Uncle Antoine

“On the shore of Little Rock Lake lived several families of French-Indian breeds. The had a few scrub ponies, cows and pigs.  The lived in log huts and farmed small tracts.  They hunted, fished, trapped and did nothing.   One breed was named Steve Baillou and another Antoine Blais, which became pronounced Steve Blue and Tony Blair by the neighbors.” – from notes of Nelson and Robert Flint, included in A Land Called Morrison, by Harold Fisher

Antoine Blair, one of the younger brothers of Angeline (Blair) Trotterchaud, had been living in the area since at least 1849.  The territorial census of that year listed him at 21 years of age and living in the “Sauk Rapids District” of “Benton Territory.” (Apparently, Benton County was not officially a county yet.)  Also counted in Antoine’s household were Charlotte, age 16 and Josette, age 4 months. Antoine’s occupation was listed as “none”.

In 1849, year Minnesota became a territory, less than 6000 non-Indians lived here, and only a few hundred lived north of St. Paul. Reading the census data, it appears that the nearest white people in the area were the missionaries Frederick and Elizabeth Ayer, who had established a mission and farm at Belle Prairie, some 20 miles up the Mississippi, in 1848. (Belle Prairie is the area where the Bellefuielle family first settled in the 1850s.)

In that same year an American Fur Company employee named David Gilman moved to the area and purchased a trading post established the previous year by Asa White. Another trading post was established by William Aitken just two miles north.  The place was called Watab, and was located near the mouth of a river by that name that emptied into the Mississippi.  Antoine may have been employed by Aitken or Gilman or at least traded with them.  Trading was done with a large Ojibwe village located near the outlet of Little Rock Lake. From 1848 to 1855, trade was also conducted with the Winnebago tribe, whose members were relocated to the area from Iowa for that brief period in a move orchestrated by businessman and trader Edmund Rice. This scheme was intended to open lands for settlement in Iowa while establishing the Winnebago as a buffer between the Ojibwe and their Dakota (Sioux) enemies.

Watab was also located along the Red River Oxcart Trail as it followed the Mississippi south to St. Paul.  The oxcart trail system was developed by Norman Kittson a few years before to facilitate trade between St. Paul and settlements on the Red River north of Pembina. The mostly Metis oxcart drivers, who were independent contractors, tended to carry cash, which drew the interest of the traders and other merchants who started settling the area.

In 1857,  according to General Land Office records Antoine obtained the deed to some 37 acres located along the west shore of Little Rock Lake, near present-day Rice, Minnesota. The Preemption Act of 1841 permitted “squatters” who were living on federal government owned land to purchase up to 160 acres at a very low price (not less than $1.25 per acre) before the land was to be offered for sale to the general public. To qualify under the law, the “squatter” had to be:

a “head of household”;
a single man over 21, or a widow;
a citizen of the United States (or an immigrant intending to become naturalized); and
a resident of the claimed land for a minimum of 14 months (Wikipedia).

The 1860 census recorded Antoine’s occupation as “Farmer”, which was typically used for homesteaders. However, the 1870 census lists him as a “Livestock Raiser”.  This suggests that Antoine, as well as one of his younger brothers listed the same way in the census, developed a business raising and selling draft animals.  These likely included oxen that were sold to the drivers on the oxcart trail.

The 1860 census indicates Antoine had five children, ranging from 2 to 9 years old, including Josette.  However, Charlotte is not listed. Another woman named “Gebel”, age 30 is listed. The name is a misspelling of Isabelle. According to Ancestry.com, her Indian name was Quanzee. It appears that Charlotte had passed away sometime in the previous 11 years.

Antoine and “Belle” raised their family at Little Rock Lake and apparently prospered there. I had the opportunity while doing research at the Benton County Historical Society to review papers associated with the disposition of Antoine’s property and settlement of his debts. David Gilman served as the executor until his death in 1885. The process was finalized by a man named Campbell. The file included dozens of slips of paper with transactions recorded in pencil. Antoine appeared to have good credit, as he did business throughout the area from Little Falls to Elk River.

My hunch is his success played a role in convincing Peter and Angeline Trotterchaud to move their young family there.  Peter purchased his land claim consisting of 39 acres next door to Antoine’s homestead in 1856.  (More to follow on the Trotterchauds in later posts) When Peter and Angeline and several of the Blairs moved to White Earth under the terms of the 1867 Treaty, Antoine and his family stayed behind.  Apparently, he was doing well enough that the prospect of receiving 160 acres of land and a fresh start did not appeal to him.

Antoine died in 1883 when he was crushed by an ox. According to his death certificate, the cause of death was falling off a wagon.  But according to Mary Ostby, Executive Director of the Benton County Historical Society, it was common to avoid blaming an ox for the death, as it would make the animal difficult to sell. Antoine’s death was noticed in the Sauk Rapids Sentinel, which noted “Tony” was well known in the area.  Even though he was a “French breed” who “did nothing,” he had earned at least some respect in his community.

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Our Mysterious New Neighbors

Below our homesite, the lake is quite shallow (2 to 3 ft deep) and full of lily pads, which essentially precludes docking a boat or pontoon. That is fine with Mel and me; we would like to keep the shoreline undeveloped. However, I thought it would be nice to have a footpath from the house down to the shoreline. All this path required was moving a deadfall or two and trimming a few low-hanging branches.

One day in June, while working on this project, I came across a strange scene. In an area about the size of a dining room table adjacent to the waterline, all the grass had been flattened. My first thought was that a bear had been lounging around, maybe gnawing on a dead fish. As I looked closer I found scat, but it didn’t look like something that came out of the backside of a bear. The stools were smaller than standard bear poop and were full of bits of shell and fish scales.image

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Ok, maybe not a bear, but a racoon, I thought. But why would racoons flatten all this grass? As I pondered this I glanced up the slope and noticed more grass flattened and what looked like an anthill that had been leveled. Again, it could have been a bear searching for some 6-legged appetizers. But there were no claw marks indicating digging.  Instead, the dirt looked smoothed out, like something had been sliding on it. That’s when I got excited – this could be river otter sign.

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Otters are my favorite animal. If I had to choose an animal form for the next life, it would be the otter. My kids know I have a thing for otters; Emily even sculpted one out of soapstone for me.

The first time I saw otters in the wild I was deer hunting with my dad, about 20 years ago. I was standing on the edge of a clear cut, waiting for Dad to work his way across. The sun had set, so it was nearing the end of the hunting day. While watching Dad pick his way across the stumps and brush, I heard splashing behind me. There, in a pond about 75 yards away, were two otters playing. They were silhouetted in the orange dusk. Dad and I watched them for several minutes until it finally grew too dark to see them and then we headed back to camp. This is a favorite memory for me.

We have seen muskrats and beavers swimming along our shoreline, and even had a tree cut down in our yard by a beaver, but we had never seen otters. How cool would it be to have otters living next door? Having a bear in the neighborhood would be less cool.  If they are otters, we would be lucky to actually see them. Although they are playful and seem gregarious, they are quite shy.

Maybe one of my thoughtful children will get me one of those trail cameras for Christmas…

On the Farm, Part 1

Grandpa owned a small grain farm in partnership with his ‘Pa’, Great-grandpa Alfred. The farm, just 160 acres, consisted of several hillocks with wetlands winding between them. It was located about a half-mile west of Westbury where my mom grew up and about 4 miles north of Grandpa and Grandma’s place on Cozy Cove Road. The soil at the farm was rocky and pretty thin on the hilltops. The farm never made much money, but it provided an income for Great-grandpa and Great-grandma Almie to supplement Social Security. Looking back now, I don’t think Grandpa Ray wanted to be farming, but kept the operation going for the sake of his parents. Farming was all they knew, and the old farmhouse was their home.

I started working on the farm when I was about 10, mostly picking rock, running for tools or parts, and helping feed Great-grandpa’s hogs. Grandpa Ray taught me how to do basic maintenance on the equipment, like greasing the myriad pulleys on the combine, replacing shear pins on the cultivator and pumping up tires. As I grew older, I learned how to operate the equipment.

I took a lot of pride in being able to hook up the plow or cultivator and head out to a field to work on my own. I usually drove Grandpa’s John Deere 720 Diesel, the biggest tractor on the place. We had another older John Deere, a Model ‘A’ that was Great-grandpa’s favorite. He taught me how to start it by turning the flywheel. Great-grandpa seemed to look younger and stronger when he sat on that tractor.

Grandpa Ray’s favorite seemed to be the Allis Chalmers WD with the narrow front. It was the one tractor he never taught me to drive. I was a little scared of it, remembering the story Grandpa told me about my uncle Tom breaking his arm trying to start it with the hand-crank in front.

The WD was Grandpa’s go-to tractor for particular jobs, like harrowing, seeding and raking hay. The latter chore was fascinating to watch. Grandpa would pull the rake in high gear at full throttle, creating windrows on the fly. The rake itself was an almost fanciful contraption, with large wheels full of tines mounted at an angle and spinning rapidly. The WD could turn on a dime, and Grandpa was expert at the maneuvers needed to create windrows of the proper spacing and volume for baling. Watching him rake a field of alfalfa on a late summer evening was like watching a ballet.

One of my favorite memories from the farm is how much I enjoyed Great-grandma Almie’s cooking.  By how much I mean I ate a lot of it!  We started out very early each morning with coffee and homemade cookies or banana bread and then went out and got the machinery ready to go. Then we came back in for breakfast, which was usually ham and eggs and coffee and pancakes and more coffee.  Sometimes we came back in for a coffee break mid-morning and ate more baked goodies. Lunch was another big meal, after which Grandpa Ray would take a nap.  After at least one more coffee break in the afternoon, we worked late and came in for supper, somehow hungry for more.  Great-grandma cooked for threshing crews when she was younger so she knew how to make good, rib-sticking food and lots of it.

I enjoyed working on the farm, except at harvest time. Grandpa planted at least half the acreage in barley every year. Unlike wheat, heads of barley have a heavy beard, which becomes a cloud of itchy chaff as it is combined. Early on, the farm had a combine that was pulled by a tractor. Later, Grandpa bought a self-propelled combine, which I considered to be the height of farming technology, even though it did not have an enclosed cab. I rode the combine with Grandpa until I was old enough to operate it myself.

Harvesting barley was the dirtiest and itchiest job in the world. Perched above the noisy “pickup”, a short, wide conveyor that pulled the windrows into the combine for threshing, the operator was smack in the middle of the dust cloud billowing up. To make matters worse, we always harvested during the dog days of August, with temperatures above 90 before noon. Sweat made the dirt and chaff stick to the skin. Like most boys entering puberty, I was probably reluctant to start showering. But nothing felt better than a hot shower after a day of riding the combine.

Another dirty job was shoveling grain into bins. The farm did not have any of the shiny grain bins the bigger farms had. Instead, we built make-shift bins in unused areas of the barn and in the old feed shed. Some grain was also stored on Grandpa’s place using old farm buildings the same way. The bins consisted of old boards nailed up to enclose doorways and form up sides. Because these were usually odd-shaped configurations and the roof was low, my job was to climb into the bin and shovel the grain into the corners and level it out as it came out of the auger. This meant trying to shovel while knee-deep or on my knees, breathing hot air full of dust in the mostly enclosed bin until the load was emptied or the bin was full. Grandpa always kept an eye on me in case the heat and dust got to be too much, but I hung in there until the job was done.

Harvest time seemed more fun when I was younger. I can remember riding to the grain elevator in Callaway with Great-grandpa in the “grain truck.” A ’42 Ford one-ton with a hydraulic lift and a wooden grain box, the truck seemed as ancient as Great-grandpa. And like Great-grandpa, the truck smelled of Copenhagen snuff. He always had a pinch in his cheek, and spat through the hole in the floor boards of the old truck. Other times I rode with Grandma, who drove the pickup with boards mounted on the sides of the box. If I was lucky, I got a bottle of pop while the elevator man dumped the load through the grated floor. I loved to watch Lyle, the manager, work the grain sorter that helped him calculate dockage for weed seed and debris. But we didn’t dawdle – we had to get back to the farm right away so Grandpa wouldn’t yell at us.

Grandpa wasn’t as much fun to be around on the farm compared to when we were out on the lake. Between the equipment breakdowns and bad weather, getting everything done was always stressful for him. He yelled a lot. He yelled at Grandma, he yelled at Great-grandpa, and he yelled at me. I did a lot of things wrong, and sometimes Grandpa would get upset, but for the most part he was patient with me. He wanted me to learn.

What usually got me in trouble was not paying attention. I was a daydreamer, staring off into space thinking about who knows what while Grandpa was yelling for a 5/8″ socket. More than once I incurred his wrath while sitting on the tractor in a reverie as he was frantically waving from the overfull combine for me to bring the gravity wagon. Sometimes I would forget to follow through on an assignment he gave me and then I would “catch hell.” Fortunately, Grandpa didn’t stay mad at me for long, and he would patiently put me back to work.

Recently, I asked Grandma Arleen why Grandpa didn’t seem to like farming. She told me a story about farming in earlier days.  The events in that story shaped our family’s future.  The story also gave me a better understanding of Grandpa.  I’ll share that story soon.