Prosperity and Hard Times in Callaway

I have been studying this photo for quite awhile because I think it tells a story.

Spry family home

The photo appears to have been made around 1900. Mitchell and Amelia had been working their farm for about 25 years. In that time, they had managed to build a relatively large, well-appointed home complete with window shutters and landscaping.

The way his family is posed in front of his house suggests that Mitchell wanted to show the world he was prospering. He had come along way from his poor beginnings in Quebec. His family looks healthy and well-clothed. This was no snapshot; the photographer composed the photo carefully. The message is clear: this family is successful.

We do not know much more about Mitchell and Amelia’s life. We know that Mitchell and Amelia served on committees organizing the White Earth Celebration back in 1888, according to the The Progress, White Earth’s newspaper. We know Mitchell was one of five men who signed (Mitchell with an X) for a 90-day note for $700 for construction of the Catholic church in Callaway in 1909 (from Assumption Catholic Church’s centennial booklet).

One other source of information on the family is the Becker County Recorder’s office. These records indicate Mitchell and Amelia mortgaged the farm in 1907 and satisfied that debt in 1908. The deed records include several entries indicating the Sprys, including sons Henry and Peter, may have been speculating on lots in the newly platted town of Callaway. Callaway sprung up on a former Indian allotment along the Soo Line railroad, about 3 miles from the Spry farm. Henry and his brother-in-law Eusebe obtained a “town lot deed” in 1908 from Tri-State Land Co. for a lot in Callaway; this may have been where they established their store.

The deed records indicate Pete and his wife Addie sold Pete’s original 80-acre allotment along the Buffalo River to Annie Reinhardt, wife of Henry who owned the flour mill in Richwood. Presumably, Pete then farmed with Mitchell and his brothers for a time. In 1917, Pete and Addie bought Mitchell and Amelia’s farm with $1500 in financing from his parents and another $500 borrowed from his brother Henry. Pete and Addie raised their ten kids on this farm.

That same year, the U.S. entered World War I. Farm prices grew stronger during the war, as demand increased to feed war-torn Europe and the hungry soldiers overseas. Wheat prices increased from $1.03 per bushel in 1914 to $2.34 in 1919, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. Land prices also doubled in value, and farmers found it relatively easy to obtaining financing to expand their operations.

In 1920, Pete and Addie obtained a $4000 mortgage from Security State Bank in Detroit Lakes and a $300 second mortgage from Citizens State Bank in Callaway. They used these funds to pay off their debts to Pete’s parents and brother.

After the war ended and as European countries began to recover, crop surpluses began to build. Burdened with debt, farmers were reluctant to reduce production and crop prices began to drop. By 1920, wheat was down to $1.65 per bushel. With reduced demand, land prices also declined. Soon, farmers were unable to make their mortgage payments. Between 1926 and 1932, foreclosures took 1,442 farms in Minnesota. The farm crisis also precipitated bank failures, including Security State Bank and Citizens State Bank.

In 1924, Pete and Addie obtained a $6000 mortgage from the State of Minnesota. This mortgage may have been issued by the Department of Rural Credit, formed by the state in response to bank failures. The couple apparently used this financing to satisfy the previous mortgages, which were then held by Northwestern Trust Company.

In 1927, the State of Minnesota foreclosed on Pete and Addie. A sheriff’s sale was held on June 11, 1927. It does not appear that there were any successful bidders, as the 1929 county atlas still listed the State of Minnesota as the owner of the farm and the 1930 census indicated they were renting the farm. The home Mitchell and Amelia built and were so proud of was still home for Pete and Addy, but it was not theirs anymore.

Another photo of the Mitchell Spry family, taken around 1920, tells another story.

Mitchell Spry Family

Back: Eliza Spry Bellefeuille, Amelia Spry Bellefeuille, Lawrence Spry, Madeline Spry Trepp, Ellen Spry Bowman. Front: Henry Spry, Mitchell Spry, Amelia Trotochaud Spry, Frank Spry. Missing: Peter Spry

Here the adult children surround Mitchell and Amelia, perhaps on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary. Again, this portrait depicts a prosperous family. But Peter is not in the portrait. According to family lore, he was too busy working in the fields to sit in on the photo. This story suggests that Pete did not lose the farm for lack of effort.

The 1940 census indicates Pete and Addie had moved into Callaway sometime after 1935. Pete served as city treasurer and also served on the school board. Oldest son Ray, his wife Abby and their kids Russell and Donna were staying with Pete and Addie in 1940. The youngest boys, Lee and Bunt, were still living at home. Soon they would be off serving in World War II. Elmer would serve, too.

The 1940 census has Uncles Ernie and Elmer living in Grand Portage. Uncle Ernie joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and helped build the replica trading post at Grand Portage. A historian researching the CCC in Minnesota interviewed Ernie in 1982 about growing up during the Depression. He recalled the whole family out picking potatoes in farmers’ fields for $3 a day.

Pete and Addie’s oldest daughter Ethelbert had married Lauren Brandvig of Nebraska and was living in Minneapolis and working at Woolworth’s (1937). Doris had married Joe Zurn; Joe was a truck driver who owned his own truck in 1940. Rena was married to Dan Clark, who was working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was building roads and public buildings. Lenora was married to Lyle Bryngelson, who worked for Cass-Clay Creamery; they were living in Moorhead in 1936. Lenora’s twin, Leonard “Bud” Spry was my grandpa. In 1940, he and wife Irene (Diz) and my dad Jerry lived in Callaway and Bud worked at Paul Johnson’s bee farm.

Spry sisters

Rena, Doris, Ethelbert and Lenora Spry, daughters of Pete and Addie

L to R_ Ervin, Elmer, LeeDespite a disastrous farm economy and the Great Depression, Pete and Addie managed to raise their kids and send them off into the world to start their own families. Pete lost Addie in 1944 at the age of 65. Pete lived the rest of his life in Callaway in a house on the south side of town. He passed away in 1971, at the age of 88.

********

In 1982, I came home to Callaway on Spring Break and helped my dad tear down Great-Grandpa Pete’s house to make room for a new house to be built by cousin Ernie Clark. I remember working alone in the old house, knocking out plaster walls and taking out studs that Dad would recycle for other projects. I remember finding a report card in one wall; it was Henry’s from his time at Carlisle Indian School. I gave it to Aunt Rena for safekeeping. As I worked, I wondered about Grandpa Pete. I couldn’t say I really knew him; I was 10 when he passed away.

As I said in an earlier post, the Sprys did not have a lot of stories about their ancestors. Researching my family history has filled in some holes in our story. Although I did not find a lot of details, I was able to align the facts I could find with events in the history of White Earth and of Minnesota. This gave me a better idea of what our ancestors experienced. Hopefully, our family now has a better sense of where we come from.

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