs. Peterson had a family of four children, a son and three beautiful daughters, Minnie, Clara, and Pearl. The latter two were my bosom friends, especially Clara. All during our summer vacations, it was our custom to take a weekly walk to the T. B. Scott Free Library, then housed in the city hall on Second Street. There we replenished our stock of reading material. When we had had our fill of looking for the books we wanted, under the helpful guidance of Katherine C. Barker, the librarian, it was a pleasure to walk home through the quiet, tree-shaded streets with our library books tucked under our arms. All three of these girls went to the State Normal School; they later taught in the public schools of Lincoln County. {6}

The Martinson family had two sons, Martin and Charles, and three daughters, Bertha, Anna, and Helena Ida. These children were not in the group of my childhood friends. They were ahead of me in years. I was always aware, however, that Martin and Bertha had been sponsors at my baptism. To honor that occasion, they had presented me with a tiny gold band ring. It now is welded securely into one of the links of my chain bracelet. Helena Ida, after a few years of teaching school, was to become the wife of my brother Sigurd and the mother of their three children, Ralph Sigurd, Elizabeth Helen (Mrs. Roy Larsen), and Holtan Peter Odegard.

Still another block beyond the Martinson house, at Fourth and Hendricks streets, lived the John Lokemoen family. They were newcomers, and therefore I did not know them well. However, I do remember my adolescent admiration of Laura, the mother or the grandmother of all the Lokemoens in Merrill—one of the most stately women I had ever seen. Her first name intrigued me and even to this day, whenever I hear it in song or opera, I have a shadowy recollection of the first Laura I was ever to know.

At the corner of Third and Pier streets was the home of the Nels P. Evjue family. Here as a boy lived William T. Evjue, later to become known throughout Wisconsin and the entire nation as the editor and publisher of the Capital Times, a Madison newspaper. The family also included his sisters Emma and Nellie, not my contemporaries but in the age group of my sister Johanna and my brother Sigurd. Happily, however, the generation gap closes with the years. As I became older, I joined Emma and her circle of friends and professional associates. By that time, she had graduated from the Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing in Chicago. As for Nellie, I became more and more aware of her work as a teacher, supervisor, and later county superintendent of schools. A deep friendship has continued over the years.

Thus far I have been communing in retrospect with these family friends, all living to the east of us. In the opposite direction, across the railroad tracks, there were several families who belonged to the Swedish community. They were the Bloomquists, the Granholms, and the Gunells. With these friends the neighborly relationship was not particularly strong. There was little opportunity for social intercourse, as we did not meet either at church services or in church-sponsored social activities. However, an important point to remember is that the public school is a melting pot in our society—and there we were associated.

Of this group of neighbors, I recall especially the Gunell family with their four daughters: Anna, the eldest, Hilma, Hilda, and Esther. Anna became a seamstress. It was she who made my sister’s wedding dress, fitting and shirring the beautiful lace which hung in a circular cascade around the yoke of the dress. The other three girls prepared to become teachers, a work I know they carried on with credit.

Our neighbors of French-Canadian descent formed a more or less scattered group living on Fifth and Douglas streets. They were true to their early Catholic religious training. How well I remember those Sunday mornings when, with the church bells ringing, they would be on their way to early mass while the rest of us were still trying to get the sleep out of our eyes. One of these families was known as the Sharkeys. I learned later that this spelling was an Americanized form of the French name Chartier.

Also on Fifth Street, directly to the north of us, lived a family by the name of Beauparlant. Their eldest daughter Daisy was my high school classmate. Strange as it may seem, I believe the family has managed to keep their name in the original French form. This brings to mind an incident worth relating.

After I left home, summer vacations spent with my sister and her family in Merrill frequently coincided with the annual high school graduation exercises. At one such time, while looking through a copy of the 1910 senior-high annual, I came upon the name of Beauparlant, incorrectly spelled Beaupralant. The meaning of this French name struck me sharply for the first time—"beautiful speech." What a magnificent opportunity we had in our school days to become acquainted with a language other than our own—and how little we made of it at the time!

I have concentrated mainly on neighbors on our street. There were, however, a number of others to the south and to the north of our house. In this group were two Swedish families, the Danielsons and the Greens, who lived on separate corners at Fifth and Blame streets. Somewhat separated from us because they were affiliated with the Swedish Lutheran Church, they were among our friends in the public school.

Among other children in the Green family was a son, the youngest, whose name was Edward. By all of us both at school and in the neighborhood, he was known as Eddie. We were not really acquainted, however, until we entered high school in September, 1906. Even then, I did not know Eddie well, probably because his name began with G and mine with O, so alphabetical propinquity in classroom seating was absent. Now, paging through the class annual, I have discovered just what shining lights we all were.

This early record recalls that Edward Green was enrolled in the commercial course, that he was editor of the 1910 annual, and that his graduation thesis bore the title "Irrigation in the West." Following his name came the characterizing quotation: "It needs some sense to play the fool." The judgment was apt, for Eddie was a ready joker; in later years, his wit enlivened many of our class reunions. It is not my purpose here to dwell on his lifetime activities. They culminated in his appointment as assistant postmaster in Merrill, the position from which he retired in 1959. {7}

The churches of Merrill were in close proximity. Our own Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church was only two blocks west of our home on East Fourth Street. In 1905, this church was moved a half block to occupy a site at the corner of Fourth and Logan streets. Twelve years later, it merged with the Zion Lutheran Church and moved into a brick building on Second Street, only two blocks from its earlier location. From then on, it became Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church. In January, 1966, a new and beautiful modern structure was dedicated. Essentially the same church, it has remained well within its original neighborhood for a period of eighty years. The architect of the new church building, I am proud to say, was my nephew, Robert P. Torkelson.

Merrill was well supplied with churches. The Swedish Lutheran Church was always a close neighbor on Third Street, beautifully situated on the bank of the Prairie River. It is still there. The St. Francis Catholic Church originally was only a few blocks to the south on Second and Blame streets. It has, however, long since been moved to another section of the city, and its original site has been given over to a commercial establishment.

In common with all the other denominations in Merrill, the Norwegian church (and it was Norwegian at that time) carried on a full program of social activities for persons of all ages. I remember especially the box suppers, the boxes all gorgeously trimmed with ribbons and bows, the sleigh rides on cold frosty nights, behind a team of understanding horses, and the lutefisk suppers. Except for the last, these social evenings have given way to more modern entertainment, such as watching the late shows on television.

In 1966, a friend sent me an article from the Chicago Tribune entitled "The Train Doesn’t Stop There Any More." It is a story tinged with nostalgia, authored by Carol Madden Adorjan. I followed the writer from incident to incident as she drew a picture of how she spent her summers in Merrill during her growing-up years. She comments on "the grass that might be growing between the bricks of a station platform somewhere in Wisconsin." She tells of "a walk from the east side to the sixth ward over a battery of bridges," and of how her heart raced when, looking out a train window, she "caught sight of the town clock rising suddenly and majestically ahead."

I remember that the trains, passenger and freight, were in my neighborhood, right in the middle of our block. Such, indeed, was the situation in all central Wisconsin towns up and down the Wisconsin River Valley. {8} We could almost tell the time of day by the particular trains that were on the tracks. There was always activity of one kind or another. We could see the brakeman signaling his co-workers, the fireman shoveling coal into the firebox, the engineer with his hand on the throttle, all the while keeping a watchful eye on everything that was going on.

The trains as we saw them in our town reflected the industrial and tourist business of our state as it was at that time. No more do we see the huge logging trains with freshly cut timbers piled one on top of another, house high and buckled together with steel chains, come puffing and chugging across the Prairie River bridge. They came straight on down to our street, where cars and pedestrians and even horses and buggies were held up at the crossing.

As for the part played by the railroads in the transportation of tourists, that too is a thing of the past. In my day, and especially during the summer months, special trains provided transportation for hundreds of vacationing visitors from Chicago seeking the cool lakes and streams of the north woods. Here, as I stood waiting at the crossing for the train to pass by, I caught my first glimpse of the inside of a dining car. What a different world it presented: shining white tablecloths, gleaming glassware, and attentive waiters. No snack bars for people in shirt sleeves—or in shorts!

The passenger trains are no longer running. The town folks no longer gather at the depot to greet vacationing relatives, to welcome children home from school on holidays, or to bid good-bye when it comes time to leave. The station is now converted into a youth center, and the sounds that issue forth are those of "rock and roll." The airplanes have taken over, and the airports duplicate the scenes of the past.

My mother always said that she was attracted to the location of our house as soon as she saw it. It was a small building set on a medium-sized corner lot, 50 x 150 feet, facing east and south. As an added touch to the remembered scene of those early years, a spreading birch tree stood in the front yard, its branches and leaves adding grace and beauty to the surroundings.

Originally this house was a one and one-half story frame dwelling. It had a living room, bedroom, dining room, and small kitchen on the first floor, and two bedrooms upstairs. At the front, across the dining room wall facing south, was a porch the ceiling and roof of which were supported by three slender pillars. A railing about two feet high ran around it. Later, it was screened, thus adding to the comfort of all, especially during the summer months. Many a warm evening would find us sitting here listening to the rehearsals of the German Lutheran Evangelical Church band as the music came down to us from the school grounds on upper Third Street.

Our home was painted several times. My earliest recollection was that it had a nut-brown color. Later it wore a shade of pale lavender with white window and door trimming. I always thought this the most attractive covering it ever had. For the last years, it has been an unrelieved white.

Emphasizing the conditions under which our family lived in the 1890s is the fact that the "Old, Oaken Bucket" was not then a mere poetic fantasy, but a stern reality. There was the trudging back and forth to the well and the lowering of the water pail into the depths. At least in the summertime, for one who might tarry a moment, there might be the reward of a smiling reflection in the water down below. But those days of marching to the open well also passed. Then began the drilling of our new well and the installation of a pump only a few steps from the kitchen door.

Improvements included tearing down a lean-to kitchen, installing a new dining-room floor, and still later raising the roof over the dining room and kitchen. An entire new roof was added later.

Our new kitchen gave us a great deal of comfort and pleasure. It was enlarged to provide for a pantry on one side of the north wall and a storage closet on the other. Built-in cupboards from floor to ceiling furnished much-needed space for dishes and kitchen equipment. Windows provided good ventilation. However, since at that time we had no central heating, it could be cold in winter in these small rooms where the warmth of the kitchen stove did not penetrate.

The new dining-room floor was indeed an improvement over the old one. It was made of a beautiful golden oak. Due to the artistry of Albert Nelson, the carpenter, a special parquetry design decorated the corners. This improvement worked well for several years, but when the thin strips of wood began to shrink, the cracks between collected dust, and cleaning became a problem. In time this fancy flooring was replaced by a standard type.

Although I cannot be certain about this, I believe that the roof over the dining room and kitchen was raised at the same time. However, the interior was not finished until some twenty years later, long after my parents had passed away. The second floor was then converted into a comfortable and attractive apartment. The planning and designing as well as construction for this project was done by my brother-in-law, Carl G. Torkelson.

While improvements were made to the outside framework of the house, a few modern innovations were added gradually to the inside. These changes came about as they were being adopted in the homes of others in the community. In the living room—the front room as it was called—our beautiful hanging lamp with its sparkling prisms came down and a modern table lamp took its place. It was, or so I always thought, particularly attractive in pale green with pink enameled flowers. Only a year or so ago I decided to part with it; I gave it to the Women’s Auxiliary of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin to be sold in order to raise money for its "Museum on the Move" auction.

Finally, all kerosene lamps were done away with and ceiling brackets with globes and electric light bulbs were substituted. This was done at the urging of my brother Peter, who during the years 1908—1910 had returned to the quiet and warmth of his old home in Merrill, after having spent several years in the West.

A wall telephone was also by this time considered a necessity. My mother learned to use it. It was a source of comfort to her. Often after I had spent an evening at home and had returned to Dr. Michael Ravn’s hospital where I was training to be a nurse, I could telephone her to say that I had reached my destination safely. Little did she realize that her son Sigurd was in a few years to become the co-founder of a great new telephone system that was to spring up in Wisconsin and across the country; it is known today as the General Telephone and Electronics Corporation.

And then, wonder of wonders, a few years later a kitchen sink with running water, and an inside toilet, were put in. Today’s generation will simply never understand what this improvement could mean in the life of a household. My brother Sigurd paid for the installation. But hot water continued to be available only from the top of the kitchen range or from the water reservoir at one side. It was years later before a hot-water tank was installed in the basement and a furnace for the unbelievable comfort of central heating.

This story has been experienced time and time again in the history of our state and nation. Seventy-five years is a long time, whether it be for a state or for an inhabitant of that state. So it is in the life of this particular homestead. At successive periods, it has housed not only my immediate family, parents and five children, but grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well. It has seen weddings, baptisms and funerals, homecomings, birthdays, and holidays. There was music and there was singing. There was weeping. In other words, it was our home. There may be a few others who will also have nostalgic memories of the home on Fourth and Douglas streets with its beautiful lilacs all around and the snowball bush in the front yard.

Notes

<1> Jenny Bull Falls.

<2> The name memorializes Sherburn Sanborn Merrill.

<3> I had the good fortune to accompany my uncle and aunt on a visit to the Foss family in Norway during the summer of 1931. He had returned to his old home community in Norway, close to the city of Kongsberg, to spend his declining years.

<4> The Abstract of Title lists all the transactions involving ownership of this lot.

<5> It is still our home (1969).

<6> Many years later, I learned that Pearl had pursued her early interest and talent in drawing and painting. A recent telephone call brought out the information that, although she has steadily shown her works, her most recent exhibit in Madison, Wisconsin, was held at the Side Walk Art Fair sponsored by the Madison Art Guild, the chamber of commerce, and the Capital Times. Of the latter showing she said modestly that she had "sold quite a few."

<7> It was Edward to whom I turned for help in recalling the persons and incidents I have used in preparing this memoir of early years in Merrill. It is of interest to add that Mrs. Edward Green, the former Lailla Holmstrom, is my lifelong friend and professional colleague; she is a graduate of the Augustana Hospital School of Nursing, Chicago, Illinois. I am also indebted to Joe Chilsen for information regarding the early city engineers of Merrill.

<8> See H. Russell Austin, The Wisconsin Story: The Building of a Vanguard State, 172, 187—88 (Milwaukee, 1965).

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