They Came to Farm

They came here to farm - the Opheims, Qualeys, Vigesaas, Fuglestads, Aarestads, Aurens, Houghtons, Nierenbergs, Bolkans, McCullochs, Jacobsons, Washburns, Hagens, Piatts, Hegnas and all the rest.

They all came to live on the land.  They were offered free homesteads, and they came by ox team, wagon, horseback, (-n foot and in immigrant cars.  They came from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Norway, and Iowa.  They came on the train to Fargo, on a boat as far as Caledonia, (At that time Caledonia was the county seat of Traill County which at that time included the area of Griggs and Steele Counties, too) then by foot to the Sheyenne Valley, a distance of sixty miles.  Some took the train to Sanborn and then north, sometimes on foot, sometimes by train as the railroad progressed.

At first they settled near the river, where there was water.  Trees supplied protection from the wind.  As the land along the river was taken up, they spread out into the prairie.

Land was free to the homesteaders in three ways: by the Homestead Act where any person over twenty-one who was the head of the family could obtain 160 acres of land by living on it five years and improving it.  The act also allowed a person to substitute a payment of $1.25 an acre for the five-year residence requirement.  The homesteader agreed to build a home and dig a well and improve the land.  The settler did not have to pay taxes on the land as long as he was homesteading.  When he had the actual deed, it was then necessary to pay taxes.

The second way to get free land was by tree claim.  A person could acquire 160 acres by agreeing to plant ten acres into trees and improve the rest of the land.

The family consisted of Karl Opheim, the mother; Nels, a son; and daughter Martha and her husband, Gustav Olson and their two children, Martin and Oscar.  The next year, more settlers came into the area and so people would walk or drive by the Opheim home, some even stopping in for lodging and food.

In 1881 butter was 35 per lb.; potatoes, $1.50 per bushel; flour, $4.75 per hundred, pounds; wheat, $1.30 per bushel.  Times were good in Dakota.  (Quoted from Mrs. Karl Opheim).

Slowly they came and they settled.  They brought with them a few horses, oxen, cows and chickens.  Land was broken, a few acres each season.  Usually by the end of five years they could have their 160 acres, more or less, broke for crop.  This involved hard work, perseverance and drudgery.  It wasn't easy to build a productive farm from the raw prairie.  The pioneers suffered from poor health, loss of crops and livestock, accidents and untimely deaths.  They were often lonely, having left their families behind to make a start in a new country, but among the pioneers there was much socializing and friendliness and neighborliness.

Slowly they came and they settled.  Post offices were established at various points and then the town of Mardell was established in 1882.  It was the hope of promoters that the railroads would be built from Breckenridge to Hope and then to the Sheyenne River valley where Mardell was to be the focal point.

In 1880 R.C. Cooper came to the prairie west of the Sheyenne and staked out a claim.  In the spring of 1881 he and his brother came and began farming.  They were the largest bonanza farmers in this area.  In the summer of 1883, R.C. Cooper began building the Sanborn, Cooperstown and Turtle Mountains Railway and so the hopes of Mardell were gone.

When the pioneers came they needed cash to survive the first years.  It is estimated that about 80 percent of the homesteaders worked for R.C. Cooper on the railroad, which helped them all considerably.

Imagine if you will that you are a young man from Norway, Germany, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, Wisconsin, wherever, and you are in Dakota because you heard of the farming opportunities in the western plains of the United States.  Now you have your homestead and you must select a place to erect your buildings.  Maybe the house will be a sod shanty, maybe a log cabin, maybe a shack, but it is home.  You must also have a barn for your few head of livestock and water and you must dig a well.  You must select a spot by witching and you dig the well by hand.  Hopefully, you will get a good well, as the water will be needed for so many things.  Now you are established and you begin to farm.

You must break the land with a breaking plow, you do not plow very deep, only enough to turn the sod so it can decay, then you plow again and your land is ready to seed.  You do not have a drill so you sow by hand, tie a rope on a bucket or a sack and hang this around your neck so it hangs near your stomach, then you begin to walk and very artfully broadcast the seeds by throwing.  You do not have a drag yet either so you go to the river and obtain some small trees, tie them together and use the bushy top for a drag to smooth the land and cover the seeds.  Since you can only break a few acres a day, you do not have much crop in the first year but during the growing season you are busy breaking more land for next year.  Then it is time to harvest and you cut your grain with a scythe and tie the grain into neat bundles using straw for ties.  Then the bundles are brought home and it is the women's job to thresh.  This is done by placing the bundles on blankets and pounding the grain out with a club or stick.  The wheat is ground into flour so the household can use it as a food staple during the coming winter.

Gradually things get better and you acquire machinery and more oxen and/or horses.  As the efficiency of the machinery progressed, more horses were needed to provide the power.  Oxen proved too slow.

Twenty-eight horse hitches were needed to pull the huge harvesters.

The development of the manure spreader encouraged greater utilization of valuable fertilizer.

By 1890 all of the machinery that would require horsepower had been invented.  From then on, all efforts were concentrated on mechanically powered engines.  The steam tractor needed a lot of fuel and water.  It packed the soil and was forever setting fires.  In spite of this disadvantage it was a common sight on some farms by 1900.

Land could also be acquired by pre-emption, which is the act of buying something ahead of other persons.  People would move onto a place, build on it and not get a title.  They were called squatters.  In 1841 Congress established the Right of Pre-emption that is a person could file a land application and move in if he improved the land and lived on it six months, he could buy it from the government for $1.25 per acre.  This meant the squatter had a right to buy his land ahead of anyone else.  No one could get more than 160 acres and persons who already owned 320 acres could not get more by pre-emption.  Since this system was misused, it was abolished in 1891.  People could also purchase railroad land and another's homesteader’s rights.

When the Opheims came here in 1879 they were the only settlers along the Sheyenne.  The land had not been surveyed but on Mr. Opheim's arrival in Fargo from Iowa he inquired about land and a surveyor there told him there was no better land in the world than along the Sheyenne.  He gave him a plot of this land and so Mr. Opheim proceeded on his journey.  One of his companions was his wife's brother who chose to settle in the Goose River area.  Mr. Opheim then chose his land and built a log cabin, the first home in Griggs County.  It had a bark roof with an earthen floor.  After building the cabin he returned to Iowa for his family and they returned in a covered wagon in the fall of 1879.  The nearest neighbor was 24 miles away.  The first winter they had no wheat for flour so Mr. Opheim went to the Goose River area where he purchased wheat and accompanied by others, he went to Grand Forks where he had the wheat ground into flour.  The trip took three weeks because he was caught in a snowstorm.  The family was distraught, not knowing if he had perished in the storm.

Source: Cooperstown, North Dakota 1882-1982 Centennial page 97

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