The children could not understand how the signing of a piece of paper could change everything, but it did … Moor (their mother) was very different. She went around as if she were carrying a burden.
—A. RAAEN, GRASS OF THE EARTH
During 1893, Helga traveled away from the family twice, perhaps to help her mother in Wisconsin after her stepfather’s death. During these months of her absence, the children wrote affectionate letters to their mother, using their recently learned English.1 A long letter from Ida, now twelve, dated February 9, 1893, let her mother know of important family events. Ida’s reference to Christy indicates the likelihood of an earlier connection.
I will write a few lines to you and tell you that we are all and Will (now 10 months old) is good he can stand alone by the wall and he crawls all over the floor and puts every thing in his mouth I will tell you that my shoes fit me nicely. Henry felt bad because he did not get any shoes. Papa bought some overhols for him. It is snowing here to-day. I am waiting for you to come home papa was in Rockford Friday and he bought some Baking powder and we want to invite Richardson’s girls on Bertha’s Birthday because I had a party on my Birthday and I want her to have some fun on her Birthday because it will not be right to not let her have any fun when I had. I don’t feel well today so I can not write good my hand shakes it but I hope you can read it. Bertha wrote so I wanted to write to. My eyes are well now so Clara said that it was no use the glasses. I have nothing more to tell you I will send our regard to you here is a kiss for you I send my love to christy.
Your loving Daughter, Ida
In this same batch of letters, Henry wrote:
I got a pair of overalls papa bought. I had to have Hedvig (Bertha) to write for me I could not write my Self because they was in such a hurry. I will tell you that I’m a good boy all the time you was gone and will help Papa saw wood and put hay in the mangers when he is working with the horses because he is cold. I will tell you that it is snowing up here today. I feed the two little pigs.
Your son, Henry
Arthur summed up the family feelings when their mama left home when he wrote:
I want to write a few lines to you but not much. I am a good boy, I stay in the house all the time I will send a kiss to you. I wish you would come home.
Your little boy Arthur Estby
In another undated letter, Henry wrote:
I will write a few lines to you, and tell you I am a good boy. I help to cook food for the pig. I send you a kiss. Me and Arthur wrote ours on the same side
Your loving boy,
These letters reflect the ways the family coped when their mother needed to be away. They missed her, but took care of one another, whether helping their father with the farm, or remembering the importance of a birthday celebration for a sister and daughter. Helga returned home sometime in the spring, became pregnant again, and then traveled sometime in the late summer, as shown by another similar letter from Bertha and Ida and their Aunt Hanna (Ole’s sister) dated September 6, 1893. Helga kept these treasured letters that connected her to her children.
Love and kisses from the children, however, could not solve the reality of a severe financial crash in 1893 that swept the country. In early summer, it hit the heavily mortgaged city of Spokane and directly affected Ole’s livelihood. After the 1889 fire devastated the center of Spokane, Dutch financiers had loaned millions of dollars to rebuild the gutted city. The major lenders now reacted with quick and aggressive foreclosures on indebted businesses and individuals.
To the Estby’s and the community’s shock, within three days of June, seven of the ten Spokane banks failed. Many prominent town leaders lost their real estate to sheriff’s sales. Foreclosures affected millions of dollars worth of buildings, choice residential property, commercial sites, and farmlands. This early economic depression in Spokane was described as a period of “gloom and disaster, of crashing banks and crippled industry, of riotous demonstrations and counter organization for law and order.”2 Ole found that the city no longer needed carpenters as it reeled under this financial collapse.
Nor could Ole count on getting extra work from farmers. By the end of 1892, the Dutch investment in rural lands rose beyond one million dollars. In the depression of 1893, wheat prices in the rich agricultural land of eastern Washington’s Palouse plunged to a devastatingly low 30 cents a bushel, almost a two-thirds loss from earlier years. Then unseasonable rains destroyed most of the grain in the Palouse country, leaving wheat to mold and rot in the fields, which soon bankrupted farmers. Financiers foreclosed on heavily mortgaged farmland, too, and a tumble in prices left many farmers destitute, too poor to hire Ole for any building.
Eastern Washington farmers and the economy of Spokane did not experience an immediate turnaround after the Panic of 1893. Barter and trade became the currency of cash-poor farmers.3 Hired help and local stores accepted goods, such as old saddles, produce, or livestock because no one had cash for services, groceries, dry goods, machinery, or supplies. Farmers also bought on credit, hopeful the next harvests might be good. The Estbys encountered major expenses in the early 1890s, including the cost of three doctors performing surgery on Helga and months of recovery, the $600 purchase of land, building a home, two more childbirths, plus feeding and clothing a large family. They sank into a debt cycle even before the 1893 panic. They began a pattern of borrowing a new loan to pay off the last loan.4 This threat of slipping into destitution created intense anxiety and a sense of helplessness for Helga throughout the spring. If good fortune seemed with them earlier, providing them the means and the confidence to create their dream, the national Panic of 1893 destroyed these dreams.
With Ole’s livelihood as an independent carpenter no longer in demand, the family could not depend on his earnings. Nor could he develop the farm because an injury from a horse accident left him unable to do heavy physical work.5 Without viable income, the Estbys borrowed $1000 on the mortgage from D.K. Welt on July 6, 1894, shortly after their last daughter, Lillian, was born on March 12th. Unable to pay their mortgage or taxes during the midst of this economic depression, Helga awoke every morning haunted by the fear of foreclosure. The “unsatisfied” $1000 debt placed them in imminent danger of losing their farm.
The thought of a sheriff’s sale taking all of their earthly belongings created a fear that was making Helga physically weaker. Although she was a strong woman who survived ten pregnancies, the last two pregnancies left her health more precarious. She had already undertaken risky gynecological surgery. Helga knew that a bankruptcy would tear the family apart, forcing the older sons and daughters to board out as servants or gardeners in wealthy homes. When hard times hit families, the older children often dropped out of high school to perform this menial labor. Helga longed for them to have the chances that education gave in America because she knew they were intelligent and motivated children. Those remaining with the family would probably live in a crowded dilapidated boarding house back in Spokane, placed at the mercy of unsanitary conditions and uncaring landlords. Though financially poor now, they would become poorer still if the little moments of family joy on the farm that marked their days—the hayrides and sleigh rides, grange dances, and neighborly coffees—should simply cease.
On January 18, just three days after celebrating his twelfth birthday, tragedy struck the Estby family when they lost their son Henry, possibly from heart complications with childhood rheumatoid arthritis. He was their gentle boy, who liked to help his papa saw the wood, put hay in the mangers, and cook food for the pigs. Exceptionally affectionate and loving, he unabashedly gave kisses and expressed how he missed his mama whenever she was gone.6 Helga always had been grateful that she could help keep their children in good health, other than catching normal childhood diseases. They even avoided the diphtheria epidemic that raced through Minnesota prairie communities in the 1880s. Out of ten pregnancies, she lost only one infant after childbirth, early in their marriage.7 She also knew how to nurse ill children back to health, so Helga was unprepared for the spiraling grief that engulfed her after losing their winsome son. This sorrow sapped her ability to sleep, to work, or even to think clearly at times.
Ole’s own grief was silently borne. He carried a father’s humiliating sense of inadequacy and frustration over his slow recovery from the injury that kept him from heavy labor. In late-nineteenth-century America, and especially in his Norwegian community, fathers were expected to assume responsibility in providing for their family. As a wife, Helga likely felt torn between her Norwegian sense that a wife should not refuse affection to her husband, especially when he needed comforting and reassurance, and her conviction that at thirty-six she was not ready to bear and nurse an eleventh child. Helga felt desperate and alone as she pondered a way out of their plight.
Living with the sorrow of losing her twelve-year-old son, the fear of losing the home and land she loved, and the danger of losing her emotional and physical health, Helga was thinking and praying for a solution during the spring of 1896. They had been in dire straits before—during the treacherous winter of 1880 in Minnesota—and survived. After suffering from a dangerous fall on Spokane’s streets, she had sued the city, won a lawsuit, and found a female surgeon who helped restore her health. She still fervently believed that America abounded with opportunity for immigrants willing to work and take risks. Looking back at these events, she even believed that, eventually, their difficulties worked out for something good.
But a mortgage debt for a family with limited income created immense anxiety in the late 1800s. America provided no “safety net” to offer protection, nor did the immigrant Estby family have extended family nearby to turn to in times of trouble. Another Norwegian immigrant mother, who claimed a homestead in 1874 very near the Minnesota prairie land of the Estbys, described the weight of this anxiety for mothers in Grass of the Earth: The Story of an Immigrant Family in Dakota. As women rarely earned significant income outside of the home, the helpless anguish over an unpaid mortgage could control a life. Aargot Raaen recalled the shadow that enveloped their family life because of debt. When the family feared they could not even pay the 10% interest on their farm, Aargot (the oldest sister) brooded over the burden until she sometimes thought of nothing else. While the other children played, she would sit hidden by some low swinging bough and stare at the river; she watched the water bugs in their hopeless struggle against the swift current of the stream.
The children could not understand how the signing of a paper could change everything, but it did.… Moor (their mother) was very different. She went about as if she were carrying a burden. She often sat lost in thought. When alone, the children asked, “Moor, what was that paper you signed?”
“They called it a mortgage; it gives those who left the horses and the money the right to take our home unless we can pay them so much money every year for a certain number of years, besides paying the value of the horses and the money they left.” A chill stole over them all. Moor and the children had barely been able to live before. How could they take over the new burden?8
Helga’s own burning anxiety about losing the farm mirrored Moor’s, but she was adamant against sitting passively by and staring at the river. The move to Mica Creek had created some of the happiest years for their large loving family, and she knew this beloved place blessed her children.
In these April days of sorrow and stress, Helga likely carried a handful of spring flowers to place beside her son’s simple headstone. As she mulled over their family’s threatening situation, she fought against her fears. Helga also carried within her a memory from a pivotal experience in an elementary school in Christiana (now Oslo) that gave her courage during dark times. She often shared this story with her own children. One day, when Helga was a little girl, she attended a religion class where the teacher taught the children the biblical story of “Jonah and the Whale,” of how the whale swallowed Jonah and later spit him out to the sea. Her next class had been in science with a different teacher. Norway has a great seafaring tradition of whaling, and that particular day the children were studying the anatomy of whales. Helga learned that whales have small throats.
The following day Helga boldly approached the teacher in the religion class and announced that Jonah’s story could not be possible because a whale’s throat was not large enough to swallow a man. Troubled by little Helga’s literalist response and her rejection of this biblical story, the teacher told her she should not say things like that. And then she added enthusiastically, “Don’t you know, Helga, that anything and everything is possible with God?”9
Drawing on the reservoirs of strength and faith that carried her through earlier dark days, she secretly considered the riskiest opportunity she had ever been offered. Because her family believed she used this story as a kind of “life-motto,” it is likely that this belief fueled her decision to attempt this trek, a trip newspapers of the era claim no other unescorted American woman had ever accomplished. A mammoth risk, but one promising her an almost unfathomable reward.