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Survival in a Northern Wilderness: A Mother's Story--Part VIII

It was late August in 1936 that the great forest fires started sweeping the country. It had been very hot and tinder dry, there would be no blueberry money because they scorched on the vine. Violet’s baby girl Tootsie would actually pant, so she took to putting her in a pan of cool water, the three older boys kept cool playing in the pond.

According to Violet the forest fires were caused by spontaneous combustion which Orrah figured might have been caused by dried hay over hot rocks. She noted that a haystack overheated deep inside can cause combustion, as can powder dry muskeg. Orrah saw it far off when it first started, he lit backfires to save the cabin and flirted with the idea of putting the children in one of the dried out wells while we fought the fire. She was glad he trashed that idea “because the children would have scorched to death from falling debris and coals that are swept through the air from the tremendous force of the fire”. Violet was expecting her fifth child in about three weeks. Orrah took a lot of things such as the sewing machine, traps, guns, gun powder, reloading tools, ammunition and bedding out to an island. There was a long peninsula separating the Falls River from the Pipestone River, the fire had already jumped the Pipestone onto the peninsula and appeared ready to sail over the Falls River. Violet sat on the porch steps of the cook shanty and picked burnt leaves and cinders out of her lap as they flew through the air, great clouds of smoke covered the sun, it looked dim and was just a red ball in the distance. As Violet sat there she began to fervently pray, “please god send rain and quench these fires”. Orrah reported that they would have to move out in the wee hours of the morning. Orrah told her that once it jumped the Falls River it would be on their side and they would never make it out, so they planned to leave long before sunrise because fire tends to die down during the cool of the night. Violet continued praying “God, please send rain to quench these fires”.

She suddenly sat up in bed listening, then she heard it; a drip, and then another and another and another. It was rain but it took a long time to break through the thick clouds of smoke, it poured and it poured and it poured. Violet thanked God and noted that the great fire drove the abundance of moose out of the country. Two weeks later on September 9, 1936, Violet gave birth to another baby boy, Frank Paul, and nicknamed him Snooks. Frank was a big baby, weighing about nine pounds, and real fair skinned and according to Violet was nearly albino. The birth had drama; Orrah had to run for his pocket knife to cut the veil and unwrap the cord so Frank could get oxygen and avoid potential impairment. Violet thought Snooks was a pretty baby and a real cute little fellow.

Orrah had built a Punt which was the same as a Jon boat from heavy planking. Violet started taking up twelve inch floorboards from the bunkhouse to build up their place on the Kettle River using a nail puller, hammer and crowbar. One night a loud bang awoke them, the bunkhouse had caved in, so with the same tools, she proceeded to take more twelve inch boards off of the roof. By this time, both boys Wesley and Junior were old enough to assist. Violet had nicely stacked all the lumber when Orrah started talking about building a boat with the lumber and for the first time in her eight years of marriage she stood up, started to cry and sternly told him “No, you will not use that lumber! It is mine and it is going to be used to build up the Kettle River place”. Orrah never said another word about the lumber and that was when she discovered that Orrah was taking advantage of her in every way. According to Violet, she “had not been standing up to him enough”. Orrah hooked up the dog team and hauled the lumber to the landing and then by boat to the Kettle River place.

One day while tending his traps Orrah came upon a set with a bear in it, he thought it was big but all he could see was its nose, he took aim just burning the tip of the bear’s nose. The bear jumped up and to Orrah’s surprise it was only a baby, he looked everywhere for its mother fearing her temper, finding no sign of her he brought the cub home.

How do you think Violet and Cubby got along?

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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