We have retitled the “Weekly Radio Readings” to “Historic Happenings.” Each week’s story will be posted in its entirety. The stories can also be heard Sunday mornings around 10 am on WILD 102’s “Looking Back in Time” program.
Weekly radio stories are researched, compiled, and read by Sheila Winstead, RCHS Board Member.
Available recordings will also be linked to the Wild 102 “Looking Back in Time” page.
March 5, 2023
I’m always searching for stories that you might not have heard before. A Roseau High School classmate of mine shared an interesting story about his great-grandfather Anva Comstock which was written by Anva’s daughter-in-law, Grace Comstock, in 1954. She named it “A Northern Minnesota Pioneer”.i
The forbearers of the Comstock family were seeking new horizons. They left their native England for America just fifteen years after the Pilgrims had ventured to this strange land. Here, like the Pilgrims, they made new homes and established new industries. Some of the sons of this first William Comstock, who had settled in Connecticut, left the area and started spreading outward.
Anva J. Comstock’s father, Charles Wheelock Comstock, held true to the tradition of his family. He left Boonesville, New York, and came to Minnesota to make a home near Osakis. That area was virtually a wilderness. He obtained a job with the government hauling supplies from St. Paul to the fort on the Canadian border near Pembina, North Dakota. He returned to St. Paul with furs and other supplies the settlers up north had to sell. This venturesome spirit of his ancestors was born in Anva J. Comstock. At an early age, he ventured forth into the practically unknown region of what is now Roseau County. In all his undertakings he was a courageous, self-reliant, helpful, and trustful man.
While a young boy Anva learned to be self-reliant and courageous. One of the schools he attended was in a Norwegian settlement. Anva could neither understand nor speak the language of these people. “We were considered odd,” said Mr. Comstock. “We didn’t belong there, so we had many a fight. The whole school would gang up on us. I could hold my own, though. I gave more bloody noses than I ever got.”
As his father was away from home much of the time, Anva was often responsible for his younger brothers and sisters. When he became a little older, he started working for some of the logging outfits near his home. By the time he was twenty, he worked on log drives on the Elk, Big Bear, Willow, and other rivers around Lake Osakis. “I was foreman on some of these drives down the rivers,” he quoted. “B’Jesus, ye had to be on your toes or else you’d be caught between some logs or underneath them. Them logs could be pretty danged slippery, especially if the weather happened to turn a little cold.”
The log drives were made in the spring. It took courage to ride the twisting, whirling mass of logs down the flooded rivers, sometimes many miles to the mills where they were to be sawed. “I started filing saws and running engine for Camp’s Mill when I was about twenty-four years old. That wasn’t quite so dangerous,” stated Anva.
After working around Osakis for a few years, Mr. Comstock and some friends decided to face the hardship of the country farther north. With two covered wagons, pulled by horses, they started north, reaching Roseau in the summer of 1893.
Roseau was just a small trading village with a few settlers nearby.
Leaving the horses and wagons in the village, Anva went scouting around for a place to start logging. He found a spot about fourteen miles from the town. There were no roads, so he blazed a trail back to get the horses and wagons. Loading the wagons with as many supplies as they dared take, Anva and his friends started out. They cleared trees and brush so the horses and wagons could get through.
“We had to cross tamarack and spruce swamps. Don’t exactly remember how long it took us to get to the place we were going to set up our camp. We had to corduroy so much of the way and clear so much road that we were gol-danged near done for when we did get there,” he stated. “That winter was a hard one. The snow was nearly four feet deep,” Mr. Comstock reminisced. “Flour had to be hauled to Roseau from Stephen. It cost $5.00 a hundred, but we were danged lucky if we could get any. We bought some wheat or barley from some of the settlers near Roseau who had raised some that summer. We ground ‘er up the best we could and made a kind of Johnny cake out of that. The deer were so skinny that it nearly took two to make a meal.” He made his own sleigh runners by hewing them from an oak or birch log.
As more people moved into the territory, it became necessary to survey roads and retrace original survey lines. A man by the name of Joe Baugh was asked to do this work. He secured the help of Mr. Comstock. One area to be surveyed was along the Canadian border which was a vast wilderness swamp.
“I provided meat for each meal,” said Anva. “Sometimes we had partridge, sometimes it might be deer or moose. What we didn’t eat, be damned sure the wolves did. They were never very far away. We packed what grub we could and depended on the woods for the rest. Didn’t have to worry about water, that was all around us.”
Life was never monotonous. There was always enough work to keep one occupied, but “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” In order to provide some form of amusement the people resorted to their own resources. Some of these early settlers had brought their own musical instruments with them. Anva liked to dance as well as mingle with people.
“I helped organize an orchestra, if you can call it that,” he joked. “If you couldn’t play anything else, you could blow on a comb or pound on a wash tub. After the crowd got going, you could not hear the music anyway.” Besides the dances, there were card parties, target shoots, basket socials, and other homemade forms of entertainment.
Mr. Comstock aided other people in coming to the area. He surveyed and built roads which made traveling much easier. Many of the roads in his community today follow the old roads that he helped cut out and build when he first came to the area. New settlers wished to know just how much land belonged to them. Knowing that Mr. Comstock had experience and equipment for surveying, they generally called on him to help locate the original survey markings and to run the lines for their land.
Next week I’ll continue the story of Anva Comstock, thanks to Mitchell Cole.
Thank you to (www.roseauonline.com) for letting us share our county’s history with your listeners by donating air time, studio time, and production staff every week.