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Pioneer Life in Carlton County

John Manni

The death of two of our Finnish pioneers, John Karlson and Andrew Perala, of this Kettle River-Automba settlement within a month, and the and duty of having to chronicle their obituaries, rendered the writer hereof reminiscent. So when I met the other day, my good, old-time friend, John H. Mattson, of Duluth, who like myself is "a product" of this community - and he suggest that I write briefly something about pioneering days, I obey his command, although I feel I can't do justice to that fascinating subject. This refers to a period about forty years ago.

All the settlers were then homesteaders, scattered over a wide area of virgin wilderness, from about eight to as far as twenty miles from Moose Lake, nearest village and trading point. Roads were foot-paths or trails through the woods, opened by loggers and settlers themselves. Unbridged rivers were crossed on hastily constructed rafts, and a boat operated by a rope and a pulley fastened to a forked post on both sides of Kettle River, was a much-used "ferry" at Sarvela's place for many years. Nearest doctors were at Carlton, but on certain days Doctors Watkins and Sukeforth came to Moose Lake to see their patients. So it was necessary for the settlers to combine the business of dentistry with that of a blacksmith and jeweler, as both of these had tongs. Abram Wickman repaired clocks and watches, as a side-line, and when not occupied by that or farming, pulled aching teeth for his neighbors. Henry Maunula, who lived in Moose Lake village and was an experienced blacksmith, had to do teeth-pulling quite frequently. Of course when using such clumsy tools, mistakes were inevitable, and once when he had pulled a tooth pointed out by his agonized patient as the source of his trouble, it was after the operation dicovered that Mr. Maunula pulled a wrong tooth. Second attempt corrected the mistake. The gap in the patient's mouth became wider than originally planned, but it was a small matter.

Matt Leppanen (Mattson) and Erick Bjorklund took care of the cow-and-horse doctoring, and many times rendered valuable service. The ingredients used in their formulas were varied and such as they had seen other farmer-doctors use in the old country. One item I can still well remember, because of its pungent odor: Asafetida - if that names means anything to the reader. Its odor surely revived any half-dead horse in a few minutes, to say nothing of its other potentialities. Matt Leppanen was skilled also in treating injuries of the people. He could set broken bones and twist dislocated joints into place, and do it well. Matt Maijala (he died in 1923) - said that doctor later need only assert that what his broken arm needed was rest and that Mr. Leppanen's job was well done. Practice in use by doctors treating George Washington - blood-letting - was also sometimes resorted to by this farmer-doctor. I can only say that none of his patients died, as far as I know, while under his treatment, which would be a big compliment to any doctor.

Mrs. Abram Wickman (Mrs. Susanna Wickman) was a midwife of no mean calibre. Her services were sought in dozens, I might say, hundreds of cases from about 1892 to the time of her death about 1914, and all ended well. She and her husband rest in an unmarked grave, as they have no relatives here so it would not be a miss if the boys and girls she cared for, all now full-grown and most of them married, raise a fund for the purchase of a stone for the grave of those worthy pioneers.

Carl Mandelin, besides farming, was a tanner, and from the hides tanned by him Albert Waisanen, Joseph Winquist, August Baakkari and several others, made neat, light and comfortable old-country style shoepacs, which were in vogue even among women in those by-gone days. Liberal application of pine-tar and grease made them water-proof. Lumber was sawed by hand, one man standing on a high saw-buck on which the log rested, and his partner underneath operating the bottom end of a large rip-saw. All lumber used in floors, window frames, on roofs, etc., by homesteaders, was manufactured in such manner. Likewise, shingles were made by man power. Five or six men could make up to two cords of shingles in a day. Buildings were of log, of course, and were warm and substantial. Spinning-wheel and a pair of wool-cards were necessary tools and used by mothers in each household. Hay was cut by hand, and what little of grain could be raised, was threshed by the use of flails. (Younger generation may look up in a dictionary what the flail looks like). Game was plentiful, and if the state had game laws, scarcity of law books and lawyers to interpret them, made it legal to kill a deer whenever the meat supply was running low. No one hunted for the mere lust of killing. Bears were not molested, but when one killed two of Charles Gustafson's heifers about 1898, capital sentence was passed, and Herman Lampel, then an expert hunter, put it into execution. Wolves had plenty of rabbits to eat, so did not bother people, but a pack of them would follow a man in the dark and furnish him with free, but not very enjoyable music.

Logs and ties were driven down the rivers, water in which was raised each spring by dams. They were hoisted up mostly at Stillwater. It gave employment to men and much excitement and fun to youngsters to watch a swollen river full of big logs, rushing down the stream.

People were all religious-minded and most of them church members and knew nothing of present-day "isms" of various kinds, so political battles were unknown. Church was built in 1898 to 1900 of white pine logs, Henry Wehmasto doing the work, and lumber and shingles used in it were made by hand on the premises in the aforementioned manner. In the absence of a pastor, Erick Westerback, chairman, John H. Korhonen, John Mailund, and John Oberg of Eagle, baptized infants, buried dead, and Mr. Westerback maintained Sunday school for us boys and girls, and occasionally conducted religious services for the grownups. His son, Rev. M. N. Westerback, is now a Lutheran minister, at present being in charge of a congregation in Toronto, Canada.

The advent of the first graded road in 1901, west of Barnum, built by The Winona & St. Peter Land company, brought wagons, buggies, threshing machines, portable saw mills, and finally, automobiles and other contraptions of modern invention. The Soo Line railroad, built in 1909 brought, in addition to other blessings and blights of civilization, also rats - unknown here up to that time. That railroad was the origin of Kettle River and Automba villages. It ended the romantic, interesting and in many ways happy pioneering period. We who were raised here in that period and became "educated" in every phase of that fascinating life, look back to it with wistful longing. But the word is ever marching on, and one by one the pioneers who opened these townships for settlement, pass on to the Great Beyond soon to be entirely forgotten by the younger generation.

Published in The Carlton County Vidette, July 1, 1937.

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