Interview with Norwegian Immigrant Terkel Fuglestad
How to Start a Homestead
Terkel Fuglestad left Norway with his wife Abigail in 1883. He was twenty-seven years old and could find no employment. He homesteaded among other Norwegians not far from Cooperstown and farms there today.
Would you explain to us why you left Norway?
There was an economic crisis in Stavanger in the beginning of the eighties. I wouldn’t take over my father’s farm as he wanted me to, so we moved to town and tried to get some kind of office work, but wherever I came, it seemed they were more than filled up. At last I got work at a foundry and shipyard where steamships were being built. Then one day they laid off one hundred men, and I was among the unlucky. After that it seemed as though all ways for work were closed. The only way was to set my course westward across the ocean.
I had often talked to Halvor Nordaas, who was the manager of the fire department and was city gardener in Stavanger, if I could get a job as city gardener. Just as I was ready to go to America, I got word I could have the job. If I had known it sooner, I would not be here now. Planting of trees and flowers has always been my dearest work; so goodbye, Norway, and I left for the strange country of the Dakota prairies.
Did it take you long to find some land?
I took my homestead three days after I came to Dakota. Elling Johnson (Froiland) and Jens Bull had filed on the same section earlier in the summer. They told me the southwest quarter of the section where a shanty was had not been filed on and told me I could go to Cooperstown and get papers on it. I had Jens Bull’s ten-year-old daughter to go with me to Cooperstown and be my interpreter. They asked me what section it was; but I didn’t know it. Then this little girl said, “It’s section ten we live on.” The men soon found out the rest.
What did you do then?
I now had to build a house on my homestead. Elling Johnson urged me to go to Cooperstown and buy a shanty which stood on his land belonging to Nelson who had left. Mr. Nelson worked at the store in Cooperstown. Since I didn’t have any money, I took the only thing I had of any value, which was my pipe, and fled to town. I met Mr. Nelson and asked him how much he wanted for the house. He told me twenty-five dollars. I then told him I had no money, but a tobacco pipe that was worth that amount. We made the deal; I got the house and an overall and he got the pipe. We were both well satisfied with the deal.
Would you tell us about that first year on the homestead?
If a man gets up in the wee hours of the morning in the spring when nature wakes up after a winter’s sleep and you examine mother nature’s plants, animals, bird life, prairie chickens, each one in their own place, and the ducks splashing in the water, it all seems like a prairie romance. Here was also our place. Our life’s work was to clean away and build up our new land. We cultivated the wild prairie, following our Creator’s commandment to till the soil. With my oxen and two borrowed oxen I got my fourteen acres of land broke up. That summer I used a fork and scythe to gather the hay. Elling Johnson and I helped each other on the farm during haying season. One night when I came home, there were two calves on the farm, and my wife, who always was alone when I was away, told me that a man came by, driving in a wagon with a cow tied behind and a calf following. She ran after him and asked him if he wanted to sell a calf. He told her he was alone on his claim and didn’t want to bother with the calf and that he was on his way to Cooperstown to sell it. She bought the calf for five dollars. It so happened she didn’t have any money. He waited while she ran a half-mile to the neighbor to get five dollars. The cow had milk enough to feed the calves. I thought my wife made a pretty good deal.
You replaced your shanty with a sod house. Would you explain how it was built?
The first thing was to find out the best material to use, and that had to be a certain sod of strong grass roots. We found that along a slough. We had to break the chunks carefully, three or four feet inches thick. We cut it in big chunks. When the chimney was made, sand was put between each layer. We left an opening for a double window in the south and east and for a door on the north where we later built a room with a slant roof and a door on the east. Here in the summer we had the stove. We had five elm logs; we put one on the top, one on each side, and one on the chimney. On these we nailed the rough boards from the shanty and then tarpaper. We had grass three feet long that we laid layer upon layer next to the sod so as to keep out the water. We laid the sod gradually as we cut it; then the house was considered ready so far. It was then to fix the inside, to smooth out the walls as smooth as a plastered wall. We swept the walls good with a broom so that the grass pieces should hold the plastering. We then found some gumbo or white clay on the edge of a large slough, which we used for the walls. This stayed on the walls as long as we lived there (eight years). After, we whitewashed the walls with the same stuff. It became quite a bit lighter. Later on when we could afford it, we whitewashed it with plaster. It was a good house, warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.