Investigating the Resettlement of My People, Guest Blog by Larry Olds
The first book I have read this year, a novel Hand Me Down My Walking Cane by Carla Hagen from Baudette, the town where I graduated from high school, has stimulated an investigative project that could lead to a writing project. Carla’s mother and my mother were friends. Carla herself is the age of my younger brothers, having graduated the year between the two of them and eleven years after me. This is Carla’s first novel. She is now an attorney in the Hennepin County Attorney’s office and for a time a few years ago lived up the street from me.
The book is set in Baudette in Lake of the WoodsCounty and in the surrounding area in the mid-nineteen thirties. One part of the context for the story is the actions of the New Deal Resettlement Administration, created in 1935 from several federal agencies that had the mission of relieving chronic rural poverty by resettling people living on what was judged to be marginal farm land to better and viable farmland in the same area. By 1941 they had resettled 163 households in Lake of the Woods and Roseau Counties.
The place where part of Carla’s story takes place is Faunce (called Faunce Ridge in the book), a small hamlet then with a general store and a post office located 18 miles west and 12 miles south of Baudette. Faunce is one of the places that was emptied of people by the New Deal program and made part of Beltrami Island State Forest. Another place that experienced the same fate was the place of my own origins, Oaks Township in Roseau County– slightly north and about 15 miles west of Faunce, the site of my grandfather’s homestead where he settled in 1905.
For years I have been hearing from my mother that the state wanted the land for the state forest. She always reported that when the officials came to test the soil in the region, they only took samples from the sand ridges and judged the whole area as unfit for farming, not bothering to test the other areas, for example, by the Warroad River, where people had been farming for years. She may have that exactly right.
I looked up the census for the area. In 1920 Oaks Township had 123 people; by 1930 it was up to 151. (The township that includes Faunce, not formally a town, had only 37 people in 1930.) In 1936 after completing a year of teacher training and getting a provisional license, my mother took her first teaching job at the Bednar School on the southern edge of Oaks Township. Her second year she moved to the Grover School, named after her father who had donated the land from his homestead in 1908. At the end of that year the effects of the resettlement must have been evident: the Bednar School closed. The empty school house was moved five miles to the site of the Grover School after it burned down that year. A second fire took the building that had been moved. It was then replaced with a cement block building with a basement, the remains of which still exist in the overgrown school yard. Today no one lives in Oaks Township. (But I may be wrong about this. Along the eastern boundary of the township, on the Norris Camp Road, there may now be some new homes.)
In 1946, after having to give up teaching when children were born and having spent World War II in the Fargo-Moorhead area, my mother returned to teach at the Grover School. During the years we were there, from 1946 to the end of 1949, there were at most 15 to 18 students. We had dwindled to 6 that final year – my brother and I, two first cousins, one cousin of our cousins who lived with them, and one unrelated person. Three of the six were 5th graders. We moved to join my father in Spooner–a town across the Baudette Bay which merged with Baudette in 1954–where he and my uncle had started a dry cleaning business earlier that year. We left behind two families with children. They hired another teacher to finish the year with four students, then closed the Grover School. In addition, if my memory is accurate, there were four other households left in the township: my parents’ good friends Ruth and Merle Chase, Loren and Elsie White (Elsie, a teacher training classmate of my mother, taught in Baudette so they were only there in the summers), and two bachelors who lived down by the river – Alfred Sieffer and Johnny Snyder. Another person, Andrew Chase, had land that he farmed in Oaks Township but lived across the road in the township to the north. The 80-acre farm my mother purchased from her parents where we lived during the summers from 1946 to 1949 was in Oaks on its northern edge adjacent to Andrew Chase’s field. Two acres on the northeast corner was where my parents built their 12 by 18 log house, my first home. My parents ended our family relationship with Oaks Township in 1952 when they sold the farm. By then my uncle, who had lived in the southwest corner of the township, was also gone. The resettlement program had not completed its mission back in the 1930s, but eventually prevailed.
I have begun a search for more information that would explain what happened to my people. I am interested in how their choices were framed by social policy, by the ideas of distant bureaucrats; and who gained and lost in the end.
I have begun to locate resources that help me learn the story.
Robert L. Reid; Picturing Minnesota 1936-1943: Photographs From The Farm Security Administration
The Grubstake Plan for the evacuation and resettlement of the inhabitants of Beltrami Island, Minnesota by Chester Wasson, Social Science Review, 1938.
Settler Relocation: A Progress Report on the “Minnesota Plan” by A.D. Wilson (who headed the agency in Minnesota)
Among my questions:
When I learned sometime in my adult life about the New Deal Rural Electrification program, I wondered why our rural area had not gotten electricity even by the 1940s.
My mother’s story was always of the state taking the land; she never knew that it was a New Deal program. However, she has it right from a practical standpoint. It was a state agency, the Minnesota Rural Rehabilitation Corporation that implemented the program with federal money.
My grandparents lost their homestead in 1935 when they couldn’t pay taxes. When they were told to move by county officials, they did. Neighbors who didn’t do as they were told got to keep their land. Was the county policy affected by the government resettlement program? A shortening of the grace period, for example, or extra pressure to move? My grandparents went two miles north and took over the land of my grandfather’s brother that no longer had a house. There they built a large log house. This was the property my mother bought from them in 1946.