While reading the comments on my last post, I got to thinking about how different our lives are from those of my Great Grandparents. Going to the grocery store for many of us is just a matter of driving a few blocks, purchasing whatever we want and driving back home again. Not so for my ancestors.
In front, my Great Grandfather, Hollis Brayton Paul. Behind, left to right, his youngest son Walter, my Great Grandmother Adella, the oldest daughter Grace, my Grandfather Andrew Jackson and the youngest daughter Clara. The two older boys, Arthur and Melvin at this time had secured homesteads of their own in the same area of Minnesota. This photo was taken in front of their cabin in about 1897, right about the time of the following story.
My Great Uncle Walter had a gift for writing and to his everlasting credit he wrote much about the lives of his family. The story of "The Trip to Town" is rather long, but I found it fun and interesting, especially when compared to today. It is my hope that someone else may enjoy this true story as much as I did.
The Trip to Town
by Walter E. Paul
It was early spring. In the spruce thickets the winter’s frost still lay under the deep blanket of moss. Leaf buds were swelling on the tag alders in the swamps. Willows were taking on a brighter shade of gold standing out in sharp contrast to the grays and russets of last year’s swamp grass in the lowlands and the darker pines and balsams of the ridges.
We were moving. With our big Round Oak heater slung between them on two tamarack poles, Pa and brother Arthur picked their way carefully over an abandoned tote road winding through the woods from the vacated logging camp in which we had spent the winter to a small clearing surrounding the newly constructed rough log cabin two miles away which was to be our future home. Every hundred yards or so the heavy heater was eased to the ground while they rested their arms, straightened their spines, wiped the sweat from their faces and selected some distant object beside the trail which they would try to reach before again stopping for a breather. Ma and we four smaller children followed, scrambling over roots and stones on the high ground, slipping and sloshing on the low ground meanwhile struggling with chairs, kitchen utensils, personal belongings, anything suited to our sizes and ability, tucked under our arms, hung from our shoulders or gripped in our hands.
For two years this old tote road was to be our only link with the outside world. After we had acquired a team of illy matched horses and a sled we could make this trip in winter clear through to Barnum and haul in the heavier supplies, flour, salt, feed, tools, needed for the following summer. When a wagon road to town was completed two years later we and other settlers in our area felt that indeed a door to the outside world had been opened even though the wagon road was several miles longer than the tote road route. Now we could hitch Jerry and Tom to the heavy lumber wagon and in spite of the bumps, “thank you moms”, violent shocks and hub deep mud with the resulting occasional showers of mud, actually drive the seven miles to Barnum and home again all in one day, sustaining no broken bones, loosened molars or other mishaps causing later discomfort in sitting at table or lying in our straw tick beds.
To me as a backwoods boy of seven and for several years thereafter, trips to town were events of major importance, a welcome break in what seemed to be a dull and uneventful life, something to be looked forward to, something to be long remembered. They were red letter days for all of us kids and, I more than suspect that they were not without glamour and a degree of excitement for Pa and Ma as well.
Such a trip did not call for my very best Sunday Clothes, not the nine dollar suit purchased not so long ago from T. M. Roberts Mail Order House and already revealing too much wrist and ankle and a corpulent appearance in front when the coat was buttoned. No, a pair of freshly washed overalls and a rough cotton shirt would do. Clean the mud off the work shoes and perhaps apply a little polish if we had any, otherwise just plain spit mixed with elbow grease and applied with an old rag would do. If it was summer and my straw hat was so ragged that little more than the crown remained it could be hid under the wagon seat just before entering town and a brand new hat purchased for five or ten cents at Goodell’s Store, that being the first store available after arrival.
Some trips could prove to be real exciting like the time Pa crated up our three bear cubs and took them to the Carlton County Fair. For once we kids felt vastly superior to ordinary kids as we rode on top of the bear crate, pretending to be solicitous for the welfare of our yowling charges while riding slowly down Main Street, hoping that we were making a proper impression on the crowd of children of all ages as they ran shouting beside our wagon, peering between the slats of the crate, the bolder ones climbing on top to have a better look. At the Fair grounds older people joined the younger until we were surrounded by a boisterous excited crowd as we took the bears to their allotted place of exhibition.
Then there was the day we returned home in what haste we could make hoping to escape a gathering thunderstorm. The sky grew black with ominous wind clouds piling up from the south-west. Tall swaying Norway pines whistled and moaned in protest of the buffeting gusts. Frequent stabs of lightning sliced the dark canopy overhead. As the advancing thunder began to crash in unison with every lightning flash Jerry and Tom volunteered their top speed, a shuffling gate a little faster than a spry walk. As we came in sight of our cabin the storm broke on us with violent fury. Big trees writhing in agony bent low then snapped and crashed to the ground sometimes taking other trees with them. Close behind our wagon one of the larger trees waving its limbs wildly as if trying to grasp us, swayed and staggered then broke and slammed down across the narrow road. A few minutes later we were in our barnyard stripping the harnesses from the horses. As they plunged into the shelter of their little log barn Pa and I bent low against the driving rain and scurried to the cabin. As we stomped inside where Ma had a cheery fire crackling in the kitchen range I overheard Pa say, “Well, Ma, the Good Lord surely held that tree up for us to get past!”
A proposed trip to town was usually announced at the breakfast table after Pa and Ma had duly discussed the shortages developing in our larder, the small amount of cash on hand if any, what butter, eggs, or other mediums of exchange were available, and the probable state of the weather for the day. Ma always put up a lunch for us, sandwiches with cold partridge, venison or snow-shoe rabbit. On rare occasions there might even be cold roast pork or beef if we had recently butchered. A two quart fruit jar of fresh milk and some hard boiled eggs with a little salt wrapped in paper completed the lunch. Pa brought the horses up from the pasture, harnessed and hitched them to the lumber wagon. If they had recently been rolling on muddy ground he took a gunny sack and a pail of water and gave them a rough grooming which might not bring much of a luster to their tawny coats but would at least give them a less sloppy appearance. We had no spring seats for the wagon, but used plain boards a little longer than the width of the wagon box, with cleats underneath to keep them from sliding off and precipitating the passengers by the wayside. A horse blanket doubled twice was to sit upon. If this arrangement became too hard before the end of the trip one could always get out and walk for a rest.
Sometimes we all would go, sometimes only two or three but for us children who went, home and all its surroundings now looked drab and commonplace compared to our childish anticipation of the sights awaiting us in town.
Last thing before starting Pa looked around to see if anything had been forgotten. There should be hay in the back of the wagon box for the horses at noon, an axe, a chain, halters, and of course our lunch. Ma would invariably run back into the cabin at the last minute to satisfy herself that the fire in the stove was dead out, all the windows shut, and the eatables out of reach of mice and flies. Pa would then gather up the reins and with a shout of “Git up there!” away we would go, the horses at a walk, the big wheels turning slowly, the excitement of the day just ahead. Once in awhile Pa would slide the little sapling out from under the wagon seat, speak sharply to Jerry and Tom and give each of them a smart whack across the rump resulting in a startled leap or two as they suddenly came out of their lethargy, then a moderate trot for a few yards gradually diminishing to a rapid walk, then a slow walk, heads drooping again, ears flapping, tails lazily switching flies.
These two horses had different temperaments and in a tough pull acted differently. Jerry the larger one would pull hard and fairly steady but he had one lame hind foot and was easily bewildered in an emergency. Tom, could not pull so much but had more spirit by far. Sometimes if the load would not move he would show signs of panic, snort, toss his head and roll his eyes although he never ran away or really balked. A short rest, some patting on his belly, a little scratching of his ears and a few quiet words would calm him so he would make another try with everything he had.
So, we took our leisurely way to town, over a bumpy, rutty, stony road through a mile of woods to Clarence Reeves’ place where we came out on a graded road leading straight north to Cain’s Corner three miles away. This road through the woods sometimes was really a rugged stretch. Just after the frost went out of the ground in the spring or after a heavy rain it was next to impassible in spots. Once Pa invited a Reverend Brandt and his family to come to visit us for a few days. Having some difficulty in making the reverend gentleman understand where he was to turn off the graded road to reach our cabin, Pa promised to have a large sign nailed to a tree at the proper place to guide him. Sure enough, under Pa’s supervision brother Andrew made and painted a sign wonderful to behold and long to be remembered in our community. It was eight feet long by three feet wide. A hand with index finger extended pointed at the first mudhole nearby. Heavy black lettering bore the information for Rev. Brandt’s guidance,- “TO PAULS’ ONE MILE. DRIVE EASY AND ABSTAIN FROM PROFANITY.”
Cain’s Corner was considered the half way point. Here the road turned west toward Barnum. The hills we encountered were not bad ones except after a heavy rain or in early spring when the sticky clay and deep ruts sometimes made it necessary for the men folks to get out and walk beside the wagon going uphill. Going down, a chain always carried in the wagon box might be used, one end fastened to a box bolster and the other hooked around a wheel spoke so that the drag of one motionless wheel would slow our descent to the bottom. On Polar hill the chain was often necessary even in dry weather if we had a load of potatoes or wood going to market. From the top of Polar Hill two miles from town the scene changed. Here were several hills and valleys to cross, streams running under rough wooden bridges, the first glimpse of Barnum with Bear Lake off to the left shimmering in the summer sun with a little wooded island like an emerald near one shore. In the autumns this view was especially attractive with the maples, birches and oaks in a blaze of brilliant color spotted with the dark green of white pines while the dusty road ahead lay like a white ribbon edged in scarlet and yellow of the sumac and goldenrod spilling over into the ditches on either side.
Descending the long hill leading into Main Street we passed the Catholic Church, the Baptist Church and the High School then came Goodell’s Store stocked with treasures dear to the heart of every boy, candy, toys, traps, 22 rifles, fishing tackle and all the rest we had so often pored over in the mail order catalogues. All we lacked to possess these treasures was the price, but at least looking and wishing was something we could afford.
Slowly we rattled down the gravelly street, across the bridge, its loose planks banging and slapping together under the wagon wheels as we headed for the wagon shed in the rear of the Sauntry and Cain General Store. This was the most convenient place to leave our team where we unhitched them and tied them to the tail gate where they could reach the hay in the wagon box. From here we started out to do the town.
First place to visit was the post-office to collect our two or three weeks accumulation of mail. After exchanging a few friendly remarks with Mr. Barstow the genial post-master Pa and Ma would busy themselves reading letters or scanning the headlines of the weekly Barnum Gazette. This gave me a chance to watch traffic on the street or look timidly through the door into another room where stood the press on which the Gazette was printed as well as any job printing the town might offer. I never ceased to wonder how the printer, after inserting a sheet of paper into the rumbling press always managed to flip his hand out from between its chomping jaws just a wink before they came together. I figured that with sufficient time and patience to watch, I could some day see what would happen if he was just a teeny, weeny bit too slow.
From the post-office we went back to Sauntry Cain’s or to Goodell’s store to “trade” as Pa and Ma termed it. Later in life I learned that that trading could be just exchanging cash for merchandise. We, however usually swapped two or three jars of home made butter, a few dozen white or brown, speckled or plain eggs or some potatoes along with what cash we had in payment for what we took away. How well I do remember the day I took my first mink skin to the store receiving therefor the magnificent sum of ninety cents in spot cash, all my own to spend as I pleased.
With our trading done it was time to go out the back door of the store to the wagon yard, climb into the wagon and eat our lunch in company with the horses still munching their hay. They always appreciated an apple core if we had one or even a crust of bread to flavor their ground up mixture of clover hay and oats. When lunch was finished there might be a few more things to attend to, go to see some acquaintance, go to the bank, or make some nearly forgotten purchases,- a spool of thread, a can of baking powder, or a box of BB caps or 22 shorts for the old Flobert rifle at home.
When it finally came about hitching up time, Pa would usually say, “Well Walter, how would you like to go down to the depot to watch the Limited go through?” He knew as well as I that there was only one answer to that question. The Limited was considered a very fast train running from St. Paul to Duluth and stopping at the more important towns only. It must have made all of 45 or 50 miles per hour and at small towns like Barnum it never slackened its pace, snatching the mail pouch from the crane on the fly. As we walked over the rickety wooden sidewalk to the depot which was some distance from the business section, would watch eagerly to see if there were any engines in sight. I dearly loved to watch them puff and wheeze and belch black smoke as they clattered back and forth about their business. Arrived at the depot Pa would ask Mr. Addington, the agent, if the Limited was on time. The answer would usually be “yes.” While we waited I read all the lettering on nearby box cars,wondering what such wording as “capy” “gro.Wt.” “air brake” and other equally strange markings might mean. I stared in wonder at the shiny, chattering telegraph instruments on Mr.Addington’s desk, and when Pa explained that all the noise they were making was really messages passing over the wires to and from distant places, I tried to imagine what it would be like to understand it and do it myself for others to hear.
Bye and bye the far off whistle of an approaching train hurried us out on the depot platform. Looking down the track toward the water tank we could see a ribbon of smoke lying low over the tree tops and rapidly approaching, then past the water tank and leaning gracefully into the curve came the Limited, a white plume from the whistle, side rods dancing on the drivers, and a string of shiny varnished coaches clattering behind, Quickly we stepped around the far end of the depot and, holding our hats peered around the corner. Here she came, dust flying, bell ringing, rails singing, and with a final burst of noise as the whistle screamed its warning for the road crossing just beyond. the Limited thundered by.
One day Mr. Addington said the Limited was two hours late. How my spirits slumped! Pa, undemonstrative as always, slowly and thoughtfully drew his big silver watch from his vest pocket and studied it a minute, rubbing its thick crystal with a calloused thumb. Turning soberly to me he said, “Well son.” I, sensing in a childish way that he was really disappointed the same as I, swallowed hard and filled in his unspoken thoughts. “Guess it’s too late for us Pa, some other day we can see it.” Looking at me with a strange light in his eyes I noted a slight shifting of his eyebrows, a little straightening of his sagging shoulders as he slowly led the way through the door and back uptown to our team and wagon, two chums sharing a mutual disappointment.
Soon we would be on our way home. With the horses hitched to the wagon and ourselves aboard we drove out of the wagon yard behind the store into Main Street heading for the hill. But now instead of crossing the bridge Pa would drive down into the river beside the bridge, stop in the middle of the current, step over the dash board and walk out on the tongue to loosen the bridles on the horses so they could plunge their lips down into the clear cold stream swirling about their knees and drink their fill. I would crane my neck and watch the horses’ lips suck in and out and note the little lump that ran up the outside of their throats as the gulp of water hurried to their stomachs. They would pause a few moments to catch up on their breathing, then plunge their lips in and pump some more. Soon as they finished Pa would fasten their bridles again, walk back on the tongue balancing himself with a hand on either horse, climb into the seat and we would continue our way up the gently sloping river bank, back onto the street again.
By the time we reached home and turned the horses out to pasture it would be time to do the chores, milk the cows, feed the pigs and chickens, get in wood for morning, then set down to supper where we recounted to each other the events of the day.
Trips to town in winter had much the same excitement for us. Instead of the lumber wagon we used the sled, sometimes removing the cross chains underneath and using only the front bob with a short box on it filled with hay to keep our feet warm as well as to furnish feed for the horses. If the cold was severe we would not use a seat, but spread a blanket on which we sat, with another blanket over our laps and wrapped around our backs, sometimes with a lighted lantern tucked in at our feet. Instead of taking the long road by Cain’s Corner and Polar Hill we would take a short cut through the woods, following an abandoned logging road coming out on Bear Lake and enter town from the south-east. Usually under the blankets we tucked away our 1873 Model 44 Winchester just in case there was an opportunity to pick up fresh meat enroute.
The virgin pine in our old neighborhood has long since disappeared giving place to a new stand of poplar, balsam and spruce which furnishes shade and proper growing conditions for a new generation of white and Norway pine now getting a healthy start. No one living there now can tell you the difference between a cross-haul and a bean hole. Road monkeys have not been seen in those parts for many, many years.
Some summer day I shall go back to a bridge I know of over a small stream where my playmates and I went swimming and caught minnows. I shall sit down on the grassy bank, remove my shoes and sox, roll up my pant legs and dabble my feet in the cool stream again. The warm sun, the breezes in the willows, the chuckle of the stream and all the pleasant memories might do strange things to me. Could be, I might dimly see in the distance a team of poorly matched scrubby horses hitched to a rickety lumber wagon, coming slowly down the road. If the driver is a middle aged man with side-burns and wearing a straw hat, and the small, slightly stooped woman beside him is wearing a sun bonnet, I shall hail them and ask politely if I may go along on another trip to town.
Copyright © 2001 Kenneth E. Paul and Frances W. Prussner