Mom and I were at the regular Ladies Aid meeting at a neighboring farm where they had a phone. I was playing quietly with my friends and then the phone call drew a line through the middle of the afternoon.
Earlier that day, Dad had gone to the town hospital to be with his father who had suffered a stroke some days earlier. Thus ended the journey that had started at Juland, Denmark in August of 1874.
After their marriage in 1893, Grandpa Soren and his wife emigrated to the United States. Their ship docked in New York City in April of 1894 and they immediately took the train to Nebraska where many other Danes were already part of the farming communities scattered across that big open country. Danish arrivals in Nebraska surged around 1890, and the departures of many of those same Danes for northeastern Montana, 10-15 years later, are also recorded in documents from the time. The Plainsman Museum in Aurora has detailed records of the region’s earliest pioneers who had built towns and established farms following the breaking of a freight-road along the Platte River around 1850 which facilitated the arrival of both people and supplies.
Conditions in 1894 Nebraska are preserved in the old newspapers [compiled in The Way Was Long, A Collection of Historical Newspaper Accounts of Hamilton County, Nebraska]. Four months after Grandpa and Grandma’s arrival, the following appeared in the Aurora Newspaper on August 15, 1894:
Nebraska is seeing hard times this summer. Corn is king in this state, and until July 26th, the prospect for a bountiful crop was never better. About 10:00 a.m. on that day, there came from the south a breeze that filled every heart with terror. It was heated as though it had come from the burning sands of Sahara, and long before night, the corn leaves had become parched so that there were no hopes for the making of the full ear.
Two days later, on August 17, W. W. Cox, the Editor of The Republican-Register, exhorted the community to start developing solutions for what they were facing:
“Necessity is the mother of invention” is often quoted, and as we are now brought face to face with a necessity, let us reason together a little and see if we can’t devise some means to supply the necessity, or the lack of moisture in the soil to insure good crops one year with another. We are firmly of the opinion that water from the Platte River can be brought onto all of the table lands in Hamilton County in sufficient quantities to insure a good crop every year….
There are many natural basins on all of these divides that could be filled early in the spring and kept filled the year round from which to draw when needed in addition to the regular supply. If the proper move was made, this work could be commenced very soon, and in that way give all of our people the work they will need to carry them over till they can raise another crop, instead of asking for aid as some are thinking of doing.“
5 months later, on January 20, 1895, one Cal Wilson of Marquette writes a letter in which he describes what they have endured:
…we have not raised a crop here for three years. The year 1893, I raised 300 bushels of corn off of 95 acres, and in 1894, I had 120 acres of corn and did not get one grain of corn. Think of it.
Since 1891, actually, there has not been hardly anything raised. I did well in 1893, but while I did that, a mile south of me, the farmers did not get anything. We happened to get a rain that those fellows did not get.
They must have thought they had dropped off the earth. Like most immigrants, they had used every resource they had, determined to leave the familiar to get “here” ~~ and “here” was not looking good.
Grandpa first worked as a farmhand, and then rented farmland for ten years until the family went north to Montana in February of 1908, riding in the immigrant freight car where he tended his Noah’s Ark collection of two horses, two cows, two pigs, one cat and crates of chickens. He also brought the wagon, the grain harvesting binder and the plow. His three sons (12, 10 and 7) rode in the coach car with Grandma Soren.
In 1957 when Ebenezer Lutheran Church celebrated its 50th anniversary, Grandpa was mentioned in the memory book as one of those who was “always ready and willing to conduct reading services and supervise the Sunday School whenever we did not have a pastor to take charge.” [It was called a “reading service” because when it came time for the sermon, it was simply read aloud by the appointed person from a book of sermons.] The same book also describes an interesting episode from some civic meeting, circa 1910:
We’ve been told that on one of those early days, the settlers called a meeting to discuss road work, new schools and the like. At the meeting, a certain man told the crowd that some of the bachelors and girls that had filed on land weren’t complying with the Homestead laws, and made a motion that a committee be appointed to check on them and see that they lived up to the requirements.
Another settler jumped to his feet and made the motion that they hang the man who had made that motion, saying these youngsters were doing their best, that many had to seek outside work in order to live and make the necessary improvements on their claims.
No action was taken on either motion
After Mom got the news of Grandpa’s death on that pleasant afternoon in June of 1956, we may have left for home earlier than usual. These drawn out afternoon Ladies Aid meetings usually featured new recipes and much visiting after the meeting was over. We went home quietly to begin preparation for the funeral. Natural death and the resulting activities required of the living seemed to manage themselves quite predictably.
In the decades since, especially with many recent, sympathetic studies published about the Amish community and “how they live faith,” I’ve occasionally been drawn toward the thought that the Amish were not the only Amish in the 1950s. Within the harsh lines drawn by life and death, in matters of faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it seems to me that we did “sort of live Amish” when those lines intersected our daily lives.
As I think about what the day felt like~~the day that Grandpa Soren died~~ I’m reminded of the lyrics of Three Bells that describe the birth, life and death of one “little Jimmy Brown.” Beyond the words, it is perhaps the quiet and lilting melody line that paints the picture:
In “a village hidden deep in the valley among the pine trees half forlorn….there on a sunny morning little Jimmy Brown was born.” And then the day he died: “From the village hidden deep in the valley one rainy morning dark and grey, a soul winged its way to heaven. Jimmy Brown had passed away. ….and the little congregation prayed for guidance from above….”
Emily Dickinson had a comfortable sadness in how she used words regarding death.
The bustle in a house the morning after death is solemnest of industries enacted upon earth~~
The sweeping up the heart, and putting love away we shall not want to use again until eternity.