3

THE CRUCIBLE YEARS

My mother was afraid of tornadoes and cyclones.

She wanted to come where we would be safe.

—IDA ESTBY, DAUGHTER

If the isolation of the prairie distressed Helga, the Siberian-like winter of 1880–81 severely tested her emotional health. The summer of 1880 led to the harvest of an excellent crop and the county again became known as the “land of promise.” But heavy and frequent rains in August made it impossible to begin stacking on most farms near Canby until the middle of September, right when Helga gave birth to Ida on September 18.

Just in the midst of threshing, a major unexpected snowstorm started the worst winter of the century, far before farmers had taken their crops to the granaries. In historical accounts of Canby, no winter has compared to this one in duration, continued severity, depth of snow, and damage to property.1 When darkness came on the evening of Friday, October 15, Helga and Ole saw an occasional flake of snow, but by midnight the wind and snow increased in fury. On Saturday, a blizzard raged with such violence that no farmers dared venture outside their sod homes, even to feed the animals. The fury continued until Monday afternoon, October 18. Snow banks in the city of Canby piled up almost level with second story windows, and snowdrifts filled Main Street from ten to fifteen feet deep. Many a farmer was compelled to dig down several feet to get to the barn door and it required one’s best endeavors to keep cattle from starving or suffocating. No preparations had been made for such a storm and great numbers of stock perished.2

Frightened families experienced weeks of terror. When the wood and coal supply vanished, farmers relied on hay, fence posts, and grain for fuel to keep from freezing to death. Snow completely buried many of the claim shanties in the country. Blizzard followed blizzard and prairie winds created drifts ten to fifteen feet deep. Pioneers excavated tunnels from the house to the barn, to the woodpile, and to the wells. If Ole or Helga ventured outside these paths, drifts like quicksand could suck them and their farm animals to their deaths because the soft deep snow was impossible to walk through.3 By December, no groceries or provisions remained in the stores. The railway in Yellow Medicine County was blocked for weeks at a time, virtually shutting off the region from receiving any help, or even delivery of outside newspapers and mail. Helga, Ole, their two young children, and infant Ida spent long weeks of discouraging isolation in the midst of these dangerous surroundings. If their provisions didn’t hold until the railroad reopened, famine was a real threat. Some lost their lives in the storms or suffered frostbite and, as a result, amputated limbs.

Yet, during these dreary circumstances, the Scandinavian prairie settlers showed their grit and determination. Volunteers began to shovel snow off the railroad tracks, businesses reopened by creating tunnels to their doors, and local theater groups formed to relieve the monotony of the siege. The railroad company gave permission to cut and use the snow fences along the track for fuel.4 How did Helga and Ole, huddled alone in their sod home with their family and newborn, cope during this devastating winter? Whatever tenacity it took, Ole and Helga endured. When summer crops proved bountiful in the county the following year, the family’s pioneer perseverance was rewarded.

Living in the era before readily available birth control, Helga’s continual pregnancies suggest she adopted similar cultural values as other Norwegian immigrant farm pioneers. Although women gathered together occasionally at husking bees, quilting bees, and other work-related activities, their daily lives were often very lonely. Also, these reserved Norwegian wives in Minnesota did not ordinarily discuss personal, intimate concerns. Most women followed traditional religious teachings that reinforced feminine virtues to be supporting and nurturing. This included that their role was to satisfy their husband’s natural sexual desires and to bear children. This view of marriage was understood and rarely questioned.5

Once sixteen-year-old Helga married Ole and bore his children, she invested all of her considerable energy and talent working alongside her husband to create a sustainable and loving family life. Motherhood also aroused in Helga a sense of protectiveness. Especially after the frightening winter of 1880, living on their remote prairie land began to raise fears for the safety of the children she loved.

As a young mother in Minnesota in the 1880s, Helga faced another fear, particularly ominous because of its invisibility. Parents could recognize a treacherous snowstorm, a raging prairie fire, or a cyclone funnel, and seek a safe shelter for their children. But when Minnesota towns and surrounding farm homes experienced virulent outbreaks of diphtheria, this highly contagious disease caused significant alarm. Doctors found themselves helpless to treat diphtheria when it attacked families in its worse form known as “black diphtheria.” The lack of specific knowledge of the cause, or of any preventative or curative agents, staggered both doctors and laymen. Although light cases could be cured, the more deadly black diphtheria caused death “with startling certainty and machinelike regularity … often in a short four days.”6

Children were particularly vulnerable, suffocating to death as their windpipe closed. Even the finest doctors felt helpless when this attacked a family, and during the epidemics in the 1880s, they saw some parents lose all their children in a matter of days. As parents of young children, the Estby family would be targeted by their local Health Board to receive circulars required by the Minnesota State Board of Health. These disseminated the latest information concerning the restriction and prevention of diphtheria. Some of the information in this 1880 bulletin would later be disputed, but it provided the best medical insight of the era.7

Helga and Ole read that as a contagious and infectious disease, diphtheria proved most fatal when found in filthy localities. “These common and visible forms of filth are seen in the untidiness of living and sleeping rooms, in the filthy condition of clothing and persons, in decaying garbage in cellars, in the faulty conditions of cess-pools and privy-vaults.”8 Although this warning placed immense pressure on the housekeeping skills of a family, at least a mother and father could exercise control over these conditions. But the bulletin gave further warnings about the dangerous invisible forms found in drinking water, soil, and odorous gases in drains and sewers. This insidious unseen virus that “is apt to attach itself to clothing, bedding, furniture and be retained for a long time in the walls of the rooms” required that homes receive all the “sunlight possible and a liberal supply of fresh air.”9 Keeping a poorly ventilated sod home in high sanitary conditions was impossible and perhaps prompted the Estbys to build their frame home and outbuildings on the homestead.10

Although doctor’s experiences showed that even the very neatest families living in commodious homes could suffer as much as those in small squalid hovels, the general perception prevailed that poor housekeeping contributed to a family’s tragedy. This added another burden, usually borne by the mother of a home. This opinion also heaped guilt onto the deep grief of losing a child. The Estby family managed to avoid this tragedy that struck some Minnesota communities with as many as eighty to ninety deaths during epidemic stages. But they inevitably carried the anxiety created by these epidemics.

Another burden that dwelled inside each homesteader involved the Estbys directly. If contagious disease epidemics caused an unseen fear for Minnesota farm families, wild prairie fires caused a visible and tangible terror. Fires demanded constant vigilance if farmers hoped to save their homes, barns, grain piles, stock, and livelihood from swift obliteration. But unlike the invisible menace from diphtheria, pioneers knew they could take steps to protect their property by plowing fire breaks and scanning the skies daily for any sign of smoke.

With even a mild wind, fire was treacherous because one never knew where it might start up. And with a bad wind, prairie fires swept everything before it. When sparks flew into the hay, often everything on the farm could be lost. If a fire threatened a homestead, everyone big enough to help fought the fire. Women often took some old clothing, like a woolen coat dipped in water, and wiped the ground with it, dragging it along the blaze.

In one terror-filled afternoon, Helga fought a fire that came within feet of their home.11 The Estbys saw signs of the fire raging across the prairie; by the time the suffocating smoke neared their home, the roar and crackle of flames threw sparks high in the air, terrifying their livestock and young children. As she needed to help fight the fire, Helga could not comfort their screaming little ones. They managed to save their house and barn—many neighbors were not so lucky and lost their wheat stacks. Worse yet, a farm husband and wife were badly burned from fighting the fire.12

After the frightening fire, one final threat convinced Helga they needed to move their growing family off the Minnesota homestead. Sudden and unpredictable cyclones and tornadoes created devastating damage to life and property in Minnesota and pioneers barely had time to flee into the dugouts that every farm needed. In 1885, a tornado hit the Canby area particularly hard.

(following pages) Helga and Ole, around 1887, with six of their children shortly before selling their prairie homestead in Canby, Minnesota, and moving to Spokane Falls, Washington Territory.

Courtesy Portch/Bahr Family Photograph Collection. Detail of this photograph on this page.

The Estbys felt the same fear as their neighbors felt on “Black Friday,” the name given to a frightening storm on June 19, 1885. Near sundown, Helga looked on the horizon and saw a dark cloud roll in from the west. Within minutes, it began to rain in torrents and hailstones struck with the force of bullets, with a sound compared to “a continuous fire of musketry.” Glass, windows, storefronts, and window lights were shattered into fragments. Nearby barns blew down and hail the size of hen’s eggs knocked bark off the trees. Within an hour and a half, twelve to eighteen inches of water covered the prairie, causing extensive damage to crops and trees. After the storm, Helga learned that the severe winds, hail storms, and falling trees had killed a young child and a baby in his mother’s arms as they tried to get to shelter—exactly the fear that Helga harbored.13

Just one month later, on July 16, another major storm caused havoc seven miles northwest of Canby, very near the Estby homestead. In a three-mile destructive sweep, a new barn was blown flat, another barn almost full of hay was lifted off its foundations, a falling tree killed a man, a barn struck by lightning burned down and killed two horses, lightning caused three houses to be consumed by fire, game was killed in great abundance, and most growing crops were greatly injured by the storm.14

That was enough for Helga and Ole. Scared of future tornadoes and cyclones, the Estbys began planning a move to the West, a region promoted actively by the Northern Pacific Railroad. The assurances in brochures of a better climate, available land, affordable housing, and educational opportunities in “the promised land” lured many an immigrant to the West. So many immigrants came in the 1880s, they established a vibrant Scandinavian presence in churches and organizations in urban centers in Washington State, such as Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane Falls, the new “gem” city of the Pacific Northwest. One brochure particularly addressed the quality of educated people who lived in Spokane Falls and the educational opportunities for children, a topic that would have drawn Helga’s attention. Educated in America, and fluent both in written and spoken English and Norwegian, she had more schooling than many of the Scandinavian farm women. She longed for her children to have the chance to better themselves in every way, intellectually, spiritually, and materially.15 In the Canby region, she saw that young girls often began working for families instead of attending high school. The brochure boasted: “The permanent population of Spokane Falls is of a very highly intellectual and moral character.… They recognize the fact that intellectual culture is the genius of the age in which we live, and constitutes in itself a true exponent of wealth and power.”16

The brochure then elaborated on the new public schools and the superintendent of education with a doctorate, the high school literary society, the two private schools, the establishment of Gonzaga University (a Jesuit institution), the four-year Spokane College and the Methodist-Episcopal College, which aimed to “provide thorough scholarship and a high standard of moral and Christian character.” All three colleges insisted they offered education equal to those of the East and included modern languages, Latin, Greek, philosophy, higher math, logic, and bookkeeping in their curricula. For Helga, familiar with urban life, a city that grew from less than three hundred to more than two thousand in just thirty months must have sounded remarkable. Spokane Falls offered churches, newspapers, an opera house, good hotels and a high percentage of college-educated citizens.17

What most likely precipitated their final decision was a September 21, 1886, newspaper from Spokane, Washington, that caught their eye, especially an advertisement for twenty-five carpenters wanted to work for $3.50 a day on the Spokane and Idaho Railroad.18 Tired of the drudgery and unpredictability of farming, with a young wife frightened to live on the prairie, Ole likely found this new option to practice his original trade appealing. It was enough enticement to get the Estbys to join the vast group of Norwegians and other immigrants who participated in the “second migration” to the Northwest, a movement that grew to more than 150,000 Scandinavians in the Pacific Northwest between 1890 and 1910.19 Eager to move, the Estbys sold their house and land for $1000, and Ole moved West. As soon as their six children recovered from the measles, Helga, now twenty-seven (and two months pregnant), and the children boarded the train in May of 1887 to join Ole.

After the challenges of eleven years of homesteading on the prairie, the young wife and mother emerged a very different woman than the young bride who moved to Minnesota with her infant child. Through the hardships of isolation, mercurial crop production, the worst snowstorm of the century, and threats of fire, cyclones, and pestilence, she not only endured but also helped her carpenter husband carve out a living on the farm. She birthed and nurtured six healthy children, grieved the loss of their firstborn son, and built a farm, which left them with modest funds to choose a new destiny as a family. She knew during every day of her work that she was needed, essential to their family’s quality of life.

These formative years gave Helga an inner confidence of her ingenuity, persistence, adaptability, survival skills, intelligence, and talents. Though glad to leave, like many other pioneer women, she took with her permanent qualities of character forged in the crucible of prairie survival. And when she moved to Spokane Falls, the 1888 city directory listed her with the title she chose: She did not identify herself as housewife but as Helga Estby, “farmer.”20 Yet nothing in Helga’s imagination prepared her for the twist of fate that befell her on a dark Spokane Falls street just one year later.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!