Story by Lloyd Hoffmann
From the March 2009 North Beltrami Heritage Center Newsletter
It was 1932 when my dad, William Hoffmann decided to give up living in Dent, Minnesota and head for the woods.
He traded his home to the depot agent for 160 acres of brush and $300 cash. He took the money and headed for the Cities and bought a Model T and a two-wheel trailer so we could get to this new country. The area was up north of Bemidji, Eland Township, and he also called this the Cream of Eland Township.
The first few years we moved there, he chopped a small field out of the woods, about 5 or 6 acres. He raised excellent crops, mainly potatoes. That's about all we ate, I guess, for the first few years. He planted a little bit of oats, broadcasted by hand, cut it with a cradle and tied it with straw. Then we would shock it out in the field and wait for the trashing machine to come.
We had a man by the name of Martin Erickson who would come throughout the county in the fall. You knew in advance when he was coming and you better be ready or you wouldn't see him again until next year. Oats was about 10 cents a bushel and they charged a nickel to thrash it. We had no help problem because every neighbor helped each other. This was the time when everybody baked their own bread, kerosene lamps were in all the windows and everyone used P & G soap to do the laundry.
Dad put together a little house with the help of a homemade sawmill. We sawed out our own shingles and a lot of lumber.
We had a private road going into our place, about a half a mile off the country road. We had no road builders in those days other than shovels. We went out and dug a ditch about 3 feet wide and about 2 feet deep on both sides of the road, and threw the dirt into the center of the road.
In winter it seemed like we always had about two or three feet of snow. We had very few cars in the country. One of our neighbors, Ole Roe, who later became my brother-in-law, used to return from his highway job over around Grygla every Friday night. All the natives lined up and waited to go to town the next morning. He had a 1936 Chev. I think he was the only person who got a new car every year. But everybody would go over there and get a hold of Ole and try to ride along. Well, he could only haul about 7 or 8 in the car so those that couldn't go along would give him a grocery list and he would haul back groceries. Sometimes he was lucky and even got paid for the groceries he brought back!
There was no way of picking up any extra money in those days. Very few people could afford to hire anybody to do anything so the most income was from cutting firewood. My dad was an old hand at this and he loved to go out in the woods. He'd cut dry ash - a cord of wood. At this time the going price was about $3.50 a cord - and you'd deliver it for that amount also. To deliver a cord of wood to Kelliher in a Model T, required two trips. You'd take a four-wheel trailer and it was 26 miles round trip. Sometimes after making one trip you'd have to repair the transmission. They weren't much for hauling big loads like this. You'd have to open up this little old plate on the front of the transmission and slip a piece of leather inside the low or reverse band - whichever one happened to go out - and make temporary repairs. But eventually you'd get there and get back home. After you'd made the second trip, they'd pay you $3.50 and that would let you buy about five gallons of kerosene, a sack of flour, ten pounds of sugar and about three or four gallons of gas again so you could make the next trip in. Gas was about 16 cents a gallon and he got pretty good mileage on this thing - about the same mileage whether you were pulling or running empty, I believe.
A Model T was also a devil to get started. You usually had to jack up the rear wheel and that was a problem alone, trying to make that jack work. It had a little kind of gear deal on top and I don't think there ever was one made that after using it three or four times the teeth were practically rounded. It slipped constantly and you'd pound your knuckles into the ground.
This thing also had a tire pump. That was another great invention. About the time you got going good on it, the hose would blow off the bottom and you'd try to put that back together, or else about the time you pulled up, you'd pull up a little bit too far on the handle and the plunger would come out of the pipe. You'd go down hard on the sharp rim with you knuckles. Ouch!
They had very small tires, awfully hard to change, but one thing good about them, it didn't make much difference whether you had air in them or not! They'd run almost as good flat as they did with air in them.
About this time the WPA was coming in and the lucky ones got jobs. About five miles from our place they decided to build an airport and most of us had never seen an airplane. But they were going to have an airport up at Bowman's Island. So all the men proceeded to cut trees with crosscut saws. They whittled out a long narrow strip of land, cut the jack pine down. Snow was about three feet deep and consequently the trees were sawed off three feet in the air. When the snow finally left - seemed like about July 1st - it was a rather unusual looking runway. An airplane never did get near it.
A common pastime, of course, in those days was playing cards and "Smear" was the game. Everybody played Smear. The old-timers used to walk as far as three or four miles carrying a lantern, play smear until midnight and then eat a lunch and walk home, 20 below weather bothered no one.
Our first radio was a battery one and the whole front was full of dials. It had a separate big speaker and an armful of batteries. Many nights we used to carry it over to the neighbor's place so we could all listen to the WLS barn dance - folks like LuluBelle and Scotty, Arkansas Woodchopper. I never could figure out why we didn't ask the people to come to our place rather than carry that radio and big speaker over there. During the daytime reception was pretty poor, but if you sat with your ear close to the speaker you could pull in the Minneapolis Millers and hear such names as Ab Wright and others that were playing.
Wind chargers were coming in at this time and we ordered one from Montgomery Wards. It cost, I think,$39 and for that you got all the gear to crank out juice to supply a six-volt battery. It had a six-foot tower and for an extra $5 you could get a radio. So we ordered a car radio. We couldn't pass up a deal like that. We didn't have a car but we thought it was a good deal! Don't know where we got the $44. My electrically-minded brother, Erv promptly set it up on the roof. He wired one bulb directly over the kitchen table and the wind blow a little bit and the battery got charged. We invited some neighbors over to play smear with electric lights. Well, our battery lasted about fifteen minutes and when the wind didn't blow it was back to the kerosene lamp.
When we lived at Eland we had some of the best neighbors in the world. People like Sam Urseth, Anton Running, one of the best trappers that ever lived; Mike Joa, the self-taught veterinarian; The thrasher Martin Erickson; Henry Burgess, with his George Washington chewing tobacco; Sam Johnson with his little fat belly; Benny and Mable Goranson, the wonderful storekeepers at Shotley Brook; Estin Rowe, who never missed a day at the mailbox; J. C. Briggs, with his homemade beer; Denny and Margaret Bowe, with their large family that gave us somebody to play with; Nels and Nina Anderson; Jens Aune, thought to be the wealthy one who once hired me to haul manure from the barnyard with a team of horses and paid me a dollar a day; my sister Frieda who took care of us, cooked, washed clothes and did all of the household chores until Ole Roe started hanging around; Art Espe, the deaf one who could read lips faster than you could speak; Chris Espe, the big farmer; Gilbert Heieie, the humorous one; and Julius Nyren, even funnier.
Another neighbor my brother Paul worked for, my sister made cakes for and was the only one who claimed he could communicate with Washington. He insisted that if you'd just put a little button on your thumbs and kind of rub them together, you could tap a message out to the president and receive an answer in minutes. He could play whist, remember every card and who played it and managed to win most of the time. He was kind, he would let you use his horses, give you milk, loan you his shotgun, or help you in any way that you wanted to be helped. Old Matt Spangrud and his horse George both left us about the same time and they were both remembered by all for the good favors they did for the neighbors that lived nearby.