By Helen DePunydt
Saco Stories 

Listen to the Quiet: Part 5

 


The Kienitz family now numbered four: Otto, Lizzie and their two lively daughters, blond Leona, nicknamed “Toots,” and the dark-haired Luella, who is known as “Babe.” The members of this family were closely knit and have remained so over the years.

Luella, number two daughter, now living in Bremerton, Wash., reminisces about her childhood out on the windswept prairie.

“Winter snows brought out the homemade sleds, scoop shovels or toboggan for sliding down the rocky hills. With my long tresses trailing behind and lying flat on the sled, I glided through a patch of cockle burrs, which extended beyond the snow’s crest. It took Mother quite sometime to patiently comb out the burrs, and still retain my long hairdo.”

Pet skunks were among the curiosities found on the place. A large hallowed out log served as a den. Several coyotes and a bob cat were also called pets, but never petted. We knew in the end, these animals would be sacrificed for their pelts.

Long winter evenings were spent playing pinochle with the Ricksons. Transportation was team and sled, walking or skiing. Carl Erickson was noted for his delicious bachelor’s bread, which I well remember. A few musicians spent evenings, warbling the “Red River Valley” and picking on a guitar. There was Allen Marshall with his violin, and I think, a mandolin. Dad played a fiddle, Mama played the organ and us kids, the guitar and also the organ.


In our teen years, we got our start raising bum lambs – compliments of the Henry Barton ranch. We would have between 20 and 30. The baby lambs were taught to drink by holding a finger in a bucket of milk, after a few days, they’d be ready to drink out of a half-tire filled with milk.

As the fastest drinkers had their share, they’d be lifted over into another pen. In the daytime, we had to watch for coyotes and at night, the lambs were herded into the barn. Lambs, of all the creatures, are the most playful and like children, they weren’t always ready for bed.

So, it was a game to see who would win on getting them all into the barn at once. The first lambs in would be ready to come out by the time the first ones reached the door – a couple of stiff-legged jumps by the leader and the whole band would be promenading across the yard again. . . . and so there were the fun times and the hard times. This family remembers both, in amazing detail.

Leona commented that, “The baby lambs were brought each day from the Bartons. We harnessed up our own team to a rig, went cross country over the hills and got as close to the Barton ranch as we could, then tied up the horses, went down and carried the lambs back up for the trip home.”


Leona mentioned that it was no problem feeding the pet skunks as they enjoyed a variety such as milk, cherries, grass hoppers, potatoes or anything from the table as long as it didn’t contain much salt. If there were mice or dead jackrabbits, this made the menu that much more enjoyable for the wild pets. It was a cute sight to see a skunk eat, as they hold their food in their paws just like a cub bear and they would lap up milk like a cat. These animals were all caught in traps and released into a box to be transported to the buildings.

There was never any annoying skunk odors, as these animals were handled gently, with care always taken to avoid startling them. Unbelievable as it may sound, Leona transported a skunk alive alongside her in a car for a distance of over 20 miles – without a mishap.

Otto remembered that the year 1928 was a fair year crop wise, but the following year and the thirties were most discouraging.

By this time, Otto’s cattle had increased with the original milk cow producing a calf each year and a few calves bought from Alfred Minke [of the] The First National Bank, located where the Big Dome Hotel stands, held a mortgage on some fine cows raised by Boner Zenor, who lived a mile from Charlie Haynes’ farm, north of Saco. The banker at Saco was R. D. Sutherland, who had been raised by a banker, W. E. C. Ross in Blue Earth, Minn., the hometown of Otto and Lizzie Kienitz. Sutherland asked Kienitz if perhaps he would like to buy the mortgaged cows, and Otto replied that he didn’t have the money. The banker said that he would let Otto have the cash, with no strings attached. The four cows turned out to be a good investment as they were in excellent condition - big and fat and were real rustlers. It was necessary actually to bring them in for feed when winter set in.


Another man from Blue Earth eventually migrated to Hinsdale and acquired a job at the local bank. This young man was Harry Abbott, a former mailman for Elmore, 10 miles from Blue Earth. He was quite an athlete, who would run behind the mail wagon to get his exercise. In later years, he went west and was an insurance salesman.

Saco was a booming town, before the depression set in. It was impossible for the lumber cars to meet the demand for seasoned lumber, so many people settled for the green. After the green lumber dried, gaps appeared in the buildings.

There were four grocery stores and later another one. Kronschnabels, whose owner died a few weeks ago in Great Falls at the age of 81. There had been three banks at Saco, but never more than two at one time. Now in 1973, there are none.

Each spring Otto assisted Henry Barton, a neighbor to the south, with his lambing operation. The Barton’s band was estimated at about 1,000 head. Otto’s job was tending the shed in the daytime. This was difficult work, especially hard on the back, although enjoyable to one who likes sheep. The newborn lambs had to be taught to nurse and it was necessary to brand the new lambs and the ewe with identical numbers, which were painted on. Thus number 16 lamb belonged to the ewe which carried number 16 also. Jim Austin, uncle of Harry Austin Sr., also hired Otto for this lambing operation in the Whitewater community.

One spring while the women were alone at the Kienitz home, the pail-fed calves were put out to pasture. It was discovered shortly after, that they all died from unknown causes. An almost identical situation occurred at the Jim Austin ranch while Otto was working there, but in that case it was milk cows which suddenly died. When Otto returned home, the family learned from him that the bad luck was caused by death damas. The family never lost any of their lambs from this weed, but the girls went out early in the morning to gather the poisonous mushrooms which often appealed to the sheep.

A variety of berry bushes growing wild provided the family with jellies, juices and syrup for the table. Service berries, also commonly known as June berries, were a favorite. One year, Lizzie canned 100 quarts of these berries and still had extra raw ones to sell. Buffalo berries were gathered by beating the bushes with sticks, and allowing the crimson berries to fall onto tarps, which had been spread beneath the bushes. Picking these berries by hand would have been a slow, painful process, as there were thorns intermingled with the berries. These buffalo berries were gathered after the first frost, as the fruit is much sweeter then. The buffalo berries produced a milky juice but resulted in a clear ruby red jelly. Chokecherries were also picked whenever they were available.

Lizzie’s talent as a seamstress was much in demand in the neighborhood. The fabric was provided by the customer and then Lizzie designed a pattern to suit the particular individual. One customer was a hired man of Mark Wright’s. Mrs. Kienitz sewed two nifty shirts for him – both being silk, one in red and the other a bright green. The story got back to Kienitzes that on a Saturday night, when this particular gentleman was all decked out in his new shirt, his horse bucked him off into the Frenchman Creek. This unplanned baptism forced him to retrace his tracks and change clothes – this time donning his second silk shirt for the evening. The women in the Wright family were frequent customers of Lizzies. Another item which proved quite popular was the handmade neckties.

Machinery used during these years was all horse machinery – plow, disk, rake, mower and binder. All the homesteaders were supposed to prove up 40 acres within three years after filing on their homestead. Some broke up more land, but because of rocky conditions, Otto decided the rest should be left for grazing. Eventually some of this plowed land was put back into pasture.

After his own work was done, Otto assisted his good neighbor, Mark Wright, with dirt work which was done with four horses and a scraper – building dikes and ditches. There was also ice to be put up and wood sawed for fuel - “A pile as big as a straw stack,” says Otto. Otto worked for 16 years for this neighbor. He also built fence – 6 miles in all, at $20 a mile. (Compare that to the present price.) Bill Wodtkey, another Frenchman neighbor who was originally from Indiana, exchanged work with Otto at harvest time. Bill would then be free to help Otto with the fence building at Wrights. Wodtkey, incidentally, shared the same birthdate with Otto.

During one lunch break for the fence builders, two riders ventured up. One was a coyote trapper, Jim Hall, and a stranger dressed in an army uniform. Otto inquired about him from Hall and he answered that, “This is my “nephew,” Otto said, while relating the incident that the stranger was no more his nephew than I was! You never could believe what Hall said – but he sure knew how to catch the coyotes! Jim Hall took the stranger, who was Henry Barto, far to the north of Genevieve to locate a homestead. The two Barton boys were later born in a sod house on land which was eventually sold to Clair Duncan.

Helen DePuydt is a regular contributor to the Courier and a member of a homesteading family in the Saco area. All of her stories are true.

 

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