Humans on the barrens: Jim Anderson

jim andersonVern Drake and Dave Peters visited Jim Anderson on June 5, 2018, and he shared with us several documents, photos and his memory of his grandparents and other people who lived in the area around Little Sand Lake in the west part of the Town of Minong and in the east part of the Town of Blaine. This is a summary of that visit written by Dave Peters.

If the people who eked out a living in the barrens in the early 20th Century live on through anyone, it would be Jim Anderson, who lives on Little Sand Lake in Washburn County, just east of the Namekagon Barrens. Vern Drake and I spent a couple hours with Jim one afternoon a few days before his 83rd birthday in early June 2018.

Jim’s paternal grandparents were Nels and Louisa Anderson, immigrant Norwegians who met on the boat coming to America, married in Minneapolis and had their first child December 22, 1893. They named her Ethel Marie Mjoen, using their surname before they changed it to Anderson. In the early 1900s, they moved to northwest Wisconsin and homesteaded 152 acres in Section 4 of Minong Township just east of Little Sand Lake in Washburn County. This is just east of what is now the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area.

They built a sturdy log house and lived in it for decades. They raised six children and buried six more as newborns. “Six lived; six didn’t,” Jim said. Those who died were buried in Evergreen Cemetery on Fivemile Road a few miles to the west in Blaine Township in Burnett County. A flat, red stone still marks the plot but the inscription “Anderson baby’s” is barely readable. The youngest of the surviving children was Jim’s father, Fred.

The Andersons scratched out the best living they could, Jim said, hunting and fishing, tanning hides, raising cattle, cutting timber, growing vegetables and hay. An old school ledger shows payments to Nels as early as 1909 for “hauling children” to school each day for 10 cents a head, presumably by horse and wagon or sleigh. There were payments also for delivering wood and to Louisa Anderson for cleaning.

Jim said Nels was a whiz at making things with his hands, including his own buckskin clothing. Jim remembers staying with his grandfather for short times as a child and being told to speak Norwegian when asking for his food, even though Nels and Louisa were fluent in English, he said. Quite possibly the Andersons were the only homesteading farmers to stay in the barrens area through drought, public buyouts and the Great Depression.

Several times a year, Jim remembered, Louisa would take a wagon and horses to the cemetery to place flowers on the grave of her babies.

Nels died in 1952 at a hospital in Superior, and Louisa died a few years later. The house they lived in was torn down just two years ago in 2016.

Meanwhile, just a few miles west in east Blaine Township, the Henry and Mary Zach family was farming on 40 acres they bought in 1917 from the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railway. The family arrived from Sioux City, Iowa, and by 1932 had nine children, Dorothy, Mildred, Hazel, Frances, Ester, Henry Roy, Elmer, Deloris and Robert. There is a photograph of the Zachs’ large, solid log home, along with several outbuildings. In 1931, the Zachs moved to Oakland, south of Danbury, and in 1938 finally sold their homestead in the barrens to the county. You can still see evidence of the farm structures in the southeast corner of Section 23 in east Blaine Township. This land is just south of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area.

In 1930, Fred Anderson and Mildred Zach married, and they had three children, Mary, James and David. Jim was born in Dairyland in Douglas County on June 9, 1935. Years later, Mildred and her sister Dorothy wrote a two-page remembrance of their childhood on the barrens – cold winters, blueberry picking with nearby Indians, house parties. When he was 6, Jim and his family moved north 25 miles to South Range, just east of what is now Pattison State Park. Jim’s dad bought land along Bacon Creek, where they hayed the meadow for cattle feed. Later, he bought the lake property where they fished and camped for many summers. Jim and his wife, Joan, live there today. “Even though we ‘moved away,’ we never did leave the area,” he said.

Jim still has fond memories of his grandparents and stories they told – eating out-of-season venison with a game warden, listening to Indians in nearby Dogtown playing tom-toms on summer evenings, dragging reluctant siblings to Forest Home School on St. Croix Trail in east Blaine, where the foundation of the old school can still be seen.

One tale involved his grandmother Louisa going to Minong for supplies with a horse-drawn wagon. She apparently developed the habit of racing the train to a crossing, barely beating it on one occasion. Another reminiscence was the tale of the only time Jim’s grandfather Nels drove a car. It was a Ford Model T a neighbor owned, and as he approached a barn, instead of applying the brakes, he shouted “whoa, whoa” and plowed into the side of the structure.

Jim showed us photos of his grandparents and of neighbors and their sturdy log homes. One is a classic “American Gothic” portrait of Nels and Louisa, he the tall balding farmer, she a short plump woman; both are smiling.

Another showed the Zach family in 1932, the parents and all nine living children, dressed up and smiling broadly. Jim was close to his uncle Henry Roy Zach, who was born in 1918 but seemed to him more like a brother. Henry served in the army during World War 2 and survived the Dec. 17, 1944, massacre near Malmedy, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge.

Jim still lives much of the year on Little Sand Lake between the former farms of his two sets of grandparents and just a few miles east of where he was born.


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    1. Unfortunately, I can’t. Vern made paper copies but the reproduction quality isn’t good enough to create a jpeg or pdf that would be worth anything.

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