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Excerpts from

Memories of
Grandma Bertha,
Virginia Smith’s Oral History

In this oral history, Virginia shares warm, enchanting memories of her Grandmother Bertha Ackerson, who lived with her husband, Sherwin, on Lone Birch Farm in Grant County, near Elbow Lake and Erdahl, Minnesota.

Both grandparents are deceased, and their farmhouse was taken down after they moved to a nursing home in the 1980s. Now, the memories have become significantly important, as it is their rich substance that is left to share with her grandchilden, who now live on Lone Birch Farm.

KC: We were going to talk about your Grandmother Bertha today.

VS: Both of my grandmothers are interesting. Both of them have different characteristics. During my lifetime, the one that I was closest to is my Grandma Bertha [1]. I called her my pillow grandma in my head because she was a very large woman with a large abdomen and a large chest. One of the first memories that I have is how good it was to be hugged. And then discover that she used to wear funny corsets that were kind of cottony broadcloth [2] with stays [3] in them, it was a whole piece. I had never seen a garment like that and I thought it was very strange, but I knew that that's what my grandma wore.

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KC: How else would you describe grandma Bertha? What would be other characteristics?

VS: She had very, very smooth skin. There weren't wrinkles in it. Her hair was very silver white and it was long and she wore it in a bun. She always had combs on the side of her hair to hold it down. It was wavy, curly if you will, and at night, she would take it down and she would braid it and there would be a long braid ponytail down her back. She was to me a warm person. I remember when I was in elementary school some times that I felt kind of lonely when I would be out there, and that was not a usual description of being on the farm. But, there were times, when she was trying to teach me not to use double negatives. She spent several weeks one summer, when I was out there, correcting me all the time. That caused me to feel lonely because there was a disconnection for me. What that was about was saying things like my mother she, my father he, and those are what you call double negatives and she was going to break me of that habit. But, not in a mean or non-kind sense. She was a teacher. So, she just took her teaching into what she did with grandchildren. I guess I must have learned the lesson. It went away. It went away.

KC: Grandma and Grandpa lived on a farm, what memories do you have of the farm or the home?

VS: The big room downstairs off the dining room had a piano in it and my grandmother would play without music [4]. To me was absolutely fascinating. She would sit down and play the Camp Town Ladies, which was my grandfather's [5] favorite song. And, then she would play the rain barrel song and there was another one that she used to play that I really enjoyed. It moved, she always had rhythm with what she was playing. It felt like you were dancing to listen to her play. So, I always remember that and I was saddened when the piano wasn’t on the farm anymore because I enjoyed listening to her play. I also see myself there when her half sister, Ella [6], would come home to visit in the early years from the Mission field. Ella would play [the piano], except Ella played Hymns. It was straight time, very strict, [Ella’s] rock hard back sitting at the piano. When my grandmother was there her hands would dance and her body would dance.

KC: Let me describe what you're doing. You have a great smile all over your face, you're body is moving; you obviously hear the music in your head. And, you hands are playing as if they're playing the piano as you describe this. [Shared laughter]

VS: I also remember the living room and dining room because that's where the family gathered, but it isn't about the family gatherings that I have memories, it's more about the fun. My grandpa and grandma would play old records, old 78s [7], and Berle Ives [8] would be singing. Grandpa sometimes would dance, but mostly it was about listening to them sing along with the music and just the fun of what was going on.

And, I remember the Christmas tree that used to sit in the living room. Grandma and grandpa always had little clips that were from Germany that had candles on them. Grandpa would, in the later years, shoot the top off fir trees [9] on the farm and that would be our Christmas tree. The night of Christmas, or once while we were visiting out there [at the farm] during Christmas, he would light the candles just for a little bit, so there wouldn't be fear of fire. There were so many homey kinds of feelings that were evoked in me during those years.

KC: What was it that grandma and grandpa did to create this environment for you?

VS: I can respond in this way. They were quiet people when I knew them. There was not a lot of hurriedness in what they did. There wasn't a feeling of tension in the home. There was a sense to me of a certain way things are done. They followed a pattern, but it wasn't a pattern that was rigid. Grandpa always had eggs and hot cereal and toast and many, many things for breakfast. I would just pop my eyes and look at the plate and wonder how he could eat all of that, but he worked hard on the farm and he was a very thin man. Grandma always made bread so it was always homemade toast. I felt cocooned [10] perhaps when I was out there.

They had a water reservoir tank in the corner of the kitchen. This water reservoir was filled with water from the cistern [11] that would run through the electric and wood stove, and they kept a fire burning in the wood part of the stove all the time because that heated the water. So, when you would play outside in the wintertime or were cold, you could come and sit against the reservoir tank. It was just fun.

Grandma would have really really soft washcloths that she had made out of her long underwear that was cotton twill [12] and it had been washed and worn so many times. You would describe it today maybe as soft as a baby's bottom. Things that are just memories that come back to me. I like the feeling that was created by the experiences. The washcloths for an example on your face felt so much different than the cotton loop of a regular washcloth because there would be some roughness there.

I felt special, I felt cared for. Grandma was always one to create new experiences. Many times when grandchildren were around or when I was just there by myself, they still had cows, she would take some cream off to churn butter and it was not in the old wooden butter churn, but it would be in a paddle butter churn that was in a glass container. I was absolutely delighted with that. And still today, my memories of the butter and why I like butter so much are because grandma salted it the way she wanted the taste. I don't eat unsalted butter and when I taste really salty butter, it reminds me of being at the farm. The bread baking was another thing; grandma always had time to let you have some dough to make your own loaf in a little pan or to make rolls, to let you play with it. The best thing, of course, all grandchildren like, is the slice of the fresh warm bread when it comes out of the oven. It was so good, to put that butter on it and just watch it soak into all of the holes and then know when you bit your teeth into it, that you were going to have that liquidy butter moving around in your mouth. And the smell, the smells of grandma cooking.

There was an experience I remember my grandparents being extremely fearful when I was out there. And out of that came a respect for understanding things on the farm that I didn't know, because I hadn't been raised on a farm. When I was maybe eight, there were some cousins that came to visit from another side of the family. They had two daughters and one of the daughters was ten. We went into the hog lot with a little wheelbarrow to be able to get the piglets and put in the wheelbarrow. We thought piglets were so cute. They would run around, and if we caught them then we could have them, so to speak, in this little wheelbarrow. And, when my grandfather discovered where we were I remember him yelling and screaming. I never saw my grandfather do that. And, my next memory is they wanted us out of the hog lot and they wanted us out of the hog lot right away. Of course Julie and I couldn't understand that because we were having too much fun. But we came out and the adults were standing there and I remember my grandfather and grandmother being absolutely white faced.

Virginia with the little wheel barrrow - June 1952

It was some time later that my grandmother told me that when sows have piglets they're very dangerous. What we were doing, while we thought were having fun, could have killed us. Because if the sows got mad they would have come after us and they would have bitten our leg, bitten our hand. If they had all converged on us we would have been dead. Well, of course we as little kids didn't know that. We had not been raised with a respectful fear of understanding animals. We just looked at it as what fun it would be and listening to the little pigs squeal, and they're so pink, and they're so cute, and their little noses make scrunchy faces and noises and they were just fun, I've always liked piglets.

KC: That's a great story.

VS: Well, my grandmother always encouraged play. I was good at imaginative play being by myself. So it was a great place to be with the kinds of patterns and habits that my grandparents had. Grandma would make sure that I had enough mud and enough water and corn and wheat and barley, rocks, stones, whatever I wanted. I would pretend to grind the grain, and then I would make mud pies out of them. I had fun making all kinds of mud pies by the wood cutting lot that grandpa had. And sometimes grandma would leave them and in the spring they'd sprout, even if I ground some of them [the grain], I didn't get all of them.

They also had a swing from a tree that had a large branch that was on the edge of the yard, as you would look down the meadow toward the road. And the swing had big thick heavy ropes on it and a board seat. It was oh such fun to swing that swing, when I was old enough to do it myself. But I also remember being pushed, and like all kids do, [I would say,] won't you push me one more time grandma, won't you push me one more time. Until you know grandparents get tired of doing that too, because they want to do something else. But [She] always [had] a lot of patience, an extreme amount of patience.

They also had an old cat named Owl Eyes and that cat was on the farm when my mother and my aunt were young, so it was very old by the time I was there. And I would dress that cat up in doll clothes and I would dress up in old clothes of my mother’s and my aunt’s. And I had a doll bed and had a little buggy and baby clothes and just kept myself amused all day long in the yard. Whether it would be by the lilacs or whether it would be down where grandma was hanging clothes on the line.

Virginia playing dress up June 1954
Virginia and Owl Eyes, June 1954

During some of those early years they were also members of the Ground Observers Air Corps [13] and they had a special listening device in the woods. Grandma and grandpa, any time they heard a plane, knew how many engines it had or what kind of a plane it was. They kept diaries and they would note whenever planes came over, what was going on, what the planes were; whether it was a crop [plane] or a two engine or a whatever. I don’t know those descriptions. During some of those years, of what I suppose would be called the "cold war" where there was nervousness about nuclear war. When jets would go over especially, I would note they would be listening very carefully and this special device helped amplify the sounds of the plane so that they could hear better what they were.

[This special device] would sound in the yard because it was in the grove of trees right by the house. What I found fascinating about it wasn't the planes so much; it wasn’t until later years that I realized the importance of what they were doing – basically for some research. There was a bombing run path from Grand Forks Air Base [14] down, so I would always be aware when those airplanes came. But it was really that the sound amplified the birds, too.

Grandma and grandpa could name all the bird's sounds. And, of course, they liked the birds and they put all kinds of things out in the yard to attract different birds. Whether it would be woodpeckers or cardinals or blue jays or nuthatches or chickadees or whatever it was; they were walking encyclopedias about the kind of birds that there were or the animal tracks. My grandmother was also a hunter, so if we went out during the wintertime, grandma could point out the tracts of a fox or the tracks of a bird or a deer or a dog or whatever it was. She knew them all well.

Virginia and Grandma Bertha June 15, 1996

My grandparents had a cistern [15] on the farm and they had a well, but it wasn't a well that you could drink water out of, so they always went over to Fairhaven Beach [16] on Lake Pomme de terre [17] to get spring water. There was a pipe coming up out of the ground with the spring water and they would put it in a Red Wing [18] cooler in the pantry [19]. So whenever we were going to have coffee or tea or grandma was going to make lemonade or a cold drink, even just water, we would go into the pantry with a glass. We had to make very sure that we didn't take anymore than we were going to drink, because when it was down low they would have to go get more, so you never wasted the water. Well, I always thought that was a delight. In fact, it was kind of like a little kid that learned how to do something. You know when they keep doing it over and over again, pretty soon the adult gets crabby so you get limited on how many times you can go in the pantry, especially when there are a whole bunch of kids around.

And then also when she would buy Watkins [20]– oh, what were they called? It wasn't exactly a Kool-Aid, but it was like a fruit drink in a glass jar, when I was really young and then it was plastic when I got older. When she would take that jar out and get water and make that punch, it was just a big treat because we never had it at home. It sat on a shelf against the stairway that would go upstairs. I happen to have one of them that they used in my home right now, which is a 5-gallon and I believe the one I'm talking about is probably a 3 or a 4-gallon. As they got older when there weren't as many people at home they used a smaller one. [It] had a spigot [21] on it, had a lid on the top of it. In those days [we] never thought about letting water sit out. It was cool because it was in the pantry, but it would be room temperature and it was refreshing. I've often wondered if that's why it doesn't bother me to drink water without ice in it when I drink water now. Very seldom will I put ice in a glass; I just drink the water.

KC: Of course now we drink special water and you grew up on drinking special spring water.

VS: [laughter] oh yes.

KC: Thank you for sharing your memories today.

1. Bertha Caroline Ness Ackerson, born: June 17, 1902 Grant County, MN, Died: August 25, 2000 Hoffman Minnesota.

2. 100% cotton with a tight weave.

3. Lengths of bone inserted to create stability in the under garment through the waist up to the bust. Stays provide support.

4. Playing by memory from hearing the music.

5. Sherwin Joseph Ackerson, Born: August 14, 1902 Erdahl Township, MN. Died: December 1986, Hoffman, MN.

6. Ella Ness Schroeder. Born in Erdahl Township, MN. From Bertha’s father’s first marriage.

7. Records were played in three speeds: 331/2, 45, and 78. Different ways to play audio like "CD" vs "cassette tapes."

8. Musician who played guitar and sang old folk songs like "Turkey in the Straw."

9. A type of evergreen trees.

10. A protective place.

11. Underground reservoir / tank for storing rain water.

12. Heavy cotton that is very soft, almost like jersey material.

13. Ground Observer Corps had roots in WWII, formed by the Army Air Forces and disestablished in 1944. In 1950 the Continental Air Commander reformed the GOC to observe gaps between radar network sites, with the belief that the Korean War served as a precursor to a possible Soviet attack. With the technological development of radar that detected low flying planes the GOC was disestablished on January 31, 1959.

14. United States Air Force Base in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

15. Underground tank for storing water. Soft water was hauled in by truck to fill the Lone Birch Farm’s cistern for clothes washing, bathing and cooking.

16. Bertha’s decadents still enjoy Fairhaven Beach.

17. Six miles East of Elbow Lake MN, in Grant County. The name means apples of the earth or potatoes of the earth.

18. "Red Wing" brand pottery – had been made in Red Wing, Minnesota.

19. A closet, usually off the kitchen, used for storage of provisions, glassware or dishes. A cold room to keep food cool.

20. Watkins brand of food products was sold door to door usually in rural communities.

21. Faucet

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