He wasn’t always Ol’ Joe, but for the rest of us it seemed incongruous that he was ever any age other than he was. Joe was born on the Rainy River in 1904, just before the roof was finished on his folk’s new log cabin. His dad was born in Detroit, his mother in Cork, Ireland. They met in Hibbing while he was hewing timber for the iron ore mines, being paid .98 a day for 9 to 10 hour days. His father caught the homesteader fever and walked North through the woods 150 miles with a back pack carrying his 45-90 rifle. His mother came two years later with his brother and sister via train from Hibbing to Winnipeg, on to Emo, then hired a youngish lad to row them the additional five miles against the current. She was much less than impressed, but she was stuck; as while $5 seemed like a lot of money it was all she had and it was not gonna get her anywhere.
Ol’ Joe was six when the great Baudette fire occurred, at night he could see a giant ball of fire to the west, and it frightened his mom who was prepared to go across the Rainy into Canada, but it started to rain and the fire did not get any closer than 30 miles away. There were no roads, but trails the natives used along the banks of the river. Folks traveled only by canoe or rowboat that also brought the weekly mail. There were lots of natives in birch bark canoe’s and Ol’ Joe thought that the band of beads and feathers they wore around heads meant the number of white folks they had scalped, and though he was scared of them they never had any issues with them and traded fish and berries; indeed they never bothered anyone and proved to be good neighbors. Paddle wheelers were a big thing and Ol’ Joe was ten before he ever saw any fuel powered watercraft.
Ol’ Joe was in his early 80’s when he reminisced about the winters being colder when he was young. He epistled about the plethora of berries, the phantasm of flowers and the overwhelming gangs of all kinds of birds and animals. He iterated that the world was alive and humming when he was young and it was fun to be in the woods, not like later in his life, because as he put it,there is nothing to see or hear and it was lonesome looking.
Joe and his eight siblings went barefoot as soon as the snow was gone until it came back, he lamented that there was a lot of cold chapped feet and his mother made them wash them before they could go to bed and they bled along with being sore. Joe was a stickler about his remembrances, firmly believing “happy feet, happy life”. Snakes and bees were his worst enemies and he wasn’t in love with the thistles, thorns, nor raspberry bushes either, as they were hard on the bare feet. He went out of his way to be careful not to step on a bumblebee, as they would put the proverbial run on you and ki-yiing and dirty dancing followed.
In school was when the trouble started, Joe had long red hair that hung over his shoulders which his mother would lovingly make long curls out of and on top of that he had FRECKLES. The boys called him sissy and commented how pretty he was, the girls seemingly wanted to hug the redheaded freckle faced boy and his pals whooped about that. He decided not to go back to school and told his dad why, that night after his mother went to bed his father cut his hair off and he went to bed happy, happier than his mother when morning came when according to Joe she castigated her husband to no end. A neighbor heard that he wanted to get rid of his freckles and recommended he wash his face with buttermilk, which he did until the buttermilk was gone, but the result in his eyes was more freckles. They all had a big laugh at his expense and it wasn’t until he was twenty years old before they washed away in a torrential rain storm, or so he said.
I met Ol’ Joe some years back and got to know him to some degree, and in a few weeks I’ll introduce you to him as his world view expands, his adventures while hunting, fishing, his first jobs and the discovery of airplanes, cars, tractors, trucks and the specific opinions he formed about their impact, good and bad.
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.