A Visit to Sandy Lake


A few weeks ago, as Mel and I were returning from my nephew’s birthday party in northern Wisconsin, I suggested we make a side trip. We were in no hurry to get home, so Mel agreed.

“Where are we heading?” she asked.
“Sandy Lake; it’s near McGregor.”I replied.
“What’s there?”
“I don’t know – hopefully something telling about the history of the place.”

Instead of heading out of Duluth on Highway 2, we took Highway 210 to McGregor, then turned north. We saw no signs indicating any historical sites ahead but I thought there had to be something commemorating the place in Minnesota’s history. I got on my smart phone (Mel was driving) and googled Big Sandy Lake. Just as images of historical markers popped up, we happened by those very markers along Highway 65.

The markers are located at a wayside rest with a beautiful view of the lake. For some reason, the wayside rest was barricaded off, but we parked on the shoulder and walked in. I was surprised to find a detailed description of the Sandy Lake Tragedy that pulled no punches regarding the white leaders involved. The marker clearly describes the motives of Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey and how the Ojibwe were wronged. High school history classes in Minnesota discuss Ramsey as a prominent figure in the state’s formation. I wonder whether his role in the Sandy Lake Tragedy is talked about in those history classes….

image           imageWe continued north toward the area where I read the old trading post was once located. Another surprise: a well-maintained recreational area at the outlet of the lake. The Corps of Engineers maintains a flood control dam at the outlet and has developed an attractive park, including more historical markers.

image The most recently installed marker, commemorating the Sandy Lake Tragedy, was established by descendants of the victims representing several Ojibwe tribes. Called the Mikwendaagooziwag Memorial, it stands on a small knoll that also is home to a very old cemetery.


Based on the information on all the markers, it became clear that the main Ojibwe village was located here or very close nearby. The missionaries Frederick and Elizabeth Ayers established a mission here in 1831, and later moved it to Fond du Lac in 1834. Interestingly, the Ayers missionary life paralleled the journey of our family. Prior to Sandy Lake, the Ayers served at LaPointe, and they later appear in the 1849 territorial census somewhere north of Little Rock Lake, as the nearest neighbors to Antoine Blair. Whether there this is coincidence or there is a real connection between the Ayers and our family depends whether Alexander Blair was French Canadian or Scottish. If he was from Scotland, he would likely have been Presbyterian, like the Ayers. On the other hand if he was French Canadian and Catholic, he and his family would have had very little to do with the Protestant missionaries.

According to the historical marker on-site, the cemetery includes Indian and non-Indian graves. The marker clearly points out that, although the small hill resembles a burial mound, it is a naturally occurring glacial feature. Only two gravestones remain, both of which are dated in later settlement days. As I reflected on this information, it occurred to me that Alexander Blair and other members of our family may have been buried here.


Given its strategic location on the portage between the Mississippi and the St. Louis River and Lake Superior (Savannah Portage State Park is located near the lake’s northeast corner), one can imagine this area bustling during the height of the fur trade. Early American explorers, including Zebulon Pike, Stephen Long, William Cass and eventually Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, all stopped at Sandy Lake to rest and re-supply. The members of our family who lived here witnessed a very important era in Minnesota’s history. The same can be said for the family members who later settled at Watab, which will be the subject of my next post.

The Traveling Barn Door Finds a Home

Growing up on the Spry farmstead before the age of electronic entertainment, my siblings and I played a lot of ball in the yard. There was (and still is) a glacial erratic in the middle of the yard the top of which was exposed through the grass. This patch of rock made a perfect, permanent home plate. First base was a Norway pine sapling we planted when we first moved to the farm. Mom’s long-suffering snowball bush (a high-bush cranberry) served as second base, as well as a sideline marker for football games. Third base was usually a flattened cardboard box.

Our makeshift field was the setting for acting out our baseball fantasies, imagining we were in a major league park. We even had our own version of the Green Monster, the south side of the old barn, which officially measured 217 ft from home plate in left center. I painted that number on the barn in white paint, with large numbers and a smaller “ft”, just like the outfield fences in Met Stadium.

The barn hadn’t been used for its original purpose, milking cows, for decades. Inside, a few rusted stanchions hung from the beams. In the hay loft, several rotting horse collars were perched in the crooks of the rafters. For the first few years after we moved to the farm, Dad raised feeder pigs in the barn. My after-school chores included “slopping the hogs”. After the pigs were gone, the barn sat empty again.

When my siblings and I returned to the farm on annual summer visits as young adults, we noticed the old barn was nearing its end. Each year, the sides of the ground floor leaned further north, as the classic barn roof with its aluminum cupola, still stately but sagging a bit in the middle, slowly sank to the earth.

On one summer visit some 20 years ago, Mel and I learned the Callaway Volunteer Fire Department was scheduled to use the barn for practice. We salvaged two doors from the barn, the main door from the front and a side door near the silo. We were visiting from our home in Montana at the time and hauled the doors all the way back on the roof of our Jeep Cherokee. We had no idea what we were going to do with them, but we thought they were cool and reminded us of home.

The larger door. The nicks and gouges in the middle are from the steel fencepost we used to prop the door shut on the barn.

The larger door. The nicks and gouges in the middle are from the steel fencepost we used to prop the door shut on the barn.

From Montana, the doors moved with us to Idaho, from there to New Mexico, and finally back to Minnesota when we bought our cabin on 5th Crow Wing Lake. We used the smaller door as a headboard for a while and the larger one to display antique fishing lures but mostly they stayed in the garage and collected dust. Although we spent thousands of dollars renovating and redecorating every house we owned, we never permanently installed the doors in any house. We knew we’d be moving on at some point and didn’t want to leave them behind.

When we started designing our house last winter, we spent a lot of time looking at the Houzz website (or what we call house porn), for ideas. We learned about the latest decorating craze: barn doors. These are doors that slide along a track and look old, for which you can find hardware on at least a dozen sites on-line. You can even order doors made from reclaimed wood. Designers have learned what we have known for years: old barn doors are cool.

Finally, we had a perfect opportunity to incorporate the doors into our “forever” home. There was one problem: neither door was large enough to cover a standard opening for an interior door. So I bought some pine boards and built a frame that incorporates the large door and is big enough to cover the door opening. The barn door was lop-sided, missing parts and no longer square but I made no attempt to fix any of that. I took the old door apart and inserted some old galvanized steel Mel had salvaged from her grandpa’s farm.

The completed project.

The completed project.

The back side of the frame.

The back side of the frame.

Hardware installed.

Hardware installed.

The finished project awaits installation between my office and the master bedroom after interior work is completed on the new house. We’re still not sure how to use the other barn door, which is smaller yet. It will stay in the garage, collecting dust until inspiration strikes again.

On the Farm, Part 2

NOTE: After I wrote the previous piece about working with my Grandpa Ray and Great-grandpa Alfred on the farm, I asked my Grandma Arleen why Grandpa seemed so unhappy as a farmer. She told me about the long, tempestuous history of father and son farming together. I retell the story here, first starting with some background.

Herman Alfred Faltersack was born in 1899 to Oler and Kate (Temple) Faltersack in Columbus, Wisconsin. The family, who were farmers, had moved to the Faribault area in Minnesota by 1910, and eventually settled in Iosco Township in Waseca County. Alfred, as he was known, married Alma Grob of Waterville in 1919. The 1920 census found them on a rented farm and the proud parents of a son, Raymond Arthur. As the family story goes, Raymond was laid in a basket perched on the open door of the oven to keep him warm.

Although farm machinery was becoming more available, farming in those days was mostly manual labor and working with teams of horses. In addition to strong backs, farmers in those days had to have strong wills to survive. Farms were typically very small, especially by today’s standards, producing nearly all the food the family needed, and in good years, income for clothing and other necessities. In those days, farmers did not have price supports and other government programs to fall back on. Every spring planting was a new gamble. Many farmers failed and they and their families moved on to cities to find work or to new land to try again. A farmer who could stay on his land – make the bank payments – and feed his family was considered successful. Staying on the land was a source of pride.

Alfred and Almie, as she was known, farmed all their lives. According to the 1920 and 1930 censuses, they rented their farm. Their landlord was probably Alfred’s father Oler. Oler and Kate lived next door in 1920; by 1930, they had retired and moved to Elysian. The 1940 census also indicates that Alfred and Almie were renting farmland, although they owned their home. After Oler’s death in 1945 Alfred continued to rent from his mother Kate. It is unclear whether Alfred and Almie could not quite afford to buy the farm, or Kate didn’t want to sell. Regardless, Alfred was likely frustrated, maybe even humiliated by the situation.

Raymond and his sister Mary grew up on the farm with most of the extended Faltersack family living in the area. Sometimes, one or more of their cousins came to live with them when trouble was brewing in their own homes. Many of the Faltersacks were hard drinkers, and their children suffered the consequences.

All the Faltersack children did farm work from an early age. Each child was expected to pull their own weight. Ray milked the cows, cultivated the fields and worked with the threshing crews during harvest time. They grew up during the Great Depression, and made money whenever and wherever they could. During Prohibition, Ray collected bottles along the railroad tracks to sell to bootleggers. He also caught and sold bullheads for a nickel a bushel.

Grandpa Ray told me a story from Prohibition days involving a picnic and home-brewed beer. When they were about 12 years old, Ray and a friend spied some bottles of beer in the back of an old Stanley Steamer at a picnic. When no one was looking, they snuck up to the car, swiped as many bottles as the could, and ran down into a ravine to drink them. Being their first experience with home brew, they did not know to avoid drinking the yeast in the bottles. Grandpa said they got “sicker than hell.”

Ray had a cousin named Ione who had a friend named Arleen Hawthorne. Ione and Arleen did everything together, including climbing on top of parked car to watch the fireworks one Fourth of July. As they were oohing and ahhing, the cloth roof of the car gave way under their weight and they found themselves in the back seat laughing hysterically. Grandma said they bailed out of the car and ran away before the owner returned.

Ray and Arleen began dating in their early teens. When Ray was 20 and Arleen just 17, they decided to get married. He being Catholic and she being Lutheran, there was little chance of their families approving the union. So the lovebirds eloped. Ray cashed in his life insurance policy, took Alfred’s Model A and drove Arleen to Iowa where they were married by a Justice of the Peace. On returning to the farm, the new bride was met at the door by Almie, who asked Arleen if she was pregnant. Arleen replied “no” and Almie said “welcome to the family.”

Ray and Arleen lived with Alfred and Almie in the early years of their marriage, helping with the farm. Ray also worked off the farm, mowing peas for a local cannery. When World War II broke out, Ray’s draft status was II-C, a deferment for men “necessary for farm labor.” Throughout the war, Ray was required to check at the courthouse regularly to see if his draft status changed. Several of his cousins as well as Arleen’s brother Dewey served. The Faltersack farm was where they gathered when on leave.

After the war, Ray continued to work with Alfred on the farm. Increasingly, they became at odds over farm operations. Other conflicts involving Grandma Kate and Alfred’s siblings also added to the tension. Grandma Arleen recalls one argument ending when Ray told his Dad “sell the damn cows, I don’t care.” So Alfred did. This left Ray and Arleen without a future.

After deciding they needed to move on, Ray and Arleen held an auction on the farm. The extended family attempted to interfere with the auction by getting the sheriff involved. Ray had some pending legal troubles after an altercation with his brother-in-law, who was abusive to Ray’s sister Mary. The brother-in-law, with help from one of Ray’s uncles, insisted the sheriff shut down the sale and arrest Ray. Ray’s cousins intervened and convinced the sheriff to let the sale proceed. Ray eventually paid a fine for beating up his brother-in-law.

The young couple headed north in 1948, leaving Waseca County and their troublesome relatives behind. While looking for a place to start over, they stopped at a little beer joint called the Cozy Coach in Westbury, a remnant of a town located north of Detroit Lakes. The Coach was a converted railroad car that featured a bar as well as a few groceries and a gas pump out front. A house connected to the back of the Coach served as a residence. After a few beers, the owner, Henry Katzenberger, convinced the couple to buy the Cozy Coach.

Operation of the business fell largely to Arleen, as Ray was busy launching his custom baling service. He had noted on earlier trips up north that farmers in the area were still harvesting hay by stacking, a method that orignated centuries ago. Ray was familiar with a brand new technology, the hay baler, and soon was baling hay from one end of Becker County to the other and beyond. Ray and Arleen and their three kids were prospering.

A few years later, Alfred and Almie moved north. Alfred, then in his 50s, bought a 160-acre farm a half-mile west of Westbury. Soon it became evident that Alfred needed help on the farm. He needed Ray. So Ray reluctantly became Alfred’s farming partner again.

Soon, the old tensions between the two men resurfaced.  The father’s pride was tied being a successful farmer. The son’s loyalty was tested again.

Knowing all this history, thanks to Grandma Arleen, gives me a better understanding of Grandpa Ray and his relationship with his “Pa”. Grandpa Ray didn’t want to be a farmer.