I don’t really know how it was planned, maybe spur of the moment, but I don’t think I was heavily involved, maybe just expressed some interest, but I spent the summer of 1957 on the Baxstrom farm in Mylo, North Dakota, the little prairie town where my mother was born and raised.
In the spring of 1957 my Grandmother Friedly passed away from cancer at the age of 59. My father and his brother Gene, also living in New Jersey, Mr. Mark Tomlin, a young Pillar of Fire church minister, whom my grandmother had asked to conduct the funeral service before she died, and I, traveled by car from New Jersey to Missouri, leaving in the morning, driving all night and arriving at midday.
The funeral itself was conducted in a local church with Mr. Tomlin giving a very heartfelt eulogy, recounting my grandmother’s life, her conversion and relationship with the Pillar of Fire church. Details of the service I cannot remember clearly but I do recall joining in singing one favorite old country hymn that she had requested – “The Unclouded Day”. The funeral was attended by many relatives – my Dad’s surviving siblings Ada, Burton and of course, Gene, and a host of grandchildren who lived in the area. Also attending were many of Dad’s cousins from both the Friedly and Arnold sides of the family.
One cousin, whose name I cannot remember, drove me and my decrepit suitcase, to Kansas City, where he lived, and put me aboard a Greyhound bus, bound for Minneapolis, Minnesota. I rememberer the bus trip quite well – the overwhelming acrid smell of cigarette smoke in the bus, to which I, as an occasional teenage smoker, contributed. I remember catching little naps on the way and arriving in the Minneapolis bus station in the evening. My next bus connection, to Grand Forks, North Dakota, did not leave until the next morning, so I was stuck in Minneapolis for the night. I put my suitcase into one of those coin operated storage units and spent some time sitting on the benches in the bus station, reading magazines, dozing occasionally and killing time. Then, my first, and later, second, encounter with a predatory gay man occurred. An old man sat down next to me and asked me where I was going and proceeded to try to strike up a conversation. I put him off and he soon left me to my magazines. Seeking to kill more time, I left the bus station and walked toward a nearby all night movie theater that was showing “Gunfight at the OK Corral”. On the street I met the same man and he inquired as to my welfare, and actually reached up and brushed my hair back. This freaked me out so completely that I literally ran all the way to the theater, enjoyed watching the movie, came back to the bus station and resumed my long wait for my morning bus to Grand Forks. Thank God, I did not encounter this man again.
Reaching Grand Forks, I bought a ticket (honestly I don’t recall whether I made the arrangements or my parents or my Dad’s cousin, nor do I recall how I got from the bus station to the railroad station) for a train on the Great Northern Railroad from Grand Forks to Rugby, where my Uncle Clarence would pick me up. The train I boarded was not the fabled “Empire Builder”, which as an express train went right on by Grand Forks and Rugby, but the lesser known, more “local”, but still somewhat famous “Western Star”. I took this train in the afternoon, I think, got off in Rugby and was cheerfully greeted by my Uncle Clarence, the eldest of the Baxstrom siblings, of which my mother, Ida, was the second youngest. (Some typical scenes of North Dakota from the “Empire Builder”, now an Amtrak train)
After the long drive in Uncle Clarence’s truck and being greeted warmly by Grandma and Aunt Ruth I settled into to my new life in North Dakota. I slept in the same room as my Uncle Clarence, where we kept a “thunder mug” between the beds in case nature called during the night. There was a radio in the room also that we both listened to every evening – he to the local news and I to a music station from Winnipeg, Canada. I will forever remember the songs i heard that summer, among them Paul Anka’s “Diana”, “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis, Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy”, “That’ll Be the Day” by Buddy Hollly, and “C.C. Rider” by Chuck Willis. Terribly homesick for my parents and especially my little brothers, these songs and others kept me company that summer.
The assortment and the arrangement of the buildings on the Baxstrom farm was interesting. Adjacent to the house was a cistern which collected rainwater off the roof. My uncle and I used this water to clean up in a nearby wood frame building called the “wash house”. Here were tubs and basins for sponge baths, a mirror for shaving, the wringer washing machine for washing clothes and various other items related to keeping us and our garments clean. I don’t think I took a bath or a shower for the whole summer but kept clean, as did Uncle Clarence, with just sponge baths in the wash house. Oddly, the house did have a full bathroom and bath tub, installed there by Uncle Emil and (I think) Uncle Vernon, in 1953, when there was a family reunion held there. But the bathroom was evidently exclusively for the use of Grandma and Aunt Ruth. I never asked why, but looking back on it, that circumstance was indeed rather strange, not to mention, inconvenient for my Uncle and me.
Another building was the “cook car”, an oblong wooden building on wheels which used to be towed out into he fields during harvest time as the place where the women prepared the meals for the workmen to eat at a long table in this structure. My mom had many stories about what it was like to prepare and serve meals to a dozen or so hired men in the cook car. There was also a large coop for Aunt Ruth’s turkeys and nearby was a large garden area for vegetables. And across the road north of the farm was a large granary building in which bags of grain and seed were stored.
South and a little east of the house was the barn, which when my Mom was little, was used for milking the dairy cattle the family owned. I can remember when I was visiting in 1953, standing with my sister Barbara on top of a wagonload of hay waiting to be lifted and dumped in the haymow of the barn. At this time, my uncle had no dairy cattle but he did maintain a herd of beef cattle, Herefords, to be exact, in the pasture “out west”.
Another notable building was the outhouse, actually a rather modern and sturdy structure, apparently built by the WPA during the Roosevelt administration, which was a “two-holer” constructed above a very deep concrete lined pit. Real toilet paper holders by each place were a vast improvement on my Friedly grandparents’ Missouri outhouse’s Sears catalog, as were the hinged wood covers for each hole. Screened ventilation openings near the roof kept the air fresh inside and I do remember a haunting whistling noise from these openings from the constant prairie wind. This was the “bathroom” my Uncle and I used. A nice concrete sidewalk, constructed by my visiting Baxstrom uncles in 1953 and starting at the front gate connected the house, wash house and outhouse.
Directly west of the house was a workshop kind of building where tools were kept and tractors and other vehicles were parked when they were being repaired. The place had a very pleasant smell – a combination of gasoline, oil, grease, old wood, soil, and creosote. I can remember during one of our summer visits watching Grandpa Baxstrom sitting at a concrete grindstone, turning it with two oscillating pedals and sharpening an axe. A tin can of water with a hole punched in it with a 16 penny nail hanging out of it was suspended above the turning wheel and the water dripping from the nail onto the wheel kept it and whatever was being sharpened cool during the process. Otherwise, the activity produced a potentially dangerous shower of sparks.
When I first began helping Uncle Clarence, there was a hired man there also, living in a cabin west beyond the workshop, a hired man quarters on the west side of the main drive, back among some trees. Joe Martel was a Chippewa Indian from the nearby Turtle Mountain Reservation near Dunseith. He had worked off and on for my uncle for a few years, I was told. Joe ate his meals with Uncle Clarence and I in the small dining area in the entryway of the house. One of the first tasks the three of us shared was to rebuild a long length of the fence in the pasture “out west”, as it was called. This quarter-section pasture was virgin North Dakota sod – about a foot thick tangle of grass roots, that you had to penetrate to sink a fence post. I remember Joe, peering down the fence, saying “a little nort” or “ a little more sowt” as a post and hole were located to be lined up with the others.
A week of so after my arrival, Joe was dismissed by Uncle Clarence, evidently because I was now the “hired man”. I felt pretty good that I was being counted upon to fill Joe’s shoes but some years later, I had heard that Joe who, like many other native Americans in the area, had a serious drinking problem, was found frozen to death in a snowstorm. I couldn’t help but think that I somehow shared some responsibility for this tragedy, having put him out of this job in 1957.
I enjoyed mealtimes that summer in North Dakota, not only because my Aunt Ruth was a good cook and made fabulous homemade bread and other baked goods, but also because there were four meals a day, not three. To this day I don’t know if it was a Baxstrom custom or a North Dakota farm custom but in the early morning you had breakfast, then at noon it was dinner, then around three or four o’clock, you broke for lunch, then after all the work was done for the day and you cleaned up, you had “supper” around seven. Breakfast, dinner and supper were full square meals, whereas “lunch” was more a few snacks – something to drink, maybe coffee or iced tea, and a sandwich or some summer sausage and bread. Sometimes a piece of Aunt Ruth’s rhubarb pie was served, or a few of her cookies. Anyhow, this mid-afternoon “meal” was most welcome as a break from a long afternoon of work. Interesting that Uncle Clarence and I always ate together, without Grandma and Aunt Ruth. They apparently always ate together at a table in the kitchen. I don’t remember ever sitting down as a whole “family” to a meal the entire summer I was there.
The dynamics of life there were interesting. My Uncle and Aunt, respectively the oldest and second oldest siblings in the Baxstrom family were never married. I don’t know why – aside from them both being properly crotchety and short-tempered as an old maid and bachelor are supposed to be, they both seemed entirely normal and certainly nice enough to attract a potential spouse. Uncle Clarence had worked a variety of jobs in his younger days, mainly as an oil field trucker, and apparently had returned home to keep the farm going after my Grandfather died in 1955. I know little of Aunt Ruth’s history, other than also becoming a fixture on the farm after Grandpa’s passing, to care for the house, plant and maintain the garden and see to Grandma’s needs. My Grandmother, a wonderfully warm and loving person, whose eyesight was compromised from cataracts, used to look at me close to her face and even feel my face and hair to “see” what I looked like.
The relationship between my Aunt and Uncle was tenuous. For the most part tolerant, it sometimes erupted in a storm of reproach, accusation, anger and raised voices, and in the case of my Uncle, a flood of colorful profanity. My Aunt raised a flock of turkeys that summer (and evidently every summer) whose presence around the farm would greatly irritate my Uncle, particularly when they would roost on his farm implements and soil them with their droppings. I can remember him chasing the turkeys off his equipment with a handful of gravel and a hail of curse words mixed with the frenzied wing-flapping and loud gobbling of the fleeing turkeys.
Other dynamics were noticeable as well. Another of my mother’s siblings, my Uncle Arnold, and his wife Alvida (actually I remember her name spelled Alveda but this spelling was featured in her obituary) lived in Mylo and farmed several quarters of land that he owned adjacent to the Baxstrom family farm land. There seemed to be some “bad blood” between Grandma, Ruth and Clarence and Arnold and Alvida. A couple of times that summer, when Uncle Arnold and I were on tractors on neighboring fields, he would stop his tractor, as did I, and we would walk across the field to greet one another and have a short conversation. While I was there Uncle Arnold was never invited to join us for a meal, nor did anyone in our household visit with him and Alvida. To this day, I don’t know precisely why because he was a very bright, educated and wonderfully warm, soft spoken and dignified man, but I would imagine it had to do with his wife, Alvida, who maybe was never really accepted by the rest of the family, or maybe it was the other way around. Aunt Alvida seemed to envelop and smother Arnold with her unseemly enthusiasm for religion and effusive and active love for her husband. I remember our family receiving snapshots of the two of them, with endearments written all over them and signed “The Mylo Lovebirds”. Perhaps some of this unseemly passion could be explained by their 17 year difference in age, Arnold 37 and Alvida 20 when they married. And maybe some of the estrangement could be explained by some likely sibling jealousy from Clarence and Ruth concerning Arnold and Alvida’s publicly passionate and happy marriage. They never had children and I never knew why. Uncle Arnold passed away in 2001 and Alvida in 2013.
The work I did for my Uncle varied from day to day but always included turning on and off the windmills – one near the barn in the small pasture where several younger cattle were kept and one in the big pasture “out west”, but the best, most exciting work, was sitting on a tractor pulling a harrow. Shortly before I got there that year, Uncle Clarence had bought a brand new John Deere 720 , a big, powerful two-cylinder diesel, for his field work. It was indeed an very exciting and pleasurable experience to drive this machine. First, it was huge, and to feel so close to its throbbing power, was thrilling. Second, it was easy to drive – it was the first tractor I had ever driven that had power steering, making a huge difference in how it handled. Also mentioned in the article were the two big John Deere model D’s we had – old but very powerful and still reliable. Also Uncle Clarence had a John Deere A which we used to bale hay and to cultivate a nearby field of corn. I earned a rare compliment from Uncle Clarence when, after we turned the row cultivators inward just a little and I used a daringly high gear to cultivate the corn, sufficient soil was thrown up against the cornstalks to completely choke out the weeds.
Pulling a huge, harrow up and down those expansive North Dakota fields, the ones we kept fallow, was indeed a thrilling experience. Often it would take as long as a half-hour to do a full course up and down the field. When the work was done you were often covered with a layer of black North Dakota soil which had settled on you from the cloud of dust which often accompanied the cultivator. North Dakota farm fields, very flat, present a broad endless vista and a glorious feeling of liberation and freedom. But their general lack of drainage results in their being punctuated with sloughs, occasional low, wet grassy areas, sometimes with a pond or small lake in the middle. These were areas around which you had to be very careful, in order to cultivate the arable land around them as closely as possible while avoiding getting so close as to get into the mud. Well, in one of our fields about a half mile from home, I was trying to get as close to the edge as possible to cultivate the maximum amount of soil but unfortunately got too close and suddenly saw the tractor’s tire treads filling with mud and the big wheels starting to spin. I raised the cultivator immediately reducing tractor’s load but it was a too late, the tractor sunk in right up to the drawbar resulting in absolutely no traction at all. I broke out into a cold nervous sweat, turned off the engine and walked all the way home with the bad news for Uncle Clarence. Wow, talk about the air turning blue with profanity. My mistake had evoked a real torrent. In a rage, with wheels spinning and dust flying, my uncle drove us back out to the tractor in the pickup truck, somehow unhitched the harrow, freed the tractor and then pulled the harrow out of the mud with a chain. After hitching back up, Uncle Clarence, still enraged, drove the tractor and harrow back to the farm at full speed with huge globs of mud flying from the deep tire treads while I slowly and ashamedly drove the truck back. After such incidents my punishment was a day or two of silence and no work assignments – retribution not easily borne in the limited confines of the farm.
Being banished to idleness was tough to take but the same thing happened more or less naturally on rainy days. Really on those days, if there was work to be done out in the barn or shop area, fine, I did it but usually any work out there was a little more technical and beyond my ability. So on most rainy days when I could not work outside I stayed inside and read. There was no shortage of reading material there on the farm. Uncle Clarence was an inveterate collector of National Geographic and Esquire magazines, which were stored in the washhouse attic and out in the hired man cabin. So I used to enjoy going through stacks of these during times I was idle. Particularly pleasurable in the old Esquires, especially for a 15 year old boy, were the gorgeous pinup pictures by the famed Alberto Vargas. Also in the living room of the house was a set of World War II photo books that I loved leafing through.
Another memory relating to my time on the tractors tilling those expansive fields of rich black North Dakota prairie soil was enriching the experience by smoking a cigarette or two. I remember vividly how I lit my cigarette by placing it in my lips, then leaning close and sucking in while touching the end to the extremely hot exhaust manifold of the tractor engine. As a surreptitious smoker all through my teens, sneaking off with friends for a few puffs, that first taste of the smoke was uniquely rich and something I will never forget. I started smoking habitually in my late teens as a college student and office worker and through my 20’s and 30’s as an educator as well, finally kicking the habit in dramatic fashion at age 39 while a doctoral student in Arizona. Of course I never smoked openly in North Dakota, assuming my Aunt, Uncle and Grandmother would disapprove and share this news with my mother and father. This in spite of the fact that my Uncle was a devoted cigar smoker, smoking one end and chewing up the other of at least one every day while he worked around the farm.
The mention of Uncle Clarence and his cigars brings me to our Saturday nights, when Uncle Clarence and I would go out “on the town”. These occasions were quite special, starting with getting really cleaned up, shaved, dressed in “go to town” clothes, i.e., for me clean jeans and shirt, or as with Uncle Clarence, dress pants and shoes, a nice ironed shirt and a new cigar. Also, we spritzed ourselves with some Old Spice. Then off we’d go to Rollette or Rolla for a restaurant supper, maybe a haircut (along with Uncle Clarence’s perennial joke about his baldness – “don’t take much off the top”) , some gossip, usually weather or crop price news exchanged with farmer neighbors, some shopping, some ice cream and then the trip home. I think Uncle Clarence had usually used these occasions to visit a bar or two in these towns and maybe visit a female acquaintance, but my presence probably cramped his style so his nights on the town with me were quite staid and simple. He probably felt some responsibility to his sister, my Mom, to keep our town visits toned down.
Uncle Clarence made a living on the farm for himself, Aunt Ruth and Grandma Baxstrom by raising wheat and cattle. That summer there was an extended drought that limited the supply of grass on our “out west” quarter section of virgin sod pasture. Accordingly Uncle Clarence scouted around for some additional pasture to rent and found some available land near Dunseith, in the “Turtle Mountains” a small town right next to the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. Mind you, these “mountains” would hardly qualify as hills in any other state than mostly flat North Dakota but the area was a little higher than our farm and therefore better watered. So Uncle Clarence rented a large area, maybe a quarter or so, already fenced and we moved the cattle, mostly Herefords, there for the rest of the summer. I remember when we were walking the borders of the new pasture land, good grass and a lot of scrub oak, we came upon a concrete pylon upon which was vertically engraved on one side “United States of America” and on the other “Dominion of Canada”.
One chilly clear summer night I was utterly dazzled by my first and only glimpse of the Northern Lights. Looking back I still marvel at this phenomenon – undulating pink-purple ribbons of light dancing across the sky in random patterns. If the daytime sun and the moon and stars of the night sky defied rational understanding by early mankind and gave rise to to mythological explanation, I can only imagine what the otherworldly sight of the northern lights provoked in their attempts at explanation. Truly I was thrilled beyond words at this sight, which occurred only on that particular night. It’s likely they appeared on others as well but that particular night I happened to be awake and outside.
It was while I was in North Dakota that I used some savings money for that great mail order that I described in my recent article about Sears and the clothing I got was perfect for my work. The engineer boots were perfect for farming as were the sturdy “Roebucks” jeans. And the girl I wanted to impress so badly that summer was Sharon Anfinson, whom I spotted at the Mylo Post Office one day and maybe caught a glimpse of a couple of other times. Blond haired and beautiful, I pined, ached and yearned for her all summer but to no avail. I understood that she and her family attended the Lutheran church in Mylo but we never went. And my feeble fantasies about getting introduced to her or introducing myself to her went nowhere. Uncle Clarence used to tease me about her occasionally, but why? Sadly I never even had the chance to meet her or talk with her.
North Dakota is a spring wheat state, in contrast to many states to its south which plant their wheat in the fall. Wheat is planted in April or so with it maturing and ready for harvest in mid August to early September. I participated in our harvest time that August, a time, if the weather was right, when every machine, every person, every pair of hands is focused on one thing – getting the wheat harvested and safely to sale or storage before the weather changed. And the harvesting operation began in the morning as soon as the dew dried and ended late at night before dew formed. Looking back on that important time I cannot remember whether Uncle Clarence used his own, rather old tractor-pulled combine, or contracted with a self-propelled combine equipped neighbor, Mr. Niemeyer, to do it, or employed one of the many “custom combine” operations that followed the wheat harvest across the country from south to north. I do know we did not use the really old power-take-off belt-driven threshing machine that was still on the farm, perched on its steel wheels. At any rate, we began in the morning and the harvested wheat was transported to Mylo in my uncle’s dump truck and behind a tractor in a towed wagon. The bright lights of the harvesting operation blazed in the fields until late that first night and the operation continued throughout the next day, completed in just two days. By the way, the combine earned that name because it combined the operation of the old reaper-binder machines and the threshing machine.
In late August on the summer of 1957, I was working in the granary across the road north of the house, when I saw the Friedly family’s brown and tan 1954 Chevy station wagon coming up the road and turning in at the gate. So excited that I burst into tears, I left what I was doing, bolted across the road and ran to greet my family, who had come to pick me up and take me home. I had known they were coming but didn’t know precisely when. I was so excited to see Mom and Dad and once again embrace my dear little brothers – there they all were – little Glenn, Richard, Stan and the larger little brothers Rob and Charlie, plus sweet sisters Elaine and Barbara. Yes, they were all there – with me in North Dakota. Thank God.
One little incident before we left together in the 1954 Chevy wagon, should be related. I was on the tractor, cultivating one of the huge fallow fields for one last time with my brother Charlie with me on the tractor. After finishing, I realized that I was missing my wallet out of my back pocket. Why I even had my wallet with me is a question I cannot answer, much less, how I had lost it. And why then, why not earlier in the summer? At any rate, since it had my money in it and a check Uncle Clarence had presented me with for the summer’s work, I was faced with looking for it among the acres of furrows of turned black earth. Charlie volunteered to help so up and down the long field we walked looking for my wallet. Who knows, it could have been buried by the harrow. But persistently up and down we went moving a little further in each time, like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. But suddenly Charlie hollered, “ There it is!” And there it was. My sharp eyed little brother Charlie had spotted my wallet among those many acres of freshly turned soil. Unbelievable!
Before closing this article I should say something about our little North Dakota town of Mylo. I guess when the Baxstrom children were young the town was quite prosperous. I have seen pictures of my mother and classmates at her Mylo school. And I have heard from other Baxstrom relatives about the town many years ago. In 1957 when I was there, it was still bustling. There was a general store, a post office, a very active Lutheran church, a couple of dozen homes in the town, which included that of my Uncle Arnold and Aunt Alvida, and very important, a John Deere dealership right there on Main Street. Owned by a huge man called “Tiny” Wiemeyer, it served customers from many neighboring towns. My Uncle’s John Deere 720 was bought from “Tiny”. And in 1957 there still was a huge wooden grain elevator on the south side of town right next to the tracks of the Soo Line, the railroad that ran through town and from which I could hear occasional passing freight trains and train whistles. And that grain elevator did a thriving business, and not only at harvest time, for it was the place where local farmers purchased their seed, fertilizer, weed sprays and other items. On one of his visits, my brother Robert, who in his teens, incredibly had learned to ride a unicycle, shook up the little town when on a visit, took his unicycle out and rode it up and down main street, causing the locals to stop in their tracks, cease what they were doing, emerge from their vehicles and from their businesses to stare open mouthed and dumfounded at this incredible curiosity. Nothing quite like that had ever happened in this modest and quiet little town.
Today the town of Mylo is depressingly empty. No more Lutheran church. The John Deere dealership had long ago moved to Rollette. The general store is long gone as are many of the residential houses in town. The grain elevator is no more and the Soo Line has disappeared, although on Google Earth, its old route through town can still be clearly seen. The present population of Mylo today is perhaps a dozen people, maybe that is even generous. So sad that this little prairie town, so dear to my mother and her siblings, is now for all intents and purposes, simply gone. Google Earth shows the “streets” in town, clearly labeled, but there is nothing on those streets. The north-south main street can be seen, as can the the farm itself (someone else’s now for the last 50 years or so, directly in line with main street, about a mile north from town. Actually, the farm’s attitude from main street reminds me that my Aunt Ruth used to use a pair of binoculars to peer at main street several times a day and would comment on who was where and doing what in town, with a memorable “Huh, there’s Mr.______ at the post office again – I wonder why two trips today….Huh, there’s Mrs.______ at the store, why she was just there yesterday, I wonder what she’s buying this time….Huh, there’s old Mrs. ______ at the post office…I thought she was still sick…” Etc. etc.
A search of the Mylo cemetery shows these Baxstroms interred there. Interesting that Uncle Vernon, who spent most of his life in the state of Washington, chose (or his family chose for him) to be buried in the town where he was born. Aunt Alvida’s grave is in the Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran cemetery in her hometown of Adams, N.D. I was unable to discover where Uncle Arnold’s grave was located.
Baxstrom, Anna Christina Jonsson b. 1880 ~ d. 1967 (Grandma Baxstrom)
Baxstrom, Nels b. 1871 ~ d. 1955 (Grandpa Baxstrom)
Baxstrom, J. Clarence b. 1903 ~ d. 1981
Baxstrom, Ruth I. b. 1904 ~ d. 1977
Baxstrom, Vernon E. b. 1905 ~ d. 1979
Uncle Clarence and Aunt Ruth were in their early fifties when I was with them in 1957. Grandma Baxstrom was 77.