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Inexplicable Frank: A Pioneer Story

It takes some musing and gauzy imagination to come to a realization that where we live was once one of America’s last frontiers, yeah explorers and fur traders traveled our area centuries ago but it was not until the early twentieth century that certain parts of our area were kinda tamed by settlers and it’s still arguable that elements of it still remain. With the advent of the Nelson Act of 1889 the Chippewa ceded an area southward from the Rainy River towards the Red Lake Reservation but fifteen years went by before the Rivers South bank was opened to homesteading because of the time the federal bureaucracy took to complete examination and classification of the ceded lands. Apparently little has changed.

I have ruminated as to why Frank moved to our area and what his motivation could have been but my musing kept landing on the side of inexplicable. None of us knew Frank, he was born in 1854 near Peru, Indiana and grew up on a farm, in time he built his own farm home and 1880 married Emma. Frank lost Emma in 1901 leaving seven motherless children to the care of their father. Some years later Frank sold his farm and moved his grown family to a homestead near South Bend, Indiana. One of Frank’s sons George was 19 years old and couldn’t find work so in 1911 he hired out as an itinerant farm worker and followed the seasons harvest in the Dakota’s. By late autumn George drifted northeast and ended up in Int’l. Falls where he went to work for a homesteader whose land claim was near Frontier fifty miles to the west. George was convinced that he should file a claim nearby and with some help filling out the requisite paperwork did so and in turn wrote his dad letters during the winter of 1911/1912 telling him that the soil looked rich for farming and selling timber would provide necessary income until the ground was clear enough to sow. At an age when most of us these days start thinking retirement Frank departed Indiana at George’s urging to file a claim on a 160 acre parcel. Frank drank the proverbial kool-aid that George served and after completing the necessary documents he found out there was no way to get to his claim on the South side of the River so he crossed the border and the CN Railway carried him to Stratton, Ontario where he re-crossed the River again and walked eight miles to his claim which was adjacent to George’s thirteen miles from Frontier and ten from Birchdale by crude trails through heavy forest and in some places knee deep muskeg. What do you suppose the life expectancy was at his age?

Frank had joined legions of settlers who attempted to carve a farm from a forest and like most of the others he faced the challenge of lonely isolation especially when George was away in the woods. One of the things Frank did to combat this in part was to write letters to his “dear ones at home”, he penned in detail his experiences about building log cabins, obtaining supplies, cooking, chopping trees, the weather, transportation issues, pesky insects and the living conditions in general which he described as residing “in the wilds”.

“Well I have viewed the promised land” was notated by Frank in the spring of 1912 but he decided he would withhold his opinion for a while, he described the area as flat and some of it very wet as the spring rains had begun, he related that both he and George had about forty acres apiece where a cabin could be built and it would be comparatively easy to clear but “my oh my” it looks tough to think of making it a farm as in some places you can’t walk for the gnarled deep roots but it is not as bad as it looks, “I guess”.

In the next weeks I’ll share Frank and son George’s adventures and their robust advocacy about how fantastic the area was particularly if you over looked some of the trials and tribulations because as Frank repeatedly opined “just wait until a road comes by”. His biographer ended their soliloquy saying that Birchdale looks much like it did in 1912 except for the additions of modern conveniences and Frontier has struggled to maintain prominence.

About the Author:

Mike Hanson is a long time resident of Birchdale, Minnesota. He enjoys spending his time in the great outdoors, building birdhouses, and has a deep interest in uncovering and understanding settlement history. His writings come from hours of research, as well as engaging discussions with locals and area historians, both professional and amateur.

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