1882 Before Cooperstown

What was going on around these parts in January of 1882?  First of all, Griggs County had been established by the 1881 Territorial legislature but it had not been organized.  Half of the present townships in Griggs County had been surveyed.

One family, the Omund Nelson Opheims, were spending their third winter here.  About a dozen other families had arrived in 1880.

Although there was as yet no railroad, and only prairie trails for roads, more people kept arriving, lured by free land for the taking, and several more people arrived in 1881.  In the winter of 1881-1882, there were at least fifty households of settlers in what is now Griggs County.  Most of them were on the Sheyenne River, but there were some at Lake Jessie, Red Willow Lake and on the prairie.

The houses were small and built from available materials.  R. C. Cooper, the bonanza farmer, came in 1880 and built a frame house.  I don't know whether any other frame house was built that early.  The early arrivals who came in covered wagons lived in the wagons, and others lived in tents while they were building a dwelling.

People who lived near the river where there were trees built log cabins.  The Opheim cabin, built in 1879 and moved to the courthouse lawn in 1932, is a good example of one style of cabin.  The size ranged from 8 to 12 feet wide and up to 16 or even IS feet long, according to descriptions given later in pioneer biographies.  In other words, about the size of a present-day bedroom.

Opheim's cabin and most of the others I've seen pictured were made from rough dressed logs with the bark removed and the ends notched to fit the notched ends of the other logs where they met at the corner in a tongue in groove arrangement.

The Lars Johnson cabin, which is now at the Cooperstown Bible Camp, was made from logs that had been squared off and finished a little more than that.  Plaster to chink the cabins was made by burning limestone rocks.

On the prairie and in the ravines the situation was different.  Those people had to depend on the earth to provide their homes.  Typically they would pick a side-hill and dig a cellar into that so that there was a solid earth wall on one side.  Layers of sod were cut and stacked like rows of bricks along the sides to create the other walls.  Poles, bark and sod made the roof.

Sod provided insulation on the roofs of the log cabins as well.

Sod houses were cheap to build, but some of them were cold, poorly ventilated, and leaky.  When it rained outside it rained through the roofs.  There were living creatures in the sod, too.  Children would watch small snakes crawling overhead while they lay in bed in the morning.

That was in summer.  No snakes stirred in midwinter.  There were also no mosquitoes, which were mentioned by nearly all of the old settlers as they remembered their first years.

From what I can gather, the winter of 1881-82 was very cold and snowy and the people in their tiny houses suffered greatly from & cold.  Christopher Bolkan, one of the 1880 settlers, recalled afterward that following the first snow in the fall of 1881 most of the men made skis and used them for the rest of that winter and for many years to come for transportation and recreation.

As the winter wore on, they were reassured to see smoke rising in the air above their neighbor's dugouts and cabins.  There must have been times when those isolated families felt as if they were all alone in the world.

But civilization goes on and the early settlers wanted their children to have the civilizing influence of an education so the people in the Opheim neighborhood arranged with Bolkan to come and teach their children in January, February and March of 1882.  He boarded two weeks at each household and in payment for his term of school; they helped him break a little sod in the spring.  He taught classes at the John Qualey home, which by this time was a two-story cabin and a lean-to.  The people in that settlement and Bolkan had lived in the United States for a time, and knew English, and probably the classes were taught in English.

By the first of January of 1882 Griggs County had had several deaths.  A settler named Lars Ulven died of exposure after being caught out in a blizzard in 1881.  He was buried at the Opheim farm on a site used as a burial spot for the next few years.  His death was the first.

There had also been several births.  Two babies were born in 1880 and a few more in 1881.  Anna Torfin was the first.

But back to those houses; the home furnishings varied greatly.  Settlers who came from elsewhere in the United States and from Canada brought along some of their household goods.  The Opheim cabin has original furniture brought by the family from Decorah, Iowa, which must have been the envy of their newcomer neighbors downstream.

The people who came directly from Norway or elsewhere in Europe for the most part had their immigrant trunks and that was all, except for whatever livestock they had bought after coming to America.

Ingenuity had to supply furniture.  A little board nailed onto a couple of tree stumps or posts made a bench or table.  If there was no lumber the tree stumps alone were the chairs and the all-purpose immigrant chest was the table.  People lucky enough to have grocery boxes had ready-made benches, cupboards and tables.

Martin Haugen tells me that in his grandparents' sod house, a shallow pit dug into the middle of the floor served as cellar and cupboard for their food.  It was covered by boards which were removed at mealtime, and the family then sat on the edges of the pit while they ate. 

The nearest towns were Valley City and Mayville and it must have been good news to those early settlers to hear that there would soon be towns nearby.  Hope, Mardell and Cooperstown all came into being in 1882, in that order.

Hope was surveyed and platted in 1881-1882.  Mardell's survey was completed in the summer, and Cooperstown's plat was filed in October.

By January of 1882, at least two Christian congregations had begun their existence along the river valley, organized with the help of circuit riding pastors.  Families in the Opheim community had organized the Sheyenne Valley congregation.  Farther south, the people in present Sverdrup and Bald Hill Townships had organized the "Thime Norsk Evangeliske Lutherske Menighed."  People in Romness Township had met several times for worship and in February of 1882 organized the Ringsaker congregation.

In the spring another wave of immigrants would arrive on foot or in wagons pulled mostly by ox teams.  The early arrivals would have to wait for floodwaters to subside before they could cross the rivers and creeks and ravines.

The settlers who were already there would plant their first, second or third crop and turn over some more new sod and hope for better days.  But that's getting ahead of the story.

In January, those pioneers were mostly trying to keep warm and fed and out of each other's way in those tiny houses.  The big concerns were for their health and the well being of their animals, and the size of the woodpile, the stock of staple groceries and the supply of lamp oil.

- T. L. by Duna Griggs County Sentinel - Courier January 6, 1982

Source: Cooperstown, North Dakota 1882-1982 Centennial page 11

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