Grandpa's Valley was a place of great joy, beauty and wonder
Grandpa's valley lies stretched out in the center of Minnesota, still about like he found it more than 100 years ago. For him, it was love at first sight, a love that never diminished come drought, pestilence or blight.
As his granddaughter, raised in the shelter of that valley, few know better than me how much he prized it. The feel of the land was in his long-gaited walk, buried deeply beneath the calluses in his hands, ever present behind watchful gray eyes.
Though more colorful, perhaps, none others were part and parcel of the breed that tamed this wilderness than Louis J. Gossell. He had thousands of counterparts. His story, most likely, will be theirs as well.
I would like to have been on Grandpa's shoulder that first day he came upon the 160 acres he made his own, Indians, wild animals and rocks notwithstanding. From the top of one hill he looked across a broad green valley, with Bear Creek twinkling in its depths, to a hill beyond which sported a stand of hardwood, all mill logs.
There was high and low pasture land with a fresh water supply. I can see now the way Grandpa looked the last time he told me about the day he discovered this valley. Leaning his head back on his old worn Morris rocker, he closed his eyes and slowly began to rock.
"I stood there struck," he said, "right about where that first rock pile is now, an' just looked. Seemed like a sight I'd been aching to see all of my 25 years. Grass, so green it hurt my eyes an' so tender it broke in my fingers grew above my knees. Gray squirrels, fat with acorns, scampered up and down the sugar maple I was leanin' on, bold as anything.
"I stood so quiet a grouse skimmed in under the branches to his drummin' log not six feet away. Then I watched God draw the curtains of night on my valley.
"The creek disappeared in blue shadows first, then the meadow and edge of the timber. At last, just the tops of the tallest trees were still bathed in sunshine. It was like -- like gettin' a peek into heaven."
After a quiet minute or two, I prompted, "How did you spend that first night, Grandpa?" I wanted to hear him tell it again.
"Well, I stood like a stump, drinkin' in my valley until it was so dark I couldn't see the tree I was leanin' on. Then I tethered old Dan fort the night an' rolled up in a blanket on the brow of the hill, facin' east. I wanted to see that valley when the sun came up. I didn't get much sleep."
Knowing he was waiting, I said: "Why not? Were you too excited to sleep?"
"Excited? You can say that again, girl! I was excited and scared. I spent most of that night in a tree. God never planed for a man to roost like a chicken."
He was quiet a full two minutes, a long time for Grandpa, then went on with his story, like I knew he would.
"They started first beyond the ridge, wooooooo, woooooo. Then one behind the hill I was on answered, woooooo. Pretty soon the first one called again, only closer this time. When the one behind me howled so close the hair on my neck stood up.
"It dawned on me then that it wasn't just a pair of timber wolves, but a pack, eight or 10 of 'em. There was no doubt but they was drawin' closer. I'd been so taken I hadn't bothered to find kindlin' an' make a fire."
I asked, "Is that when you climbed the tree?" But he wasn't ready to tell it yet.
"I could hear Dan snortin' an' stompin', guess I never see'd him so scared. Movin' slow, I took my jack knife out of my pocket an' pulled out the big blade. Then I moved over to the white patch in the dark I knew was the blaze on Dan's face an' cut his halter rope. Red eyes glared all around. I slapped him a sharp crack on his rump an' jumped for the nearest tree."
Grandpa told how eight or more wolves, judging from the sets of eyes, howled and snarled until almost daybreak at the foot of his tree before they left to join another pack down near the creek bottom where they made the valley reverberate with their blood curdling cries until the sun was full up.
Grandpa took off for Long Prairie, the county seat of Todd County, the next day to file his homestead claim, the first bit of real estate he'd ever owned or would own. He walked every step of the 26 miles because he never saw Dan again.
Grandpa measured 6'6" in his sock feet. He compounded Nature by wearing scotch caps in winter, high-crowned straws in summer. Grandpa had a shock of almost black hair, blue/gray eyes, and a mustache fashioned like the one Ulysses S. Grant sported. He was strikingly handsome, both as a youth and when age settled in. Like Abe Lincoln, his clothes never exactly fit, not until he sent Jenny, his oldest girl, away to learn tailoring.
As well as being a farmer, Grandpa was a stone mason, and a very good one. It was a skill that came in handy for himself as well as his neighbors. To this day, a score of basement barn walls and well curbing testify as to the durability of his work.
That first summer Grandpa and his youngest brother George, who'd staked out the next section, worked from dawn until dark felling enough trees to put up a small barn for their three cows and a couple of sows.
A two-room cabin, still the main part of Grandpa's house, came next. Thin wisps if smoke curled above the horizon as Indians fed their morning fires. A calf left out an hour after sundown was never seen again.
In broad daylight, grizzled wolves stubbornly sat at the end of furrows until the horses threatened to bolt into dense hazel brush. Only after a gun fired did they slink back into the timber to soon try again.
It was a happy day for Grandpa when he could send for his Eliza (Lide) and their two little girls, Jenny and Alice, who became my mother. To this day, those "girls" recall lying stiff with fright on their corn shuck mattress night after night as they listened to wolves. Wildcats, too, came over from the ridge to prowl.
Although the top of her head was only level with the crook in his elbow, Grandma was a perfect counterpart for Grandpa. Just one generation removed from the Emerald Isle, she turned work into fun as she saw humor in the most grim of situations. She had a special faculty for forecasting weather, finding and growing medicinal herbs, and discovering bee threes.
With the nearest doctor so far away, it was most often Grandma who ushered new citizens into Todd County. A dozen or more named Eliza attest to her popularity. She appeared wherever a stork showed up with the same regularity Grandpa did a barn raisin'.
Any amount of money, more than needed to buy a few stamps and pay the taxes, was looked upon as surplus, to be used judiciously. How could you charge, take money for helping somebody, when you yourself just might be the one standing in the spot of need next? Chargin' folks for everything didn't make sense.
Indians nearby were friendly Ojibway. One evening while Grandpa was milking Daisy, he felt eyes on his back and turned to see a tall young buck standing in the barn door. Grandpa spoke a scattering of Ojibway. Milking a cup of warm milk, he held it out to him. The Indian downed it in one gulp and disappeared.
The next evening Grandpa turned to see the door full of brown faces. He refilled the cup many times. By the end of the week his barn was filled with assorted size Indians at milking time and there wasn't a drop left for baby Henry, who had arrived a few months earlier. Grandpa had to think of something without hurting feelings.
The next evening Grandpa milked Daisy an hour earlier so the cow would be dry. When the Indians arrived he showed them the cow had no milk. She was dry. He rubbed his stomach and managed several agonized groans.
They caught on. The poor cow was sick, in pain, so of course there would be no milk. Sadly shaking their heads, they disappeared. However, they knew Grandma's baking day so came for a slice of warm bread instead.
As the cleared acres grew, so did the rock piles. No mere stones, but real gut-bustin' rocks that sprawled down fence lines. One particular rock not only was huge, going far down next to an old well shaft, but was an unusual color as well. A sample was sent to a place in St. Cloud, top granite center of the world.
Evaluators found the granite to be first rate, but big machinery had to have a huge supply to merit being brought in. If Grandpa's spirit was dampened it didn't show. It was on his land, wasn't it? He sent a big chunk home with them to be made into a monument. Today a handsome stone, nearest Minnesota Highway 210, in a cemetery 2 miles east of Hewitt, has GOSSELL on it.
Grandpa was one of the few folks I know who practiced what he preached. His word was his bond. Anyone who asked him a question got an honest answer, as he saw it. The Gossells were God-fearing Methodists. Not even Dan and Smoky were harnessed on Sunday.
I guess Grandpa filled every position in the church at one time or another with exception of preacher, and with a bit of encouragement, he'd have done that too. He bought the first Ford Flivver that came into Verndale.
Grandpa gave faithfully wherever he served. He gave unbiased opinion on the Hewitt Creamery Board, the school and Pioneer Telephone boards. He was County Road Commissioner over a stretch of troublesome swampland. He solved the problem by ordering a cord wood road be laid.
When the Spanish flu hit in 1918-19, it did not skip the folks in Grandpa's valley. Many died, and Grandpa and Alice almost joined the sad march to the graveyard. After he was on his feet again, with the notion that he was now immune, he buckled into helping others without pause.
As Grandpa stopped by homes reeking with sickness, Grandma's makin's to help a sore throat or ease pneumonia accompanied him. He dug many graves while Grandma sewed shrouds from burlap potato sacks as numbers grew.
Nothing raised Grandpa's ire like tears shed over something that died that didn't have a soul. At our funerals held for a favorite cat or kitten that died, we sung appropriate hymns, like "Beyond The Sunset" or "In The Garden" that in a split second swung into "Farmer In The Dell" or "Three Blind Mice" without missing a beat if Grandpa came in sight.
The new doctor, a Dr. William Lothian, moved into Hewitt one gray winter day with a sick wife and two little children, Bruce and Zoa. Train cars were without heat and drafty. Lothian's young wife died the next day with pneumonia.
Grandpa called on the new doc to offer any assistance. He came home with two quilt-wrapped little bundles in his sleigh, saying only, "Didn't seem like a good place for little kids."
They stayed 5 years, until it was time to start school and the doc had remarried and had a home again. No money changed hands. Little kids don't eat much.
Black haws must have been rare and a treat when Grandpa was young, because he prized them above any other fruit. After the first hard frost when they, according to Grandpa, were at their prime, he woke all four granddaughters at the break of day to tramp over a half-mile of stiff white pasture grass and cow pies. It was Minnesota cold. We pulled the collars up on our jackets to cover freezing noses.
Finally, we stopped at three scrubby growths, neither bush or tree, a few sorry leaves still hung to thin twiggy branches. At the apex of each leaf, in a cluster of stems, 5 or 6 small black berries clung. Skins tight to seeds the size and consistency of buck shot. They were tasteless and left our teeth and tongues blue for weeks. It had to wear off.
Wreathed in smiles, teetering on his toes, Grandpa'd say around a wide smile, "Well, there they are, girls. We hit 'em just right again this year."
Teeth chattering, we tried to agree. The sooner Grandpa finished his "Ode To a Black Haw" spiel the sooner we could go back to a hot breakfast.
Then Grandpa began reciting James Whitcome Riley's poem about black haws and hickory nuts in a pathless wood. He followed this with a piece by a guy named Euell Porter who claimed his happiest moments to be while he was shuffling his feet on a puncheon floor with a pocket of black haws. Even Lewis and Clark deemed them "a mighty fine treat."
As his son, Henry, gravitated into becoming main man on the farm, Grandpa puttered with things he could still do. He had always been a voracious reader, had a cache of good books, and could remember every word.
Then one evening in May, Grandpa quietly slipped away, sitting in his old rocker, facing east, just as God drew the curtain of night over his valley. He'd have liked that.
He was 87.