White Earth: Settling In

When the Sprys arrived on the White Earth reservation in 1873-74, the area was not far removed from being a wilderness. There were no roads, other than a trail from Detroit (Lakes), where there was a railroad depot. There were about 500 or 600 people living on the reservation, many of them concentrated near the Indian agency at White Earth village. The village included a couple of stores, run by the McArthur and Fairbanks families. The federal government had built a gristmill and a sawmill at White Earth Lake. There was also a sawmill just off the reservation on the Buffalo River at the outlet of Buffalo Lake. A small village, Richwood, had sprung up there.

The homesteads the Sprys and Trotochauds started were located several miles south of White Earth (assuming they homesteaded where they received allotments years later). Although they may have gotten some of their supplies from Richwood, they likely conducted business in White Earth as well. The original treaty language required Indians to farm at least 10 acres to be eligible for 40; an individual Indian could claim up to 160 acres. As tribal members, Amelia, Angeline and the other Trotochauds were eligible to obtain land this way. An entry from May in 1877 of the day book of the Indian agent, Lewis Stowe, mentions issuing Pierre Trotochaud 10 bushels of wheat to plant. They may have gotten lumber to build their homes from the government-run sawmill at White Earth Lake.

About the same time our family arrived at White Earth, a Catholic priest named Ignatius Tomazin came to the reservation to start a church and school. Fr. Tomazin was likely known to our family, as he was a protégé of Fr. Pierz and also worked with Fr. Buh, who served churches and missions from Crow Wing down to Sauk Rapids. In January 1873 Fr. Tomazin planted a mission cross at the present site of Calvary Cemetery, two miles south of White Earth village. The following year, work was completed on a small church at the site. It is likely members of our family were parishioners there.

Fr. Tomazin served as the resident priest at White Earth until 1877, when he ran into trouble with the federal government. Almost since his arrival on the reservation, Fr. Tomazin protested what he saw as discrimination against Catholic Indians by the Episcopal-run Indian agency. The priest wrote letters to newspapers as far away as New York complaining about Episcopalians getting the best clothes and other supplies before the Catholics. Fr. Tomazin believed the Catholic church should have charge of the White Earth agency because there were more Catholics on the reservation than any other denomination. Another issue was funding for the Catholic school. Although the government had built the Episcopal church and the government school run by the Episcopalians, the agent refused to fund the building of a Catholic school. This was not just the policy at White Earth, but at other reservations as well.

The conflict came to a head in the summer of 1877, when Agent Stowe ordered Fr. Tomazin to leave the reservation. The agent claimed that Fr. Tomazin had broken the law when he transported the late Bagone-giizhig’s daughters off the reservation without permission. The priest brought the girls to St. Benedict Academy in St. Joseph to further their education. When federal officials arrived to force his removal, the priest began ringing the church bell, bringing his parishioners to see what the trouble was. The Sprys lived about 5 miles south of the church and may have heard the church bells. The parishioners maintained a vigil in and around the church and outside the priest’s house because of a rumor that the officials were going to burn the church down. Because the government was concerned that Fr. Tomazin would incite the Indians further, a small cavalry attachment was sent to White Earth from Fort Snelling. After another confrontation during which Fr. Tomazin refused to come out of the church for three hours, he was finally convinced to leave the reservation. It seems likely that the Sprys and Trotochauds were on hand to witness these events. As with most of the mixed-blood families, the Catholic faith was the center of their lives and they would have supported their priest and protected their church.

Fr. Tomazin’s exit paved the way for the Benedictines to come to White Earth. To replace the priest, the bishop requested the abbot of St. John’s Abbey provide a priest and nuns for the reservation. The abbot sent Fr. Aloysius Hermaneutz and two nuns, Sister Philomene Ketten and Sister Lioba Braun. They arrived at the White Earth mission in November 1878 to find the log priest’s house log church had been stripped of everything but two stoves. Within a week, they opened a school with an enrollment of twelve girls and three boys and had forty pupils within a week. The Benedictines would go on to build a new school and church in 1881 located less than a mile east of the original mission site.

Soon Indians that homesteaded along the Buffalo River, including our family, requested that Fr. Aloysius provide them with their own school. In 1882, Sr. Philomena began riding horseback to the Buffalo River day school, some eight miles each way from the mission. Because of the dangers of traveling in open country, the school was often closed during the winter months.

Later in the 1880s, Lizzie Spry, the oldest daughter, attended an industrial school in St. Joseph run by the Benedictine nuns. There she was taught sewing, cooking, gardening and other “household arts” as well as reading and writing. In 1896, at age 23 Henry, the second-oldest son, was sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, apparently to learn a trade. Henry only attended a month there before returning home. School records indicate he “ran”.

Mitchell and Amelia had a total of eight children, according to family records: Frank, born in 1871, Henry (1873), Lizzie (1874), Amelia (1878), Peter (1882), Ellen (1885) Lawrence (1891) and Madeleine (1894). Strangely, the U.S. Census in 1900 lists another son, Albert, born in 1886. Albert also shows up in annual Indian censuses conducted between 1886 and 1901. I can find no other record for this person.

The Spry family prospered in their new home, raising their family and watching the area around them change from wilderness to farmland. The land Amelia and Mitchell had selected for their home straddled the Buffalo River. They could have selected 160 acres of prairie, ready for the plow, but they chose to claim the woods along the river. This suggests to me they wanted to remain connected to woodland, to moving water. This allowed them to continue to hunt, fish and trap as Amelia’s family always had.

As they watched the land around them change, the Spry family also witnessed the debacle that unfolded with the passage of the Nelson Act, which established the allotment process and the Clapp Rider, which allowed Indians to sell their land. I’ll write more about this history in my next post.Spry family home

Frank, Mitchell, Lawrence, Peter, Amelia, Henry, Madeleine and Ellen Spry at their home, around 1892.


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.

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.




Passing Judgment on Squirrels

As I had hoped, my office in the new house is a great place to watch birds visit our feeders. We have enjoyed watching the comings and goings of over a dozen species. Last week we had four different woodpeckers (red-bellied, pileated, hairy and downy) at our feeders at the same time! But with the birds come the squirrels. No doubt, squirrels can be entertaining, but do they have to eat so much? Are they making it harder for the birds get enough food?

We have both grey squirrels and red squirrels raiding our feeders.  The grey squirrels, which may be really hybridized fox squirrels, are at least twice the size of the red squirrels. But the size difference does not seem to bother the aggressive red squirrels. They attack whenever a grey squirrel comes near my feeders. They chase up and down, spiraling around tree trunks, making death-defying leaps. The action rivals the best chase scenes from Hollywood.

From what I can tell, the birding (or bird-feeding) community online spends a lot of time discussing ways to keep squirrels out of feeders. Bird feeder makers tout the latest innovations in “squirrel-proof” feeders. I found at least one site on-line that stated the squirrels can keep birds from feeding effectively. But the biggest complaint and reason for controlling squirrels appears to be just how much expensive birdseed squirrels consume.

Because most bird-feeding enthusiasts like all kinds of wildlife, their typical solution is to provide alternative feed for the squirrels away from the bird feeders. This can include corn cobs and peanuts. This strategy sounds good in theory, but does it really work? I would think squirrels habituated to bird feeders and the goodies contained therein are not going to go out of their way to feed on something else.

I find myself getting outsmarted no matter what I do to keep the squirrels away from my feeders.The expensive “squirrel-proof” feeder I bought includes a wire grid that surrounds the feeding tube. But the dimensions of the grid are just large enough to permit a red squirrel to squeeze through. Following on-line instructions I built a platform feeder 10 feet from the nearest tree and five feet above ground. I found out that squirrels, at least our well-fed brood, can leap vertically over five feet.

I bought a small live trap, thinking I could remove the squirrels humanely and relocate them to a nearby state forest, or at least somebody else’s woods. But the squirrels have ignored it so far. Something too small to trip the gate, probably mice, has raided the trap and stolen the bait a few times.  So much for being a nice guy.

Sometimes I can convince our dogs to go out and chase the squirrels away from the feeders, but the squirrels make fools of the dogs every time they begin the chase. Evidently, Mabel, our cockapoo, and Buddy, our springer spaniel, have not figured out that the squirrels are up a tree and out of sight before they take three steps out the door. Lately, the looks the dogs give me at the door suggest they are realizing the futility in giving chase.

My dad shows no mercy when it comes to squirrels at his feeders. Dad grew up in farm country where varmints like skunks and coyotes were routinely dispatched. To Dad, a squirrel raiding his feeders is a varmint. Dad has no compunction about treating his squirrel problem with “a little lead behind the ear”. Of course, he does this legally in accordance with Minnesota’s small game regulations. Dad is pretty proud of the sharpshooting skills he has developed defending his feeders over the years. But he admits the squirrels keep showing up year after year.

I tried using an old BB gun still around from when my kids were little. I was not trying to hit the squirrels, just scare them, which is just as well because the gun’s accuracy was questionable. But the BB gun quit working and now I am considering getting a pellet gun. With a Crosman Nitro Venom .177 Caliber complete with scope, I could act as judge, jury and executioner. But do I really want to shoot them? I have a firm belief in eating what you kill. When it comes to squirrels I’m not that hungry, especially with fresh venison in the freezer. I would feel guilty chucking a freshly killed squirrel into the brush.

My wife does not buy my lofty moral stance. She claims I really like engaging the squirrels in this contest of wits, even if I am losing. As she says, “if you got rid of the squirrels what would you do all winter?” As I write this, a huge grey squirrel is gorging himself at one of my feeders. Wait…did he just wink at me?


The Treaty of 1867: On to White Earth

As I wrote in my last post about my ancestors, Mitchell Spry (Michel Surprenant) married Amelia Trotterchaud in St. Cloud in 1871. According to the 1870 US Census, Mitchell was living with his sister Ellen, her husband H.S. Morton and their son. Both men were working as “laborers”. Meanwhile, Amelia Trotterchaud was living at home with her parents and working as a “domestic servant.” This last fact suggests the area was developing rapidly and some residents were doing well enough to employ domestic help.

Both Mitchell and Amelia and her family were residing in Langola Township, Benton County during the 1870 census. The current boundaries of the township include the north half of Little Rock Lake, where the Trotterchauds homesteaded, and lands north to present-day Royalton. There was once a town called Langola as well, which was located on the Platte River just south of present-day Rice. It featured several businesses and was a growing community until flooding on the Platte destroyed most of the town in the 1860s. Watab, another town that sprang up near the trading post south of Little Rock Lake, has also disappeared from the maps.

Mitchell and Amelia’s first child, Frank, was born at Little Rock on November 23, 1871. Henry, the second son, followed on February 17, 1873. Henry’s birthplace is listed as Stearns County, which is across the Mississippi River from Benton County. It is possible that the young family had moved there; if they did, they did not stay long. Their first daughter, Elizabeth, was born in Becker County on November 26, 1874. Based on this information, it appears the Sprys moved to the White Earth Reservation sometime in 1873 or 1874.

The White Earth Reservation was established by the Treaty of 1867, which was negotiated by the Bagone-giizhig (Hole in the Day the Younger) and other chiefs of the Mississippi and Pillager bands. The goal of the Federal government in negotiating the treaty was to get all Ojibwe not already settled on Leech Lake and other reservations to relocate to White Earth. Beginning in 1868 and continuing for the next 35 years, Ojibwe families emigrated to the new reservation.

The treaty’s terms included a provision to encourage farming. Each tribal member who farmed at least 10 acres could receive title to 40 acres and each could acquire up to 160 acres in this way. (This provision presaged the allotment system under the Dawes and Nelson Acts that eventually broke up the reservation and allowed white settlement in the 1890s.) It seems likely that Mitchell and Amelia saw this as an opportunity to make a new start to better support their family. Amelia’s parents Pierre and Angeline Trotterchaud and their family, which continued to grow, also moved to White Earth.

As evidenced by their applications for Half-Breed Scrip under the Treaty of 1854 with the Lake Superior Ojibwe, the Blairs and Trotterchauds were previously aware of opportunities for obtaining land. The scrip, which gave mixed-bloods the opportunity to obtain an allotment anywhere in the lands ceded under the treaty or any other public domain, was intended by the federal government to encourage them to become independent farmers. In 1863, the government determined that the scrip could be issued to mixed-bloods who did not live in tribal communities, which opened opportunities for speculators to get involved. Persons with any connection to the Lake Superior Ojibwe were sought out to apply for scrip and sell it to speculators. A St. Cloud attorney named Oscar Taylor assisted Machay (Margaret Blair) and her children, including her daughter Angeline Trotterchaud, to apply for the scrip in 1864. Whether the Blairs were recruited by Taylor and were intending to sell their scrip is not known. However, it seems more likely they were looking to obtain land, as white settlement around Little Rock was hemming them in and their status as mixed-bloods limited their economic opportunities.

The Half-Breed Scrip program came under investigation because of abuses by speculators, including lumber companies. Congressional hearings were held in 1871 to sort out legitimate claims. It is in this hearing record that we find Margaret Blair and her children listed as “mixed-blood of Lake Superior Chippewas.” According to the hearing record, because Margaret and Angeline were already married, they were not heads of household when the Treaty of 1854 was signed, and therefore, not eligible for scrip. Apparently this invalidated the claims of Margaret’s sons (Antoine, Edward and Alex) as well.

When the Treaty of 1867 was signed, it was not clear whether the Sprys, Trotterchauds and Blairs were eligible to move to White Earth. The treaty had been negotiated primarily by and for Mississippi Band members; our family was officially identified as members of the Lake Superior band. However, the family originated at Sandy Lake, which was the foremost community among Hole in the Day’s people, so it would be natural for them to identify with the Mississippi Band. Article Four of the 1867 treaty specified that only mixed-bloods who lived with their Ojibwe relatives on existing reservations were eligible. Hole in the Day insisted on this language being included because he did not want Clement Beaulieu and other mixed-blood traders at Crow Wing to benefit from the treaty. The Sprys and Trotterchauds did not live on a reservation at the time, although they historically had lived among Ojibwe people at Watab and throughout the area. Chief Hole in the Day was murdered in 1868, in a conspiracy connected to the Crow Wing traders. The death of Hole in the Day removed an obstacle for the traders to follow their clientele to White Earth.

Because the federal government was intent on relocating as many Ojibwe as possible, our family was likely encouraged to make the move regardless of their eligibility. Ironically, about the only family story from that time has it that “they were afraid of being attacked by Indians” on their way to White Earth. They may have been concerned about the Pillager Band, which still lived traditionally and roamed the country south of White Earth.

There is no record of where the family settled when they arrived, however, it seems likely the locations of the allotments they were eventually assigned are at or close to the locations where they initially settled. For Mitchell and Amelia, this was a hill above the Buffalo River, where later generations of Sprys grew up. Pierre and Angeline Trotterchaud’s allotment was about two miIes east, near the junction of County Highways 14 and 21. Both these locations were about 6 miles south of the White Earth Indian Agency. They were closer to the new village of Richwood, located just off the reservation. A sawmill was established at Richwood in 1871, powered by a dam construction on the Buffalo River.

In 1872, when the Indian Agency was established at White Earth, Agent Edward Smith reported about 500 people had arrived at White Earth. By 1875, there were about 800 people on the reservation.  In the following years many other mixed blood families made their way to the reservation, most settling near the Agency.

I’ll write more about life on the reservation in those early years in my next post.

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.


After the Storm


The scene that greeted us the morning of July 21st.

Wednesday, July 20th of this year was another uneventful summer day. At the end of the day, as is my habit, I checked the weather on my iPhone before going to bed. We were in a severe thunderstorm watch, but the radar showed nothing in our immediate vicinity.

At about 1 am that night we were awakened by the storm. Through the strobe-like flashes of lightning we could see trees waving wildly in the wind. We went back to sleep thinking we may have branches and leaves to clean up in the morning.  What we did not know was the storm hitting us was massive and had formed a bow echo on radar, which is an indicator for damaging straight-line winds.

The next morning I took a look around the south (lake-facing) side of the house to see if we’d lost any trees. Other than an accumulation of branches and leaves on and around the patio, there did not appear to be much damage. I finished my coffee, showered and got ready to go to work. (I am working again this summer as an Aquatic Invasive Species inspector.)

When I went out to start loading my truck I went around the northeast corner of the house and could not believe my eyes. A gigantic clump of basswood trees had been blown over, clipping a corner of our new garage and landing on both our vehicles.

I went back inside to let Mel know I would not be going to work that day.

After recovering from the initial shock, I started making calls to insurance companies. Although our brand new house was damaged, we were not upset. Insurance would cover the repairs, which we would have our current contractor (who is still on the hook for a few other punch list items) complete.

We called on friend and neighbor Mike H. for help with getting the tree off our vehicles. He and wife Gail spent most of the day with us cutting and hauling away branches. Mike is a retired tree-trimmer, so his expertise was invaluable. Our daughter Emily’s fiancee Joe J. also was a big help, coming up with a plan to jack the huge tree trunks up so we could back the vehicles out.

We were quite surprised to find that the damage to our vehicles was not as bad as it first appeared. The pickup  (with minimal insurance coverage) got a few more dents and scratches, which blended in with all the other dents and scratches. Although the Outback did not look bad, the body shop estimate still came at over $6000!

But that’s why we carry insurance – no big deal.

The storm’s real damage was down the hill at our cabin.  There we lost nearly all the mature balsam fir trees that provided us shade in the summer and a windbreak in the winter. We also lost a number of other trees between us and the neighbors and even more in the woods behind the cabin. Straight-line winds normally break the tops off trees, which is bad enough. But we had recently had over 12″ of rain, softening the ground so the trees went over, roots and all.




The remaining three balsam firs on the left had to be taken down, as they were partially uprooted and leaning toward the cabin.

Our cabin is currently empty, now that we are in our new home. We hope to use it as a guest house or possibly as a vacation rental property.  We were fortunate that none of the trees came down on the cabin and the damage to our personal property was minor. This stuff is easily replaced.

What can not be replaced are the beautiful mature trees that framed the property and provided its  unique character. The cabin no longer peaks out from under the fir boughs – it sits naked in plain sight now.  These trees were planted and nurtured by the original owners of the property starting back in the 1950s. They had sheltered innumerable family gatherings, graced the property with their fragrant boughs, and took the bite out of the prevailing northwesterly winds that scream across the frozen lake in winter.

We will replant, of course, and try to reestablish some shade with fast-growing aspen and poplar. But we will not see the likes of these beautiful trees on the property again, at least not in our lifetimes.





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 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 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.