Last fall the Polk County Historical museum videotaped Sheldon Roningen’s talk about old agricultural equipment. This happened when we featured historic farm tools at the Carnegie Building. Listening to Sheldon talk felt like we had asked him to step out of the time machine from one hundred years ago. At age 81, he still has a sharp memory about how things were used in the horse and buggy era, into the 1930s and up to our present era. I would call him an “old time farmer’s farmer.” Sheldon is also knowledgeable about many other things related to the past. It helps that he has been an avid reader from a very young age.

    Note to readers: The success of last week’s 2014 Crookston All-School Reunion and the amount of activity and local history bantered about at the Carnegie Building has spurred local historian and author Kristina Gray to take on another series of historical articles. She’s envisioning this latest series to be published once a week in the Times on this page through August.   

    Last fall the Polk County Historical museum videotaped Sheldon Roningen’s talk about old agricultural equipment. This happened when we featured historic farm tools at the Carnegie Building. Listening to Sheldon talk felt like we had asked him to step out of the time machine from one hundred years ago. At age 81, he still has a sharp memory about how things were used in the horse and buggy era, into the 1930s and up to our present era. I would call him an “old time farmer’s farmer.” Sheldon is also knowledgeable about many other things related to the past. It helps that he has been an avid reader from a very young age.    

    Hopefully we will show this video tape of Sheldon’s talk when we open up the Carnegie Building again in August and September to show the Minnesota Historical traveling exhibit of “Maps of Minnesota.”  Some of the maps we will promote will take the visitor back to 150-200 years ago when the American Indians roamed the Red River Valley.      Not many of the natives could sustain a very good livelihood on our flat plains. In fact, the Sioux and the Chippewa tribes were fighting each other, besides the weather. Sheldon’s memory of the way the early settlers prevailed by using equipment they had brought in from the East, shows just how tough the early pioneers had to be in order to survive. In many cases of what I have read about Crookston’s early days, there seemed to be a mutual respect among the Indian tribes and the early white settlers.  In those days, the environment up in the northwest corner of Minnesota was hostile to all humans who tried to make it their home. (Some would argue that our winters are still not kind to present inhabitants in the Crookston area!)   

    I submit that if you are committed to living in Crookston or the surrounding area, you need some kind of winter sport to make the long, white and cold months bearable.  Apparently Sheldon and his siblings knew this at an early age.  He wrote: “One winter, my youngest sister and I tried chopping a row boat frozen in the river ice.  It was about ¼ mile from the yard, across a coulee and then a river bank. One way or another, we did not succeed.  Several years later, I did find an intact kit built duck boat on shore. I got it home, fiber glassed a good part of it, plus added a coat of marine varnish. If my memory is working, it was used 7 or 8 times in the next twenty years. Two or three river crossings and three float trips, about nine miles each.  I wound up selling it to a neighbor. It was, and is surprising how little public access there is to the Red Lake River.”   

    There may be very good reasons why people living along the Red Lake River do not really want to promote public access. Maybe because there have been too many drownings in the past. Also, the annual spring floods are fixed in many city people’s memories with the requisite sand bagging when levels become too high. Sheldon shared a story his mother had told him.  See if you can make sense of this: “My mother had a few stories, most likely passed down through her mother “und so weiter.” The men of the settlement were cut [sic] on a Viking excursion: (trade, if at all possible, then raid if there is more to be gotten). A strange boat arrived in the fiord. According to a prearranged plan, the women sent the best looking one to welcome the strangers and show them where to dock. When the boat was in the right spot, the other women cut the ropes on the deadfall and that was it.  They may have saved one.”   

    Maybe the moral to Sheldon’s mother’s story was meant to impress, “Don’t mess with Viking women.”  Sheldon explained more about the home he was born and raised in. “The original house was apparently a one room school originally. Some 26 feet square, unfinished attic. Basement. I do not remember being in the basement. Wood cook stove and a small porch. It was sold and moved when the current house was built in 1938. Demolished some thirty years ago (1980s). The house was heated with mostly lignite and wood. I remembered running low on both one winter. I did a fair amount of tree trimming and hauling three sacks of briquettes in to keep going. We made it. I never did get the original furnace to hold an even heat, but did very well with a wood burning furnace for several years. Converted to oil in 1969.”   

    Sheldon went on to explain, “The 1938 house had 32 volt DC electricity when built. Gasoline powered generator with batteries and a wind generator. This was used from 1938 to 1943. Getting on the REA (Rural Electric Association) is what we called it was a struggle. The neighbor to the west did not want poles on his land and there were shortages of poles, wire and other material. It was a horrendous amount of paperwork and effort for ½ mile of line. We finally connected in October of 1943.  A well and running water in 1949. I still carried water for pigs and any penned calves. Bathroom installed in 1954. The local phone system had  a line through the yard, but we were not connected.  It was moved about 1943, no longer through the yard. Hindsight places it [phone system] as having been built about 1900, and very little maintenance since.”    

    As you look across the countryside in the Crookston area or anywhere on our great plains, you can see old ghosts of farmsteads that used to exist. The tree lines and shelter belts may live on. Even if all other buildings have already decayed and caved in, there still might be one Quonset that lives on because the Agsco is almost indestructible.  Sheldon’s reminiscing reveals this sad truth: “There were at least eight occupied farmsteads within a mile. Only one exists today, and all the buildings on that one were erected after World War II. No original buildings left.”   

    An explanation of Sheldon’s childhood must include his early education which was no different from all the other country kids’ experiences. “School was a quarter to half mile walk twice a day. Car bus, quite crowded. I remember walking the three miles to school from home or part of it if the bus was late. I got average or a little above average grades in spite of severe undiagnosed or uncorrected nearsightedness. I enjoyed reading, I did not participate in sports or extra-curricular activities. Partly because chores and walking were enough exercise. I could not throw a ball with any chance of hitting it where I aimed…I got highest boy’s grades for the school in my senior year. Only year I studied. About the only thing I learned the last four years that I still use is typing. Wide reading and a good memory have helped considerably since.”   

    Sheldon continued about his schooling: “I had perfect attendance at school in the 4th grade. The certificate went to another person with the same first name a few years older. He was the one who rubbed snow on a patch of frostbite I had. May well have been the first day of spring, but at least it was close. I do not remember the year but it was one winter that was exceptionally mild. Maybe 1941-1942, give or take a year.” I think we need to give Sheldon his merit by awarding him his certificate from 70 years earlier. Indeed, young children need to be rewarded for their work, if it is well done. Perfect school attendance is something to reward.   

    A voracious reader from a young age, despite his eyesight problems, Sheldon continued about his own self-education. “I read the entire set of Compton’s encyclopedia in the fifth and sixth grade. Some of those who spent considerable time around the bookcase in the back of the room shot spitballs which stuck to the ceiling for at least a few years.”  If only that was the only problem that faced present day teachers in our current school system. Bring us back to those days where there was respect for the teachers.   

    Apparently one of Sheldon’s teachers knew about how much work he did around the farm.  Sheldon wrote: “It was either the eighth or ninth grade teacher who remarked on how much work I did around home compared to my classmates.  At least some of my classmates and neighbors did as much work around home as I did, some worked away from home and sent part of their wages home.”   

    Indeed, the kids who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s came out of  the Great Depression and World War II. Some of today’s children expect an allowance and are not grateful for the roof over their head and the meals that are served to them.  Sheldon has different memories about his childhood: “I was eight when WWII started for the U.S. No immediate relatives or friends serving, so this reduced the impact.    

    The Depression had gotten everyone accustomed to being more or less thrifty. Neighbor helped neighbor. Most farms were self-sufficient to a fair degree. My youngest sister and I somehow accumulated 85 pounds of scrap rubber. Not many tires in the pile. A scrap iron drive resulted in close to a ton being turned in.”   

    Next week I will share more about Sheldon’s work on the family farm with planting and harvesting crops. Also, as a reminder, I will be book signing at the frozen yoghurt place “Berry Burst” next to Widman’s Candy on Wednesday, July 23 from noon to 6:00 p.m. That’s for those who missed out on buying the latest Arcadia history book titled “Legendary Locals of Crookston.”    

    I hope to have Sheldon Roningen visit Berry Burst to answer any questions you may have about what you have read so far about his life.  By the way, if you have children or grandchildren, make sure you teach them to be thankful for their home and their schooling.  Crookston teachers need to be thanked for their work instead of having to teach their pupils to be grateful for their home and schooling.