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MOTHERHOOD ON A MINNESOTA PRAIRIE

They were very poor and desperately needed

money living in a one-room sod shanty.

It must have been very hard for Helga

after living well in her childhood.

—THELMA PORTCH, GRANDDAUGHTER

We lived out on the prairie.

We never mingled with anybody.

—IDA ESTBY, DAUGHTER

Helga’s walk across America was not her first major journey undertaken to create a better life. At eleven years old, Helga traveled from Norway with her mother, Karen, on the ship Oder and arrived in Manistee, Michigan, on August 12, 1871. Her stepfather had gone ahead to America to start life anew and had settled in this lake town, a thriving economic center for the Scandinavians working nearby in the twenty-four lumber mills.1 Although a devastating fire destroyed the prosperous town that same year, by 1873 two hundred new buildings reflected the expectation and determination of the optimistic population. Helga attended schools in America for enough time to become proficient in written and oral English, and she loved her new country. A bright child, she found great pleasure in reading. As an only child, she enjoyed how her bilingual ability helped her Norwegian mother and father negotiate in their new land.

During the 1870s, with a growing population of nearly 10,000 residents, Manistee was embroiled in raging debates over the “woman question” and a women’s suffrage referendum on the 1874 ballot. Given the controversial nature of this topic, as a young girl Helga inevitably overheard conversations on what rights women should have in America. Although the ballot failed at the state level, the vote from the town of Manistee, and the local editorials showed support for the amendment. The failure led to strong determination by local women to “fight out this battle with a zeal that shall know no discouragement, a courage that shall never tire.” They invited Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to lecture. In a town this small, their visits introduced Helga to the importance of women’s rights.2

But something far more important affected Helga directly. At only fifteen, she discovered she was pregnant and her life changed dramatically. In Norway, young women from the rural farmlands sometimes became pregnant before marriage without disgrace, but it usually led to a marriage with the father of the child. However, Helga was not a rural farm girl living in Norway; she was the stepdaughter and only child of an immigrant merchant living in America. Circumstances surrounding the fifteen-year-old’s pregnancy remain mysterious. She may have been raped while working as a maid in a wealthy home, or an irresponsible father walked away when she became pregnant, or perhaps she entered a relationship with a man her family did not approve of for religious, ethnic, or character reasons and they intervened. No one knows. What is known is this unplanned pregnancy radically altered Helga’s future.

Helga’s mother, Karen Hendriksdatter Johanssen, was widowed when Helga was only two years old. Helga’s stepfather, a merchant with the surname Haug, brought the family to Manistee, Michigan, when Helga was eleven.

Photo circa 1870s, Courtesy Portch/Bahr Family Photograph Collection.

On October 12, 1876, sixteen-year-old Helga married Ole Estby, a twenty-eight-year-old non-English speaking immigrant from Grue Solor, Norway, who had arrived in America in 1873. He worked in logging camps near Manistee, Michigan, although he initially trained as a carpenter in Germany.3 Grue Solor is the same region her stepfather came from in Norway, so they likely knew each other earlier. Her marriage to Ole, a Norwegian bachelor, seemed arranged to solve a family problem and avoid shame. Helga gave birth to a daughter she named Clara on November 26, and Ole Estby was probably not the father of her child.4

Soon after their marriage, Ole and Helga joined the quest of many Norwegian immigrants who had been drawn to this country by the promise of free land. They started their new life together homesteading in Yellow Medicine County near Canby, Minnesota. Within one year of young Helga’s life, she became a wife, a mother, and a pioneer homesteader on the barren prairies near the Minnesota-Dakota border. After their move west, Helga and Ole presented Clara as the child of their own marriage. This family secret was a fiction that Helga and Ole maintained until Clara became a young adult.5

For a child raised in the cosmopolitan city of Christiana and during the boom times of Manistee, Michigan, the new challenges of motherhood and farming in an isolated prairie must have been daunting. As she left her family and home and drove off in a Conestoga wagon with her new husband and infant daughter, Clara, she likely had mixed feelings. She may have been enamored with “Western fever” like so many land-poor Norwegian immigrants, lured with the promise of potential riches for homesteaders, and grateful for the marriage with Ole that gave her and her daughter respectability. Or the sudden turn of events in her life may have left her feeling desolate and scared.

Her husband surely saw his future success linked to settling a 160-acre homestead, a general belief confirmed in many letters sent back to Norway by friends and relatives who had immigrated to the United States. The fervency of these American letters enticed Norwegians to leave their families and venture to America, a migration so great that by the early twentieth century, Norway lost as many citizens as had comprised her total population in 1800.6

Similar to this farm family, Helga and Ole lived in a one-room sod home on the Minnesota prairie near Canby.

Courtesy J.N. Templeman of the Dakota Territory, circa 1880, Minnesota Historical Society, 32593. Detail of this photograph on this page.

The Estbys were among the early settlers to Canby; the first had arrived only five years earlier in 1872 after the end of the Sioux War. Their farmland was about seven miles north of the city of Canby, a city populated in 1877 primarily by Norwegians. It offered a community where Ole could feel at home with his limited knowledge of English.

Although Yellow Medicine County promised fertile land, grasshoppers had devoured farmers’ crops for the past four years, causing many bankrupt farmers to abandon their homesteads and their dreams. It proved fortuitous, however, that the young Estby family filed in 1877, a year before the infestation ended and a large influx of immigrants arrived. This likely reinforced young Helga’s trust in risk taking as a way to solve problems.

Helga and Ole arrived in a land bereft of trees. They could see miles and miles of high-grass prairie, with cottonwood and ash trees found only along the river. A vast expanse of sky and land prevailed with nothing to break the wind. Coming from Norway and then Manistee, which nestled near the shores and forests of Lake Michigan, it was a dramatic geographic shift. With no seas, no nearby lakes, no forests, and no mountains, they saw none of the familiar landmarks etched in their memories of earlier days in Norway or Michigan. On the Canby prairie in the 1870s, pioneers battled the wind that at times blew like a cyclone, a sweeping wind that Helga could feel coming from miles and miles.

But the prairie soil was rich, with gravel on the kames, which were short ridges formed by accumulated stratified drift from glacier waters. Scattered wetland marshes and ponds drew a multitude of waterfowl such as mallards, commonteals, rails, sand cranes, and Canada geese. Wild raspberries, prairie turnips, prairie peas, and gooseberries provided additional food for settlers.

Because of the wind and the coming winter, Ole and Helga’s immediate concern was to build a sod home into one of the kames. They cut three-foot strips of sod from the untilled ground and laid these in brick-like courses, grass-side down. The hillside banked their sod home, a one-room structure with a dirt floor.7 Most sod dwellings provided very little light or air in the poorly ventilated rooms, often having just one door and window. Compared to the frame and brick homes Helga lived in before, a sod home was a crude construction that proved difficult to maintain. It offered inexpensive housing, however, which usually lasted three to five years.

Helga, like other pioneer prairie wives, fought a constant battle against pests, including prairie dogs and snakes that came through the dirt floor in spring. To keep the house clean, sheets draped under the sod roof caught the dirt and bugs. Rivulets of mud ran through the dwellings when rain soaked the sod. A fastidious housekeeper, who often said, “The cheapest thing in the world is a five-cent cake of soap,” Helga found housekeeping in her sod house conditions a continual challenge.8

These early years brought the loss of one child at birth, a firstborn son they named Ole.9 During the next few years, Helga was continually pregnant or nursing a newborn. Their son Olaf was born in March, 1879, the couple’s first daughter Ida in September, 1880, and another daughter, Hedwig (called Bertha), in March, 1882. Without even a two-year span between births, she bore another son, Henry, in January, 1884, and one more son, Arthur, in November, 1885.10

Two of Helga and Ole’s children, Bertha and Olaf, in the mid-1880s. Helga was an excellent seamstress and lacemaker and most likely had sewn these clothes.

Courtesy Portch/Bahr Family Photograph Collection.

Birthing, nursing, and raising these six young children and keeping a sod home livable were only part of Helga’s responsibilities for survival on the frontier. Settling a home in this demanding environment required women to be physically and emotionally strong. Rather than a city neighborhood with friends next door, now Helga had only herself and family to rely on. Never-ending work and long distances between farms made close friendships and regular socialization with neighborhood women almost nonexistent. Because they lived in such isolation, they seldom mingled with anybody, and the family and children spoke in Norwegian because of Ole’s lack of English.11

As a farm wife, Helga’s days involved constant chores—churning butter, making soap, sewing, mending and patching clothes, planting, weeding, harvesting and preserving garden produce, making tallow candles, or cleaning kerosene lamps. During her childhood in Norway and America, Helga developed exceptional skills as a seamstress. But having been an urban child, the challenges of homestead farming were all new to her.

The ability of the homemaker to make the most of the environment determined the subsistence level of the family. Western homesteading women knew their resourcefulness and hard work were essential, and they received respect as the nurturers and center of all life around the early farms. As the character Ántonia tells Jim in Willa Cather’s book on prairie life, My Ántonia, “We’d never have got through if I hadn’t been so strong. I’ve always had good health, thank God, and I was able to help him in the fields until right up to the time my babies came.”12

Prairie reminiscences from women settlers also spoke of genuine satisfactions. Many mentioned they liked the idea of the family working together, and they took pride in being a real helpmate to their husbands. Pleasures needed to be simple. As one pioneer stated, “You have to respect each other and work together.… Joy was found in small things like a child’s first step, playing games.… Good crops, or a root cellar filled with canned goods and produce for the coming winter months gave great satisfaction.”13 For immigrants with meager resources available to them in Norway, the bounty in America seemed far more promising than anything in their homeland. This may have been particularly true for Ole. Optimism prevailed; the hard work and fierce determination required of frontier homesteaders would surely be rewarded.

During these years, Helga gained a sense of her importance and worth to her growing family. Although the sudden move from her merchant city family into the role of marginal homesteader must have been daunting, the family did make progress economically as indicated by the house and outbuildings they eventually built on their homestead. However, she might have identified more with Beret, the prairie wife in the well-known Norwegian novel Giants in the Earth. This Norwegian-American writer, O. E. Rolvaag, recognized that early life on the prairie in North Dakota was not a place of sustenance for all women. Instead, they often suffered from severe isolation and loneliness because of living so remotely from friends and neighbors, unlike the settlers in Central Minnesota where woods and lakes and villages offered more variety and community.

In Rolvaag’s book, the first of a trilogy on a Norwegian immigrant settlement in the Dakota prairie not far from Yellow Medicine County, the wife of Per Hansa lives in conflict with the prairie. Sometimes seen as a powerful, omnipresent, and malevolent force shaping their lives, the prairie imposed a severe trial or testing for the pioneers. As Rolvaag wrote: “Beret sees her transportation to Dakota Territory as punishment for her sin of conceiving a child out of wedlock. The prairie is the instrument to effect punishment and Beret is tested by her Creator in the crucible of the prairie.”14

Which was it for Helga? The Minnesota experience gave her a place where she might have surmounted the challenges with the immigrant settler’s optimism that these were temporary difficulties, worthy of enduring to improve the family’s fortunes. Or was she a young displaced Americanized city woman identifying more with Beret’s feelings? Perhaps both were true. Helga’s next actions demonstrated that the simple pleasures of a full root cellar and smiling child were clearly not enough for her.

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