“Grandpa Larson,” as I always called him, was born on his father Ole’s dairy farm in Vernon County, Wisconsin. He was the last of six children born to Ole and his first wife, Anne Samuelsdatter. Anne died soon after, and Ole married Helena Olsdatter, who had a daughter the same age as Isaac. Ole and Helena eventually had six more children together. Pictured below are Isaac and two of his elder siblings. The eldest brother, Smith Larson, not pictured,was probably living on his own by this time, while the other two siblings died in their infancy.
Family lore had it that relations were strained between Isaac and his stepmother and/or his stepsister. Further inquiry has shown that Alma was actually his half-sister; her mother was housekeeper for Ole and Anne at the time she was conceived. Of course Grandpa never mentioned anything like that himself, nor indeed anything at all about his early life. But if true, it might help explain why he never remarried after his own wife died in her 30’s, choosing instead to raise five young sons alone on the farm. That can’t have been easy.
Fast-forward to the year 1909, when 25-year-old Isaac set out with three of his brothers to claim homesteads on the western edge of North Dakota, about 25 miles southeast of Sidney, Montana. It was very late in the homesteading period, and the available land was marginal at best. Only a long spell of unusually favorable weather enabled any of the homesteaders to succeed, even briefly. The eldest brother, Smith Larson, “proved up” his claim, but apparently soon sold or ceded the land to Isaac. Smith was a US Marine in WW1 and before; he died a bachelor in 1923.
The other three brothers, Axel, Isaac, and Oscar, stayed on to raise their families. In this, they were in the minority. Most of the homesteaders had given up even before the Depression and Dust Bowl years of the 1930’s. Today, nearly all of the area is a National Grassland, owned and administered by the federal government.
If the dwelling appears uninviting, the land around it looks downright forbidding. As early as the Lewis and Clark expedition, explorers remarked on the radical change in the landscape as soon as they crossed the Missouri River, which separates the eastern and western halves, approximately, of the two Dakotas. On the eastern side, grass was tall and lush, nourished by plentiful rainfall and favorable soils. To the west, the grass was short and sparse, the land much drier, and the prairie interrupted by badlands — arid hills of colorful, wind-eroded soil where nothing at all will grow
Of all our relatives, one cousin, Ron Whited (grandson of Axel Larson), lived and ranched in the area until his retirement, holding parts of the original homesteads, and leasing grazing rights on federal and private lands. Ron and his wife earned a modest living raising high-quality beef cattle on more than 12,000 acres of (mostly leased) land. Compare that to the homesteaders who expected to make a family livelihood on their claims of 160 acres!
Another cousin, Larry Larson, told of his father Oscar returning home from a day trip to Sidney in the 1940’s to find that a massive swarm of grasshoppers had not only decimated his crops, but had even eaten the paint from their house! Within days, Oscar moved his family to town and gave up farming for good. By this time, Isaac had moved to Washington, where his two eldest sons had established themselves and were raising families of their own.
In October, 2009, I visited (second) cousin David Kasold, the grandson of “Aunt Lucy,” Louise Larson. David has several old photo albums, apparently assembled by his mother Edna, but containing snapshots from Louise (most likely taken by Smith Larson). Some of these photos I have seen before, but most of them are new to me. In the first category is what must be the original print of the famous 1910 “shack” photo.
This print, although smaller than the picture postcard I made my best copies from, is at least as clear, perhaps a little clearer. On the same album page is one I had never seen. It appears to be the main portion of Isaac’s “permanent” house, located on Smith’s land claim (about which more later). Note that Uncle Ivan is skeptical whether this is the house in question. It is possible that Aunt Louise or Edna labeled the picture incorrectly.
Lots of interest here. First, in the foreground, two sod structures that must be root cellars or other food storage. Cropping in a little closer, we can see parts of two vehicles.
On the left, behind the tree branch, appears to be a horse-drawn wagon, and on the right, mostly hidden by the sod structure, is the rear of an open buggy, or perhaps a “horseless carriage.” And ramped up to the native resolution of my scanner,
we can make out the figure of a man near the right corner, and possibly another human form framed by the doorway. This picture seems to be taken from the west.
I am guessing that the side with the door is where an addition was later built, giving the house its final and more familiar shape. If so, then the picture below (by Uncle Ivan, approx. 1941) was taken from the opposite side, which became the “front.”
Note the lean-to structure behind the house, which looks similar to the one in the foreground of the older photo, supporting my guess about the viewing angles. This photo is definitely taken from the northeast. The final interesting detail is that the second photo was labeled “Isaac’s,” even though it must have been taken long before Smith “disposed of” his claim when he reenlisted in the Marines during World War I.
Here are some details on the 1909-10 homesteads of Axel, Isaac, Oscar, and Smith Larson. Using the GLO (Government Land Office) website, I found the “legal description” (section, township, and range) for each homestead. With map knowledge I picked up in the Forest Service, I could visualize the boundaries of each parcel within its section (square mile). Then using a web site designed for the purpose, I located the sections on Internet maps such as Yahoo maps, Google maps, and especially Google Earth. I highly recommend Google Earth software, which is free, and takes you by satellite photos anywhere on earth, with astonishing clarity.
Finally, I drew in the boundaries and labels with a photo editing program. Here is a wide view showing all four homesteads. The area shown is approximately 8 miles wide. Location is about 25 miles south-southeast from Sidney, MT. The thin white line near the left (along the west boundary of “Smith’s” land) is the Montana-North Dakota border.
*”Ron Whited’s house” is significant, as Ron is a grandson of Axel Larson. I don’t know who owned the land originally, but in the 1930’s, that farm was occupied by the Walter Hart family. My mother, Reatha, was working for the Hart’s when my father, Lovell, met and courted her. By the time I was born, it was farmed by Ron’s parents, Lila Larson Whited and her husband “Skeeter.” Ron, incidentally, is the only relative I know of who still lived and ranched in the area into the 21st century; the area is now very sparsely populated.
In the following image (which is not even the largest available blow-up), you can clearly see houses and farm buildings. This image is approximately 1.5 miles wide.To view it yourself, give Google Earth or any map Website a latitude & longitude, such as the corner where Isaac’s and Smith’s land meet (NW corner of Sec. 14, Township 146N, Range 105W per legal description), which are: 47.4646375, -104.0333190. It is easy to spot the section and quarter-section lines, as that is where the seams appear where the photos are “stitched” together. That made it very easy to draw the property lines.
I identified the houses based on my visit to the site in 2003, expertly guided by cousin Larry. It is easy to recognize nearby features, such as the large barnyard to the south of Isaac’s house, and the pond west of Oscar’s. Here are photos I took of the two houses back then.
I’m not quite as certain that I hit the exact location of the original shack from the “famous” 1910 photo, but it is fairly close.
It doesn’t show up here, but near the dead tree is an indentation in the ground where the shack stood. According to Larry, the tree is the same one shown in the old photo (I am a bit skeptical of that).
(Grandpa Larson used the nickname, “Ike,” although I seldom heard it, as he was just “Pa” or “Grandpa” within the immediate family.) After establishing the homestead, Ike returned to Wisconsin to marry Anna Moen on 10 January 1912, and brought her to the new place
(The names of Lovell and Walt may be reversed.) For baby photos of Walt and Lovell, see Aunt Lucy’s Photos, Part I. The fifth boy, Ivan, was born in 1923.
Also in Aunt Lucy’s albums were some “mob” photos taken at a family gathering in 1917. For a detailed look at these photos, and some extensive guesswork as to who-all is in them, see this post.
Besides the years of favorable weather, Isaac’s skill with horses probably contributed to his farming success.
In 1926, the Larson farm experienced its first crop failure (see Letter From Anna). By then, Anna’s health was already deteriorating, as also indicated in the letter. Isaac traveled to Washington State, and located a farm for sale near Seattle. He did not buy that farm, perhaps due to lack of cash, but did make the decision to move west. Upon his return to North Dakota, the family began selling their horses and other possessions, in preparation for the move.
Unfortunately, Anna’s health went downhill rapidly; she died in the summer of 1927, and the move was not accomplished. Grandpa and the five boys stayed put on the old homestead. You may be familiar with the popular radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” Its host, humorist Garrison Keillor, often refers to a favorite stereotype, the “Norwegian bachelor farmer.” Just take that stereotype, multiply by six, and you have my father’s childhood.
Isaac may have continued to entertain the notion of moving to Washington. In the fall of 1929, Waldemar enrolled in Pacific Lutheran Academy, now known as Pacific Lutheran University, in Parkland, WA (now a part of Tacoma). Parkland is also the location of the farm for sale mentioned in Anna’s letter of three years earlier.
Waldemar left Pacific Lutheran after only one semester, for reasons unknown; possibly related to the Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash just weeks after he enrolled. Grandpa and the boys remained on the farm through the 1930’s, despite repeated droughts and crop failures which exacerbated the nationwide economic distress. Waldemar and Lovell both married in the mid-30’s and moved to Washington on their own, while Grandpa stayed on the farm until the younger three boys had all graduated high school, the last of them in 1940.
By the time Isaac moved to Longview in 1942, Lovell and Walt both had children, and Vernon was engaged to be married. Ivan, fresh out of Sidney High School, stayed with Lovell and Reatha while he attended business college in Longview. Ivan had actually stayed there earlier, for a semester of high school, then returned to Sidney to finish there. Bob, Vernon, and Ivan all served in the armed forces during World War II.
I was born six years later. I believe Isaac had worked in the mills for a few years, but by the time of my earliest memories, he had retired, and was living on a few acres of land just one mile from my parents’ home. As soon as I was old enough, my folks encouraged me to walk or bicycle to Grandpa’s to spend time with him, which I did very frequently through the mid to late 1950’s. He lived in a tiny attic apartment while renting out the rest of the old farm house. There was a single milk cow, a vegetable garden, and about a dozen fruit trees, mostly cherries, from which he sold the produce to supplement the rent and his Social Security income.
Grandpa and I played many games of checkers and cribbage, and walked to a nearby slough to fish for crappie and perch. I regret that it never occurred to me to ask questions about his earlier years. However, other grandchildren who did ask got very little information for their efforts. I was told that cousin Kenny once asked grandpa what his wife had been like. His response was, “Why do you want to know?”
All five of Isaac’s sons eventually had families, some of them quite large. By 1957 there were 16 grandchildren (all pictured below); the final count reached 22.
Also pictured here are the first two great-grandchildren, Rocky and Sandy.
By the late 1960’s, Grandpa had grown quite feeble. He lived with my parents for several years, then moved to a nursing home, where he died at age 85.
He is buried at Sunnyside Cemetery near Skaar, ND, not far from the old homestead. Also buried there are his wife Anna, and my father, Lovell, who died just a few months later.