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Survival in the Northern Wilderness: A mother's story--Part II

When against the wishes of her father Violet eloped with Orrah Kielczewski she never dreamed that she would be living off the land and nearly starving to death one winter in a little cabin in the Pipestone River country. She later testified “when one is seventeen years old one cannot look into the future”. Arriving by train in Fort Frances during the midst of the Great Depression she never realized that she would be kept away from civilization for as many as five years without seeing another white woman except for Orrah’s stepmother and that was seldom. She never realized that her first seven children would never receive a formal education, she never believed she would learn to stretch deer hides, tan them and make buckskin shirts, moccasins, mitts and even long buckskin pants. She never realized she would give birth without medical assistance, she never r

ealized she would learn to bring her family through typhoid and pneumonia, the flu, severe burns and other maladies. She never realized that she would be so far from civilization that she would sew fingers and toes back on.

Money was worth nearly nothing, a few pennies would get you food and clothing but getting those pennies was difficult. Violet and Orrah managed to get absolute necessities by hunting and setting fishnets. Little did young Violet dream that her husband would get very harsh and cruel and the more she “knuckled under” the worse he would get until she in her own words “took the bull by the horns and stood up for herself” and as a result Orrah began to respect her when she showed she meant what she said and he began to show more love and concern as the years went by.

It was April when Orrah and Violet mushed a dog team into her father in-laws fish camp on Rat River on Rainy Lake, Orrah had not seen his father since he was twelve, fifteen years hence. Orrah’s father didn’t speak to her when she was introduced as his wife and when she met her mother-in-law for the first time she turned her back on her, she felt heartsick and lonely but before long she was accepted and in time they got along quite well.

Orrah worked for his dad getting up every morning at four AM and worked until the last thing at night for a dollar a day while his dad paid a wino two dollars. Violet worked hard, toiled under the sun and took it one long tedious day at a time until they were able to purchase a steam tug with the money she earned by picking blueberries that she sold for four cents a quart. The tug changed her life and she didn’t have to worry about buying gasoline as wood ran the steam boiler and she never picked blueberries for sale again. The tug allowed them to salvage logs that had gotten out of the log booms and create their own booms and towed them to a saw mill.

Orrah and Violet decided to build a log cabin eight miles from her father in-law, according to Violet it was “a do or die” gamble. It was very remote and lonely. All they had for heat and to cook on was a gasoline barrel, with a hammer and chisel they cut a hole for the chimney and another to put the wood in. Violet dropped the wood into the barrel from the top, used a heavy piece of metal to cover the hole and baked using a stovetop oven.

Orrah brought Violet to Fort Frances sixty miles away for the birth of their first son, he delivered their second son, he was premature and so small he could lie in the palm of his hand, the baby’s hands so tiny and thin you could see light through them. Violet vividly remembers Orrah saying “well this little fellow will not live very long”, they named him Orrah Junior. Because of the prematurity of the baby Orrah hitched up the dog team and moved seven miles to Kettle Falls in case of emergency. They stayed in an abandoned logging camp cook shanty, the logging company had closed down and left nearly everything, even tin cups and plates so they managed to get some things to cook and eat with, they had surprisingly left some old cotton blankets that were neatly stacked and washed.

While very isolated they weren’t alone in that “neck of the woods." Next time I’ll tell you about some of characters that Violet found amusing, and you will too.

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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