On December 27, 1872, my-great grandfather wrote the following entry in his diary:
“Fair & Cold. Sharp. Drove [load of wheat] into Winona. Sold load for 1.06 [per bushel] had on 34 bus. Recd. 35.60. Paid for pocket diary 2.00 for office chair for Father 2.25 . Drove back as far as Mr. Bowies Tavern. House full so had to sit up all night.”
Before the railroad came to Whitehall, great-grandad made the 70-mile round trip to Winona and back many times each year. Not a pleasant prospect, especially when Mr. Bowie’s hostelry hadn’t a bed for rent. Such inconveniences were nothing new to him, however. As he sat up all night at Bowies in 1872, he probably remembered back in 1856-57 during the hard winter when he was 17, homesteading alone on the frontier before Whitehall was a town. By 1923, Dave was still keeping a private diary, but occasionally shared a story with the Whitehall Times, where he often dropped in after his retirement and told reporter Judge Hans Anderson about the “good old days,” which the judge passed on to Times subscribers in his quaint Victorian prose style
“Most of the settlers were splendidly equipped by nature to meet the ordinary demands, but were not ready for extraordinary conditions which the winter of 1856-57 had in store for them. That winter is known as ‘the winter of the deep snow.’ Winter came early with a fall of snow variously estimated at from four to seven feet in depth. There were no big barns filled with fodder, no cellars filled with fruits and vegetables, no nearby stores to go for family supplies; no mills to grind their flour.
“At first neighbors divided with neighbors, but thru this pioneer generosity it soon became evident that the larders of all would soon be empty. Then some of the more adventurous joined together to reach Galesville [20 miles south] where there were stores and a mill. Three or four men, half a dozen yoke of oxen attempted the trip, failed and returned empty-handed. Then a general call went down the valley for the marshaling of a larger force of men and teams.
“Thus it came to pass that about the middle of January 1857, there came together at the home of E.M. Reynolds about a dozen men with twenty teams ... the journey to Galesville was begun. In the party were David Wood, E. M. Reynolds, Henry Lake, Gullick Olson, Robert Thompson, James Hopkins, Moses Ingalls, J.W. Mackay [the diarist’s brother-in-law], and probably Evenezer Thurston, John B. Dunning, Nels Halvorson and Jacob Tenneson. Reynolds had a span of horses, the rest furnished nineteen yoke of oxen. With this formidable array of positive force, it was thought that the twenty miles ... to Galesville could be made in two days.
“But the Snow-God smiled for he knew that his chief assistant Boreas had been at work for weeks piling and packing the shimmering crystals that covered the earth like a great white sea. The method of travel was as follows: Two men went ahead, side by side, to tramp down the snow and continued this pleasant exercise until they were comfortably sweaty and tired. They then made a switch track where the lead teams could be led aside while two other men and other teams came on to take the lead. The first evening found them at the foot of the hill in French Creek [about half-way]. ... Here they found material for a campfire and appetites for practically all the lunch they had brought for the entire trip. The night was clear and cold but by frequent turning of their bodies in front of the fire, they managed to keep from freezing.
“Early the next morning, after a very scant breakfast, they began their toilsome march and that day, they reached George Smith’s place, a short distance below Frenchville. Here they found welcome, a warm supper and quarters for the night. The next evening they made Galesville. The trip took just a week.
“How deep was the snow? Mr. David Wood, whose memory is good and judgment conservative, tells me that on the level, where it had not been affected by drifting, it was about three feet.”
Dave Wood is a semi-retired journalist who lives in River Falls.