Velkommen til Westby

Velkommen til Westby

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Bakke Farm on East Ridge

Many years ago the Kickapoo Pearls had the following article that is as interesting today as it was when it was written.

Up on East Ridge, between Avalanche and Westby, as the crow flies, there’s a gravel road that comes to a dead rest in what looks to be an ordinary farmyard. To the left there is an old farmhouse, sprawling like an overstuffed chair. To the right—a string of outbuildings; tobacco shed, granary, corn crib, barn. And, there’s a turnaround by the barn for cars that end up here quite by accident. But the Bakke farm is also an interesting place to get lost for an afternoon if you aren’t in a hurry to get back to the main roads of a modern world.

The Bakke farm is a  registered century farm, which means it’s been held by successive generations of the same family for more than 100 years. And Lawrence Bakke, who was born in that big white house on a knoll, 72 years ago, is the third generation to farm this land. Like a lot of people who inherit and maintain intact the property of their ancestors, Lawrence Bakke has never been in a great hurry to discard the implements and artifacts of the past. So the Bakke farm is stored with visible reminders, everywhere, of the people who lived here during these past 115 years.

Henry Leum
“Lots of old things in a farm this old” says Henry Leum,  “...lots of old junk.” Henry was born not far from here—one field over from the Bakke farm. He and his friend Lawrence Bakke were assisted into this world by the same midwife although he was around 16 years earlier than Lawrence. Nowadays Henry who lives in Westby returns to the old neighborhood to help his friend Lawrence Bakke when there’s farm work to do. As Henry put it, the two of them “go back a long ways.” This is true of many things on the Bakke farm.

The small note pad just inside the door of the 100 year old granary contains the jottings Lawrence Bakke’s father made to himself, right there with the pencil hanging on a string, maybe 50-60 years ago. Upstairs sits an old wooden trunk — the kind hauled across the Atlantic from the 1850s on by Norwegian pioneers. Like a suitcase in a closet, the people who left their traveling here, unpacked to stay. And, in the haymow is the grain cradle that belonged to Lawrence’s grandfather, along with other tools of early farming.

There’s one particularly important relic of the farm that is kept as a prized commemorative. It’s a letter written in 1864 by a Civil War officer. Its purpose was to inform the next of kin that one Civil War enlistee from Wisconsin had died in an army hospital. Ultimately, it would launch a family odyssey from Norway to America that would end with the establishment of a successful family farm on East Ridge.

Peder Olson Hjelstuen — 1864
Back in the very beginning it was an adventurous great uncle named Peder Olson who, at the age of 21, first set out from Gudbransdalen, north of Oslo, for America. Peder found his way to Coon Prairie which was then a growing Norwegian settlement, in 1857. As with many new arrivals from Norway, Peder had relatives already established here, the Berghs. they lived on East Ridge and were to figure prominently in the lives of other members of Peder’s family who came later.

There was already a family living on what would become the Bakke farm when Peder Olson arrived. The pioneer Melvin family had built a small cabin over the hill by a spring, and had cleared just a little land nearest the cabin. In 1864 the Melvins sold the farm, 80 acres in all, to Peder Olson for $650. Peder was perhaps trying to find a way of gathering capital for his new investment when he enlisted in the army in the war between the states. That very year he purchased the farm and went off to fight soon afterwards. Some veterans made it back to enjoy their pensions and the gratuities of a grateful republic but Peder Olson didn’t. He died in an army hospital, and with ‘pen in hand’ his commanding officer wrote a kind letter to his family back home. Two years later Peder’s parents, sisters and brother arrived at Coon Prairie to take on his farm.

They spent the first winter with the Berghs in their small cabin and then moved to the farm which was a mile south of the Berghs. A new house was built near the cabin by the spring. They also built a stable for the oxen, using the oxen to grub out the heavily wooded land. And a sheep shed and a corncrib was made. Later, there would be a granary, a tobacco shed which was one of the earliest on the ridge and a barn.

Although the family and their neighbors were growing in number and making great changes, the land was basically wilderness even when they had succeeded in dragging out stumps and converting wooded ridgeland into farmland. There were still Indians around this part of the valley and it was common for them to come to the cabins and trade venison for bread. They camped not far from the Bakke farm, down in the valley where they looked for ginseng each year.

By the 1890s the Bakke farm stood in the middle of a large Norwegian neighborhood. Although there had been a lot of speculation buying at the beginning, as evidence in deeds, titles with many early short-term owners Norwegians succeeded in making Coon Prairie and its eastern territory on East Ridge thoroughly their own. The Bakkes, like many of their fellow farmers had the same neighbors here they had back in Norway.

And around this time and across the century mark East Ridge farmers had two thriving town centers within easy distance to which they could go for trade, milling, blacksmith services and visiting. Avalanche to the south was just over the hill and down from East Ridge. Westby was a stone’s throw to the north and west. And by then, the second generation was working the family farm.

Lawrence Bakke was born at home, 1907. He would eventually become the heir to the farm but his earliest memories of growing up there cover many years of firsthand history.

“I remember,” Lawrence Bakke says, “in 1915 I had diphtheria. My sister got it first. she’d been to a party in the neighborhood, then I got it. And we were then quarantined. And I remember than, tramps used to come knocking at the door for a meal...that was common in those days for tramps to walk down to Avalanche and our farm was directly on the route they took. Well, when they showed up when we were quarantined, they were shown the quarantine sign and they started off just as soon as they could.

We had a doctor then. And a health officer from Viroqua came out. Dr. Proctor came and we all had to fumigate the whole house. They burned sulphur inside the rooms and, oh, it was an awful odor. Clothes and linens, everything had to be washed. The furniture all had to be moved outside to sun, That lasted for three weeks.

Lawrence Bakke remembers: An interview with Kickapoo Pearls writer Dail Murray in the early 1970s.

Lawrence Bakke — 1986
I remember in 1918 when the war came along. My father had made a provision that in the case my eldest brother were to go to war, my other brother would return home to take over some of the work. He was working elsewhere at the time. And that was how it happened. He did come back when my eldest brother enlisted in the army.

1918, that was also the year we saw the first airplane. We heard it, heard the noise long before we could see it and then it flew over us and we were quite impressed at the time.

In 1922, I remember, we had an ice storm. In February I believe it was, and all of the telephone lines went down. They were nearly all of them down everywhere. Every once in awhile we’d hear a tree crash and snap in the woods. We’ve had ice storms since, but nothing as bad as that one.

The old-timers used to predict the weather by the old (Kickapoo Valley and Northern) train whistle. When it could be heard all the way up here, they said, the weather would change soon. And you know, there’s some truth to that. An east wind brings a change in weather.

Has life here changed? “Yes, I would say. some changes were for the better. Some were slower to come. In 1921 the first silo was built on the farm. I think two other neighbors already had silos. Not everyone was quick to have one. I know a few would laugh at them.

Not everyone accepted the tractor. I know an old harness maker. I told him I was thinking of buying a tractor and he disapproved. I told him tractors didn’t get sleeping sickness. He said “oh, yes, tractors get sleeping sickness, too.”

One of the best changes was contour farming and alfalfa. Before, after they plowed a hillside, a hard rain would wash it out. As a little boy I’d have to run ahead and throw bundles in the ditches so they could cross with the binder. There were many ditches and gullies in the fields. After contour farming we never had ditches like we did before.

Century farms are dying out you know. One could at least say half—maybe even more—of the old farms in the neighborhood are gone. It was once mostly Norwegian here, now I have Mills, Laskies, Slamas for neighbors. It started 20-30 years ago. Many people are moving out, dying out.

Am I an optimist about the future? Well, I would say yes, I think I am. Have you heard the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist complains about all the high taxes, an optimist says, ‘They aren’t high...compared to what they’ll be next year.’ “Have you ever seen an old lawnmower?” Lawrence asks.

“Lots of old junk...” Former neighbor Henry Leum says, smiling and shaking his head while the mystery thing is retrieved from the haymow. It’s small compared to the monsters that mow on wheels today, and by appearance looks to be as effective as a pair of manicure scissors. But, lo and behold, it works. With a little muscle and exertion the grass on Lawrence Bakke’s lawn can be made to fly.

Lots of things have changed, you betcha,” says Henry Leum. Lawrence Bakke agrees, but change is less apparent on the Bakke farm and other farms like it, where the old has been discarded only for practical purpose and the rest is tucked away for family value, which makes this farm, at the end of a dead-end road on East Ridge an interesting place to get lost if you’re in no hurry to get back to main roads.

1 comment:

  1. The farm is still there, at the end of Bakke Lane. But it was sold out of our family in 1991 after Lawrence went to Vernon Manor, where he died in 1992. Much of that old junk is now on display at Norskedalen. And the many memories are spread all over the world.