Prairie Childhood – A Memoir By Anna M. Nickol, Chapter Two

Read Chapter 1 here

There came days when Mother walked the floor, wringing her hands, while our father tried reasoning with her, and reassuring her. It was no use. Our young uncle was away working and no word had come from him for months. He was rumored to be hauling dynamite for construction work at the Valier flume. Mother was sure some accident had befallen him and that we’d never see him again.

She knew that Hans could neither read nor write but she didn’t consider such handicaps sufficient reason for the failure to make occasional reports.

At last Dad borrowed a saddle (he usually rode bareback) and cinched it onto Lucy, the red mare. It was seventy miles, more or less, to the construction site. He was back the next day.

He had stopped at the first construction camp to inquire. No one there had ever heard of our uncle. He stopped in line camps; it was the same story. At last he began to describe his brother-in-law. His description brought results.

“Oh, you mean Glory,” said one informant. “He’s around here somewhere…been hauling dynamite. He got drunk awhile back and had a runaway. You can’t kill Glory. The wagon tipped and scattered dynamite a half mile but Glory never got a scratch.”

He pushed on to another camp and asked for Glory. The man was as unknown by that name as by his more formal title. Heads were shaken. Men were sorry to be unable to help. Again, Dad described his man.

“You must mean Friday,” one man grinned. “Queer feller….never eats meat on Fridays. He’s around here some place. Just ask for Friday.” He was around, and shortly, was found. The long ride, only half over, had abraded Father’s temper. He made a few trenchant suggestions about keeping in touch and left at once.

His annoyance hadn’t burned out through the long hours of his ride home. I can still recall his disapproving remarks about the uncivilized company our uncle kept and the unchristian nicknames which had so far replaced the good, solid name conferred with baptism. This intolerance for nicknames was almost a fetish with Dad. He accepted shortened forms which usage had long established in place of common names. But nicknames were taboo, and that a man should be known as “Friday,” in mild derision of his religious practices, was an insult to religion. Dad never quite forgot (nor forgave) that ride and the revelations it brought him.*

It probably was the Christmas of 1912 or 1913 that stands out in my memory as the first Yule of my remembrance. We had a tree and it would have touched the ceiling had our house boasted such a luxury. It stood about center from east to west and close to the north wall where the eaves ended only six or seven feet above the ground.

Our beds were banished to the west end of the shack beyond white muslin curtains, our mother’s extra sheets. The house was fragrant with holiday foods seldom tasted in other seasons, and evergreen. The lady who had tidied up after Fred’s birth was invited, with her family, for supper and the evening. What dispositions were made for that many people in a fourteen-by-twenty shack, I don’t remember. I do remember they were there: a pleasant-faced woman and her bluff, good-natured husband; the teen-aged boys, Henry and Oliver, their younger sisters, Mable and Helen and Molly. Archie, a boy somewhat older than Lee, and two smaller children, Harold and Eleanor. Probably, our young aunt and uncle were there, though I don’t remember specifically; and, of course, our parents and the five of us.

After supper the children sat on the floor and sang Christmas carols while the grownups listened and talked in low voices. Our mother never left the tree while candles were burning on it, and I can remember several occasions when she smothered a fire with her bare hands. But she liked having the tree alight and she let the candles burn low before putting out their blaze. When the kerosene light was turned high again, Mother went to the tree to distribute gifts. There was something for everyone….an apple, a gingerbread man, a conical foil candy basket. I remember that Helen, who was then about twelve, received a four-inch piece of green and white ribbon candy.

I mentioned Archie, a middle-sized child in that large family. His parents, the Omholts**, kept the post office, which was named for them, and so they knew all the neighbors. Archie’s mother and mine were fast friends and visiting between the two houses was frequent and cordial.

To me, Archie was far more important than the President of the United States and smarter than anyone except my father. I followed Archie around and went with him when he went out to milk the cow. He didn’t mind. He had a broad, good-natured grin, and he talked to me. I admired his skilled manipulation of the sources of milk supply. “When I’m older,” I told him confidentially, “I will learn to milk a cow.

“Don’t do it,” he advised, laughing at me. “You’ll never get away from it again.”

Out of context, may I remark: Archie was wrong. I did learn to milk a cow, and milked a good many of them for many years. But it was always voluntarily done, and for the pattern of life we had then, I’d cheerfully do it yet.

To get back to Archie: my admiration for him took in everything he did, and one story concerning it came down through the years, though, often enough, when I hear it told (“What? Again?”), I would have committed mayhem had my parents permitted that form of self expression.

Archie had hitched his family’s school pony to the cart and taken me for a ride. We made a half mile or so in a wide circle around the buildilngs. When I got home that night, I was still bursting with importance. “Archie’s a good driver, you know, you know,” I announced wisely, “but them Underdahls*** aint, because they always say “tch, tch, tch.” I was never allowed to forget a word of it. I knew I was maturing, when I could hear it without anger and with a touch of wry amusement.

*In spite of his dislike of nick-names, especially those above listed, the mother’s brother here named “Hans,” was baptized, “John.” Why he was called “Hans” I never learned or understood.

**The Omholts also had “The Omholt School,” the local grade school, named after them. It existed until World War II when it was moved east several miles to become a home to another set of neighbors, the Emrersons and, finally, the Solids. “The Nickol School, U.S. District 23,” was constructed one half mile south of where the Omholt School originally existed, on the same side of the county road, after the war. That school building still stands although all its playground equipment has been removed.

***The Underdahl’s were one of two Scandinavian families of the same name who then lived several miles east of the Nickol homestead. Interestingly, during a recent trip to that community, my family and I visited the graves of those early Norwegian homesteaders interred in the cemetery at the local Saint Olaf Church. One of the last Underdahls left that area last year. For some reason….probably because the Underdahls were better farmers and the Nickols were jealous of them….there existed a somewhat-less-than-good-natured rivalry between the two families.

Posted by Greg Nickol

Greg Nickol is Great Falls businessman, entrepreneur and concerned citizen.

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