Tom Isern, University Distinguished Professor at North Dakota State University, recently spoke about the Ashley Jewish Cemetery in McIntosh County (ND), and challenged one of the prevailing myths of abandoned homesteads—the homesteaders failed. You can read or listen to the piece here: http://www.prairiepublic.org/radio/radio-programs-a-z/plains-folk?post=41900. We hear again and again that they couldn’t handle the winters, couldn’t farm, got too lonely, or otherwise lacked the character necessary to make it. This is a nice (and flattering) version of history for folks who currently live in these difficult places, but I’m pretty sure Prof. Isern is right. Some of these folks had bigger plans and never intended to stay, and others jumped at new opportunities when they came along.
The conundrum for historians is we rarely have the words of those who left. In some places where there is a strong tradition of speaking few words, we barely know the stories of those who stayed. I once was surveying for a wind farm in south-central North Dakota. I was standing on top of a hill when a young rancher came burning up on his ATV and asked me “where’s your gun?” Not having one, I asked, “do I need one?” Turns out he thought I was poaching (Minnesotans have a bad reputation in the Dakotas). When he found out I was surveying for a wind farm he said: “Good. When are they going to build that? I want the money so I can get out of this god-forsaken town!.” I asked him why he stayed if he hated it so much, and he gave the obvious answer—the family’s money was tied up in great-grandpa’s land. So I asked why great-grandpa picked this particularly rocky and windy hill to homestead. The answer: “I don’t know. He never talked much. Probably a wagon wheel broke and they just gave up. Dad thinks it’s because he was a mean-old cuss. When he saw all the rocks, he thought ‘Good. That’ll keep the good-for-nothing children busy rock-picking.’”
Prof. Isern’s points holds true for some similar abandoned “homesteads’ I’ve studied in Mille Lacs Kathio State Park. One of my best graduate students, Sara-Markoe Hanson, now executive director of the White Bear Lake Historical Society, wrote a spectacular thesis “Homesteads and land evolution at Mille Lacs Kathio.” Sara did what almost never gets done, she identified what families owned which abandoned properties, tracked them down, brought them back home, and asked what life was like and why they left. The stories were, no surprise, complicated. None of them were a simple “too many rocks to farm,” or “winters were too cold.” Instead, we found that the area was inhabited by people in transition. They stayed for awhile, while preparing for bigger plans. Some weathered the depression there, living a reasonably comfortable diversified subsistence lifestyle—a little work, a little fish, some wild rice, and some cranberries. ‘Failure’ is not a word that can be used to describe what happened and why they moved on.
Hank Asmus was a child when his family lived in what was to become the Mille Lacs Kathio State Park. Sara Markoe-Hanson found him, took him to the cellar depression that was once his home, and interviewed. He passed away shortly after Sara finished her thesis.
We are entering a new era of homestead research that is going to be very interesting. Courtesy of electronic communications, census databases, and very-busy genealogists, we can track down those who moved on so much more easily. Want to find why the Jewish settlers of Ashley moved on? Go the cemetery, get the names, track down the families, visit the historical societies of where they went, and I bet you can find some interesting stories, few of which will be stories of failure. Twenty years ago such a task would have taken forever and required significant funding. That’s no longer the case. The next few decades are going to see local histories rewritten. I’m pretty sure of this, because Prof. Isern is right now training young historians to do this very thing.