THE ARRIVAL OF THE HOMESTEADERS
Minnesota loaned its credit to railroad construction concerns in amounts needed by them. This created a vigorous speculation in town sites but very little progress in railroad building and in the year 1857 when $2,275,000 had been sunk in this manner there was a financial crash when the state foreclosed upon railroad beds, land grants, and railroad equipments. It increased immigration, however, and in the year 1860 the states population was 172,023. Then came the call to arms and Minnesota swelled the ranks of the Union army with 22,000 enlisted men.
Then for five long years there was very little except bloodshed, debts, privations, and misery in all quarters of the United States until the close of the war in 1865. That year the Minnesota legislature granted charters on their foreclosed railroad properties to new railroad construction companies and by the year 1870 one thousand miles of railroad had been completed. During this successful era of railroad construction another rampant spasm of townsite speculation blossomed out but that died in the panic of 1873. It was, however, in a very few years right before and immediately after the year 1870 that all the territory that now constitutes the Watson community soil was settled.
The homesteaders who came earliest picked out their land nearest the rivers and creeks and timber. At the beginning of the year 1870 there was hardly any homestead land left in the near vicinity of the site of Watson. What remained for a little while was homesteaded on the preemption plan and the price on the land was set at $2.50 per acre. During the time the last government land was taken squatters had already settled on the railroad grant land, so that all the land now the abode of the Watson community was really settled in a remarkable short time.
Many settlers came here from older settlements in south-eastern Minnesota and Iowa. Some came almost without any stopovers from Norway, or Sweden, or Denmark. There were at that time earlier settlements in the vicinity of New Ulm, Redwood Falls, Litchfield and Norway Lake. Some came away from the railroad construction work then going on between the Twin Cities and Benson and most of them walked out here to their homesteads. A few walked in from other points and many drove in on common lumber wagons, covered with a hood of canvas and otherwise rigged out as emigrant wagons, loaded with the most essential foodstuffs, cooking utensils, clothes, tools, and implements, and most often on top of that a father and a mother and half a dozen children. There were no heavy duty Conestoga emigrant wagons or the original “Prairie Schooners” brought into the community.
Some emigrant wagons were equipped with brakes but too many were not. Then the drivers of heavily loaded wagons had to rig up some sort of an emergency brake when they came out on the brink of some bluff with a steep descent ahead of them. One such emergency brake broke going down the Minnesota river bluff west of New Ulm; the oxen ran away; the wagon upset; and one child was crippled for life in the accident.
There were no bridges across the rivers and creeks, only natural fording places, or crossings, and it often happened that when the emigrant wagons came to some river it was, through recent copious rains at a flood stage, with the wafer flooding the prairie grass on its shores, and with all outlines of its crossing hidden deeply under water. Then they had to camp and wait until the flood receded, and that is one reason why travelers in pioneer days had to be patient and used to consider themselves due at any destination only when they through good fortune managed to get there.
When in 1869 the emigrant train composed of four wagons belonging to Fredrick Teigen, Ole Teigen, Hans Hagenstad Sr., Hans Hagenstad Jr., and Iver Hagenstad was coming from south-eastern Minnesota to settle on Watson community soil they came to the shore of the Minnesota river only a short distance west of the Camp Release Monument site and found a place there to cross the river. Then they cut down elm trees and split them and built a raft. On that raft they ferried their wagons over the river while they made their oxen swim across, but they had no more than accomplished this risky feat sucsessfully when their already too water-logged raft sank to the bottom of the river.
Locating one’s homestead and getting it filed, that is entered in the government records, was not as easy as to read about it. One had to be sure that one settled on goverment land opened to homestead entry and not on railroad grant land. For the railroad land tract given away by congress, to the railroad construction promoters (who built the H. & D. Division of the C. M. & St. P. Rwy.) on July 4, 1866, and approved by the Minnesota legislature March 7, 1867, was exactly one half of all the land in Tunsberg, Big Bend and Kragero Townships. It was every odd numbered section, or every other section. Tunsberg was surveyed by Jewett & Howe in 1866, and Kragero was surveyed by Wright & Beardsley in 1869.
It often took a lot of walking, searching and painstaking sighting to locate the quarter section corner markers even after one or more section corners had been found. That is, probably, why one homesteader started digging a dugout on his neighbors land. His neighbor, who apparently believed in getting all the hard work done that he would have for nothing, watched him work until the dugout was nearly completed. Then he stepped in and claimed it for his own. Then the still homeless homesteader, the able wielder of spade and shovel relocated himself and started digging a second cellar. Then another settler came and told him that he was wrong again, but also helped him to get his homestead home started in the right place.
Some of the pioneers never seemed to forget the first nights and days they spent on their homesteads. Time between meals was then often very long. For fuel for cooking they had to gather dry slough grass and dry prairie stuff, and whatever they could find that would burn. They had no oil or gasoline burners, no coal or electricity at hand just then no, not even wood for a stove. The slough grass was twisted into hard ropes and bunches and when dry enough and there was enough of it kept a fire going fairly well under a kettle but too often it furnished more smoke than heat. The want of fuel was, however, soon overcome by the pioneers in the Watson community who lived close to the timber and had oxen and wagons.
The dugouts were generally dug in the side of a hill, or the side of a ridge of land, and hardly ever on perfectly flat land. They were merely plain dirt cellars with a pole, brush, hay, and sod roof. A ridge pole was placed at the proper height over the excavation according to the direction the ridge was intended to point. Wooden poles, mostly ash and elm, were then notched deeply to fit and bite over the ridge pole, and these were laid as closely together as possible. Fine brush, coarse slough grass and fine prairie hay was spread to form a covering over the entire roof, and on top of that a coat of sod cut with a spade or breaking plow was laid.
Two dugouts exactly of the same design could not be found. They were all built according to the environments, inventive ability, and means of their owners. Since too much hay hanging down from the ridge pole inside a dugout was undesirable and also a fire menace the owner decided to trim it off with a knife one day. He lit his pipe carefully and climbed on his crude chair and started slashing away at the hay. All of a sudden his pipe ignited the hay and his dugout ceiling blazed into a sheet of flames. He had no choice, but got out on the hillside as fast as he could where he sat down to watch it burn. It did not take him long to build another roof over his dugout, but he lost something in the fire that he could not replace, and he never smoked any more while he lived.
The dugouts were warm habitations where the roofs were airtight and waterproof. They were sort of difficult to locate even on moonlit nights when visiting after the days work. They kind of had to be stumbled over in order to be found. All of a sudden a tiny beam of candle or lamp light would twinkle out of the ground and the visitor would know that he had arrived at his destination. There was hardly ever anything but dirt floors, or rather clay floors, in the dugouts, and many of the pioneer log cabins too had no other flooring. When company was expected clean prairie hay or straw was spread over the floor for a carpet. But they had many a good time on those dugout clay floors for it is never the luxury and elegance of the premises that makes the homes but the disposition of hearts and minds of owners and tenants.
While log cabins are still being built and can be seen in a timber country the dugouts are practically a thing of the past and almost all traces of them were obliterated long ago. Dugout stables too were warmer than any ordinary barn and all dugout habitations were safer during violent storms than any buildings erected now. Thousands of people killed by tornadoes during the last ten years would have been alive today had they resided in dugouts.
THE PIONEER LOG HOUSE
In memory dwells still that log house so lonely
That father had built on the old homestead farm.
Not lovely, nor homely, it stood there and only
To some of its friends did it show any charm.
It stood, on the vast level prairie surrounded
By little but space and the distant sky line,
And by a sod stable near by that was bounded
By hay stacks so horses and cattle could dine.
It stood on a cellar that had only clay walls,
With never a window or door to bring light;
No porch had that house, nor no upstairs, or swell halls;
Still good people lived there, and lived there all right.
While windstorms and cold waves at times made it dreary
To look at the desolate prairie so wide,
All children born to it never got weary
Of that log house home and its warm fireside.
Of all times we lived through in that habitation
A mid-summer storm was the worst time we met.
It came at our home like the doom of creation;
It came in a night that we can not forget.
It was not preceded by lightning or thunder;
At least we heard nothing asleep there in bed;
It raged as if though it would tear all asunder;
So every thing living for safety fled.
Then down in the cellar, face down on that clay floor,
We huddled and heard how the elements raged.
We heard how the house creaked
and moaned through the uproar
Of battle that heavens artillery waged.
Then too came a cloud burst and water came flowing
Down into that cellar at too great a rate;
So we while expecting to hear the house going,
Feared too that a drowning would be our sad fate.
Next morning that log house looked bigger than any
Huge stone or steel structure now known on this earth;
And that humble clay cellar safer than any
Of these modern basements deemed of such a worth -
So, when I look back to our times on the homesite,
That log house stands forth like a castle to me.
It sheltered us safely through many a storm night,
And harbored the best times we ever shall see.