By John W. Swenson
Editor’s note: Toni Lubich submitted this story and wrote the following: “My father, John W. Swenson, was a prolific writer and I’m sure must have sent many letters to the editor of The Country Today. He died in 2010 at the age of 83, leaving many recollections written of his life. He lived in Pierce and St. Croix counties most of his life.”
Some things really impact on your memory when you are young. At 4 years of age an event took place that became indelibly etched on my young mind. It was the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Rush River Lutheran Church (organized in 1855). Norwegians are not so good at coming up with original names, it seems. There was South Rush River and North Rush River too, about six miles apart. We were in the middle and also the original church.
On the day in question I remember that a huge tent was set up to accommodate the speakers and the listeners that would come. It seems to me there were hundreds of folks who came from miles around. They came by car, one and two horse-drawn buggies, and some of the more hardy souls walked. Every family had a wicker picnic basket along and some had two. They must not have invented picnic tables yet because each family spread a blanket or large cloth on the ground to sit and eat upon. It also kept the ants off the sandwiches for a while.
Before we sat down to eat our lunch, some women had been preparing coffee for the crowd. Now some were pouring the steaming black liquid into cups from those big granite pots. The bigger boys were kept busy running to the parsonage with pails for more water to boil. Two three-burner kerosene stoves provided the heat. They reminded me of the chicken brooder with its upside-down glass fuel jug. They were fascinating to watch. Every so often a bubble would rise up in the fuel. It looked like it was boiling but remained cool. The office water cooler of today bubbles in the same way and people get accused of spreading cooler gossip. But the fact remains, we are still intrigued watching those bubbles coming up.
After dinner, the adults, blanket and lap children went into the tent. A lot of the other kids were allowed to stay outside but were cautioned about keeping quiet.
Along the north side of the parking lot there was a long open shed where the horses of some of the well-off families were tied and fed, still hitched to the buggy. Some others were strapped to a hitching rail along the west side of the parking lot. Not too many horses and buggies were there, maybe 12 to 15. Cars were quite in vogue. My folks had a new 1930 Model A.
Anyway, this gang of young boys was soon admonished to take their play away from the vicinity of the tent. We were making too much noise. We were threatened to be quiet, go away, or we would have to come inside. Other than the his and her toilets, the only place left was the horse stable. This shed had a couple of empty stalls and were boarded solid in between each one. Another group of older boys found some very long stiff weed stalks, stripped off the branches and leaves, and pushed them through a knot hole in the boards to tickle the underbelly of a horse in the next stall. At first the horse would merely raise a foot as to kick a fly off its belly. It was fun to watch. Then the bigger boys found some stiffer reeds and began to poke the horse for a bigger reaction. This caused some mighty kicks and some rearing up. The big boys tired of the fun so gave the reeds to us. I think they went out to try their luck at pushing over tombstones.
As us younger ones took over poking, we just got the hang of it when the meanest looking man I had ever seen yelled, “What do you think you are doing?” We said, “Poking horses. The big boys showed us how.” His yell brought several mothers out of the tent and we were herded up toward it. The commotion also caused the big boys to come out of the cemetery to see what was happening. Six or seven mothers, I thought, were looking straight at me and said, “You could have hurt a horse or killed it. How would you like to pay for a crippled horse?” We small boys looked to the bigger ones to explain why horses needed poking. Not one of them seemed to know anything about it. They were in the cemetery when it happened. You should have seen the blank looks on their faces. Totally innocent!
After some questions like, “Whatever possessed you?” we young ones got ushered into the tent for the remainder of the meeting. Afterwards, everyone that even owned a horse scowled at me and said some unkind things and shook their heads.
That is the way it was, my earliest and clearest recollections of what the big tent meant.
Even before the great event of the church yard tent, I realized men and women were different. We had a rather extravagant pair of his and her toilets. They were built as one structure. There was a door at either end and they boasted three-passenger accommodations each at one time.
We had two sides of seats in the church and unless you were very young, all the boys and men sat on the north side and the women and girls sat on the south side. At that time it seemed it was the proper thing to do. Some said it was discriminating because at the annual meetings just the men who were over 21 voted. It is not true that the women had no input, however. The men were only pawns. Oh, they voted alright, but woe be unto them if they voted differently from what Ingeborg or Bessie told them to. The men held the meeting with the women present. As each question was raised, the men all turned their heads to the left to see how to vote. If there were a lot of smiles and nodding of the heads, it was an aye. Sometimes, when the men would look, there were laser beams of fire coming from the ladies’ eyes; that indicated a nay was expected.
The truth is, even though the ladies eventually got voting rights, they ran things anyway. Today, they get two votes, for what man of sound mind would risk domestic tranquility over a silly vote.
One Sunday, a stranger came to church and sat on the wrong side with the women. No one said anything. Of course, they just thought he did not know. The women sat smugly, perhaps with just a hint of a smile, looking straight ahead listening to the sermon. The men were sort of fidgety and probably did not hear a thing between sideways glances from the women. The handwriting was on the wall. A few months later, a young man had the audacity to sit with his wife on that side and help control the kids. That was it. In no time at all (five or six years), other men were sitting with their families on the south side. And after church the ladies would comment and say, “Wasn’t that nice of John to help Mary with the kids today?” No one said anything but nodded in agreement.
This went on for years and it appeared the building was leaning to the south. Only about eight old, stalwart men remained on the north. Then one Sunday two women, without the trace of a smile, their hats skewered on their heads, joined the men. They walked three or four rows ahead so everyone would see them. No one said anything because it is the nature of Norwegian men to suffer in silence. There were a few concerned looks exchanged between them though.