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 also helped as I read correspondence that stretches for thirty years (1895 to 1925). With this NWSA series, I hope to share with my readers what I have learned after reading these important documents out of about 70 boxes.
This article and next week’s follow-up has been a tough one for me to put together. I am trying to show what I had read in the 17 years of Superintendent Selvig’s leadership of Northwest School of Agriculture (NWSA) from 1915-1927. Selvig had replaced Supt. Robertson, and then World War I began and ended in 1918, soon after the prices bottomed out for the Red River Valley farmers. Selvig wrote letters to many businesses and government officials, and not so many personal letters emerged in the files. However, these sets of letters from the Nelson family, who farmed east of Warren, Minnesota, had caught my attention. From these letters I gathered that Selvig was firmly planted between two sister-in-laws of nearly the same age, who cared about the education of F.E. Nelson’s children.
Last week’s article I left off with Francis Emmanuel Nelson, father of seven children. He died at age 51 on May 26, 1920 and left behind his wife of 19 years, Celeste Foote Nelson and many friends and family members. I cannot be sure if his friend Superintendent Conrad G. Selvig went to F.E. Nelson’s funeral in nearby Warren or if all his six sisters and one brother attended. I could safely assume that his younger sister, Mrs. K. G. Currier, did not travel by railroad in the spring of 1920 from East Orange, New Jersey. What I do know is that Selvig was friends with the Nelson family so he would side with the widow, Celeste Nelson when it came to her decision-making about the farm yet Selvig also needed students at NWSA.
Unfortunately, F.E. Nelson’s wife and their children ages 18 to 4 years of age who remained on the farm started in 1910 had livestock and farm acreage to deal with. As Selvig well knew, the farmers up and down the Red River Valley critically felt this economic downturn after WWI. Not only that but the wounds were still fresh for the widow, Celeste Nelson missing her husband as head of the house and farm. Celeste wrote a handwritten letter to Supt. Selvig a half a year after F.E.’s death concerning their oldest son Robert Nelson. The fall before this Jan. 1921 letter, Robert had been attending the Northwest school of Agriculture as perhaps the oldest daughter, Claire, had done. I wrote about Claire last week as a kind of introduction of the Nelson family.
On Jan. 7, 1921, Celeste E. Nelson used stationery with letterhead at the top showing F.E. Nelson in bold letters and under that “Shropshire sheep, potatoes, grain and hay.”
Celeste wrote in very good penmanship the following to Supt. Selvig, her husband’s friend: “Your very kind letter of recent date was received. In reply, permit me to express my hearty appreciation of same. I greatly desire that Robert [Nelson, their second child after Claire] may pursue an uninterrupted course through your good school and graduate as a man trained well for his life work. We will meet the debts incurred as soon as we can but this last season has been a very hard one for us. If Robert’s cold does not improve will the nurse please look after it? I am yours very thankfully, Celeste E. Nelson”
Simultaneous to Celeste writing to Selvig, F.E. Nelson’s married sister, Mrs. K.G. Currier (Harriet) also corresponded with him. I had already mentioned Harriet (Nelson) Currier and her concern about her nephews and nieces from letters I could find documented starting in 1921 to 1923. In a three-year period, her handwritten letters remained consistently bold in her penmanship. As if Harriet used a heavy black felt tipped pen, but for that era perhaps a feather pen and black inkbottle was her tool of communication. Her penmanship was not graceful or looping as her brother’s or her sister-in-law’s writing. Just looking at the differences in handwriting, I made judgments about Harriet’s character. Perhaps Harriet was a forceful person to be reckoned with.
Turns out Harriet was four years younger than her deceased brother and she was only a year older than her sister-in-law, Celeste Nelson.
However, the aunt of the Nelson children made it VERY clear to Selvig that they should get an education at NWSA. Please note Selvig’s letter sent to Harriet Nelson Currier using NWSA business letterhead paper the same day that Celeste Nelson had written to Selvig on Jan. 7, 1921: “Robert returned to school without paying the $83 indebtedness incurred during the first term. I feel as you do that he should attend school here during the entire 3 years course. We are having especially difficult times on farms now but this condition cannot prevail forever.”
Selvig, ever the farmer at heart, thought optimistically about how farm prices would turn around in their favor. He had to think this way in order to keep the Northwest School of Agriculture running. The school’s mission, after all, was to make future farmers smarter in business decisions influencing each farm up and down the valley.
Robert Nelson owed a debt of $83 for going to school the fall term of 1920, which would equal about $1,082 in today’s amount of money with inflation and price adjustments.
On Jan. 8, 1921, Harriet wrote back to Selvig in her usual dark and bold scrawl: “Thanks for letter about Robert Nelson. He did well first term, how is second term? Has he been worrying about finances, do you think? I regret he owed $83.00 for attendance so far, will you please let me know just how much his mother has paid out for him…”
“Please be perfectly frank with me as I am very much interested and Robert’s letters are not very communicative and his mothers are not as practical as they might be for the good of the children. Robert’s future depends on this opportunity of an education and will be an influence to the younger ones.”
“The accumulation of land has been made to the extent that there is little ready cash to educate the children. I want very much for Robert to continue his course at least until May and return next fall. Will you let me know what you think best for him to accept this loan until Oct. 18? I have not helped him financially but in other ways, for I feel that his mother should do this at least for him. However, I would much rather put him through school than to have him leave now. But I do not wish his mother to know this, nor Robert, either, for the present, but make the proper arrangements with the college through you, Mr. Selvig. Please let me hear from you at once. Very sincerely, Mrs. K.G. Currier”
This New Jersey aunt ending her letter with a sense of immediacy to Superintendent Selvig interested me. Selvig often used this same kind of language when he wanted things done, often writing “as soon as possible, immediately, without delay, right away…” After this letter of Jan. 8, 1921 from Harriet, I did not see any immediate response from Selvig but there may have been communication that did not get into the files.
The next letter of significance from Harriet to Selvig was dated Sept. 9, 1921 before NWSA fall term began. Mrs. K.G. Currier wrote the following: “Robert wrote me that he did not think he could attend this year, the crops have been poor and also prices. I wrote him that I would send him to school this year, also if he won any prize. I would give him the same amount. He works very hard at home and has scant time and I wish to make this school year a happy one for him. If he shows any inclination for a particular line, is there any way there, whereby he would become interested without interfering with his work? He has known nothing but the farm and may do better in some other line if opened up to him as soon I hear from Robert stating that he will enter on Oct. 10th, I will send you a check for the first term of $75. I would appreciate knowing if Robert is properly equipped with clothing etc. and if kept in good order.
Perhaps Mr. Larson would let me know. Very truly, Mrs. K. G. Currier”
What was Selvig’s response to this New Jersey woman? Harriet was far removed from the day in and day out hard work of maintaining a farm but she cared about her brother’s children. Harriet wanted them to get the best education close to their farm home. Meanwhile, Selvig wrote back and forth to the widow, Celeste Nelson and to Robert. By this time, Selvig was getting letters from the University of Minnesota attorneys wanting to know about this lapse of tuition money. The pressures did not let up for just this one family, Selvig was aware of many other farm families who were struggling to make their tuition payments. At the same time, Selvig as an administrator had his own pressures of needing students to attend NWSA while competing with other Minnesota agriculture schools operating in Grand Rapids, Morris and St. Paul.
Selvig’s response on Sept. 18, 1921 was the following starting his salutation with “My dear Mrs. Currier: I have your letter of Sept. 9. We have reserved room for Robert.
$150 should cover the necessary board, room, books and laundry expenses including school fees. I am very glad that you will have him attend school as he is a promising young man.”
“By the time he finished this school, he will have three quarters of his high school education completed. It will be possible at that time to ascertain any special bent that he may have. Of course, in order to attend college, it will be necessary for him to attend during the fourth year here and later take up college work. I might state that there is opportunity granted at this school to take up business subjects, farm engineering work as well as agriculture.”
“I will keep in touch with Mr. Larson regarding Robert when he enters and inform him relative to the matters that you write about. He was very nicely dressed last year and always appeared well. We shall probably be able to use him in the library again this year, which will give him a few dollars per month. Sincerely yours, C.G. Selvig”
Next week I will try to show how Harriet may not have been the person I first perceived her to be. Harriet (Nelson) Currier was married to a salesman of dry goods who eventually became a department manager working in New York City with Fred Butterfield and Co. She had no children of her own, marrying later in life in 1917. I can only guess there may have been a strained relationship between the two women.
Selvig seemed to be caught between the cruel realities of the farm crisis and helping his friend’s widow, while his professional reality needed students to attend his school.
Kristina Gray is a local author and historian, and a faculty member at the University of Minnesota Crookston.