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Survival in the Northern Wilderness: A Mother's Story--Part III

Orrah Jr. was so diminutive at birth that he fit in the palm of his father’s hand, hands so tiny they were translucent. Orrah and Violet moved to Kettle Falls, Minnesota to be closer to medical assistance for their baby and in fact when he was seven months old he had diarrhea so bad they brought him to the Fort Frances medical facility, Orrah sold his old Eldow outboard motor to buy medicine for Jr. Upon returning to Kettle Falls Violet, outside of seeing her mother-in-law once in a while, never saw another white woman for five years. The only women she saw were Indian, and they would stop by for a visit on their way to the blueberry picking grounds.

Violet found the characters who resided in that neck of the woods quite amusing, including, “Wakemup”, who got that name because he would cry so loudly in the middle of the night the entire family would be roused. Old “Katermeran’s” real name was Burt Upton. The "Kat" wore long straggly hair, a beard, and went barefoot all winter. Violet described him as a 19th century hippie. One day Burt died on the trail when he was walking back to his cabin, and when they found him they just dug a hole and buried him right there. “Mushroom Frank” lived in a root cellar hence his moniker. Mr. and Mrs. Frank Ward were in the area. Frank loved nature and ate all things wild; Mrs. Ward loved the city, she even wore a pair of spiked heels out in the bush. Violet’s cabin floor had been built using what boards and planks they salvaged off the beaches; they were uneven and one day she knocked the cleat off her heel and, according to Violet, “she got madder than a wet setting hen”. Mrs. Ward complained so much about her quality of life that they packed up and moved to Minneapolis where Frank was later killed in an automobile accident.

And then there was son Wesley, when Orrah and Violet went to Ft. Frances to get medicine for Orrah Jr they had a doctor examine Wesley because he couldn’t talk. The doctor snipped a bit of the tissue under his tongue, but it didn’t do much good. Later his dad slit the tissue under his tongue again but according to Violet it didn’t make much difference either. Then Orrah Jr. got old enough to start jabbering and Wesley started saying words and forming sentences.

Times were tough. According to Violet “Orrah wasn’t making enough money to buy “a canary bird a pair of leggings”; he couldn’t buy clothes for his family. Violet took white flour sacks and made baby clothes and shirts for Orrah. She took gunnysacks and washed them until they became soft and made bath and hand towels from them. Orrah was still wearing the same wool underwear that he purchased long before they were married. She darned, mended and patched the holes until it looked like he was wearing a patchwork quilt; his overalls the same. Her children, many years later, laughed at the picture of Wesley and the first pair of pants she made him. They said he looked like a beaver. Violet learned to make moccasins, mitts, shirts, parkas even pants from buckskin, sans a sewing machine, all by hand. Violet didn’t have much for herself, no long underwear or warm stockings so she wrapped old rags around her knees and legs to keep them from freezing.

One year stingy dry-ice winter greeted them with obstructive challenges. Orrah had too many dogs and they soon ran out of food; starvation eyed them. Orrah took to skinning out the feet of Moose and Violet boiled the bones until they fell apart at the joints and the gristle became soft so they could gnaw at them and break them open to eat the marrow. Soon the moose feet became scarce. Try as he might there were no moose or deer to be found, they talked about shaving the hair off the moose hides and boil them for food. One day Violet had a premonition telling Orrah to go hunting. He came back later that day with a moose heart and liver hanging from his belt and that night they had fried moose liver for supper, and even Wesley took pieces from Orrah’s hand and chomped it down. According to Violet the reason for Wesley’s shyness was that his dad never paid any attention to him.

Violet trusted “Bernarr MacFadden’s Encyclopedias on Health and Natural Methods”. Violet was twenty-one years old in 1932 and was expecting her third child when both she and Wesley came down with typhoid fever. Now what?

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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