These stories can also be heard Sunday mornings around 10 am on WILD 102’s “Look Back in Time” program. Each week’s radio story will be posted here on our website.
Weekly radio stories are researched, compiled, and read by Sheila Winstead, RCHS Board Member.
June 4, 2023
A book in the research area at the Roseau County Museum was written by Marjorie Mortensen in 1996 and is titled “Ray’s Stories, Stories told by Ray Mortensen about family and neighbors in Wannaska, Minnesota”. One section was about Farm Work, starting with Spring, which I’ll read today.
The snow was usually gone by late April. The ground would be firmed up from winter’s moisture and field work could be started. Often rocks that kept coming to the surface would have to be cleared before the ground could be plowed. The Mortensen farm consisted of about 200 acres; sometimes more acres would be rented. There was usually about 100 acres planted in crops. The rest would be in hay.
A good team of horses could plow about an acre a day, working from about six in the morning until noon. They were usually given an hour to rest, then would work until about six in the evening. It was very important the horses be given enough rest. After acquiring a tractor in 1937, the work day was extended to as long as there was daylight. The horses were still used a lot, even after they got a tractor.
Sometimes the horses would be spooked and run away while being worked. This happened to Ray one time. The team finally ran into some brush that stopped them. I’ve been told there was a lot of commotion, and some swearing before everything got under control again.
The Mortensens rotated crops, about 20 acres at a time. They would start with alfalfa, then the next year plant wheat (a main cash crop), then next year plant barley, and then oats, and then back to alfalfa. Flax was another good cash crop, planted for its oil. In the 1930s soy beans began to be planted for oil, replacing flax. Sweet clover was another good crop that was planted. Ray used to tell how he enjoyed the odor of the sweet clover.
Canadian thistle and sow thistle were the worst weeds that grew along with the seeded crop.
Each spring fish would swarm up the Roseau River to spawn. There was no limit on the suckers, and folks would gather large amounts to salt down for later use. These fish were very bony but, when taken out of cold water, did not taste too bad. Wall-eyed pike and muskies came to spawn also, but only a limited number of these could be taken.
When school was finished for the year, Ray and the boys would get very short haircuts from their father and could go barefoot for the rest of the summer.
Haying time was usually late in June. The grasses grown were alfalfa, timothy, and red clover. To feed all the stock through the winter, about two and a half tons need to be stored for each head of cattle and three tons for each horse. The family milked about fifteen cows, plus calves and young stock, and kept from four to seven horses, so they had to harvest over fifty tons of hay each summer.
The barn was large and would be filled first, and the rest of the hay would be stored in large stacks in the fields where it had been cut. Sometimes fields near Wannaska were rented for hay. These stacks would be moved home during the winter.
During haying time, mid-morning and mid-afternoon lunches would be brought out to the field. At other times the men would come in from the fields for those lunches and at noon time also.
Usually about twenty- to twenty-five inches of rain fell each year. In dry years, sometimes there would be showers during the night. The rain wouldn’t be everywhere, just in strips. These light showers would really help improve the crops.
Some years mosquitoes were more bothersome than other years. If the spring rains continued longer than usual, there would be more mosquitoes. There were more than one kind and some kinds hatched at different times, so sometimes they were bad early in the spring and sometimes they would be present until late fall. Sometimes the animals were bothered tremendously with being bitten by mosquitoes. When I was growing up in Portland, there were not a huge numbers of mosquitoes, and they would bother only just after sundown; but in northern Minnesota, they were out all day long, buzzing and biting, and extremely annoying.
There were two kinds of flies that hatched out in summer. Bull flies were a problem. They weren’t around every year, but when they came, they lasted about six weeks. The other variety was black flies, and they were around almost every year. These flies would bite people and animals. Sometimes they were so bothersome that horses couldn’t be worked. The flies could cause the horses to be spooked and run away. These flies would swarm all over the buildings and be very difficult to keep out of the house.
One year during harvest time, Ray was at a neighbor’s home. At dinner time, blueberry sauce was served in small dishes. Ray said it was very difficult to see the difference between the blueberries and the flies in the dish. A fellow worker told him later, “If it didn’t move, I just ate.” In those days, good manners meant you ate what was served and did not embarrass the cook.
Julia had extra work to do in the summer, besides her usual chores. She canned what fruit she could get. Places where wild strawberries, June berries, blueberries, and high-bush cranberries would grow were scouted out over the spring and summer, and when each kind would ripen, a visit there would be planned. Sometimes more than one family would go on the picking party. All of these berries were small and were a chore to pick, but the fellowship involved made for good times. These berries were all much smaller than the strawberries and blueberries we know. This small size made the flavor much more intense. Ray would so often tell how much better they tasted than the berries we have now. I think part of the reason they tasted so much better was the short supply they had, where now we have an unlimited supply of fruit. Also, sometimes memory improves the taste.
One time Ida Aiken was out near the woods picking blueberries, which grow on very short stems. She was crawling on her hands and knees, picking away. She heard a noise behind her and looked back. There was a bear, also picking berries. Each was so startled, they went different ways, getting away from each other.
After picking the berries, there was the work to preserve them for winter. Some were canned and served as “sauce,” as it was called. Some cranberries were made into jelly, which is very delicious.
Ray’s mother had jelly to make and sauce to can. And also vegetables from the garden to can. There were pickles to make – “slippery” pickles, pickles from watermelon rind, and of course, beet pickles. All this was done besides the regular chores.
I’ll read more from Marjorie Mortensen’s story next week.
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