Looking Back

by Ellen (Johnson) Torkelson (1914-1985)


Born 14 February, 1914 near Goodridge, Minnesota, Ellen Geneva Johnson participated in an adventurous and rewarding life with her husband, Anton Torkelson, and their four children. As she neared the end of her life, Ellen felt a powerful urge to write down her memories so that her children and grandchildren would learn to remember - and to do so on purpose. Her way of writing was primarily a reminder to them of their heritage, so the stories follow a casual, over-the-kitchen-table kind of style, with but a few dates or references to public record.

Her daughter Patricia notes that, though the story was written to remind Ellen's family of the struggles of their ancestors, it was intended most to be advice on what life is all about.

In spite of her battle with the cancer that would soon take her life, Ellen was still 'mothering' us during her last days, says Patricia. Not wanting to let go before her family understood more about their heritage, she showed us how to remember.


I've written this, as I think our heritage is very important. It seems now no one has the time to listen or visit like we used to; everyone is busy doing their own thing. There's no lineage of bluebloods, famous or really rich [ancestors] that I know of. As far as I know most were farmers, but remember the farms were here before the skyscrapers.

I remember the farmers, back when they were their own doctor, repairmen, etc., as they lived many miles from any town and most of them had only a post office, general store, and of course livery barn, so they toughed it and went without.

So, don't let anyone say dumb farmers. I punched a six-footer in the nose once for it - young and handsome, too - but that's another incident in the 1930s.

I remember the folks telling of some farmers walking in the street instead of sidewalks when they were in town, thinking the sidewalks were for the townspeople. Talk about discriminating against yourself; they built the d--- thing!

My Parents

My mother, Emma Olson Johnson, had one brother, Carl Olson. He worked for several years at Northern Woodwork, later moving to a farm a few miles from town. He died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 1959. He was a real uncle, always coming out to see us and also helped in harvest one year when Anton had a siege with bleeding ulcers. I remember the nuts and candy he and Uncle Vigor Ringstrand sent us in Goodridge when they both worked at the Nash Finch Wholesale.

Mom had four sisters, namely: 1) Sophie, who died of a heart attack. Her kids were Esther, Seymour, Dollie, Don and Gladys; 2) Clara, who had two sons: Lewelyn and Emmet. She was a dear and we sure had good times together; 3) Dora was the youngest of the family and she was a wonderful aunt, too. She had a son and daughter, Lester and Stella; 4) another sister, Ida, died when just a child.

My father, Ingebret Johnson [was the son of John Lye. He changed his last name to Johnson some time after arriving in America. His brother Mikkel kept his last name as Lye.] He had four brothers, namely Andreus, Erik, Mikkel and John. Andreus, Erik and John remained in Norway. Mikkel and my dad were the only ones coming to this country. Mikkel had a big ranch in Montana and had a lot of cattle and did some grain farming. He used to come up to Goodridge and buy cattle from farmers and ship box cars full to Chicago, going right with them to Chicago.

He told of once walking down the street in Glendive, Montana, with two men and the one in the middle being shot. I liked him a lot; he was a real gentleman cowboy with bowed legs. His son Justin lives on the home ranch in Glendive and was up here in 1978 with our relatives from Norway.

[Ingebret] had three sisters, namely Marie and Olena and a younger one that died as a young girl. None of the sisters ever came to this country. Marie and Olena had a fancy dress shop in Stavanger; I have a few things they made and sent here.

Living Near Goodridge

The earliest recollection I have of living nine miles north of Goodridge where I was born, was of a flood in 1918. My folks lost a team of horses named Cap and Charlie and a cow named Leta Go. They were struck by lightning. All the crops were gone. We had forty acres of flax on new ground that my dad had hired help clearing. The flax was a sea of blue; I can remember walking around it with the folks on a Sunday before the storm. It rained for almost a week. I guess why I recall it so, I can see Pa standing looking out and tears running down his cheeks. The only other times I had seen tears in his eyes were when he would sing the song Helsa Dem Dere Hyme (meaning Greet the Folks at Home), also the Norwegian anthem.

I think if it hadn't been for my mother, we would have left the place and maybe moved to Canada as Pa always had a yen to move there. My mother was strong of spirit and couldn't be daunted. Nothing seemed impossible to her.

They had homesteaded the place in the early 1900s. They raised mostly cattle and had almost a hundred head at one time. We had quite a few milk cows, also. They pumped water by hand. We had two wells, one dug by hand used mostly for cooling milk and cream, the other drilled. There were two log barns for young stock and the other of lumber where the milk cows and horses were kept. My mother made all her soap for washing and scrubbing wood floors. Home remedies were made for colds, infections, etc., like onions and honey simmered for cough syrup. Our cod liver oil was made from skunk fat rendered. We had a tablespoon or so every day in the winter. We walked two miles one way to school.

There was a lot of hunting and trapping. They hunted wolves on horseback. Norman had a long-legged bronco. Willard and I used to get on a straw stack or barn and watch them when they hunted north of our place. The horses got so that when they saw a jackrabbit, they took after it. I rode Norman's bronco called Dan to the mailbox once and couldn't stop him, so I rode back home again. Norman said, You've got to jump off, then he will stop. They were trained to stop and stand still when they shot at the wolf. My mother trapped a wolf that came every morning and evening and ate on a carcass of a steer just a quarter mile north of our place.

The community was made up of different nationalities: German, Dutch, Irish, Scotch, English and of course Norwegians and Swedes; Pittman, Cullen, Lamporter, Bolley, Cady, Becker, Zinter, Wilken, Kast, Clausen and Eelles. Ed Eelles' were our closest neighbors. I remember Cynthia Eelles well. She was from Iowa. She wore big bonnets and white gloves a lot. She did only her housework and some gardening and thought it was terrible for women to work in the fields and barns like most did. If there wasn't wood in the house for the cook stove, the men would go without meals; and if it was cold, she would go to bed.

I remember when neighbors died, they would hold a wake over them. They didn't embalm most of them. Funerals were held in the home mostly. The hearse was a wagon or sleigh pulled by horses. I remember the Kiesows were called on for it. They had a team of jet blacks; they were beautiful with harnesses adorned with white and red rings and gold and silver tacks. I remember going to funerals and people at that time died of tuberculosis which was contagious. I held my breath when I got close to the casket; I didn't want to breathe for fear I'd get it.

I especially remember threshing time, done with a big steam rig owned by the Kiesows. Sometimes it took two or three days to thresh depending on the size of crop. Dora, my mother's sister, and Lester [Dora's son] and Stella [Dora's daughter] would come up. Dora helped cook as there was such a large crew and they served such large meals. Sometimes the men that ran the separator would stay over so they would get an early start. It was us kids' job to get the cows, feed chickens, etc. We had to get up at four o'clock in the morning to get milking done and horses curried and fed before nine o'clock when they usually started. There was a thresh-run among neighbors so it kept on a good share of the fall. I can still hear the wagons rumble on the road and the men would whistle or sing, depending on how tired they were or how the grain was running.

We had our first car while still in Goodridge, called a Dort, made by the same company that made the Durant. A garage was built soon to keep it in. We sure were proud of it. Willard and I would go in there and admire the car. We made many trips to Thief River Falls to visit my grandparents John and Christina Olson, and Dora and Vigor Ringstrand, and Carl and Annie Olson.

My dad would usually sing Barney Google on the way. A lot of the times when we got together they would sing my mother's favorite song Juanita. She could really hit the high notes. Norman and I would sing together a song of an Indian maid called Little Mohea. My uncle Vigor played piano and guitar and would sometimes accompany us. He also played for dances at the Songs of Norway, also called Snus Hall.

Family gatherings meant so much; the relatives were close and always helped each other. No one had much. They worked hard from sun up to way past sundown, but I can't remember of anyone griping or complaining. They got together and had a lot of fun and good food.

I remember Halloween in Goodridge. It was quite an event; things really happened in the neighborhood. One time the folks came to the barn in the morning to find the milk cows harnessed, and other things. I remember the prairie fires - buildings burning where people had homesteaded, couldn't make a go of it and left. Most buildings were of logs. Our house, granary and barn were of lumber and two barns of logs. All land clearing was done with grub hoe and plowing by walking plow. Ditching was by scraper operated by hand and pulled by horses.

Horses really worked hard. You had to have enough so you worked some in forenoon and others in afternoon. We had a light road team. They were white and called Prince and King. The high roads and deep ditches were dug by dredge: 18 and 20 were the ones I remember in Goodridge. They used to catch fish in them. Otherwise, all roads were just wagon trails. After we got our car, if it rained just a little, we couldn't go anywhere as one would get stuck in those narrow tracks. When we planned to go to Thief River Falls, Willard and I would watch the sky hoping we wouldn't see dark clouds.

Everyone picked a lot of wild berries to can. I remember homemade ice cream topped off with wild strawberries. Everyone churned their own butter, rendered lard, canned meat, made root beer. My mother made a drink out of barley, [but] it wasn't liquor. I remember the Norse name for it, but can't spell it. There were those that made moonshine and sold it, too. I heard they fed the mash to chickens and pigs. I wonder what they were like with a hangover!

Annie Solley had her own method of churning butter. When she had to help in the fields, she would hang a gallon tin pail of cream to the vehicle and the motion of it would make butter. She also used clothes bluing to color frosting for cakes. She was such a dear person, always laughing. She must have weighed two hundred pounds, but could out dance anyone in polka.

The one room schoolhouse was used for several functions, also dances. Women wore their husbands well-worn work shoes while doing chores or in the fields. I remember Annie Solley telling she cooked oatmeal and poured a bit in them to make them more comfortable. It also softened up calluses and made them fit better.

Willard and I weren't baptized until adults. The closest church was at Goodridge. Services were held at the schoolhouse sometimes, but the Germans outnumbered the Norwegians and World War I had broken out and so they weren't too chummy, so it just got put off. I was baptized with Patricia in 1938 and had to take confirmation lessons for a year. We were baptized at Trinity. R. M. Fjelstad was pastor. Willard was confirmed and baptized at St. Pauli by Rev. Pearson.

My folks had a team of oxen called Duke and Bill; got a picture of them from Seymour Evenson after our family reunion. Seymour was raised by my folks: Annie raised Dollie, his sister, and Grandma Olson raised Don. My mother also raised Minnie Holmgren from an infant to seven years. It was so hard for the folks [when her mother came back and got her.]

Moving to Smiley Township

We moved from Goodridge in 1927, the latter part of March, our belongings loaded on two wagons with racks. We started real early in the morning. We took turns driving while we got off and walked and almost made it to our destination, to the place across from [my daughter] Corine and [her husband] Lyle [Bjorge's] farm. The horses were so tired, so we stopped overnight on the place now known as Prestebaks. We were all tired; seemed to take so long. It was my dad and mother, Willard and I on this journey.

We got to our new home next forenoon. This place had a small house on it: two rooms down and one upstairs. My dad called the upstairs n-g--r heaven [this pejorative would have been in more common usage in the early 1900s] as it was so hot and dark. The kitchen was painted a real dark green. On my mother's birthday - April 23 - Dora and Vigor Ringstrand and Annie and Carl Olson furnished paint and came out and did the painting; sure brightened things up. It was such a change for Willard and I to go to school there as the kids were such sissies; they played games like Ring Around the Rosy; Pump, Pump, Pull Away; and games like that. We were used to playing baseball, tug of war, and racing horses. I guess I was a tomboy.

Dorothy Becker and I would always race. The Wilkens and Beckers had fast horses they used for wolf hunting. There was a horse barn on the school grounds to keep the horses in. Elsie Blair (Norman's wife-to-be) was teaching school (District #221) when we got to our new home.

Norman and Martin Eelles moved the cattle the next day or so; they drove them by horse back to Mavie, rested them there overnight, and on to our place the next day. I thought things were so backward up here. We didn't have telephones like we had in Goodridge. The farmers there got together and built the lines themselves. We didn't get a telephone until 1952 on our present place.

Hard Times

We had only lived on the place we moved to from Goodridge three years when the Depression hit in 1929. Things got so tough my folks couldn't make the payments on the place, so they made a deal for a place west of St. Hilaire. The payments were a lot less, but the land wasn't very good - sandy, and besides the Dust Bowl years began so we couldn't raise any grain and barely any hay. We moved there in 1932 and moved off in 1934 to the place they last had where [my son] Craig lives now. Anyway, they maneuvered so they didn't lose their farm as so many did during the Depression.

I started high school in the fall of 1929. The Crash hadn't come yet; the economy was good. Still, we had to buy our own books. I stayed with [my sister] Olga and [her husband] Clyde [in Crookston] and attended Central High. Olga was happy as Clyde was gone so much on the railroad and she had four kids to care for. So, I helped with housework and kids. They lived on Spendley Road and I walked a mile to school. I attended two years of high school in Thief River Falls, staying with Palmer Thompson's [my] second year. Norman and Elsie moved back to Thief River Falls from Minneapolis as things were really getting tough down there. So, then I stayed with them. I didn't go my senior year as [I] couldn't afford to buy books, so went looking for a job. Finally found one waiting on tables at $5.45 a week, my room included. I took a dollar a week and bought something for the folks as we were really in the Depression [in] 1934. A workday then was ten to twelve hours a day, sometimes more. No overpay; eight-hour days didn't start till Roosevelt was in a year.

Mrs. Anton Torkelson

After Anton and I were married [on] June 22, 1935, we rented my uncle and aunt's - the Ringstrands - place, which they had bought from my grandparents - the John Olsons. We paid ten dollars a month for forty acres and buildings. The house was so cold the coffee pot froze solid on the stove. Our only possessions were two cows and twenty chickens we got from Anton's folks and one two-year-old heifer, five sheep and four or five turkeys from my folks. Our heating system was a real small heater we got from Vigor Ringstrand's mother [and] an old cook stove from Anton's folks. [We got] a day bed and old cupboard from my folks. The floors were bare boards; the walls were wainscoting. The house was real old, but well made. It still stands, Folkedahls live in it now. The place was known as the Magnuson place....

We farmed the place with horses and old machinery. We bought a horse named Barney and a year-old colt I named Inky. She died of sleeping sickness in 1937. We paid two hundred dollars for Barney and one hundred and seventy-five dollars for Inky from [Willard's wife] Belle's parents. People were losing horses all over.

Anyway, our livestock was increasing: finally had five or six cows, ten or twelve ewes, and started raising chickens. On this place, Patricia was born in October 1937; our twin girls on November 9, 1938; and Corine in 1940. They were all born at home with my mother as nurse and Melby as doctor. The twin girls were premature. [They] were supposed to be born the first part of January. Melby said if they had been at the hospital and in an incubator, they would have lived as they were around four pounds each. My mother dressed them for burial; said it was the hardest thing she had ever done. It is hard to remember and think of what she went through. I don't know what we would have done without their help. It's the people like them that have made this country what it is, let's not forget.

We lived on this place until the fall of 1940, we moved to the Henry Snetting place. Manke's live there now. It had a two-room house: one room upstairs and one down. There wasn't any well on the place. We hauled water for the house and watered the cattle out of a big slough both winter and summer.

After Roosevelt got to be President, everyone was singing Happy Days are Here Again until World War II broke out. Things were really rough both physically and financially as we were still in the Depression, although things were beginning to shape up. People who had lost their farms were moving back on resettlement farms with new buildings built up after FDR became President. Anton and [his brother] Melvin got a job at Biddick's making crates to ship dressed turkeys in. They worked there only November and December. We had also bought our present farm in October as things were looking better and it was easier to borrow money.

But then December 7, 1941; World War II broke out. [Melvin's wife] Helen and I had just crated up our turkeys for Anton to take in [the next] morning and had just sat down to have coffee when we heard the special report on radio. We just looked at each other, not able to say anything. Things changed drastically after that. The country was mobilized in a short time. There weren't any young men to be seen in town or anywhere. Anton and Willard had to sign up for the draft, but were saved as they were farming. A lot of things were impossible to get and a lot of stuff was rationed.

We were lucky to be farming as they were allowed more gas and oil and tires and a lot of other things. We had our own meat and butter as all fats, meat, sugar, coffee and many other things were rationed, including shoes. People in town would trade their coffee or sugar points for butter and meat.

One Last Move

In the spring - March 1942 - we moved here. I remember loading chickens on the wagon, around three hundred chickens, at three o'clock [in the morning] starting out at five o'clock for our place in a drizzly rain, [only] to find out the roof on the house leaked, as did the chicken house. We later moved the log chicken house Anton had put up from the other place. Norman and Willard helped put it up as there wasn't enough room in the one here. The same day we loaded two wagons with household things: one was Melvin's and his team and we got stuck in the middle of the road southeast of our present house. The roads were heavy clay. The first thing we did was to get the cook stove up. We were so hungry; our first meal was bacon and eggs and doughnuts. [Anton's sister] Bessie came along with Melvin and as we were sitting having lunch, someone came in with a pail of eggs and Bessie said, Potatoes! Where did you get the potatoes? They were all brown from [chicken] crap!

The cows and calves were still over at the other place. It was rainy and drizzly; it was really a mess. After we got the cattle here, Anton got bleeding ulcers. I had to walk over to Casey Weiner's [a couple who lived a couple of miles from the house] to get him to go to town for medicine; couldn't drive here with a car, so he took his tractor. I was alone with milking cows, chickens, turkeys, kids, and sheep; couldn't call for help, no telephone and no one came as roads were impassable, really rough going. Finally, after it quit raining, the folks came over; never was so glad to see anyone in my life.

Pa and Willard helped do some fencing for the sheep as they wanted to roam all over. The house or shack was so cold in winter and hot in summer, we finally built on a lean-to for bedrooms after Craig and Carolyn were born [All four children are in the picture on the right.] We knew we had to build or move. Material was hard to get and we didn't have money, either, so Pa said he'd borrow us some so we could get started. We built a basement in 1947 using two tractors and scraper. Norman was here with his. I remember his saying, What the h--- are you building? A hotel? Joe Belange [a neighbor] said there was a house on the Prestebak place they wanted to sell, so we bought it and moved it. We started building on to it in 1948. Art Torstveit was the carpenter; worked for one dollar an hour. He was really tops!

We moved in October 1949. None of the new part was finished inside. Before we could start, we got a loan for $8,100 from FHA that included plumbing and heating. Electricity came through here in 1946 or 1947; we had it in the shack we lived in, but didn't get a refrigerator or electric stove until we moved in our present house. The water was plumbed in, so we could get it from a faucet in the landing; wasn't completed until 1956.

It was in the middle 1940s that polio struck so many families; so many in the neighborhood and towns were getting it. We lived in fear every day as there wasn't anything to do for it. They held many benefits to raise money using FDR's birthday as promotion date. Many dances and entertainments were held at Smiley Hall.


In June 1984, Corine, Jerod and I went up to Grygla to pick up a dog and went off the beaten track to drive by the farm where my folks homesteaded and where I went to school. Of course, the schoolhouse has been moved, but I remember the spot. We visited the cemetery where a lot of friends of my folks and people I remember are buried; memories flooded back. I couldn't find the graves of some I know are there, like the elder Fiskevold; Mrs. Fiskevold was midwife when Willard and I were born. I can remember going there by horse and buggy. She always had those large hard sugar lumps and Asta, their daughter, told us fairy stories. She had a bar in Goodridge in later years.

There were others I couldn't locate either; couldn't help but think the ones that worked so hard and built that country lay there in some rough-hewn lumber, hand-made caskets in unmarked graves. Thought of a Lena Kiesow who died a young woman giving birth. She was in labor two days and was black and blue; the baby lived and was raised by her sister. Most didn't have doctors or were given anything for pain; they were attended by a midwife.

I remember Ida Pittman who died of tuberculosis as a young mother, leaving four young boys. They lived right south from our place; George is living on their home place still. I can't help but think the women of that time worked the hardest. Most had large families and did all their baking, scrubbing clothes on a washboard (Oh, the back!), carried wood, even splitting it. Water was carried [and they] scrubbed floors after kids had gone to bed. Houses were usually small and with all the traffic [one] just couldn't keep them clean and their wood floors took so long to dry. To have meat on hand, they canned a lot of it and salted some down.

Besides, they were always helping in the fields and milking cows and doing chores in general. Their day began helping milk cows as did my own for about thirty years. We didn't get a milking machine until 1966. They separated all the milk until the bulk trucks started taking it. Most of us had the separators in the house and they were cranked by hand, usually women's job, especially when the men were in the fields, then carrying it back to barns to feed calves. Electricity did away with the hand crank.

As I write this and think of people, one stands out as the most godly and nicest person I ever knew or met and that was Gust Gustafson. He was always there to help, always cheerful, and nothing seemed to overwhelm him. Except once and it was when he was going to the basement of the Haugen house. On his way down he was saying, Oh do, oh do, oh do. I crack up every time I think of it. His saying was If it's impossible, it will just take a little longer.

Our pioneers were strong hard-working people, with a goal of a better way of life in mind; by their self sacrifices we are enjoying the good life. How are we taking care of and preserving what we inherited? Seems everyone is grabbing what they can, with no thought of our land, atmosphere or other. Brings to mind my own philosophy: It isn't how much you make or what you have, it's what you do with what you've got.

I don't know where our style of living is going to lead us. Success is measured by the amount of material things you have and some don't seem to care what they do or how they get it. Don't get me wrong, I believe we should have some of these to make life easier, but let's not let it dominate our life. Do what makes you happy and enjoy the free and simple things. Stop and smell the roses.