Rez Plumbers


June 1977: In a community center in the village of Naytahwaush three old ladies were sitting in a circle, quietly conversing while they hand-sewed a quilt. I recognized one of them as Mrs. Keahna, the Ojibwe woman who came to our school the previous winter to demonstrate making traditional black-ash baskets. Downstairs in the basement of the former schoolhouse, Grandpa and I were putting in a new water heater, struggling to convert the old cast-iron lines to copper to make the connections. While I waited for him to signal me to turn the water on, Grandpa went upstairs to check the pressure at the sink. After the test, Grandpa walked past the old women on his way back downstairs. They grew quiet for a moment as he made his way down. Then I heard one of them say something in Ojibwe and they all tittered like schoolgirls.

Grandpa Ray was a man of many talents and many jobs. He was adept at stringing together just enough part-time work to pay the bills but not so much as to interfere with his hunting and fishing.  Of course it helped that Grandma Arleen worked full-time running their crop insurance business.  One of Grandpa’s part-time gigs was as a plumber for the tribal housing authority on the White Earth reservation. I spent my high school summers working for him as a plumber’s helper.

We split our time between new housing projects and service calls at existing homes, community centers and other facilities.  I liked working on new home construction best. The first step was reviewing the blueprints and figuring out what fittings and lengths of pipe we needed. Then we did the “rough-in”, starting with the PVC drain lines and stubbing the water supply lines into what would be the kitchen and bathroom. We came back several weeks later, after the drywall was installed and painted to set fixtures and hook everything up. By the end of the summer, I got proficient enough that Grandpa would have me doing nearly all the work in the crawlspace. Working on the new homes was predictable and easy because everything was new. There was also satisfaction in knowing that, in some cases, we were helping provide the first homes with indoor plumbing for some families.

Doing service calls around the reservation was anything but predictable. The work could range from fixing a leaky faucet in a mobile home to retrofitting old plumbing in a disused building being converted to a new use. Our supervisor, Bill Englund, did his best to brief us on the assignments for the day. Bill and Grandpa were hunting and fishing buddies from way back and liked to start the day with cups of coffee and the latest news and gossip. I still can picture Bill, his arms resting on the side of the pickup box out in the housing authority’s parking lot, telling stories in his low, gruff voice. Bill spoke with a sing-song rhythm unique to native people at White Earth. His stories were usually about colorful characters around the reservation, with nicknames like Cowboy, Dude and Smoke.

One such character was Pat Clark, Grandpa’s sidekick and my fellow plumber’s helper. Pat came from a large family of mixed-bloods who came to the reservation around the time my family did. A long-time farmhand, Pat walked stooped with his square head and big shoulders leading the rest of him. Pat was not much younger than Grandpa and probably in worse physical shape, so he mainly handed Grandpa tools and parts. More than his help, I think Grandpa enjoyed his company. Pat also spoke with that White Earth lilt, mixed with a brogue that suggested Irish roots. An inveterate gossip, Pat seemed to know everyone on the reservation, or at least he had a story about everyone.

Some days the three of us spent more time riding in the truck than working. Getting to remote parts of the reservation took a lot of time, but I enjoyed exploring this land of woods and water. Occasionally, Grandpa would get the itch to try out fishing on a small lake in the middle of nowhere. On these days he had his jon boat and three-horse Johnson outboard in the back of the truck when he stopped to pick me up on the way to work. That is not to say we played hooky, but finished up early enough to drop a line at the end of the day. Grandpa also liked to bring a small grill along and cook up lunch on the job sites.

Like so many of my adventures with Grandpa, working on the rez was a learning experience. As a farm kid from the edge of the reservation, my eyes were opened to a different world. In some homes dysfunction and despair were evident and the work was sometimes unpleasant. In others, we encountered families who lived mainly subsistence lifestyles and held traditional beliefs. Here we were met by people with a quiet dignity who were sometimes friendly and sometimes not. These encounters were my first real experiences with a different culture. What little I knew about my family’s history as mixed-bloods on the reservation did not prepare me. I went home everyday with questions spinning in my head: who were the real Indians? What did it mean to be Indian? Where do we mixed-bloods fit in? I still ponder these questions today.

As for Grandpa, he enjoyed meeting people and learning about their lives. He was not afraid to ask questions. As with the many other places he traveled, he made friends on the reservation. Many white men of his generation looked down on Indians with disdain but Grandpa treated everyone with respect. As a kid growing up in a white man’s world, I could have easily picked up bad attitudes about people different from me. But Grandpa showed me how to be a decent human being.


Into the Whiteshell, Part 2


A painting by my daughter Hannah, based on a photo of Grandpa and me from a fishing trip in Canada.

Our trips to Whiteshell Provincial Park typically lasted seven or eight days, including travel time. Having five days in camp allowed us to explore the lake, trying out old fishing holes from Grandpa’s earlier trips and some new spots. Back in the 1950s and 60s Grandpa and his friends mainly fished for big northern pike, and occasionally got into some good walleye fishing. By the time I got to go, Echo Lake had developed an excellent walleye fishery.

My first year up, Dad brought along a 69-cent, hot pink lure with white feathers. Grandpa gave him some grief over it, but Dad tied in on anyway. For whatever reason, that lure was irresistible to walleyes.  By mid-day, the feathers were gone and by the end of the day the lure barely had any paint left on it! Grandpa tore through his tackle box, looking for anything with pink on it. Even though Dad had the hot hand that day, we all caught fish.

To keep under the possession limit at the time, we ate fish everyday. Sometimes Grandpa threw a frying pan, some lard and salt and pepper in the boat so we could a have a shore lunch, just like those fancy guided fishermen from the resorts. Grandpa did all the cooking on those trips and I did the dishes. The menu was never fancy but we ate like kings.

While we enjoyed catching walleyes, for real excitement we went after big pike.We checked out a spot on the lake Grandpa called Meat Market Falls. Located somewhere along the western shore of the lake, a creek tumbled down the rocks. It was a spawning stream for suckers, a favorite food of northerns in the spring.  Grandpa once caught a 28-lb. pike there years before. I remember admiring the big fish hanging on the wall in Grandpa and Grandma’s basement, its belly sagging below the edge of the mounting board. But we found the creek had been dammed up by beavers, so we landed the boat, hiked up the slope and inspected the dam.  It was the tallest beaver dam I had ever seen, over 10 ft at the centerline. Behind it was a pond of crystal-clear water where we tried a few casts but had no luck.

At the end of my first trip up, we stopped at a rock outcrop on the way back to the portage. Another sucker creek poured into the lake right next to the outcrop. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were in no hurry to leave. We cast spoons off the rock and hooked several nice northerns. Grandpa rigged up a frozen smelt on the end of his line and cast it out to sink about 6 ft below a big wooden bobber. When the bobber went down he told me to set the hook and start reeling. I fought the fish at least 20 minutes before Dad was able to get the landing net under it and haul it in. I had my first trophy northern pike, 42 inches long and about 18-20 lbs.

Grandpa was even more excited than I was and he and Dad decided right on the spot to have the fish mounted by a taxidermist for me. We carefully slit the belly on one side to clean it and packed it in ice. We brought the frozen fish to the taxidermist a few days after getting home. I remember the wait for the taxidermist to finish as excruciating – I couldn’t wait to see my trophy! Finally, after some months, we brought the mount home. Grandpa insisted my parents hang the thing in their living room where everyone to could see it. When I became an adult with a job and a house some years later my parents allowed me to take possession. The old mount has survived a half-dozen moves mostly intact, and hangs in our cabin to this day.

When we were not fishing or lolling around camp, we did some exploring. We hiked to nearby Forbes Lake, checked out islands for potential future campsites, and watched moose swimming across the lake. Grandpa always stopped to watch wildlife, whether beavers or bears or bald eagles.  Even though Grandpa lived to fish, he took the time to enjoy the beauty around him and enjoyed sharing the experience with me. Through him I gained a deep appreciation for the natural world and for quiet places. This is his greatest gift to me.






Into the Whiteshell, Part 1

Of all my experiences with Grandpa, our Canadian fishing trips had the most profound effect on me. Spending a week traveling to and camping in a wilderness in the Canadian Shield country, fishing for dinner, soaking in the beauty of the place, gave me a lifelong appreciation for the natural world. The Whiteshell country shaped who I am.

Whiteshell Provincial Park contains over a thousand square miles of rivers, forests, bare rock outcrops and crystal clear lakes and is located east of Winnipeg, Manitoba along the Ontario border. The area is essentially the western end of the Canadian Shield country that extends eastward through the Quetico-Superior country, the Boundary Waters and beyond. The exposed rock or shield is some of the oldest rock on the planet.

Whiteshell map.pngThe Whiteshell is named after the megis shell, a sacred object central to the origin stories of the Ojibwe. The area is known for its petroforms, which are rock alignments in the shapes of turtles, snakes, humans and other forms that historically may have been used by the Midewiwin or Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibwe, and probably are still in use today.

Our trips through the Whiteshell followed the Winnipeg River along the northern border of the park. This route was heavily used during the fur trade era, linking the Great Lakes to interior Canada.  The north half of the park is roadless wilderness, with only a handful of fly-in resorts and trail shelters for development. Our trip upriver was the most adventurous part of the journey. Dad, Grandpa and I traveled on Grandpa’s 14-foot Lund boat packed to the gunwales with gear, gas, food and beer some 40 miles. Grandpa’s boat was powered by an old 10-hp Johnson motor. He had a 3.5 hp Johnson motor that conveniently folded in half for storage, as a backup. That durable little motor is now in my garage.

Leaving Pointe du Bois, just above a large hydroelectric dam, at dawn we weaved our way among the many islands along the river to Lamprey Rapids. Here we had a choice of shooting the rapids or portaging around them.  If the water was high, the rapids were barely discernible and easy to traverse. In low water years, we typically unloaded a few critical items from the boat and then hand-towed it along the edge of the rapids to the upstream side.  We had good reason to use caution. Grandpa recalled a time when he and Grandma encountered another couple at the rapids who had been drinking. They later learned the couple drowned attempting to shoot the rapids.

Above Lamprey Rapids, we continued upriver, Dad reading an old map and pointing out the route to Grandpa. The dotted line on the map showed how to weave through the islands and outcrops. At the outlet of Eaglenest Lake, the river again shallowed and numerous rocks just below the surface had to be avoided. At the south end of the lake we reached Little Echo Creek and followed it back west. We traveled through a couple of smaller lakes to reach a falls and portage around mid-afternoon.

The portage, although only about 500 yards long, was the toughest part of the trip. We unloaded our boatload of gear and packed it over the rocky trail, making innumerable trips. On my first trip, at age 12, I thought we would never finish! I was stripped down to my long underwear, sweltering even though it was only late May.

The worst part was lugging the 14-ft aluminum boat up the portage. Dad grabbed the bow line and pulled it over his shoulder until the bow lifted up. Grandpa and I each took hold of the handle on each side of the stern. We would go about 20 steps, put the boat down and rest. We attempted to make the work lighter the next trip by inserting two aspen saplings through the seat braces to make like a wheelbarrow. Another year, Grandpa completed the wheelbarrow concept by welding up a wheel mounted to brackets which were in turn mounted to the boat. After thinking about this idea, working it up in his shop during the winter, and hauling it all the way upriver, Grandpa was convinced it would do the trick. But it didn’t, and the contraption probably still lays in the woods next to the trail where Grandpa discarded it.

Finally, after getting all our gear over the portage and reloading the boat, we were on the northeast arm of Echo Lake, our destination. The lake was incredibly beautiful, with many high cliffs, tranquil bays and incoming streams. Even though a wildfire several years before had burned off much of the timber, all the rocks and water, the sheer wildness of it – I was enthralled.

On my first trip, we camped on a rocky point near the south end of the lake. This was the site of an old trappers cabin that Grandpa and a group of friends leased back in the 1950s. Unfortunately, over the years more friends and friends of friends abused the privilege, leaving behind trash and letting the cabin fall into disrepair. Park rangers eventually burned it down. We set up an old army tent on the site, built a temporary table against a tree for washing dishes and preparing meals and gathered downed wood for the campfire.

I’ll write more about our experiences at Echo Lake in my next post.




He Painted It Silver

Grandpa was a creative guy in his own way. His creativity came out of his experience growing up on a farm during the Great Depression. He learned to make do with what he had on hand, to fix things whether he knew how or not and to make use of every scrap of useful material.

Grandpa’s choice of media was scrap metal. He did not make abstract sculptures, although sometimes the odds and ends I found around his shop approached art. He made practical things, usually inspired by an ad or story he saw about some new gadget. For example, he made his own wall-mounted can crusher when recycling aluminum cans caught on. When the Club was advertised as the answer to auto thefts, he built his own version.  His “Club” consisted of angle iron and iron pipe welded together in a configuration that could be padlocked. Although I do not remember exactly how it worked, I do recall that part of his device was permanently bolted to the dash of his pickup truck. The finishing touch: a couple coats of silver spray paint.

The silver spray paint was Grandpa’s signature. He used it to cover up scorch marks and welds and to give his contraptions a shiny, new appearance. I suppose he thought it approximated the look of chrome. But the silver paint did not hide the fact that the object was homemade. That was made clear by the cutting torch edges, rough grinder marks and odd holes or bends from whatever use the scrap had in a previous life.  Anyway, appearance was not that important to him; what mattered was the device worked.

Grandpa was all about solving problems. When he and Grandma began traveling to Texas in the winter, they had to pack as much stuff as they could in their 4-door sedan. Of course, when one fills the trunk for a long trip one hopes they do not have a flat tire. No one likes to unload their car on the side of the road to get at the spare. Grandpa came up with a workaround to this problem. He would take the spare “donut” tire out of its place in the trunk, fill that space with stuff, and then bolt the spare to the top of the trunk lid.  When he first tried this concept he had an older car and probably did not diminish its value much. But a few years later he bought a brand new car – and immediately mounted the spare on top of the trunk. My dad called it “Ray’s Lincoln Continental Kit.”

When I was in grad school in Bozeman, Montana, my grandparents came to visit and meet their first great-grandson. Grandpa and I tried our hand at trout fishing on the Gallatin River, even though we were not particularly fond of eating trout.  We talked about trying them smoked, but did not have a smoker. The next time they came out, Grandpa brought me his latest creation: a contraption that would convert our little Weber grill into a fish smoker.

The device consists of a cut-off 30-gallon steel barrel with a rod welded across the middle. On this rod is balanced a piece of grill cut and welded to fit in the barrel. Attached to the welded grill are two racks that support the second grill, which is the one that came with the Weber. To smoke fish, one lights a charcoal fire and dumps wood chips on it to create smoke. Grandpa said it took about 8 hours to completely smoke a batch of fish. I have hauled it around through 6 states over the last 30 years , but never got around to using it.

Not sure I ever will use it, but I will always keep it. After all, Grandpa made it for me.

Maybe I’ll paint it silver.


Who Was Mitchell Spry?

On January 11, 1871 in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Amelia Trotochaud, daughter of Pierre and Angeline Trotochaud of Benton County, was married to Mitchell Spry of Benton County by Father P.M. Stukenkemper. This according to official county records, which also indicated that Pierre and Angeline served as witnesses.  The History of Stearns County, Vol. I indicates that Fr. Stukenkemper was the priest who built the church of the Immaculate Conception in St. Cloud in 1868. That church stood near the location of the present Cathedral in St. Cloud.

So began the Spry family in Minnesota. Our family has long known that Mitchell Spry was born as Michel Surprenant in Canada, but changed his name when he came to the US. Other than this fact, our family knew very little about Mitchell. This has been my main motivation in researching our family history: where did the Sprys come from?

Fortunately, French Canadian genealogy is well documented through the records of Catholic parishes in Quebec, which go back to the 17th century.  The Surprenant name can be traced back to 1678, when Jacques Surprenant, who came to Canada as a French soldier, married Jeanne Denote, who came to Canada in 1665. Jeanne Denote was part of the filles du roi (Daughters of the King), young women, many orphaned, who were recruited and sponsored by King Louis XIV to help settle French Canada. The Surprenants settled in the Monteregie region of Quebec, located south of Montreal and north of Lake Champlain.

Michel Surprenant was born on December 9, 1840 to Joseph Surprenant and Marie Flavie Monet and baptized the same day at St-Edouard de Napierville church, a photo of which is shown below. Michel was the fifth of seven surviving children of Joseph and Flavie. Joseph passed away in 1847.

IMG_0265The US Census of 1850 finds the widowed Flavie and her children living in Mooers, New York, which is located just south of the Canadian border. Julien, the oldest at 22, is listed as a sawyer, and was likely supporting the family. The other siblings were Flavie (19), Peter (12), Mitchel (10), John (Baptiste) (8), and Selena (4). It is not clear why the family moved to New York, although this area had historically been where Canadian refugees from the Revolutionary War were resettled. They may have had family or friends there.

The next record I could find for Mitchell (Michel) was in the 1870 US Census in Benton County, Minnesota. I could find no other record for him in the US for the intervening 20 years, although I did find at least one other Michel Surprenant who was older. I was curious as to his whereabouts during these years and wondered whether he went back to Canada to avoid being drafted into the Civil War.

Meanwhile, I went through some information my mom had compiled about the Sprys and came across a letter from a man named Houde who claimed that Michel Surprenant had a son named Felix by a woman named Leocadie Brunelle. I checked Canadian genealogy records and came across the baptismal record for Felix, which was dated May 2, 1858. Michel and Leocadie were listed as his parents. He was baptized at a church called Ste.-Melanie d’Ailleboust in a village called Acton Vale located in the same region of Quebec where Michel Surprenant was born. Michel would have been 17 years old at the time and Leocadie age 30. Mr. Houde also has several other siblings to Felix listed in his family tree on

A search of the 1861 Canadian census finds Michel Surprenant living in Acton Vale. Here he is listed in a household with the following:

Benonie Brunelle, farmer, age 61, male, married 1815

Marie D. Brunelle, age 56, female, married 1815

Benonie Brunelle, age 20, male, married 1860

Leocadie B. Surprenant, age 31, female

Felix Surprenant, age 2, male

Ser(aphine) F. Brunelle, age 19, female, married 1860

Flavie Surprenant, age 40, female

Delima Surprenant, age 7, female

Francois Brunelle, age 27, male, married 1850.

Church records indicate that Benonie and Marie were Leocadie’s parents and the younger Benonie and Francois were her brothers.

Interestingly, the census does not list Michel and Leocadie as married. Felix’s baptismal record also points to something unusual about this relationship. Most of the baptismal records, which typically were recorded in same format using the same terms for each, indicate the baby is the product of a “legitime mariage”. This means the church recognizes the parents’ marriage, most likely because they were married in the church.  In Felix’s case the record does not include the word “legitime”. This may mean Michel and Leocadie claimed to be married, but had no proof or were not married in the church. Felix apparently had an older sister, Delima. Because Michel would have been only 13 when she was born, it seems likely she is Felix’s half-sister from a previous relationship her mother had. The woman named Flavie Surprenant may have been Michel’s mother or sister, who shared that name. The woman is listed as age 40; Michel’s mother would have been 51; the sister would have been 30.

Recently I learned that I share DNA with two descendants of Felix Surprise, which confirms Mr. Houde’s claim that Michel Surprenant had a family in Canada. This leaves us with plenty of questions. Why did he leave them? Where was he between 1861 and 1870? Was the name change part of an effort to start over in the U.S., or was he hiding from something?

Felix appears to have spent the rest of his life in Wisconsin. He was married to Marie Barbeau in 1889 and together they had eleven children. In the 1900 US census records, which find Felix and his family in Taylor County, Wisconsin, he uses the name Surprenant. In the 1905 state census and in all subsequent records, he went by Felix Surprise. The last record for him is the 1940 US census, which lists him as a boarder along with two of his sons in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Mr. Houde’s family tree indicates he died in 1945.

It seems unlikely that Felix Surprise and Mitchell Spry met or corresponded as adults. Given that our family was not previously aware of Leocadie and Felix, it is unlikely that Mitchell Spry ever talked about them.

Until now, the Sprys did not know the story of where we came from. As far as I know, we have no stories about great-great grandpa Mitchell. Come to think of it, our family is not good at sharing the stories of our lives. Maybe Mitchell wanted it that way.

What Grandpa Said

Grandpa liked to talk. He was not one to blather on about himself; he did not talk to hear himself talk. But he enjoyed a good conversation, and you could be sure he would do his part to keep that conversation lively. Grandpa’s language was usually colorful and plenty salty but never vulgar. Listening to Grandpa talk was fun because of the things he said.

Grandpa Ray was a master of metaphors and aphorisms, even if he didn’t know what those were. His eighth-grade education did not provide him with much sophistication, but his hardscrabble farmboy upbringing gave him a unique perspective on life and living.

Just as he enjoyed good conversation, he loved eating, and talking about eating.  Coming in from a long day in the fields or woods Grandpa usually had built up a good appetite, often saying “I’m so hungry my stomach thinks my throat is cut.” After enjoying a big meal or an especially good piece of cake or pie, he would say “I wish I was bigger so I could eat more.”

Grandpa always had a colorful way of describing certain events, people or things.  An icy sidewalk was “slicker than snot on a doorknob.” Something moving very fast through or past an obstacle was “like s**t through a long-necked goose.” A guy who told tall tales or talked a lot about himself was “so full of s**t his eyes were turning brown.” Such a man may also qualify for the application of another of Grandpa’s sayings: “he don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.” He did tend toward the scatological.  When he needed a beer it was because he was “drier than a fart in a windstorm.”

Another phrase he borrowed from Grandma. Whenever she talked about something she didn’t like or didn’t understand she would use the term “ferluvnermunny”.  For example, when talking about traveling to or in the Twin Cities she would say, “why, the traffic down there is just crazy. Cars coming at you from all directions. I wouldn’t live down there ferluvnermunny.” Translation: for love nor money. It kind sounds like she considers these equivalent, but I don’t think that’s what she means. Even today Grandma often evokes Grandpa: “I know Raymond always used to say…”

A lifelong Democrat, Grandpa was not above talking politics.  A favorite saying he borrowed from his dad, a farmer, went as follows: “Never trust a man in a suit. He may be a banker or a lawyer or a revenuer. But you can be damn sure he’s a Republican.” I never thought of Grandpa as a racist, but he would occasionally say things that made me wince. Southern Minnesota farm country in the 1920s and 30s was not a place you where you would learn about racial justice. Grandpa was a product of his time.

One of the funniest things I ever heard Grandpa say happened on a fishing trip in Canada. This story requires a little background, but I’ll write more about our Canadian adventures in a future post.  On my third trip there, when I was about 15, I was lucky enough to hook what was probably the biggest pike I’ve ever seen.  I fought it for about 20 minutes, trying to get it close to the boat so Dan, the guy sitting in the bow, could net it.  Finally, I got it within three feet of the gunwale and Dan reached out with the net. He got the fish just out of the water; I remember it barely folding up in the net. Then the big pike straightened out and the next thing we heard was a big SPLASH! The fish was gone. The double-hooked smelt rig I had on was mangled, the hooks almost straightened back into wire. The pike had torn a gaping hole in the net. (It turns out Grandpa packed an old, rotting landing net instead of a new one he’d bought for the trip.) I turned to Grandpa who was manning the motor and said, “I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.”

When we got back to our fish camp that afternoon, the story was told and retold to the guys in the other boat, who had gone a different direction that day.  As the beer flowed and the whisky bottle made its way around the campfire, the one that got away got bigger and bigger.  Apparently, it was the biggest fish Dan had ever seen too.  He couldn’t stop talking about it. Finally, Grandpa got tired of hearing him talk about it and said so. Then he said:

“Your mouth is flapping like a whippoorwill’s ass during chokecherry season.”

The little fish camp erupted with laughter. We were literally rolling on the ground with tears in our eyes. They could probably hear us in Winnipeg that night.

Grandpa was never a rich man, but he knew how fortunate he was. When he was relaxing in a boat or a lawn chair or driving through the countryside just enjoying the day, he would say “I wonder what the poor (or rich) people are doing today.” He wasn’t a snob, but he felt rich.

This is what I take away from my experiences with Grandpa Ray. Anyone who enjoys life as he did is rich indeed.

Grandpa Ray and Will Rogers

Ok, so Grandpa never met Will Rogers.* But he felt the same way as Will, who once said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Grandpa could make friends with just about anybody. He was especially good at making friends with people who knew where the fish were biting.

Of course, Grandpa met a lot of people over the years, at the Cozy Coach in Westbury, delivering mail, as a county agent, selling crop insurance….Even those who didn’t know him in the area knew of him. At Emmaville a couple of years ago, I met a man named Ron who grew up around Two Inlets, another small berg in the middle of nowhere, and who enjoyed the occasional beer in the Two Inlets Store. Grandpa and Grandma had some good friends who were Ron’s neighbors and often met them for beers around the little horseshoe bar at the store. Ron didn’t recall Grandpa by name when I mentioned him, but when I described him, he knew exactly who I was talking about: “oh, yeah, real loud guy, laughed real loud and drank a lot of beer.” Yeah, that was my Grandpa.

Grandpa loved to stop at small roadside taverns (he called them beer joints) when he traveled, and always managed to strike up a conversation with someone. Story after story was told. One round would lead to another, and the next thing you know, Grandpa was planning a fishing/hunting/camping trip with the guy. He and Grandma had friendships with people all over the country, dating back to the 1940s. Year after year, Grandpa or Grandma would call them up just to see how they were.  Grandma was a good letter writer and kept up correspondence with a lot of the folks they met.

Every summer, all summer long, Grandpa and Grandma would have company. Friends would come from far and wide to stay and do some fishing down at Floyd Lake. Grandpa never passed up the chance to take his guests fishing.  He reveled in watching their reactions when the sunnies were really biting.

Grandpa was fascinated with the way people lived in other places and in other cultures. He often told the story of some folks from Chicago who came for a wedding. Upon arrival at my grandparents’ farm in the woods, the city folks marveled at the surrounding “wilderness”. One man wondered how anyone could make a living where there were no offices or factories. After Grandpa had given the bride and groom a celebratory ride in a manure spreader behind his tractor, one of the Chicagoans asked about the contraption. Grandpa asked the fellow if he had been in the army and if he remembered “honey wagons.” The light of recognition went on; they had found a way to relate. That story always made him chuckle.

In their later years, Grandpa and Grandma spent the winters near Brownsville in Texas. After spending a few years trying to figure out how to fish the Rio Grande, Grandpa befriended a Mexican-American guy he met on the river.  Soon he was having success on the Rio, but he also enjoyed visiting the man and his family and learning about their lives.

A more poignant story involved Grandpa’s one and only elk hunt in Montana.  After several days of hard hunting, he was still waiting for an opportunity to see elk within shooting range.  Driving near Neihart in the Little Belt Mountains, Grandpa and his friend Darrell Abbott, a rancher from Gilt Edge, spotted a herd of cows several hundred yards away.  Grandpa decided it was his last best chance, got out of the truck and took a shot. It was a good one – he knocked a cow elk down. While Darrell continued hunting, Grandpa hiked up to his kill and began dressing out the elk.  As he was working away, he began to wonder how in the world he was going to get the elk down from the mountainside.  Just then, another hunter came along on horseback and offered to help.  He showed Grandpa how to quarter and bone out the animal and together they packed the meat down to the truck.  By the time they were done, Grandpa had a new friend.

The man was a local, a retired prison guard and offered to host Grandpa the next year on another hunt.  Grandpa was excited about the trip, having talked with his friend during the year to firm up plans.  Then he got the sad news: his new friend was killed in a car accident, pulling out of his driveway.  Grandpa and Grandma traveled out to Montana for the funeral of his friend. He never went on another elk hunt.

I often wish I had friends like Grandpa did. I tell myself these are different times; people don’t socialize like they used to do. But really, the formula remains the same: make a friend, be a friend. Stay in touch. Make plans and follow through. Whenever I think about the way Grandpa lived I am reminded that having friends is a responsibility.

Another famous man Grandpa actually did meet, Hubert Humphrey, once said, “the greatest gift of life is friendship and I have received it.” Grandpa may not have said it in so many words, but his life reflected this truth.



*Sorry, I couldn’t resist using that title as a hook!







Deer Camp

Grandpa Ray and Grandma Arleen made deer camp a very special experience for their grandsons. They passed on to us a hunting heritage that will, hopefully, continue in our family for years to come. Grandma was the “voman in the voods” as one old Norwegian who encountered her in the woods put it. Indeed, a woman hunting back in the 50s and 60s was almost unheard of. But Grandma was out there, along with her daughters – even when they were pregnant. Grandma was a crack shot and brought many deer down with her lever-action .32 Winchester. She was also a wonderful camp cook who had us looking forward to every meal.

Grandpa was just as excited as us kids to go to camp. He started preparing sometimes as early as September, shopping for the best bargain beer he could find. It had to be cheap because he bought a lot of it – 25 cases or more each year. That is a lot of beer but we usually could count on a lot of visitors to our camp deep in the Beltrami Island State Forest near Roseau. There were the Weber cousins who camped a few mile south of us, the Hoaglund crew who had a cabin nearby, the McCleods from back home, and others who would stop by our camp to inquire about our hunt and drink a beer or three. That is when the stories came out.

Deer camp stories, whether told around a campfire or around the table in the cook shack, were the highlight of every evening. The storytelling was always a raucous affair, the storyteller getting louder with every round of beer. It was as if we were making up for all the quiet stillness we practiced during our morning hunts. Sometimes that was practiced stealth, and sometimes it was just trying to avoid any loud noise because we were hung over from the previous evening’s festivities.

Beltrami camp

Grandpa Ray (lower right) and crew in camp, mid-1980s

While Grandpa loved a good party in camp, he was serious about getting as much venison as we could. He put as many if not more hours in the deer stand as any of us. Grandpa was especially focused when it came to conducting drives. Both the drivers and the standers were given explicit instructions. Whether we got a deer or not, we could count on an extensive postmortem from Grandpa on what went right or wrong.

Grandpa was also adamant that we get everything out of the deer we could. All the bragging we wanted to do about our latest kill was usually stopped short when he asked if we remembered to harvest the tongue, the liver and especially the heart. Per Grandpa, these delicacies were not to be wasted. Grandma often made pickled heart right in camp, and sometimes fried up fresh liver for dinner (both acquired tastes as far as I was concerned).

Grandpa liked securing some “camp meat” too. This usually involved cutting up a fawn or small doe and consuming it all during the week of camp. The way Grandpa saw it, nothing was better than fresh venison and there was no sense in wasting a tag on a small deer. That being said, Grandpa usually asked one of his sons-in-law secure the deer in an out-of-the-way place and butcher it there so as to avoid incriminating himself.

Occasionally, over after-dinner drinks, Grandpa would wax philosophical.  He talked about how lucky we were to be able to hunt, to have public land to hunt.  He talked about how public land was not available in many other states he had visited.  He thoroughly enjoyed being out in the woods in a make-shift shack on wheels, eating simple but hearty meals, and sharing the experience with family. He was right; we were very fortunate.

When I got my first full-time job after college, I made sure I saved enough vacation time to go to deer camp. We encountered tough hunting conditions that year and for this and other reasons we decided to pull camp early in the week. Grandpa felt bad I had taken all my vacation time, so he and I hunted around his place. Later in the week, we checked out a place in the White Earth State Forest that Grandpa used to lease from the county for grouse and duck hunting. I shot a forkhorn buck that day and eventually we found a new place for our camp for the following year.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, that next year was the last time I got to hunt with Grandpa in Minnesota. The following year my career took our family further west, too far to come home for hunting. It would be another 11 years before I would be back for the Minnesota deer season.

Now, almost 30 years later, we are still hunting from the same camp. My dad is now the Grand Old Man of deer camp and my mom is now the cook. I still hunt with my brothers and cousins and now, our kids, maintaining the traditions we learned from Grandpa Ray.

We just don’t drink as much beer.

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.

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.