GRASSOPPERS - BLIZZARD - PRAIRIE FIRE
The grasshoppers that consumed the crops in the Watson community territory were most devastating in the summer of 1877. They invaded a few settlements in Minnesota as early as 1874 but did most damage in 1876 and 1877. They did not, however, blacken the ground completely in the Watson community territory. On the bottom land immediately north of Watson and along the rivers and creeks they left a little grass for the cows and oxen, but all grain was eaten to below the surface of the ground. This pest of locusts changed the original population of the community into what it is today. For a great number of the original homesteaders moved out of the community, never to return, during the years 1877, 1878, 1879 and 1880, and their descendants would have made up a great part of our community population of today if it had not been for the impossible existence created by the ravages of the grasshoppers.
A description from a Canadian settlement dated back to the year 1818 may help us to a conception of how terrible ruinous the grasshoppers in their worst raids really could get. They descended upon the Canadian settlement in a sun obscuring cloud one harvest day afternoon. The air was filled with a hissing noise. as of escaping steam, mixed with a sound like that from flames raging in tall slough grass or brush. They settle in masses in perpetual motion up to four inches deep. Along a river they massed so densely that they could be shoveled with spades. Everything was devoured by them. All plants were first stripped to the bare stalks and then the stalks were eaten too. The leaves and bark were eaten off from all trees and all vegetation vanished as fast as it appeared above the ground.
The settlers attempted to burn them out by starting fires against them, but the grasshoppers were so thick that they extinguished every blaze kindled and soon left naught on the prairie that could burn. They ate through or into almost any common substance, wood, leather, cloth, and paper, and invaded the houses and fouled the drinking water and food. The only contrivance that seemed to impede or hamper them in their progress any at all was sheet iron coated with tar but that was too expensive to be procured by the ordinary settlers. Settlers with minds confused by the calamity lost faith in their future and moved out of the settlement as fast as they could.
It was not as bad as the above description during the worst year, 1877, in the Watson community territory, or, many who are living today would actually have starved to death unless they had been able to move out, but it was sure horrible enough and as near a total crop failure as the community has ever seen. It is almost incredible too how many of the pioneers had the moral stamina to survive the experience and retained means and the courage to continue farming on the same land afterwards. On a Sunday in the fall of 1877 the grasshoppers arose suddenly like a huge storm cloud and drifted away to the north-east and they have never showed up since that blessed day.
In the first years of the pioneer's existence in the Watson community territory they never experienced a worse blizzard, nor has there at any time in sixty years been a more violent and longer lasting blizzard than the one ln the year 1873, which several writers called a Polar Wave. It came like a shot from the north-west on a beautiful January day, about noon, and blew without any perceptible let up or moderation, almost with a hurrlcane's intensity for three days and three nights; and it actually kept on storming from the northwest throughout five long days and four nights ere it finally stopped.
At that time between the east side of the mountains in Alaska and the mountains in Tennessee there were no stretches of forests or anything else to impede or break the speed of a blast of the intensity of that blizzard, coming towards the Watson community territory, except in the river valleys, too low down to be of any help; so that when that blizzard arrived in the Watson community territory it was running in super high. Some seventy-slx persons froze to death in Minnesota, as thinly settled as it still was, and an enormous number of animals perished.
The weather had been so mild and peaceful, and it was such a lovely January day, that most ot the settlers nearly all over the state were away from their homes when the storm arrived. At least fifty per cent of the Watson community pioneers were down in the Chlnpewa and the Minnesota river timbers cutting fuel wood and logs: but only one of them lost his life, although nearly all of the rest escaped death only through the mysterious guidance of that omnipotent something called good luck.
Halvor Alleckson drifted with the storm until his oxen bumped against a hay stack on the bottom about a mile straight east of Watson. He dug in desperation into that stack until he had dug a tunnel or cave into it and in that he stayed during the storm's duration, which was no little while without heat and food. His oxen too survived the ordeal being alee of the Chippewa river timber line, and the hav stack, and having enough to eat.
Some men reached Knut Olson's home which was then near the Lyngen school house, but the oxen belonging to them perished. The oxen driven by Anders Evenskaas perished right north of Arnt Waldum's farm home, but after a harrowing experience of hopelessly floundering about seeking a refuge Evenskaas bumped against the corner of Ole Waldum's log house which he could not see. He felt along the wall until he found the door, got it opened, and fell inside so fagged out that he was unconscious for some time.
Iver Restum lived on the homestead that Lars O. Stensrud bought a few years later. To his home came Arnt Pederson who had lost his cap and had a handkerchief tied over his head. Julius Olson and Helmer Olson and some other pioneers came there too including John B. Oyen who drove a yoke of young steers. Oyen lived only one half mile south-west of Restum's home, and while his neighbors warned him against attempting to reach home he took a desperate chance and started out. He left his sleigh and load, however, and went with the oxen holding on to their rope. The steep hill west of the creek bed broke the force of the storm a little and also served as a guide wall to go by; and a short narrow deep ravine connecting the creek bed with his dugout stable door made it possible for him to get to his farm yard.
He risked his life again in a three hundred feet walk between his stable and his log house. Trusting his life entirely to a sense, or instinct, of direction he walked right against the west wall of his house. The force of the wind was, however so great that he had to struggle all the time to remain on his feet, and the furiously driven fine powdered snow so dense that he only felt the wall of the house, for he could not see it.
Fredrick and Ole Teigen were returning from Benson. They were close to a settlers farm home on the Benson road when the storm roared down upon them, and managed to drive their oxen up against that pioneers house. He stuck his head out through the door and informed them hospitably that they could turn their oxen into his stable if they wanted to risk going that little distance; but, that they could count him out of it, under no circumstances whatsoever would he go outside in such a weather. By a desperate effort, which was also little less than miraculous, they located the stable, got the oxen inside, and returned safely to the pioneer's house, where they too had to abide until the storm abated.
Only one man perished in that storm in the Watson community territory. He was Sivert Klefstad, a bachelor, who had his homestead dugout by a little ravine on the west shore of the Chippewa river, what is about midway between the homesteads of Paul Golie and Ole Torgeson. When found after the storm, he was in a sitting posture with his back against a rock in the river bed. It appeared that he had circled around and around searching for his dugout home until so tired that he sat down to rest and passed into the sleep from which no one awakens.
A PRAIRIE FIRE
Prairie fires are practically a motion picture of the past in the Watson community territory. There are still meadows big enough in the community to furnish space and fuel for a sensational conflagration with the wind favorable for such a calamity; but the real dreadful prairie fires of pioneer days can never be witnessed in Chippewa county any more.
One day in October 1871, when it was very dry with a violent wind from the south-west, early settlers north of Watson saw some smoke on the south-west horizon but paid only casual attention to it. But in a little while they saw the fire on the top of "Rundhaugen," a round hill, one quarter of a mile northwest of Arnt Waldum's farm home, and one and one half mile straight north of Watson. So fast did that fire travel that there was really no time to save anything by preparing to receive it. A violent wind vas blowing it ahead like the fames out of a blow torch.
Mother had been on the homestead only two years then and father was away that day. Most settlers had plowed a little fire break around their houses, but no fire break helped much that day. Nearly all settlers had to concentrate all their efforts towards saving their houses and household effects and let stables and grain and hay stacks burn. Mother with the timely help of a neighbor's wife who was visiting her managed to save the house, but pretty near everything else burned. A strange herd of oxen, cows, and calves ran panic stricken out towards the Chippewa river ahead of the flames and billowing black smoke.
That fire had crossed the Minnesota river in several places, and while it was burning north of Watson it was burning simultaneously north-east of Watson and the Chippewa river, so it did not seem to stop for any rivers whatsoever. It was rumored at that time that it had started somewhere on the state line between Iowa and South Dakota; but no one has ever heard how far it traveled before it stopped. As it was, too many of the poor pioneers lost everything they had.