A Typical Norwegian Settlement: Qauley

A Typical Norwegian Settlement
Spring Grove, Minnesota

By Carlton C. Qualey (Volume IX: Page 54)

Houston County, in southeastern Minnesota, is bounded on the south by the state of Iowa, on the east by the Mississippi River and the state of Wisconsin, and on the north and west by Winona and Fillmore counties. The township of Spring Grove is in the southwestern corner of this county. Topographically the township is part of a pocket of unglaciated land, bare of lakes but drained by numerous creeks, and marked by a series of connecting, elevated ridges forming broad uplands high above the surrounding region. One ridge extends diagonally from eastern Spring Grove Township into the western part of neighboring Wilmington Township and is over a mile in breadth. From this main upland, numerous spurs project in various directions, some for two miles, with valleys between. Some of the spurs are at least two miles across. The ridges in the western part of the township are not as wide as those in the eastern part. In the northwestern section of the township there is a deep valley, cut along the bed of Riceford Creek.
The southern part of the township is lower than the eastern, retaining, however, the broad ridges. The streams in this part of the township drain into the Iowa River, while those farther north flow into the Root River. The land is well wooded with frequent openings — usually called “oak opening land.” The soil is mostly rich black loam with a substratum of sandy clay; one strikes rock soon if one digs any distance beneath the surface. It has frequently been remarked by settlers and visitors that the region resembles eastern Norway. This township and the neighboring Wilmington and Black Hammer townships were settled almost solidly by Norwegians, and a large percentage of the original settlers remained permanently.

The township of Spring Grove is part of the large area of Norwegian settlements extending from western Houston County to the western part of Fillmore County, adjoining Houston County to the westward. This particular area is one of the most densely settled Norwegian-American colonies in the United States. The Spring Grove settlement — or, as it was previously called, “Norwegian Ridge ” — is perhaps the most exclusively Norwegian portion and has retained the language and customs of Norway longer than most of the others. The Norwegian language is today spoken commonly on the streets of the village of Spring Grove, and business continues to be transacted in both English and Norwegian. There is only one church in the township — a Norwegian Lutheran congregation. This settlement was one of the important distribution points for Norwegian settlement in the American Northwest, and there are hundreds of Norwegian-Americans in western Minnesota and the Dakotas whose ancestors stopped for a time in Spring Grove Township before going on farther westward. It is with the pioneer years of this settlement that we are here concerned — the quarter century, roughly, from 1852 to the 1870’s.

Although the tract in the southeastern corner of Minnesota was acquired from the Indians in 1880, it was not legally open to settlers until the act of Congress of August 4, 1854, extended the right of pre-emption to unsurveyed public lands in Minnesota Territory. Surveys were begun in this area in 1853, but the first block of land was not offered for sale until 1855. This block of 1,178,003 acres included the township of Spring Grove. {1} But before 1855 thousands of people had crossed the Mississippi River into Minnesota Territory and a considerable number of settlers had taken lands in Spring Grove Township. The lands in this township could be secured through the land office at Brownsville, Minnesota — thirty-five miles to the eastward on the Mississippi River and one of the earliest markets for settlers in the township.

A considerable group of settlers, the first recorded, arrived in the township of Spring Grove in the spring of 1852. The man generally credited as being the earliest comer — the man who gave the township its name — was a James Smith from Pennsylvania, who took up 320 acres in section eleven. {2} Soon afterward a certain John Vale settled in section ten, but he soon sold out his rights to three Norwegians — Haakon Narveson, Fingal Asleson Flaten, and Knud Knudson Kiland, the three farming co-operatively at first. They arrived in June, 1852. {3} Together with Torger Johnson Tenneland, they were the earliest of the Norwegian settlers and incidentally were among the first half-dozen permanent Norwegian settlers in all of Minnesota. In June and July several Norwegian families arrived and took land in sections three, nine, ten, fifteen, and sixteen. {4} Most of the Norwegians were from previous frontiers, notably the older Norwegian settlements in southern Wisconsin — Koshkonong, Muskego, and Rock Prairie. A few went by way of the recently begun settlements in northeastern Iowa. {5} They did not go to Spring Grove Township directly from Norway but were part of the westward movement of the American population, which was at this time pushing northwestward from the southern tip of Lake Michigan and which picked up immigrants from Norway on older frontiers and sent them out to the newer frontiers along with the native Americans.

More Norwegians arrived in the summer of 1853 and in 1854, and by the close of the latter year the sections of land in the eastern part of the township, surrounding the later village site, were almost all taken up. Later comers took land to the southward toward the Iowa state line and northward across the township line into Black Hammer Township, which was being settled by Norwegians at the same time. Western Wilmington Township, east of Spring Grove, was likewise being settled by large numbers of Norwegians. A few native Americans also took up land in these three townships. In Spring Grove Township most of the non-Norwegian settlers took land in the western and northwestern sections, south and east of the village of Riceford. Those who settled in the eastern sections were very few, and within a decade they had either moved westward after having sold out their pre-emption rights or had become merchants or liquor dealers in the newly established village of Spring Grove. Such was the case with James Smith, who opened the first place of business — a combination general store and saloon — in the village. {6} The principal reason for the migration of the non-Norwegian element was not the exclusiveness of the Norwegians but the fact that these early non-Norwegians were glad to sell out their pre-emption rights at a profit. The Norwegian settlers naturally preferred to establish themselves as near as possible to people who spoke their own language and who were of the Lutheran faith. In such a community, a “Yankee” was almost an alien, but the barriers did not remain up long, for the Norwegians quickly learned to speak English and some of the “Yankees” found it both desirable and enjoyable to learn enough of the Norwegian language to transact business.

The Norwegian settlers of Spring Grove Township came, via Wisconsin or Iowa, from various parts of Norway, no single district being predominantly represented. The three earliest were from Sigdal. Later comers were originally from Valdris, Hallingdal, Telemark, Numedal, Eggedal, Hadeland, Ringerike, Gudbrandsdal, Trondheim, Toten, Soknedal, Värdal, and various parts of Sogn, to mention only a few. {7}

By 1857, when the last territorial census of Minnesota was taken, there were 395 Norwegians, including 67 families and 20 unattached individuals, in Spring Grove Township. Of these, 297 were born in Norway, 34 in Wisconsin, 3 in Iowa, and 61 in Minnesota — the latter all born since 1852. {8} By 1860, the total population of the township was 545 (98 families). Of these, the Norwegians totaled 86 families (480 persons) — a considerable increase in the three years since 1857. There were twelve non-Norwegian families (66 persons). Of the latter, seven were farmers, two were hotelkeepers, one was a surveyor, and three were stonemasons. {9} The remainder were laborers and housemaids. All the Norwegians, including wives and families, were engaged in farming. {10}

The sixties brought additional settlers, mostly Norwegian, who filled in the remaining unoccupied lands. These later settlers, however, instead of stopping for a time in the Wisconsin settlements, went directly by rail to Prairie du Chien or La Crosse, Wisconsin, on the Mississippi River, from which points it was a relatively short trip overland to Spring Grove Township. Only relatively few now traveled by oxen and wagon from the Wisconsin settlements. Of the 231 families (1,325 persons) dwelling in Spring Grove Township in 1870, 196 families (1,135 persons) were Norwegian. Of the thirty-five non-Norwegian families, twenty-four were on farms, the remainder being engaged in hotel-keeping, foundry work, teaching, and farm labor. Most of the non-Norwegians were from the Old Northwest (Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan) and New England, and, as has been previously indicated, they settled in the western and northwestern sections, in and south of Riceford. {11}

After 1870 the population of the township remained fairly constant; in fact there was a decrease during the eighties. The Norwegian population had increased to 1,188 by 1875, {12} but the total population was 1,281 in 1880 and 905 in 1890. {13} The obvious explanation for this population plateau is that the land had been taken up by 1870. One might suppose, however, that the population would have increased naturally. As a matter of fact, by 1880 a second generation was growing up which found little land available in this region and which answered the call of the thousands of acres of unclaimed land in northwestern Minnesota and the Dakotas. The emigration of this group and of those few who sold out to move westward for larger holdings kept the population more or less constant. The village of Spring Grove grew slowly in the decades after 1870, notably after the arrival of the railroad in 1879, but it did not absorb enough of the farming population to make any appreciable difference in the total population of the township. Whatever increase there was in the population outside the village limits was taken care of in the process of splitting up some of the original farm holdings, the total farm holdings having increased by 1890. {14}

The period of settlement of Spring Grove Township, then, covers the years from 1852 to the 1870’s. These were the real pioneer years, and frontier conditions generally obtained. With the arrival of the railroad in 1879, better marketing facilities and improved communication brought about a change in the economy of the settlement from the earlier subsistence farming to production for sale. This change, together with pioneer conditions, being typical of most frontiers in American history, is of sufficient importance to warrant more detailed examination.

When one of these Norwegian pioneers had found a piece of government land to his satisfaction whereon to establish his future home, it was necessary to put up a sign with his name upon it at each corner of his claim until he could get to the land office. The covered wagon served for the time being as a house, often for several weeks, until a small shack could be erected to live in. Some lived in a tent until a log cabin could be erected. Others dug in on a side hill and built walls on three sides, and in this they lived for several years. As a rule they built near a spring or creek so as to have easy access to water. In the same way, they usually built at the edge of a wood, on the lee side for protection against the harsh northwest wind in winter and for the sake of a convenient supply of wood. On such a place there gradually grew up a number of small houses, including horse stable, cow barn, hog house, sheepfold, doghouse, chicken house, wagon shed, corncrib, granary, hay shed (usually merely a roof supported by four posts), smokehouse for meats, privy, and the living house, which was the first erected. All of these were built and arranged somewhat like farm places in Norway.

The living houses were small. The so-called “cellars” had only one room, while the log cabins might have two rooms and a low dark attic to which one ascended by means of a ladder. Within the house everything was simple. As soon as the cabin was near completion, the family moved in. One could not purchase furniture and other furnishings as one can now. At first there was little or nothing with which to make any purchases, while in the nearest market towns there were no dealers in such articles. One had to get along with homemade furniture. The Norwegian red-painted chest served as a table. Stools and benches shaped by axes from oak trunks served as chairs. Other pieces of furniture, such as beds and shelves, were of the same construction. The mattress on the bed was filled with hay or straw, and the sheepskin brought from Norway served as bed covering. The immigrants also brought along many other things in those days, things which were found extremely useful, such as axes, scythes, spades, knives, spinning wheels, looms, kettles, harrow tines, shoe-repairing tools, and even millstones.

In many of the Norwegian homes, fireplaces were built for heating the cabin and preparing food, but after a time stoves displaced them. For illumination they made candles such as they had learned to make back in Norway, and, if there were not enough candles, they placed lard in a small cup with a bit of linen as wick. The food was all prepared in Norwegian style, and Norwegian dishes and manners prevailed for many years. The evening meal was usually corn-meal mush, either hot or cold, served with sweet or sour milk. Pork was a staple food article, the lowly hog playing an important role both in the household food supply and in the farmer’s income.

After the living house had been sufficiently completed to permit the family to move in, the next thing was to procure a cow and to erect a cow barn. Then a hog or two were obtained, and soon a sheep and a few chickens. There were no horses for a long time. When a cow had been procured and bred, steers could be raised to serve as driving oxen. Finally, when the kubberulle {15} had been constructed, the farmer could get along very well. I have heard many pioneers say that the first time they drove with their own oxen hitched to a kubberulle, they felt actually independent, if not rich. {16}

The foregoing description of the circumstances attendant upon the establishment of a home or farm is typical of nearly all the pioneers of Spring Grove Township, and the process is duplicated on most American frontiers in terms of the background of the respective pioneers. The first period of settlement was characterized by almost complete self-sufficiency, and this continued until the 1870’s. The nearest markets were MacGregor, Iowa, fifty miles to the southeastward; Brownsville, Minnesota, thirty-five miles directly eastward on the Mississippi River; and Winona, Minnesota, fifty miles to the northeastward, also on the Mississippi River. A trip to any one of these points by oxen and wagon took between one and two weeks. Consequently, one or two trips a year were all that the pioneer attempted. Furthermore, in the early years the pioneer had little to sell by way of exchange for articles such as salt, spices, shoes, and cloth. The principal trips from home were to the nearest gristmill to have the wheat or corn ground. At first the nearest mill was at Decorah, Iowa, about thirty-five miles southwest of Spring Grove Township. Later a mill was constructed on the south branch of the Root River at Riceford, six miles west of the present village of Spring Grove. This mill was built in 1869. {17} In the fifteen years previous to that time, however, the settlers had a long way to go to get their grain ground into flour.

As indicated in Johnson’s description, quoted above, the early settlers of Spring Grove Township utilized their experiences in Norway on their new farms. Many of the settlers had been tenants on gaards in the old homeland. Relatively few landowners emigrated to America. In any ease, these people were accustomed to hard labor in wresting livings from the soil in Norway. They did not mind the severe winters to which they were introduced during the first years of pioneer life. They may have expected something better or easier in America, but there were few complaints, for there were untold possibilities in this new land for anyone who would work.

By the 1870’s, the farms were producing so much more than could be readily used on the farm, and so much land had been improved, that a new period was reached in the development of the township. Although most of the farmers were still practically self-sufficient, markets were being sought with greater frequency and more articles of comfort for the home were appearing. The crudities of pioneer life were beginning to be ironed out. This change was tremendously stimulated by the arrival of the narrow-gauge railroad in 1879, a branch line running from Reno, on the Mississippi River, to the village of Preston, Fillmore County, and connecting thence with the Southern Minnesota Railroad at Isinours. The road was built by a locally organized group with headquarters at Caledonia (the next village east of Spring Grove) and was known as “The Caledonia, Mississippi and Western.” In 1880 it was taken over by the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad, the Reno-Preston branch feeding into its main line at Reno. {18} The railroad brought the farmers of Spring Grove Township into direct contact with the markets in Chicago and the smaller markets such as Winona. It was now possible to sell grain and livestock in Spring Grove village after only a short haul. The first pioneer period had passed.

In 1880 the farmers began to change to more mixed farming. That is, they began to raise more oats, Indian corn, and hay, together with cattle and swine. Creameries were erected and better breeds of hogs were imported. The income of the farmer became more constant as a result of the sale of cream and the raising of livestock for the market. But the raising of wheat declined markedly and almost ceased. Only enough was raised for use on the farm. It was the cow and the hog that made it possible for the farmers to pay their debts and build modern homes; that quadrupled the value of the land in the space of two or three decades. {19}

A study of the census statistics and assessment rolls makes more concrete the observations made by Johnson. Wheat was raised by nearly all the pioneer settlers. It was not only marketable but a household necessity. Spring Grove Township was not well suited to large-scale wheat production, however; it was far better adapted to the raising of corn, cattle, and hogs. In 1860, 15,950 bushels of wheat were grown in Spring Grove Township — the largest single crop in the products of the township that year. By 1870, 103,910 bushels were raised. Then came the change, and in 1880 only 55,161 bushels were raised. {20} A contemporary writer (1882) stated:

At an early day the farmers turned their attention to the cultivation of wheat, and at first the yield was beyond their expectations, being sometimes from twenty to thirty bushels to the acre, but various untoward circumstances, atmospheric and other causes, produced frequent failures, the crop sometimes getting down to ten bushels or less per acre . . . . Corn and its remunerative product, pork, is largely raised . . . . now that there is direct rail communication with Chicago and Milwaukee. {21}

Later censuses show a much smaller figure than that for 1880 in wheat production. The lowering of wheat prices was, of course, a real factor in this decline.
As to other cereals, oats were raised from the first and in considerable quantity, chiefly for cattle feed. {22} Barley was not raised to any considerable extent. {23}

The most sensational rise is to be noted in the production of maize or corn, the annual product increasing from 12,380 bushels in 1860 to 70,260 in 1880, while at the same time the number of hogs increased from 434 in 1860 to 2,094 in 1880. {24}

As to livestock, excepting hogs, it is interesting to note that whereas in 1860 there were 134 work oxen listed by the census, only 34 were listed in 1870, and none in 1880. The horse replaced the ox during the first frontier generation. The raising of cattle for beef preceded the dairying developments, although milch cows naturally were important from the first. In 1860 there were listed 216 milch cows and 178 other cattle for Spring Grove Township. By 1880, however, there were 577 milch cows and 751 other cattle — a total of 1,328 cattle. By 1890 the total of cattle had reached 2,042. {25} The increase in the raising of cattle for beef is indicative of the growing market and is an example of the “barnyard” cattle raising that was to prove disastrous competition for the cattle barons of the Great Plains. Later, falling beef prices and the greater profits to be had in dairying led to a marked decline in cattle raising. A most interesting aspect is the raising of sheep. The statistics indicate that although at first the sheep were raised for mutton, the wool market soon brought a change. The number of sheep raised, however, was definitely limited by the pasturage available, sheep being notoriously hard on pasture land. {26}

As to other products, a small amount of tobacco was raised. The hay tonnage rose steadily but not as rapidly as the rises in the number of cattle would seem to indicate might be necessary. It is evident that as few cattle as possible were carried over winter. The census being taken in June or July, as was also the assessment, a high total of cattle with a relatively low hay tonnage might result.

Until the coming of the railroad in 1879, the village of Spring Grove was important mainly as a church center and a post office. It contained two general stores and a blacksmith shop. James Smith, who arrived in 1852 from Pennsylvania, established a post office on the village site two years later. The Norwegian settlers were soon numerous enough to make possible the organization of a Norwegian Lutheran congregation, and this was effected in 1855 by the Reverend Ulrik V. Koren of Decorah, Iowa. The first pastor, the Reverend Fritz C. Clausen, came directly to Spring Grove from Norway. He served until 1870, when he was succeeded by the Reverend Styrk S. Reque, who served the congregation for forty years. {27} The church was the social and religious center of the entire community. In 1860 a stone church building was erected, later replaced by the present structure. Interestingly enough, this church congregation remains the only one in Spring Grove to this day and undoubtedly accounts in large measure for the preservation there of the Norwegian language and customs. From the small beginnings of the 1850’s and 1860’s, the village grew suddenly after 1879 to a population of 293 in 1880 and 394 in 1890. {28} The other village of the township, mainly because the railroad failed to pass through it, never became important. Riceford, which had dreams of becoming a city before the railroad passed it by in favor of Spring Grove, became merely a crossroads center for the valley in which it is located. Both Riceford and Spring Grove, however, were and continued to be dependent upon the region surrounding them for sustenance.

The small industries of the township were those serving the agricultural population: gristmilling, brewing, cabinet making, wagon making, shoemaking, and brick making. {29} A lumberyard was established in 1879, and in the same year the railroad company established a grain elevator which handled 49,000 bushels of grain in its first year of operation. {30} Later a thriving creamery association was organized. No outstanding industrial development took place in the early years, and none has taken place since. {31}

The Norwegians wanted their children to be fully as well trained as those of the native American element, and consequently the township and village schools have from the first been well supported. Other aspects of life in this typical Norwegian-American settlement — political activities, fraternal organizations, agricultural co-operatives, the effects of the Civil War — would have place in a longer study, but enough has been said of the pioneer years of Spring Grove Township to indicate the type of Norwegian-American settlement established by the thousands across northern Illinois, southern and western Wisconsin, northern Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas and beyond; and the purpose of this paper is to record such a “type settlement.”

<1> William W. Folwell, History of Minnesota, vol. 1, ch. 10; E. V. Robinson, Early Economic Conditions and the Development of Agriculture in Minnesota, 39 (Minneapolis, 1915).
<2> History of Houston County, 461 (Minneapolis, 1882).
<3> Ole S. Johnson, Nybyggerhistorie fra Spring Grove og omegn, 6-7 (Minneapolis, 1920).
<4> History of Houston County, 461.
<5> Hjalmar R. Holand, De norske settlementers historie, 359 (Ephraim, Wisconsin, 1908).
<6> Johnson, Nybyggerhistorie, 21-41.
<7> Johnson, Nybyggerhistorie, 21-41.
<8> United States Census, 1857, manuscript schedules for Minnesota Territory.
<9> The new Norwegian Lutheran church was being built in 1860.
<10> United States Census, 1860, manuscript schedules for Minnesota.
<11> United States Census, 1870, manuscript schedules for Minnesota.
<12> This included 629 born in Norway, 501 born in Minnesota, 36 born in Wisconsin, 17 born in Iowa, 3 in Illinois, 1 in New York, and 1 in Michigan; Minnesota Census, 1875, manuscript schedules.
<13> United States Census, 1890, Population, part 1, p. 198.
<14> Platbook of Houston County, Minnesota, 49 (Philadelphia, 1878); Standard Atlas of Houston County, Minnesota, 49 (Chicago, 1896).
<15> A wooden cart with two wooden disks as wheels.
<16> Johnson, Nybyggerhistorie, 103-105. Translation from the Norwegian was made by the present writer.
<17> Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge, ed., History of Houston County, Minnesota, 181 (Winona, 1919).
<18> Curtiss-Wedge, History of Houston County, 89; Johnson, Nybyggerhistorie, 128-130.
<19> Johnson, Nybyggerhistorie, 134. Translation from the Norwegian was made by the present writer.
<20> United States Census, 1860-1880, manuscript schedules for population and agriculture.
<21> History of Houston County, 464.
<22> There were 11,187 bushels of oats raised in 1860, 45,710 in 1870, and 64,218 in 1880. United Stales Census. 1860-1880. manuscript schedules for agriculture.
<23> Only 587 bushels are listed in the 1860 census, but in the 1880 census 9,712 bushels were raised.
<24> United States Census, 1860-1880, manuscript schedules for agriculture.
<25> Spring Grove Township, assessment rolls, 1890. These are filed in the office of the Houston County auditor, at Caledonia, Minnesota.
<26> Spring Grove Township, assessment rolls, 1888.
<27> Johnson, Nybyggerhistorie, 42; manuscript congregational records of the Spring Grove Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church congregation.
<28> United States Census, 1890, Population, part 1, p. 198.
<29> United States Census, 1870, manuscript schedules for agriculture.
<30> History of Houston County, 470.
<31> The population of Spring Grove Township, according to the census of 1930, was 728, and that of the incorporated village was 867.

Original source: http://www.naha.stolaf.edu/pubs/nas/volume09/vol09_5.htm

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