“A Model Reservation”

Callaway TWP

When we last visited Mitchell and Amelia Trotochaud Spry, they were settled on a farm in the southern part of the White Earth reservation. Amelia’s parents Pierre and Angeline settled nearby on land north of Richwood. Amelia’s siblings married into other early families at White Earth, with names including McDougall, LaDoux, Blue, Vizenor, Pelland, Roy and Fairbanks.

The earliest histories of White Earth describe it as a thriving community and a success story, at least from the government’s perspective.  In fact, prominent leaders in Minnesota like Henry Rice were advocating the relocation of all the Ojibwe in Minnesota to White Earth. These designs were as much about getting at reservation land as they were about “civilizing” the Indians. The lumber companies in St. Paul were clamoring for access to virgin timber on the reservations. Meanwhile, the rapid settlement of the Red River Valley to the west had created demand for opening up the western parts of the White Earth and Red Lake reservations to create more cropland for whites.

In 1889, Minnesota Congressman Knute Nelson sponsored legislation to consolidate all the Ojibwe at White Earth and assign 160-acre allotments (first authorized by the Dawes Act of 1887) to individual Indians. The intent of the law was to allow homesteading of “excess” lands by white settlers. But even before the excess lands could be sold off, the allotment process was corrupted. Rules were changed, enabling whites and mixed-bloods with little or no connection to the bands at White Earth to claim allotments. This story has been documented in a book, The White Earth Tragedy by Melissa Meyer.

Among those who benefited were the Beaulieus, headed by Clement H. Beaulieu, the oldest son of Bazil Beaulieu, an old trader from LaPointe. Clem’s mother was a Lake Superior Ojibwe, and her son used the extensive connections of both his parents to build a thriving trading business in Crow Wing. Clem Beaulieu’s sister Margaret had married Martin Bisson, another French-Canadian trader. They had been among the first families to homestead at Belle Prairie, a community a few miles downriver from Crow Wing. The Bissons migrated back to Quebec during the Civil War years; when they came back, they brought two sons-in-law with them. One was Theodore Bellefeuille, who married Sophie Bisson in 1855. Theodore and Sophie settled at Belle Prairie and began raising a large family. Theodore’s brother Raphael also settled there.

As descendants of Lake Superior Ojibwe, the Beaulieus were not eligible for allotments at White Earth. But Clem Beaulieu successfully argued that he and his family became eligible when the 1854 treaty with the Lake Superior Ojibwe allowed band members living at Sandy Lake and Crow Wing to switch bands. Under this arrangement, the Beaulieus and their relatives, including the Bellefeuilles became eligible to receive allotments at White Earth.

Theodore and Sophie Bellefeuille moved to White Earth and claimed an allotment not far from Mitchell and Amelia Spry. Two Bellefeuille sons, Antoine and George, who had married and started families, also moved to White Earth. The Bellefeuilles and Sprys, being neighbors and sharing a French-Canadian cultural background, became close and several marriages between the families occurred. Another son of Theodore and Sophie,  Eusebe, married Lizzie Spry, Mitchell and Amelia’s oldest daughter in 1891. Lizzie’s brother Henry married Eusebe’s little sister Georgiana. Bellefeuille cousins, children of Raphael, also married Spry siblings: Josephene married Frank and Jonas married Amelia. Finally, in 1905, Peter Spry, my great-grandfather, married Adelaide, the daughter of Antoine and granddaughter of Theodore. All of the Bellefeuilles (over 40 individuals) received allotments. Early applicants received 160 acres each; beginning in 1891 the government reduced the allotment size to 80 acres.

Meanwhile, other developments at White Earth were leading to more Indians losing their land to whites. In 1902, Congress passed a law allowing Indian heirs to sell allotments they had inherited. In 1904, the so-called Clapp Rider enabled tribal members to sell timber from their allotments. Also in 1904, the Steenerson Act was passed to allow allottees who only received 80 acres to claim another 80. The two laws, passed a week apart, opened the doors to speculators and lumber companies.

The day before the additional allotments were to be made in the spring of 1905, people lined up outside the agency. Many had prepared by scouting out locations where there was merchantable timber.  Ojibwe descendants from all over the country came in hopes of acquiring valuable property. The “full-blood” Indians protested and attempts were made to give them an equal chance by forming a second line. But the net result was most of the choice pine lands being awarded to mixed-bloods of certain families who were connected to the lumber companies. When the full-bloods complained, government officials said the mixed-bloods had shown initiative and demonstrated they were adapting to the white world. The full-bloods were dismissed as lazy.

Were any of our relatives in line that day? The Minnesota Historical Society has a Becker County plat book dating from 1911 that shows several Sprys, Bellefeuilles and Trotochauds owning parcels east of White Earth in the forested part of the reservation. These allotments may have been selected for these family members, some of whom were children, by relatives or unrelated brokers. Most of these tracts were located around Big Sugarbush and Strawberry Lakes, which was dominated by hardwood forest with few pines. By 1911, the lumber companies had already acquired most of the valuable pine lands further east.

The government further eroded the Ojibwe land base in 1906 when a second Clapp Rider passed, allowing mixed-bloods to sell their allotments outright. Wanting to share in the bounty, full-bloods signed affidavits claiming they were mixed bloods so they could sell. Many allottees were swindled out of their land. Subsequent investigations identified Gus Beaulieu, son of Clem, and B.L. Fairbanks as the leading brokers who arranged fraudulent allotment sales to the lumber companies.

In 1911, a group of White Earth Indian leaders petitioned the Indian Office to have 86 people removed from the rolls, including Gus Beaulieu and B.L. Fairbanks. The group was well aware of the damage done by the mixed-blood brokers and wanted to punish them. Also included were 43 members of the Bellefeuille family, for reasons that are not clear. The Bellefeuilles did not seem to be involved in the fraudulent sales or tribal politics.

The Bellefeuilles may have been included because it was believed they had no connection to the White Earth Ojibwe, their only association being with the Beaulieu family. The Indian Office, beginning to recognize the role that certain mixed-bloods played in the allotment scheme, heard the full-bloods’ complaints and suspended the 86 individuals. None of the Sprys was included in the list even though we were affiliated with the same Lake Superior band as the Beaulieus and Bellefeuilles. Perhaps the White Earth leaders knew our family was connected to the Blairs and Trotochauds, who had lived among the Ojibwe at Sandy Lake and Little Rock.  The government reversed itself and reinstated all 86 in 1916.

By that point, much of the reservation land had been transferred to whites. The Indians that had not adapted to farming could no longer count on traditional subsistence without a land base. Extreme poverty and despair followed. The people of White Earth are still burdened by this history as they struggle to build a future.

As for the Sprys, their modest farm, supplemented by what local game they could harvest, enabled them to raise their family. Pete and Adelaide took over the farm from Mitchell and Amelia and raised their ten children there. Uncle Henry opened a store with his Bellefeuille in-laws in Callaway, a new town founded in 1907 where the railroad crossed the southern boundary of the reservation. Most of the rest of the Sprys had left the area by the 1930s. The Sprys who remained on the reservation continued to live close to the land as hunters, fishers and berry-pickers. Those traditions continue in our family today.

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Henry Spry, Theodore Bellefeuille, Georgiana Bellefeuille Spry, Lizzie Spry Bellefeuille, Eusebe Bellefeuille, Antoine Bellefeuille in front of their store in Callaway.

 

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.

 

Wandering the Prairie

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When I was growing up, we lived on the edge of the Red River Valley. From our farmstead to the west stretched miles and miles of farmland. Looking east, the dark line of Minnesota’s famed “northwoods” defined the horizon. We lived in an area that was once oak savanna, where the woods and the prairie met. Before white men came, clumps of oak woods dotted the prairies here, waging a ceaseless battle for territory against waves of grass, a fight arbitrated by wildfire. When the area was settled these woodlands were felled to build homesteader cabins, provide firewood and to clear more land for farming. Only remnants of the wood islands remain near my childhood home, clinging to the steep banks of the Buffalo River or other hillsides too steep to farm.

These wood patches drew me in whenever I ventured out from the farm to explore the natural world.  I had little interest in exploring the open country, which was a monotony of wheat and barley. In my mind, even the smallest patch of woods could still hold beauty and mystery. I wanted to find the wild places. Little wonder that, when I came back to Minnesota ten years ago, I settled in a place in the woods.

About the time I was an exploring farm kid, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources established the Scientific and Natural Area program to save remnants of the wild places. Today there are over 160 SNAs scattered across the state, preserving “natural features of exceptional scientific or educational value.” The program uses volunteers to monitor conditions on these sites and report any vandalism or other activities that would harm the resource.

When I decided to become a volunteer for the SNA program, I looked to serve as a site steward for an SNA near my home. I imagined having responsibility for a rare woodland habitat or a bog. But the nearest SNAs that did not have stewards assigned were out in the Red River Valley, at least an hour from my home. These were remnants of the tallgrass prairie that somehow avoided the plow over the past 140 years.  What little knowledge of prairies I had came from books – I had never visited one before. I decided it was time to do some on-the-ground learning and signed up as a steward for Santee Prairie SNA, located near Mahnomen.

Santee Prairie is a 440-acre parcel originally purchased by The Nature Conservancy, an organization that specializes in acquiring neglected parcels of habitat. Santee includes upland prairie, cattail marshes and patches of shrubs and small trees. Attempts were made to drain and farm the land years ago; old ditches criss-cross the site. The SNA adjoins a state wildlife management area providing habitat for deer and small game, raptors, waterfowl and songbirds. Large areas of the SNA are wet much of the year, supporting not only cattail marshes but lush meadows. Upwelling groundwater at Santee creates conditions favorable to certain rare plants.

Spending time at Santee was intimidating at first. Being used to the woods, standing out there on the wide, flat land I felt vulnerable. Other than some scrubby aspen stands, there was no place to shelter. I grew up hating the wind that never seemed to quit blowing out on the farm and at Santee I was exposed again to its force. I did the perfunctory checks on the access points and signs, but did not spend much time exploring.

I was also intimidated by my lack of knowledge of the native plants I found there. I had taken every botany and plant ecology course I could in college, but that was over 30 years ago. I never really got to use or expand that knowledge during my desk-bound career. On top of that, what little I did know about grasslands pertained to places like Montana and Idaho. I had to brush up on my plant identification skills to begin identifying the myriad wildflowers I encountered.

IMG_1965During my first few trips out (we are asked by the DNR to visit once a month, if possible) I was mystified by the lack of grass. The ground was densely covered with forbs (leafy plants) and woody species like like willow and aspen. Grass seemed to be only a minor component of the plant community, which went against my idea of what prairie should look like. Finally, when I visited in August I encountered the “sea of grass” I had imagined. Big bluestem and Indian grass stood shoulder-high, towering over the other plants. These are called “warm season” grasses, which don’t even begin growing until July. I realized I had been looking in May and June for the “cool season” grasses I was used to seeing in drier grasslands out west.

Wandering through the tall grass, I can experience what this place looked and felt and sounded like some 140 years ago when my ancestors came to homestead. I can get a sense of the wild land that greeted them and challenged them to make their home here. My great-great grandparents (see the Minnesota History page on this blog) relocated here when the White Earth reservation was established, homesteading about 30 miles south of Santee. They tucked their home into a stand of oaks above the Buffalo River, with a view of the tallgrass prairie stretching to the western horizon.

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I learn something every time I visit Santee and look forward to my next visit. On my last couple visits I spent hours wandering the prairie, identifying plants I had never seen before, spotting sandhill cranes, hawks and owls. I find myself staying almost until sunset, when I run out of daylight to see and explore. I am not only learning about the prairie, I am learning about myself. I realize I can experience that sense of wonder I felt as a kid in the woods now out on this open and windblown, wild place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting

This seems like the longest spring I can remember. Winter fizzled out this year, with little snow or cold weather beyond January. February kept us in a holding pattern. Winter seemed over, but we knew spring was a ways off. We began to warm up a bit in March and snow was mostly gone by mid-month.

During this time, I found myself looking for signs of spring, even though the calendar said it was still winter. All Minnesotans long for spring at some point. Even the most hardy winter lovers are ready to move on by March. But waiting for spring in this country can test anyone’s patience.

We’ve had some warm spells that have given us a foretaste of glorious summer. This year the ice was off the lake by April 4th, almost as early as last year, when spring came charging in full force in March. But this year spring advances and retreats like the last glaciers of the Ice Age. We’ve had temps in the 60s followed by temps in the 30s with snow.

On the lake, evidence of spring was proclaimed by the cacophony of waterfowl and shore birds from mid-March until ice out. We are blessed to have the outlet of our lake on the Crow Wing chain as our front yard. A small bay where the river reappears at the end of the lake stays open throughout the winter and is home to about 8 or 10 trumpet swans. As the the weather warmed and the open water increased in size, the swans were joined by Canada geese, then ducks including mallards, bluebills (scaup), goldeneyes and others. Then came mergansers and sandhill cranes (heard but yet to be seen). The loons and great blue herons arrived just before ice-out. A couple of juvenile bald eagles, probably raised in the nest between 5th and 6th Crow Wing, have been roosting in the white pines behind our house, eyeing the ducks and thinking about their first fishing forays.

In the much quieter woods, evidence of spring is slow to appear. Last week, my granddaughter and I inspected the hepatica, just beginning to bloom. A few mayflowers and violets are appearing this week. The red maples I planted last year flowered at Easter, as did the leatherwood. Other trees and shrubs have broken bud but have yet to unfurl their first leaves. Slowly, slowly is the spring unfolding.

I’ve learned to appreciate the waiting. When I was a kid, I looked forward to spring only as a precursor to the fishing opener and the warm-up to summer. Spring was just a season of mud and restless anticipation. And summers were always too short. Then back to school and more waiting, for hunting season, first snow, ice for fishing, for Christmas break.

Often I sense that time is accelerating as I get older. The weeks and months fly by and before you know it your first little grandchild is 12 years old and taller than her grandma.  Now this long, slow spring feels like a gift of time. There was time get in some woodcutting before the ground thaws. There is time to rake up last fall’s leaves and the winter detritus before the grass takes off. There is time to observe the each week’s arriving migrants among the songbirds. And there is time to walk in the woods with my youngest granddaughter to look for new wildflowers, to experience her wonder and joy. So let spring take its sweet time in coming, for the time is sweet.

Virus

Although I still have a few sniffles, I appear to be over my bout with the flu. Over the past few days, sitting in my jammies binge-watching Cosmos, I began to ponder viruses. In short, they are amazing. According to Wikipedia (I’m too sick to go the library), a virus consists of a chunk of genetic material (DNA or RNA) coated with proteins for protection. That’s it.

Remember drawing cells with a nucleus and mitochondria in biology class? We learn cells are the basic building blocks of life. Life begins in a cell. Even single cell organisms (think of looking at Paramecium under a microscope back in Biology 101) are obviously alive, busy swimming around finding food. They have everything they need in their cell to replicate themselves, to carry on life.

Viruses are not “alive” because they are not a cell – they are lumps of organic material. They do come in interesting shapes and some even have “heads” and “tails”. But basically we are just talking about a chunk of genetic material lying about. Flotsam seemingly left over from the process of evolution. They are everywhere, “found in almost every ecosystem on Earth and the most abundant type of biological entity” (Wikipedia).

Viruses are not alive, but boy can they replicate. That’s where we come in. Viruses need to infect living organisms to propagate themselves. They sneak into our cells and hijack the equipment. Then, like the pep club commandeering the principal’s photocopier, they make a bunch of copies of themselves. After they have used up all the paper and toner, the viruses are ready to be spread to more hosts.

Once again, we lend a helping hand (especially if we don’t wash our hands). Viruses need us to spread them around. Because they are tiny, they travel through the air, propelled by a good sneeze or cough. This may seem like a random process, a biological accident. But viruses have evolved to become more effective at replicating and spreading.

Think about that. How does something that is not alive evolve? Another thing we learn in Biology 101 is that all living things seek to reproduce, to ensure their species survives. That’s called the biological imperative. Animals eat, sleep, hunt or gather, play, have sex. Even plants have sex with the help of pollinators. Viruses do none of these things. Yet they persist, mutating to find better ways to survive.

I am sure there are evolutionary biologists who could explain it all. But they would miss the point. The point is, viruses are amazing. Life is amazing.

After the Election

I’ve been spending the morning trying to process what happened on Election Day. I tend to vote blue, but I wasn’t crazy about Hillary Clinton. I was appalled by Donald Trump. Now I realize it was not about Trump. It’s about people wanting change in Washington. It didn’t matter to them what Trump did or said; it was a protest vote.

President Obama and the Democrats ignored the people left out of their coalition, especially rural white folks. A lot of people have been left behind in the ongoing economic recovery. Neither party has done much to help them, but the party holding the White House got most of the blame. Trump successfully tapped into their anger and manipulated it to win.

Trump has handed the Republicans a huge victory, in spite of the reluctance of their leaders to support him. They have an opportunity to get things done, to help the country the way they think best. But they don’t know what they have in their leader. What does he really stand for? What does he really want for our country? What does he want from Republicans in exchange for cooperating with them?

The most promising aspect of yesterday’s outcome is the fact that the process worked. The election was not rigged. The people have spoken and made their choice. They will do so again in four years. Who will be angry then and at whom? Who will be left behind in the next four years?

How do we solve the divisiveness so evident in this election? We can start by resisting the urge to lump together those opposed to us as bigots, racists, uneducated, “deplorables”. The reality is many Trump supporters are decent, hard working people, who want something better. Just like we who did not support Trump do. We have to remember that there is no “us and them”. There is only us. We know this because we participate together in the electoral process and together we accept the outcome. That is what unites us: we believe in democracy.

We have to trust that our electoral process, as ugly as it is, however uglier it can possibly get, will work again in four years. This is what I told my millennial kids, both of whom called this morning distraught and scared. We have to trust in our democratic process and use it. Use it or lose it.

 

 

 

 

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 here: http://www.leseglisesdemonquartier.com/1465.html. Michel was the fifth of seven surviving children of Joseph and Flavie. Joseph passed away in 1847.

The 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 son, is listed as a sawyer, and was likely supporting the family. This area of New York state had historically been an area where Canadian refugees from the Revolutionary War were resettled.

The next record I could find for Mitchell (Michel) in the US Census was in 1870, 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 ancestry.com.

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 1, female (deceased)

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. This would confirm Mr. Houde’s claim that Michel Surprenant had a family in Canada.

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.

Michel’s mother and sister were both named Flavie, but the age of the woman listed in the 1861 Canadian census does not match: Michel’s mother would have been 51 and his sister, 30. The woman is not listed as a widow. While the age of a person is often inaccurate in censuses, in this case the ages of the others listed all jibe with their baptismal records. Also, I’ve come across possible evidence that Michel’s mother remarried in New York around 1851. Is it possible this is a different Michel Surprenant, someone other than our ancestor? According to church records there was one other Michel Surprenant baptized at St-Edouard between 1830 and 1845, and two others baptized elsewhere in that time period.

But assuming this is our ancestor, what became of his family and why did he leave? I have been unable to find any trace of Leocadie in Canada beyond 1861. The Canadian census records for subsequent years show the Brunelle family but Leocadie is not listed among them. And what of the other children Mr. Houde claims she had by Michel? I can find no baptismal records for them. Mr. Houde has found a record of a “Mary Suppry” (Leocadie’s first name was Marie) widowed, living with her daughter Delia in Marathon, Wisconsin in the 1880 census. I believe Mr. Houde is assuming Delima listed in the 1861 Canadian census is Delia. But a close examination of the census record reveals that Delima died in 1860, which undermines Mr. Houde’s claim. On the other hand, the same 1880 US census record Mr. Houde found lists “Fill Suppry” also residing with Delia and her family. This could be Felix.

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. According the 1880 census record his mother claimed her husband was dead, so Felix would have had no reason to seek him out. Given that our family was not previously aware of Leocadie and Felix, it is unlikely that Mitchell Spry ever talked about them.

If Mitchell Spry had a family in Canada before coming to Minnesota, we may never know why he left them. Was he in some kind of trouble? Or did he just want out of the marriage (if there was a marriage)? Was changing his name part of getting a fresh start? How should we as his descendants feel about this?

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.

Grandfather Oak

You stand erect, unbent by the wind, challenging the clouds.

Burly limbs, dark and sinewy, like a wrestler’s arms, reach to possess the sun.

 

You do not put on airs like your neighbors the maple and the linden.

They are graceful, lyrical; you are stolid, silent.

 

They dress in gay colors, dancing through the fall, ignoring winter’s threat.

You fade to tans and grays, the colors of a workman’s clothes, and await the ice and snow.

 

You hold the power of the sun inside you, locked in against the cold.

You stand dark and silent against the snow-filled sky and wait to bring green again.

 

You stand as a silent witness, a keeper of stories.

You listened to the hunters and the berry pickers as they camped under your leaves.

 

You knew the noble pines who once ruled the land.

You survived the onslaught, but will not tell the tale.

 

You witnessed the dawn of machines. You watched the lights cross the sky.

You stand in this forgotten corner and will never feel the sting of the saw.

 

You do not stand against time. You are time.