THE FURNESS COLONY
2008 07 19: A history of early settling in Wadena County from the files of the Wadena County Historical Society, the Pioneer Journal and A Progress Report by Harald Boen and Pioneering on the Northwest Frontier by John Stewart.
It was a common practice of Railroad companies in this country, in the latter half of the 19th century to establish settlement houses in Europe to entice people to come to the United States to settle and purchase railroad lands.
The Northern Pacific Railroad attempted to enlist Scottish people as a group to travel to this country, but somehow things went awry and they were then grouped with a group from Barrow on Furness, England. An advance group was brought to this country, traveling first class to New York and then on to Brainerd, Minnesota by rail, to choose a site for locating the colony. Their first stop was in the Wadena area and then on to the Red River Valley. They decided on Wadena primarily because the water was good and there was a supply of timber. The direct opposite of the valley. Also there was good arable land and fine natural meadows. Their travel was much different than the rest of the group which came by steerage, through the Great Lakes to Duluth.
A fine book written by John Stewart, an iron moulder, one of the group, tells quite a story of their travels to finally arrive at Wadena. Mr. Stewart states that he had not the slightest notion of how to operate a farm, but came with his wife Mattie and their four children. They were three weeks getting from Quebec to Brainerd, via Duluth through the Great Lakes, due to ice jams along the way.
On their arrival at Duluth John was offered a job in an iron foundry and briefly considered it, but being greatly impressed by the Northern Pacific settlement house where the family stayed he decided that he should proceed and journey on.
At the settlement house the men were expected to keep enough wood cut to fire the heating stove. As he had never handled an ax he spent an embarrassing time trying to cut up four foot lengths of dry oak but with no success. He said that some Swede came along and in a very short time cut enough wood for two days.
In his story John Stewart refers to his friend and traveling companion as Jack Black, but the Jack Black that I knew wasn’t born until 1873 so I believe that the man referred to was James Strang, who homesteaded next to Stewart.
They arrived at Brainerd to a similar settlement house, leaving their wives and children and came on to Wadena by train. Upon their arrival they described Wadena as just a shanty but it was set in the center of a green level prairie with woods all around.
They met a man named Hiram Dent who agreed to show them available claims. The next morning they set out west of Wadena in Ottertail county and picked a list of land preferred and were advised that they would have to go to the land office in Alexandria to register their claims.
The next morning they set off on foot following a blazed trail through the woods and succeeded in losing the trail and spending the night in the middle of a swamp. The next morning they awoke to a rooster crowing and made their way to a farm where they were greeted by a young Scotsman who invited them in to a wonderful breakfast of oatmeal and milk. He then set them on the trail and they arrived in Alexandria on the third day. Fortunately the claims they desired were not taken so they renounced their loyalty to Queen Elizabeth of England and received title. He also mentioned the preferential treatment that old soldiers ( Civil War Veterans) received and commented he wished he was an old soldier.
They returned to Parkers Prairie and purchased a cow and two steers each, along with some hens, seed potatoes and enough supplies which they hoped would carry them through the summer. They also engaged a young man with team and wagon to carry their purchases back to Wadena for $8.00. After much difficulty they made it back to Wadena.
Being inexperienced farmers John said everything we did was wrong in the hardest and most round about way. They purchased enough lumber to erect a small home and somehow survived the first winter. It took them three weeks to dig a well which caved in forcing them to dig another in a better spot.
In spite of everything they did survive and lived on to become prosperous farmers and good citizens. John Stewart’s claim was 80 acres of land along what is now Highway #29, encompassing land now owned by Moench Body Shop.
While the men were doing the above, the wives and children were at the settlement house in Brainerd awaiting their return. Mrs. Strang wrote that about midnight they heard unearthly sounds coming from an Indian camp a short distance away. They peered out the window and found Indians moving toward their building, apparently with the intent of burning them out. However a group of lawmen arrived from Brainerd and dispersed the group.
It seems that the main theme of most of the people was the hardships undergone but more especially the horrible mosquitoes. Mrs. Strang mentioned that they were thick enough to cut with a knife. It is hard to imagine the problems with families having four or five small children under such conditions.
Prominent among the Scottish members of the colony settling on Compton Prairie were the Thomas and Jim Robb families, Andersons, Camerons, Davidsons, Stewarts, Strangs, Kerrs and Wilsons. Jim Robb later becoming a plumbing & heating contractor and Will Davidson a builder of flour mills and elevators on an international scale.
The cohesiveness of the colony was upset from the start with the reluctance of the Scots and English to mix together. When the colony was proposed it was to be a colony founded on Christian and temperance principles. The Northern Pacific railroad promised to build them a school and church. However the panic (recession) of 1873 forced the railroad to abandon them, leaving them to their own resources. A comment made was that the Northern Pacific was “a railroad from Nowhere, through No Man’s Land to No Place.” Under these conditions there was not much thought given to anything other than to scrape a living out of the soil and survival. Also that year Rev. Richard Bailey, one of the leaders of the Colony returned to England for health reasons, never to return.
The English settlers in the group settled southeast of Wadena in what became known as England Prairie. Prominent among this group were the Ashburners, Kissacks, Askews, Hursts, Broadfoots and Rawsons. The Askews and Broadfoots settled north and east of Wadena in Leaf River township. The Hurst family built the Merchants Hotel as a settlement house, later owned and operated by William Rawson for many years. One of the Kissack girls married a man by the name of Mars, whose son Forest started the Mar’s Candy Company maker of Milky Ways and Snickers.
There is little doubt that the Furness people gained little in material wealth in their first few years. Then in 1876 and 1877 the grasshoppers came in “such deep thick masses, that they darkened the sun.” Eventually though things improved with more land being cleared and conditions bettering.
In the 1880 census reported that James and Thomas Robb and Kissack had farms valued at more than $3000 each, based mainly on their crops of wheat, oats and potatoes.
The social aspects of their lives were governed by conditions. When families were in trouble help was freely given but nobody had other duties outside of their own home. However as things got better individuals got involved in township affairs.
There are many interesting tales of Fourth of July celebrations in Wadena. One in 1874 the festivities were carried off with “no accidents, no disturbances, no whisky, but free lemonade until you couldn’t rest.”
The Furness colony size was never recorded. However, about 200 men, women and children were registered in England of whom about 90 were living in the Wadena area in 1875 with a growth to about 130 in 1880.
It is fairly evident that the Furness colony succeeded where numerous other groups failed, not because of superior planning or leadership, but by the character and positive attitude of the individuals.
Margaret Arbuckle Strang, writes as follows: On their arrival in the area the wild flowers were a sight to behold as the sun glinted out and in among the many colors. The Stewarts and the Strangs were always close friends and on adjoining property. Then we all got into building a house for all to get into, until the other home was built and then we each had our own home. That summer stands out as one of the most cruelly home sick times a girl ever put in.
The flowers grew well and we had fine vegetables. The stock grew, our cows multiplied and we made butter and sold it in town. We built another log house and barn and by that time it began to look like we would have a farm worthwhile.
We always went to church, walking into Wadena through the slough.
Mr. Hurst was building the hotel. (Merchants Hotel. Aldrich Avenue SW) and had the first floor completed. They were to hold a dance and Mr. Strang and I along with the Stewarts were to dance a set of quadrilles. Because the caller used different terms than we were used to we couldn’t go through with it. We danced a good Scotch roll and they all stood still to see us folks do the old time home dances and then we put up for home because it was late. That gave us something to talk about for a long time.
We never let Christmas or New Year go by without there was a general invitation to meet at one of our homes and have a tree for the children and a grand dinner for all. We had a general good time, not forgetting a good Scotch reel with Jim Robb supplying the music. A piece of paper over a comb just did fine and whistle the tune through it.
The Wilson family was a great addition to the Scotch colony. They were all pretty good singers and we all had good organs which was a wonderful help until the wee small hours when we would all get around and sing together. It was wonderful how they learned to sing and play be ear and pass many a long winter night.
In excerpts from a letter written by Margaret Kerr, wife of Rev. Kerr, a protestant minister to the Furness Colony. She writes to her daughter 17 years later. “When your father went to Wadena, the city then was 16 straggling homes including the depot and water tank. Some said it was the coldest winter since Fort Snelling was built in 1823. You know my time in the day was occupied in visiting the new comers—sometimes a team would come for me to tend to a sick one and often being up all night I had to walk home through deep snow then I would be sent for to teach a novice to make butter and this work was done when thermometer was from 30 to 40 below zero.
I don’t like to think of all the hardships I underwent that winter- how the few potatoes in the cellar froze and our fruit was frozen citron melons—how we subsisted for 7 weeks on bread with weedy tasting milk, the cow I bought had been pasturing in some slough–how a settlers wife took a fancy to pay me an extended visit of ten days with 4 children under 7 years old and I had 5 under 9—and both families took chicken pox.
The section men on the railroad were very kind in taking me on the hand car and would stop and wait when they saw me leaving my horse on the prairie. These men were quietly polite to me—perfect gentlemen—even Scandinavians to whom I could not speak a word were good about making a place for me on their big sleighs.
Thinking of those days I wonder where I got the energy to do it all along with a voluminous correspondence. I think the missionaries wife on the frontier has the hardest time. I don’t’ regret this experience but I hope none of my daughters become missionaries wives now I am done.”
As I write of these happenings I find myself wondering how people of our generation would react to such situations. Because it was an old world custom that the eldest son receive the estate of the father, the pioneer life seemed a welcome opportunity to get ahead. In Europe most of the immigrants would never have been land owners or successful farmers.
Do we always appreciate what we have?