Thanks to Dr. Albert Sims, Director of the Northwest Research and Outreach Center, I have been looking into the past of the Northwest School of Agriculture (NWSA) where historic letters have been stored. Maureen Aubol has graciously been helping me find photos that go along with these stories I uncover from the correspondence that stretches for thirty years (1895 to 1925). Finally, thanks to my former composition student, Katie Lienemann, she has been photocopying these primary sources of history in the last several weeks despite her very busy school schedule. With this NWSA series, I hope to share with my readers what I have learned over the past nine months of reading these important documents.
From my last four articles about the Northwest School of Agriculture’s Superintendent Conrad S. Selvig, I have portrayed him not only as a champion of the NWSA’s cause of finding more students, but also one who cared about the wellbeing of his students. Selvig became leader of NWSA in 1915 after the second Superintendent William Robertson had passed away in the train he was taking enroute to St. Paul, Minnesota.
Selvig was born in 1877 and had been raised and schooled in southern Minnesota. When he took on the NWSA superintendent job, he was a seasoned educator and administrator at age 38. Selvig and his wife Marion had their first daughter Helen in 1904. His small family of wife and three children moved into the large white house on the NWSA campus to replace the Robertson family who had lived there since 1905.
Just a bit of the back-story about Selvig’s age and his young family is needed in order to understand his relationship with Francis Emmanuel Nelson who was also originally from southern Minnesota. F.E. Nelson had seven children and his oldest daughter, Claire was born in 1902, just two years before Selvig’s first daughter. What I know about Selvig was that he had Norwegian roots while F.E. Nelson had a Swedish background. Back in the late 1800s or early 1900s that might have been a problem with two similar cultures because of power struggles back in the Old Countries. Finally, Norway became free of Sweden’s “leadership” in 1905. The Norwegians continue to celebrate Syttende Mai or May 17 since gaining their independence from Sweden.
According to an online biography about Conrad S. Selvig, he had been nominated in the summer of 1896 to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but he failed to pass the entrance exams. During the Spanish American War in 1898, Selvig had served six months as a private with Company F of the Twelfth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. As far as I could tell, Selvig had more of a military background while F.E. Nelson did not.
F.E. Nelson was eight years older than Selvig yet had started his family later. Maybe what I had missed in earlier boxes I was going through was that Selvig was interested in getting the best-bred horses for the Experiment Station. The first NWSA Superintendent Torger Hoverstad is shown in a photo with a beautiful Percheron horse. Eventually, there existed at least nine expensive, Percheron horses at NWSA. Looking at F.E. Nelson’s letterhead out of Warren, Minnesota, he had sheep and other livestock. F.E. Nelson also followed in his father’s knowledge of raising Percheron horses. As I was going through the boxes of correspondence, I may have missed making that connection in 1915 up to 1918 by not photocopying possible F.E. Nelson letters written to and from Selvig when he was negotiating to get the best Percheron horses to work the fields and plots of land for the Experiment station.
In any case, the story I want to share is that Selvig took time to correspond with not only state governors, University of Minnesota presidents, businessmen, farmers, newspapermen but also with a young 16-year-old girl who was a NWSA student. Claire was close to the heart of F.E. Nelson, oldest of his seven children. Something had happened to Claire on the NWSA campus. F.E. Nelson wrote on Jan. 3, 1918 to Selvig to tell him that the surgeon in chief in St. Paul was going to examine Claire on Jan 10. I might add that F.E. Nelson wanted Selvig to tell him the balance due to the school on Claire’s bill and that Nelson would meet it. That is important to this Nelson family story concerning money owed the school. In January 1918, they had no way of knowing they would have to pay a hefty bill for four-five months for Clair’s St. Paul hospital treatment.
By the next day on Jan. 11, 1918, once the surgeon had seen Claire, F.E. wrote Selvig to explain Claire’s condition. Father to father communication shows through despite the businesslike formality in all letters. They were no doubt friends on a professional level despite the cultural differences of Swedish and Norwegian. I believe Selvig was cosmopolitan enough to welcome all nationalities to NWSA. World War I was going to be ending November 1918 but no one knew that in January of that same year. I am not certain how welcome the nearby German farm families were to the NWSA campus. However, as an example, I might remind my readers that last week, the orphan named Charles Schmidt, had Anglicized his name to Smith.
Selvig wrote to F.E. Nelson on March 6, 1918 asking, “How is your daughter, is she still in St. Paul?” F.E. responded, “Dear sir, we received your kind letter inquiring as to the condition of our daughter Claire. The hospital have had the advice of specialists and the last we heard they are unable to say what they can do for her. So far, she does not seem to be much better. We hope they can benefit her condition. We sent your letter to her and asked her to write to you so that you can know how she is getting along. We appreciate your interest in her welfare. Yours very truly, F.E. Nelson”
In any case, the letter that 16-year-old Claire wrote to Selvig illuminates what the war years meant to everyone. She wrote on April 10, 1918 in her own cursive handwriting the following with some deletions for brevity sake: “As I have not written to you yet, I will write you a few lines to let you know how I am getting along. Mama sent me the letter you wrote them. I was very glad to get it. I am some better than I was. I am having swings and expansion now. I have been here three months today I expect to stay until May. Anyhow, I am to be measured for a jacket soon, and then I will go home.
…We have Red Cross meetings too. Us children are sewing and have been knitting for the soldiers…there’s a girl here from Crookston. Her name is Marie Cardin. She was in an explosion. She had a celluloid curling iron over the lamp and it exploded in her face, it burnt it awful. She cannot shut her eye of it and her hands are badly burned. She had two operations, it took four hours a piece.
There are many nurses and doctors who have gone to war from here. The war is awful isn’t it? …I am hoping to get well so I can go back there to school.”
Selvig wrote back to Claire on April 24, 1918 and addressed his letter to Claire at the Minnesota State hospital for Crippled Children. He told her of commencement exercises in the latter part of March and that her dad and mom went to it. He ended with giving best wishes from her [NWSA] teachers.
Fortunately, Claire Nelson came home after staying months in the state hospital and lived at her family’s Radium, Minnesota farm home and eventually returned to NWSA. The rest of the Nelson family story will continue in weeks following after F.E. Nelson died on May 26, 1920. I do not know how he died but I found his obituary in the electronic version of the weekly edition of the Warren Sheaf dated June 2, 1920.
The person who wrote about F.E. Nelson stated he had attended school in Fulda, Minnesota and went to high school in Worthington. His family’s farm was near Kinbrae, Minnesota until May 6, 1910. The writer continued: “His life has been a life of suffering for many years but devoted to his family he has been a kind husband and loving father. He will be remembered by his many friends as one ever ready with a smile and pleasant word.”
The writer of F.E.’s obituary quoted a few of his favorite poems. One of them was the last verse of the poem “To a Waterfowl” by William Cullen Bryant: “Thou who from zone to zone; Guides thro’ the boundless sky; Thy certain flight in the long way that I must tread alone; will guide his steps aright.”
According to an online biography of F.E. Nelson, he was three years old when he arrived in Kinbrae, Minnesota where his Swedish parents homesteaded. F.E. built a big square house before 1900 and he married his wife Celestia Foote in 1901.
Unfortunately, “he signed for a mortgage for a brother and a cousin who built a big merchandise store in Kinbrae. This business went broke and thus Francis became liable and was forced to sell his farm.”
The F.E. Nelson bio further explained in 1910, “F.E. and his wife and their children moved to Helgeland Township. He purchased about 1,000 acres of land. Like his father, he was proud of his horses, especially of the four full-bred Percherons. In the 1915 Platt book, he is listed as a breeder of Percheron horse….Many adjustments had to be made. Mrs. Nelson could no longer have her groceries delivered to her door nor could they go to town so often. They were among neighbors who could not speak English. Norwegian was the language of the community. Francis could speak and understand but his family could not. Francis had beautiful penmanship, had a gentle sense of humor and enjoyed poetry.”
Returning to the Warren Sheaf of F.E. Nelson’s obituary, it revealed the survivors besides his wife and seven children. The write up showed that Francis had one other brother named Carl who still lived in Kinbrae and six sisters. Two sisters lived in Mankato, one in East Orange, New Jersey, another in Chicago, one in France and another in Singapore. The sister named Harriet Currier, from New Jersey will be the Nelson family member I will write about next week. Mrs. Harriet Currier had a strong interest in her nieces and nephews’ education at NWSA.
Kristina Gray is a local author and historian, and a faculty member at the University of Minnesota Crookston.