Benjamin Fisher (1816-1902): Life on the Frontier

Blizzards, prairie fires, suicides, railroad failures, price gouging, illnesses, accidents, poverty and the triumph of the human spirit.

Benjamin Fisher was the head of one of seven families that immigrated together during the 1850s from the small town of Dlouha Trebova in the kingdom of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic.) These families landed in Owatonna, Steele County, Minnesota; my mother’s hometown.

Benjamin wrote the autobiography of his first 3 years as a pioneer in Steele County. It was published in the “Amerikan Narodni Kalendar,” a Czech language almanac.1)“Ze Zkusenosti Cechu Americkych,” by Benjamin Fisher, Amerikan Narodni kalendar, (Chicago : Augusta Press, 1882); digital images, The University of Chicago Library, (www.storage.lib.uchicago.edu : accessed 2 Dec 2016). The University of Chicago has it on their website here. You can find the individual article by typing “control+f” and searching, “Owatonna.” Note: it’s in Czech.

The first time I read the translation, I walked around my house for 2-3 days in a daze. I noted that my two kids had 5 hoodies between them, that I have way too many pairs of shoes, and that I throw too many old leftovers away. It’s sobering to read and reflect on the over-abundance and consumerism of our own lives. It’s also worthy to note that some struggles are common to all men.

[A little context on Minnesota might be helpful. The first U.S. military presence in Minnesota was at Fort Snelling in 1805. The Minnesota territory was created on 3 Mar 1849. Treaties with Native Americans opened Minnesota for settlement by 1851. Minnesota was admitted as a state on 11 May 1858.]2)Rhoda R. Gillman, The Story of Minnesota’s Past, (St Paul : Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991).

Here are some highlights. Note, all facts are from Benjamin Fisher’s account in Amerikan Narodni kalendar unless otherwise cited.

This group of families arrived on St. Wencelaus’ Day which was 28 Sep 1856. [The first frost date for the area is about September 30, give or take a few weeks. So, it’s already cold there. It’s late for an arrival. Napolean invading Russia late.]

Today, Owatonna isn’t a small town. There are plenty of traffic lights, restaurants, groceries, parks, sports leagues, churches, and schools. Back then, it was six buildings. 6! 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6! [That’s all. Smaller than small. How it actually had a name or that it was even on a map, I don’t know!]

The families camped together south of Owatonna in the southeast corner of section 16.3)Michael Wolesky, We Lack for Nothing Now: the Czech Settlement of Steele County, Minnesota, (St Paul : Wolindoo, 2011), p 18. The families divided the work. Some built homes where multiple families would live. Others worked to buy hay for their livestock. [They were a community, truly dependent upon one another.]

That same Fall, a prairie fire almost killed a few of the families who’d been living in their wagons. It destroyed a large portion of the hay they’d gathered.

The only food supplies available came in huge Costco sized portions. It was life on the frontier! So there was no buying a five pound bag of flour. It was 100 pounds and expensive. So borrow some money, you say? Forty percent interest on loans. [40%! Check your mortgage or car loan interest and compare.]

The challenges were enormous to just shelter and feed their families. But, the unexpected made life worse. During that first year, Benjamin and his wife, Anna, had four young children. The youngest, Charles, suffered a horrible accident.

“We left the children under the care of the others, and when we returned home, Zednik’s daughter came running with the terrible news: Charlie’s been scalded! We hurried home and found our two-year-old and oldest daughter all wet as they poured cold water on him. The poor little fellow had half his body scalded, and skin was flaking off. How did it happen? To this day, we don’t know; we were told only that he fell into the kettle full of boiling water. Until I die I will never forget, as I felt the pain along with my little one. 
In the house there wasn’t a cent, along with a lack of everything, and now another misfortune thrown in. We had to tend to the poor little fellows suffering and help him with home remedies, since there was no money for medicine. Three months went by before we were convinced that our child would survive, and that’s what we went through, all every person could think about. Way later in the year, when the child would extend his hand, blood would roll out from his armpit, and we feared that until death he would be a cripple. Luckily this did not happen.”4)Charles Peter Fisher, born Jun 1875, died 21 Jan 1938 in Owatonna. He married Anna Srsen, daughter of Charles and Catherine Srsen of Bohemia, on 13 Nov 1883. They had 6 children.

Michael Wolesky writes about the incident as well. “…some Indians arrived at the cabin soon after, having been drawn by the screams. They made a preparation using cold ashes to put on the wound before bandaging it, saying this was better than putting bandages directly on the wounds.”5)Michael Wolesky, We Lack for Nothing Now, p 52.

[Despite their troubles, there were signs of compassion.] A merchant gave Benjamin one of those 100 pound bags of flour with only a silk scarf as surety. Dr. Morehouse, the local physician, allowed Benjamin to work for him, chopping wood, to earn the money to pay for the flour.

Other hardships included cows that died after giving birth, leaving no hope of milk for the calf or the family. Building a small house, but not having money for a stove. Finding a good, cheap crop to grow (lettuce) only to have it destroyed by bad weather (hail.)6)Michael Wolesky, We Lack for Nothing Now, p 17. Newborns suffering because Anna had no breast milk from poor nutrition. Then, he writes:

“That summer was terrible for us. As terrible as the summer was, we lived through it. For lending our ox out and breaking sod, we received a cleared acre. We planted buckwheat and got a few bushels out of it. I earned (worked for) some corn and we had coffee in the mill for the whole winter. We had plenty of flour, but there was no great satisfaction, no richness, and we became convinced that hunger is the best cook.”

But, just when their determination and hard work started to pay off, another challenge. Benjamin was clearing land by cutting trees, when one tree fell on both of his legs.

“I was terribly frightened. There was nobody in the woods, and I could not get myself up from under the tree. According to my thoughts, my last moment was at hand. Fear of death can bring great strength, and so it was for me. After a long, hard effort, I was able to free one leg, then the other. I dragged myself to the sleigh and with great difficulty, I made it home. My legs were not broken, but I still spent six weeks in bed.”

Once crops started to come in, there was a 65 mile around trip by ox cart to get it to market. It took seven days. If you had more to sell, the trip back and forth to market took almost 3 weeks.

Then, the railroad was coming. That was good because it meant jobs and more available supplies. It was bad because land prices rose from speculation. Railroad contractors came to town. Benjamin worked for them 30 days and slaughtered his ox to feed the railroad workers. He was never paid for either.

Benjamin must have learned optimism from his trials, because at the end of his story he writes, “Now my three sons are farming on acreages I divided up. Both of my daughters are married and living on big farms, so large that all the farms are connected. And those Americans who were witnesses to our experiences are amazed that we made it.”

Notes:

Special thanks to Steven Wencl, Czech researcher extraordinaire, for his translation of Benjamin Fisher’s account.

You can read more about Benjamin Fisher and the other pioneers in Steele County in Michael Wolesky’s book, We Lack for Nothing Now. Or on this site under Profiles: Made of Steele – Czech Pioneer Ancestors.

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. “Ze Zkusenosti Cechu Americkych,” by Benjamin Fisher, Amerikan Narodni kalendar, (Chicago : Augusta Press, 1882); digital images, The University of Chicago Library, (www.storage.lib.uchicago.edu : accessed 2 Dec 2016).
2. Rhoda R. Gillman, The Story of Minnesota’s Past, (St Paul : Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991).
3. Michael Wolesky, We Lack for Nothing Now: the Czech Settlement of Steele County, Minnesota, (St Paul : Wolindoo, 2011), p 18.
4. Charles Peter Fisher, born Jun 1875, died 21 Jan 1938 in Owatonna. He married Anna Srsen, daughter of Charles and Catherine Srsen of Bohemia, on 13 Nov 1883. They had 6 children.
5. Michael Wolesky, We Lack for Nothing Now, p 52.
6. Michael Wolesky, We Lack for Nothing Now, p 17.