Icelanders in Lyon County
The life of the pioneers was hard. My father helped build the railroad from Balaton to Flandreau, S.D., in the summer of 1879 and 1880. He was seventeen years old and small in stature; so he was hired as a water boy and general roustabout. During the summer he rose to the rank of teamster running a wheel scraper. I remember him saying that they carried their food from home and boarded themselves. I wish I had asked him more about that. The men walked to the job carrying their provisions. Later on, railroads fed their work crews, which made more sense.
Pastor Jonsson conducted religious services in the meeting house until the summer of 1899 when a church was built next to the cemetery, right beside it to the south. That year of 1899, my father died at the age of 56, and his funeral was the first one conducted in the unfinished church. He had promised $100 toward the building fund. My mother borrowed the money from a friend to pay the church and then she paid the friend. This was quite a bit of money at that time.
At first there was a barn south of the church for a horse and buggy, which was the principal means of transportation before 1914. Behind horses everyone drove across the prairie. There were no roads following section lines, and we took the shortest route. We zig-zagged through everyone’s yard and went along creeks and up and down hills. I remember that between our home and the church we had to get out of the buggy and walk up one big hill because the horses could not pull us up that steep grade.
Where we lived in the NW corner of the Icelandic settlement in Marble Township, we were surrounded by Norwegians, Poles, Germans and Bohemians. There wasn’t an Icelander in our school. Some of our closest friends were Catholic. One day we were invited to go with them to a big celebration at their church where the bishop was present for confirmation. My sister and I were to witness the adding of a confirmation name to each of our girl friends being honored. Everyone stood outside of the church expectantly waiting for the procession of priests from the parish house into the church, when they appeared, everyone got down on his knees, but my sister and I could not bring ourselves to do it and we felt out of place. It was a bad moment for us.
In 1922 the Lincoln County church was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. The records were in the hands of the officers at home and were not destroyed or lost — not yet. While the church was being rebuilt on the same site we had services in the Sigvaldson school house, which was SE of the church. My brother, Gunnar, was on the building committee. We had always used a foot pump organ, and we had to get another one. After the new church was finished and dedicated in 1925, Skapti Sigvaldson, Arnie’s son and church secretary for years, living with C.P. Nielson, went to Dakota with all of his belongings and the church records in a trailer. We never heard what happened to him except that he landed in a nursing home before his death. We did not recover the early church records. As I remember, the Lincoln County church had at least 50 members when it burned, and I don’t think we had to mortgage for the 2nd building. The rebuilt church is still standing in good physical condition, but empty.
A newly ordained pastor, Donald Johnson, arrived in August of 1960. The first night he slept in the parish house he was bitten in bed by a mouse. Dr. Vandersluis remembers that he came to the office quite disturbed by the fear that he might get rabies. He got some cheese and set mousetraps in the house and caught five mice, taking them to the doctor’s office. One mouse, a holdout, kept evading the trap, taking the cheese every time. The Minnesota Health Department was not interested in the mice because no rabies had ever been found in such rodents and worry could be dispelled. What happened to the hold-out mouse, we never knew, but the pastor continued to occupy the parish house.
Pastor Johnson was a devoted man, spending a lot of time with the young people of the church and making visitations faithfully. He fasted before his morning service and one morning he fainted from hunger in the pulpit. He decided to take a respite from parish ministry and returned to Minneapolis in 1963, the date we became part of the Minnesota Synod and national organization of the newly organiz[ed synod] of the formed Lutheran Church of America.
(Continued next week)
Sources: “Ninety Years at St. Paul’s,” Committee Members, J.A. Josefson, Cecil Hofteig and Haldur G. (Jimmie) Johnson of Icelander Lutheran Church, Minneota, MN., October 1977.