Two Nordic Bachelor Farmers and Their Tractors

Today’s guest post was written by Clyde.

In my childhood the few farmers of southern Lake County shared equipment and work. Many of those farmers were characters worthy of being remembered. Two of them were Nordic Bachelor Farmers.

The Swede

Ole, his real name, I promise, lived in the valley below us up a side road of a side road of a side road in a small house. I always wanted to get into that house, to see if it was as neat and precise as were his barn and garages and to see if it had any frills. I never made it in.

1948 Massey-Harris

In our early years on our perch above the valley, before the trees got too tall, we could just see his farm. It was three miles away, but by road it was seven miles. Ole owned a threshing machine. We would trade work or oats for him to come to our farm with “the separator,” as we always called it. Ole would putt-putt along at a much slower speed than necessary in his 1940′s era red and yellow Massey-Harris tractor towing the machine to and from our farm. Ole never rushed anything. Never. Ole never got excited. Never. Ole would talk . . . but . . . seldom . . . softly . . . with lots of . . . pauses.

He was slight of frame with massive hands at the end of long dangling arms. He always wore a cap, except when he came awkwardly into our house to eat. I waited for that moment when he stood at the door wiping his feet, cap in hand, calling my mother “Missus.” Powdermilk Biscuits would not have cured his shyness, nor given color to his pale skin, which somehow never tanned or burned, nor given thrust to his receding chin.

It was his head I waited to see. He had classic male-patterned baldness, and, here is what I awaited, five large bumps on his head. I do not know why he had them. They seemed benign, and he lived into his late 70′s. But what child could not be enthralled by those bumps!

The Norwegian

Noble—yes, that was his name—was my father’s best friend. And as opposite of my father in temperament as a man could be. He had been a Lake Superior fisherman until the coming of the lamphrey. He switched to farming, with which he needed much help from my father. I liked his name, and he did have a serene Nordic unpolished nobility. But I liked his brother’s name better, Sextus, which always made me giggle. Noble was short, stout of frame, and walked with small slow careful steps. He always bent his upper body forward and furrowed his brow as if deeply worried, which he was not.

Oh, how many stories there are about his kind, gentle, and implacable nature. For instance he once brought back 50 wild yearling steers off the Montana Range, and trustingly left a gate open, letting them escape. We got back 49, one of which died.
One was found as far away as Beaver Bay.

One day when he was about 50 years old sitting drinking coffee at our house, calling my mother “missus,” he casually mentioned that he had married the week before. My parents snorted coffee. It was a women we knew—brusque, demanding, fast-moving, and intolerant of incompetence. It proved to be a lasting, loving, and happy match.

After I moved back to Two Harbors, I often saw Noble. Once I mentioned to him that my backyard had a large pile of firewood which was too punky to burn in our fireplace. He agreed with my suggestion that it would burn in the large barrel stove in his garage, fashioned for him by my father.

Fordson Model F

One Saturday he showed up with a hay wagon pulled by his 1930′s era Fordson tractor, famous for its durability and utter lack of power. Noble had three tractors, one a powerful International Harvester, but he loved to use that old putt-putt Fordson. As he backed it down into the low spot in my yard where the wood was piled, I told him that I did not think it had the power to pull out the load. He thought a moment and said, “Yup, yup, probably not,” and started to load wood. Halfway through the job we went in for coffee. He took off his hat, wiped his feet carefully, and charmed my wife, calling her “Missus.”

As you can guess, the Fordson would not pull out the load. He did not get mad; he just laughed and said, “Yup, yup, you were sure right about that.” He drove the 11 miles home and 11 miles back the next day with the IH, which pulled it out easily.

That was, sad to say, my last meaningful contact with that exemplary man. But I picture him every time I hear the term “Norwegian Bachelor Farmer.”

Who do you know from Lake Wobegon?

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50 thoughts on “Two Nordic Bachelor Farmers and Their Tractors”

  1. Rise and Shine Baboons!

    Are you kidding–I know all of them! I grew up in Lake Woebegone, Iowa! I have some favorites. Many years ago, a character named Barbara Ann Bunson was someone I could relate to. She was sort of a hippy who started a llama farm. She wanted nothing more than to leave LW. The mothers of LW who cannot allow younger women to be trusted with the Thanksgiving meal–I had two MIL like that.

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    1. I know a woman who is a Barbara Ann Bunson type. She became interested in farming while she was with the Peace Corps in Thailand and later studied sustainable agriculture. She and her husband-to-be have a farm outside of Belle Plaine where they produce organic milk and beef. I could see her raising llamas though.

      I love the llamas at the state fair.

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  2. Good morning to all,

    There are are many who would fit into a Lake Woebegone story in the Clarks Grove area. The leading among them might be Rat Larson. Larson lived several miles from town in a completely run down house. It was said that there was a big rat problem in his house. The story was that he hung his bed from wires so that the rats couldn’t get on his bed and bother him when he was sleeping. He liked to talk and I visited with him a few times. He told me that he had found a man with an extreme head injury beside a car wreak and loaded the man into his front putting his head in his lap as he drove to the hospital. Rat Larson passed away and his old house was bull dozed

    Clyde, thanks for the bachelor farmer stories. Another story I heard from around here was about two bachelor farmers who entertained themselves by shooting at mice inside their house with rifles.

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    1. My father had many bachelor Finnish farmer tales from the 1930′s in Wadena County, around Sebeka, where he was a deputy sheriff for awhile. Best one: two Finnish bachelors lived next to each other and shared work all week. Then on Saturdays starting at noon they would often get drunk together. BUT one was a communist (hammer and sickle on his hay mow door) the other was very anti-communist. Communism was a very hot topic for Finns from 1900 to 1940. So these two Drunken Finns would start arguing. My father would make a regular Saturday run by their farms to breakup the fights. At which point they would often get very maudlin and end their fight. He once found one of the two trying to hang the other in his barn. Then one Saturday the anti-communist climbed drunk up a ladder to paint out the hammer and sickle. When he was about done, he fell of and broke his leg. That seemed to settle their dispute forever.

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  3. When I was a kid, the popular culture made great fun of farmers. Cartoons and jokes and entertainers always depicted rural folks as rubes and simpletons like characters from “Hee Haw” or Dogpatch. Norwegian bachelor farmers hadn’t been discovered then, although the stereotype of the rural character was a commonplace in the culture.

    But when I spent time with farm folks near my Iowa home, I met an entirely different sort of person. The farmers I encountered were incredibly educated in a great range of jobs. They worked hard, treasured their independence and practiced a droll sort of dialogue that cracked me up. One of the reasons I became a pheasant hunter was for the joy of spending time among these remarkable people who were so kind, so charming and so willing to share their lives. I couldn’t travel to Italy, but by going 18 miles to Roland I could hang out with folks who were as exotically unique to me as Italians or Icelanders.

    It is difficult to share perceptions of these people—although Clyde sure did it well—because you need to spend enough time among them to pick up on the nuances of their way of seeing things.

    Take, for example, their habitual understatement. A farmer casually mentions that a project last winter was adding a basement to his two-story farm home. Someone asks, “How did you do that?” The reply: “Jacked ‘er up.” And there, in three words, he described a task more arduous and complicated than most men ever accomplish in a lifetime of work in a city. He had split his home at the base, put jacks under it, raised the home into the air, dug out and built a basement under it, lowered the home and restored all the connections. And that got reduced to “Jacked ‘er up.”

    I’ll pop by later to tell a story about the rural fellow I know best, my friend Larry. A western rancher/farmer, he is more Dodge City than Lake Wobegone, but he’ll seem familiar to Clyde or anyone who has spent time among rural folks.

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    1. Yep, Steve, you got Roland right, almost 100% Norwegian when my grandparents were there – my Uncle Loren could have been the guy who said “Jacked ‘er up.”

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    2. I agree, Steve, that there a lot of farmers who are not strange characters and who have a lot of skill. At the same time there are plenty of people in rural areas, and even in cities, who are really comical and it doesn’t take too much effort to learn about them. In rural areas you would need to learn to sit in a cafe and have coffee with the locals to learn some of the best stories.

      Sometimes you just see strange things. One day a guy parked his lawn mowing machine in front of the cafe. It was the strangest mower I ever saw. It was a riding mower with a long cross arm. On each side of the riding mower he had mounted three old push power mowers. Apparently he started all six of the push mowers and drove the riding mower with the push mowers running so that he could cut a very wide strip of lawn in one pass. He visited in the cafe with his brother who told me about his trick for keeping squirrels off his bird feeder. He had a switch he could turn on when he saw squirrels on the feeded that would give them an electric shock.

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      1. “Let’s go down to the cafe and count feedcaps,
        And count feedcaps, in a row.
        Red and blue and green over the coffee cups,
        Stirrin’ easy, fadin’ slow.” Greg Brown

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      2. You’re right, Jim, that there are odd folks in both cities and rural areas; and I’d agree that it is easier to learn about them in country cafes. Hunting near Pierre, South Dakota, I heard about the bachelor brothers who lived in a small farmhouse but never spoke to each other. As I recall, neither brother could remember what the fight was about that caused the split, but both brothers continued to be so angry that they never would talk.

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  4. I know the Lutheran Ford dealer and the Catholic Chevy dealer. There were two bachelor farmers who lived on a place just down the road from my best friend’s farm. The house was kind of run down, and she told me they both got really sick when they decided to eat a piece of beef roast that had turned green.

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  5. This is great stuff, Clyde; I’ve already snorted tea twice.

    Our good friend Chuck farmed outside of Winona, and we lived with them for 5 months in 1981 (when I learned to milk goats). Although Chuck isn’t Norwegian, he has that slow, thoughtful way of speaking – his wife often tries to hurry him through a story he’s telling, to no avail.

    I’ve known a librarian that kind of reminds me of Margaret Haskins Durber, Lake Wobegon’s poet laureate (from kind of early on). Will think on this for more today…

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  6. There also is a wonderful old woman Norwegian woman named Margaret Vegge who is 94 and still runs a store called Renfro’s Variety. It sells things like porcelain dolls, embroidery floss, doilies, socks, and things you can’t find anywhere else. She was a devoted choir soprano for decades. She never married, saying she never met a man who made her want to jump up and down. There also was a very old Norwegian man at our church who never married. He was the half-brother of a bunch of rather successful area farmers. He was born in Norway to his unmarried mother and immigrated with her when she came to America to marry her Norwegian-American farmer husband. I guess that out of wedlock births were fairly common in Norway and not considered such a big deal like they were here.

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      1. MPR did a story on Margaret about a year ago. You can find it if you google Renfro Variety. I don’t know how to make a link to it here. She was 95 then so she must be 96 now.

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  7. Here’s another Clarks Grove story that happened yesterday. A guy I know who has a very good sense of humor saw me reading the notes from a recent city council meeting that had been posted. He said that he knew from experience that those notes were not at all accurate. I said I really didn’t want to go and sit through a city council meeting to find out what was really happening. He said that I shouldn’t do that because it might cause me to slit my wrists. I know some of the city council members and I appreciate their efforts to keep the city in good shape. However, sometimes it seems to me that they aren’t really as smart as they think they are and I think that is what the guy with the good sense of humor was suggesting..

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  8. Very nice piece, Clyde.

    In the small town where II grew up, my mother did most of her shopping at a store very much like Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery. Like Ralph’s, you could get pretty much everything you needed there; if they didn’t carry it, you could probably get by without it. Actually, now that I think about it, that’s not true! They didn’t carry perishable items such as milk or dairy products, fruits and vegetables, bread or meat. Milk was delivered to our doorstep every morning by the milkman; the remaining items were purchased at the small stores specializing in them.

    A strong smell of freshly ground coffee was the first thing you’d notice upon entering the store. A long wooden counter with and old cash register and a scale separated you from the the grocer and his wife waiting to serve you. No self-service, shopping baskets or carts here. On another counter, against the wall behind the grocer, was the coffee grinder with big two big shiny wheels, and numerous bins of flour, sugar, tea and other items that were sold in whatever quantity you wanted. An impressive array of glass jars with hard candy were prominently displayed on that counter as well. Barrels of salted herring, laundry detergent, and honey were lined up on the worn wooden floor against another wall.

    Under the counter where you transacted business with the grocer was a large ledger in which the grocer would write down, in long hand, the date, items purchased, and price of the items you had bought. You’d settle your account once a month in cash.

    I remember one shopping excursion to this store in particular. Mom had sent me there to buy a package of cigarettes. She told me to ask for 20 Chesterfields. I must have been six years old at the time, and I remember walking to the store about 1/2 a mile away repeating “20 Chesterfields” over and over again. By the time I got to the store, the 20 Chesterfields had become such a garbled mess that I sat down on the grocer’s front stoop and cried. When Mr. Rasmussen noticed me sitting there, he came out to investigate what the problem was. I confessed that my mom had sent me to buy cigarettes, but that I had gotten the message so garbled that I no longer knew what I was supposed to get. No problem, Mr. Rasmussen knew without having to consult anything that my mother smoked Chesterfields. He sent me on my way with mom’s Chesterfields and a piece of my favorite candy to console me.

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  9. Local people probably think I am an odd character. For a while I worked a a crop consultant and could be seen checking fields with an insect net. This cause a guy with a very loud voice to always greet me by yelling, “Hi Bug Man”. Soetimes he would be at the other end of the block when decided to give me that greeting. That caused many people to greet me the same way and then laugh about it.

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  10. I see that I am making a lot of typos this morning. Either I am having trouble waking up or I am developing an odd writing style that fits with the topic this morning.

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  11. Almanac today is for wordy folks like us, promiscuous folks it turns out.
    I cannot relate to any other specific LW people. I just relate very well to the culture, as I suspect many here do, the way men and women relate, husbands and wives especially.
    You may not notice that Ole is not quite what he seems, if you read the details right. Ole first putt-putted the separator to our place in his red and yellow, very red and very yellow, tractor in, my guess,1954. That means Ole had a quite new tractor and a post-war tractor, which could not have been cheap. Pretty daring financially and mechanically. Everybody else we knew drove prewar tractors, ours was a 1929 Farmall.
    Ole was also the first person to have a Hereford, whiteface as we soon called them. He bought a Hereford bull about 1955. First one I ever saw. He then, like Noble and his Angus yearlings in 1960 (also quite daring and first I saw of that breed, although I became very familiar with their rear ends chasing down the 50 he let loose), Ole had his bull get out. Getting Ole’s bull home was one of the memorable days of my childhood, which I wrote into my long story.

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  12. Afternoon–

    I am enjoying these stories and will add quickly:
    I was at a day long meeting for the local Dairy cooperative. When lunch was about over the chairman stood up and said, “OK then, if everyone is almost done, well, then maybe we should think about heading back to the meeting room if that’s OK with everyone then…”
    And I thought gosh; we really are just like Lake Wobegon.

    A gentleman from our neighborhood is a bachelor living alone in a old, old wreck of a farm house. I had measured some fields for him and he invited me in to write the check out for him. And then he began showing me things in the curio cabinet. Old, Old antiques and he’s reach way in the back over all this other stuff to get some trinket out and I was scared for all the other antiques in the way!
    He used to tell me he had $40,000 in the bank and was looking for a wife. And if he met a female in town he would look them over head to toe. I know it made them uncomfortable. But he was pretty harmless I think.

    Mark Knopfler has a song called ‘Prairie Wedding’ that’s very sweet.
    “… and when we came to the farm she laid a hand on my arm, I thought my resolution would fail…”

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    1. Ben, I think there is something about the life on a farm, where farmers are operating their own businesses and working with the land, that makes this one of the most imporant parts of what is good in our way of life in this country. Family farms are on the decline, but there are still a lot of people who are doing their best to keep them going. That’s my opinion. You know a lot more about this than I do.

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    2. Lots of nice stories today. I was reminded of this one that makes us sound worse than we really mean to be.
      At one of the afore-mentioned dairy meetings I was wearing an ‘Arts over AIDS’ ribbon on my jacket. A fellow sitting across from me at lunch asked what that was. I said ‘Arts over AIDS’, he said ‘What’s that?’ I explained ‘Acquired Immune Deficiency syndrome’; the disease. No, no, no he says, I know that… what’s “arts”? I had to pause… “Arts. You know, theater. painting. Acting” OH! ARTS he finally says…. oh ya ya ya… he says.

      Sometimes I had a hard time fitting ‘theater’ into the farming community. But I also have to give the farmers credit; they saw a lot of shows and would tell me about seeing my name in the programs. And I would argue with one theater when they started getting kinda snooty; they prided themselves on being ‘rural’ but then we would have discussions ‘Will the rural folks understand this show?’ And I’d be the one saying ‘Why? Do you think they’re dumb??’

      I had the lead in a Woody Allen play once, played a Woody Allen type character. And a local farmer never failed to point that out to me every time I saw him after that.

      … I’m being kinda of random tonight I think….

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  13. Thanks all for the wonderful character studies today. There are two Norwegian bachelor farmers somewhere in the family history. They farmed together on the family land – their sister married the farmer down the road, and when he passed on, she moved back to the family farm to “take care of the boys” (who by then were in their 70s or 80s…but still “the boys”). I have met many “latent” bachelor farmers; men who now work in the city, but haven’t married and share a laconic, quiet kinship with their rural kin. One of the project managers I am currently working with I suspect fits this bill, though he fits more into the “colorful character” end of the spectrum (he has an affinity for brightly colored athletic shoes – including yellow, red, and purple pairs), but fits the understated “do it yourself” work ethic .

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  14. A few more quick stories to add:
    Another Noble story like hauling the wood only very expensive–he once started building a barn, too big a barn my father kept telling him. My father and I worked hours on it. My father, who among many other things in his past learned how to build barns, kept telling Noble he was not bracing it adequately. When the framework was all up, along came a windstorm and blew it down. Noble reacted about as much to that error as he did to the bringing the wrong tractor.
    My father had many stories about the old Finns from his youth, real emigrants with thick accents. Many stories were about drunks, which as my dad said, was an unfair representation of the Finns, who are culturally a very clean and sober people. But he met the drunks as a deputy. So two from those days.
    My father came across a drunk in the ditch. The drunk told him “his gottam rutabeggar car went in titch.” He meant Studebaker, if you do not get that.
    One man used to almost check himself into jail drunk, like the character on the Andy Griffith Show. He would explain his drunkenness by saying that when he “got a titch he hat to cratch it.”
    Not a drunk story: an old Finn went to the lumberyard to buy lumber to build a house. The yardman asked him how much lumber he would need, how big a house it was. The old Finn said he wanted to “built one house two house high.”

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  15. What a fun read today as I finally get around to it tonight. Thanks Kids, and bravo, Clydestro! That’s word play for maestro, in case ya don’t know it. My 4-H calf in the gravatar is a Hereford. I remember he had the prettiest eyes and the tastiest sirloins.

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  16. WOT: My domestic fairy has just had a double mastectomy due to stage three breast cancer. So, no cleaning help for quite a while. I placed an add on Craigslist today. So far I have several good responses, plus one from some weirdo who wants to clean my house naked!

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  17. sorry i missed the fun post clyde. i am looking forward to the results of your recollections of growing up. you do such a great job of painting those pictures.

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