Looking through old photos I used in the book Prӓrieblomman (which means prairie flowers in Swedish) I came across one of Alma Swenson, posing for a portrait to commemorate her 8th grade graduation.
Many of my blog readers enjoy excerpts from my books, so here’s the start of Prӓrieblomman.
(Note: I still have the doorknob—from the original “Butter in the Well” house—mentioned in this excerpt, and held it many times when writing this book to feel connected to Alma and the house we both grew up in.)
January 27, 1889
For your sixteenth birthday, I am giving you a blank book of pages. This may seem odd to you, but I want you to write down the normal and unusual events that happen in your life. You don’t have to write every day. Just scattered tidbits of thought, misgivings and joy will record the growth in yourself and the happenings in the world around you.
Years later this book will bring back smiles and tears to help you recall favorite places you never meant to forget, cherish lives lost, and to see how yesterday’s events become tomorrow’s history. Someday you may want to show your children the changes you saw while growing up on this farm in Kansas.
Keep this book with you always. Your written memories will sustain you when you have moved on to a prairie of your own someday.
With love, Mamma
Snow blankets the homestead on this quiet Sunday afternoon in 1889. Silent white-iced furrows in the fields of the 159 acres wait for spring planting. The height of bare-branched trees shows the farm to be about twenty years old. You can tell that the farmer is prospering because there are several outbuildings, and the wooden two-story house has been added onto a time or two.
The dirt road running by the farm was just a trail not too many years back. Life and growth have progressed for the family, but there are still patches of native grass beside the homestead to remind them of their start on the prairie.
Peering into the parlor window facing south, you get a glimpse of petite Alma Swenson, an optimistic young woman with typical Swedish blonde features, innocently pondering her life as she turns sixteen.
Chapter One – The Birthday Present
January 27, 1889
Sunday dinner dishes are done, little sisters are napping, and I have a few moments to myself. As I turned the white porcelain doorknob and slipped into the cool, closed-off parlor, I pondered about the book of blank pages Mamma gave me today for my birthday. On the first page, she wrote a note, encouraging me to write. Mamma has kept a diary ever since she moved to Kansas in 1868. I’ve never read it myself, since it is personal, but sometimes Mamma reads bits to us. A diary entry may make her smile or bring tears to her eyes.
Her journal tells the trials and errors as she and Papa built their homestead on the virgin prairie twenty years ago. When they arrived as Swedish immigrants to this land by the creek, the blue stem grass was as high as a man’s head on horseback. With their bare hands and a few primitive tools, they cleared the land, dug a well, and fashioned a sod dugout home. Clashes with Mother Nature, Indians and animals as they struggled to coax crops out of the broken sod almost took their toll on Mamma’s spirit, but she had a family to feed and protect. Favorite entries tell when her children were born and the joy of uniting with families when my grandparents left Sweden and moved to America.
The dugout was replaced by a sandstone one-room house in 1870. The house has been built on to three times with wooden additions when we could afford to buy lumber. The barn and granary were originally makeshift buildings for temporary storage of the crops and animals. As of yet they have not been replaced. A sod and straw-roofed open shed shelters the animals when they are out in the elements and the chicken house guards the fowl flock at night. Most of the acres of prairie have been tamed into fields for crops except for the hay meadows along the creek.
Us older children are almost grown now. Christina is twenty-two and getting married next month. Willie turned nineteen the fourth of this month and Alfred is fifteen. Carrie, who was born after Papa was killed, is twelve. When we needed help on the farm, Peter Runeberg came into our lives as a hired hand, and five years later, he and Mamma were married. Our half-sisters, Julia, born four years ago and Mabel, last March, have livened up and further crowded our household.
Peering out the window at the drab sleeping field to the south, I ponder over Mamma’s note. Maybe someday I will cherish my thoughts and reflections, the everyday events that have taken place on our farm. I wonder, since I finished my country schooling last year . . . what will my future bring? Will I marry soon and start a family or spend my life here on my Mother’s farm, tending to the everyday tasks that must be done to sustain life?
(Excerpts from the book Prӓrieblomman: the Prairie Blossoms for an Immigrant’s Daughter © by Linda K. Hubalek)
Alma became the neighborhood seamstress, making clothing for a living until she married her stepfather’s brother at age twenty-seven and moved to Iowa. (Yes, you read right…Her husband Nels was forty years old when they were married.)
Look at the details in this dress. I imagine today’s teenagers probably spend as much time in a mall shopping for an outfit as Alma spent on the tucks in this skirt…or texting, when Alma would have been hand sewing little pleats.
Clothing styles change each generation and many times in a decade, but a photo from the 1880’s gives us a good glimpse of the past.
Will any of today’s photos taken by teenagers on their cell phone be available to view in 100 plus years? I hope so somehow, so future generations can see what they were wearing in the 2010’s…
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