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“My Recollections of Early Days”
By J. E. Jenkins, Estherville Pioneer

Born in Estherville and former editor of the Emmet County Republican

Editor Vindicator and Republican: Your kind invitation to write some of my recollections of the early days of Estherville, Emmet county, and Iowa in general, is a rather large order. The years have been many and I have no historical data at hand, and I must therefore start out with the apology that there may be many inaccuracies in a rather rambling story of those “good old days.” My story must necessarily revolve around history and movements of my own family, to a large degree, as ours was one of the very “first” families to settle on the banks of the beautiful Des Moines river.

My father was Adolphus Jenkins, born on the Vermont line in eastern “York State” in 1826, the oldest of seven boys, with an older sister and widowed mother. This widowed mother, whose maiden name was Ann Bates, was the perfect type of woman who made Pioneer America what it was, and is no longer; a volume might be written of this fine character, and possibly I may write one when time permits. Suffice to say, the family had the urge to “go west” – and west they went; stopping in western New York for a few years, thence to Michigan, where some of the boys got work in printing offices, others on farms, the girl teaching in the country schools (later to teach in Emmet county schools) and my father working his way (by chopping cord wood) through the well-known Unitarian University at Olivet, Michigan, where he took the civil engineering course. Here it was that he met Mr. Ralph Hosford, an engineer who was looking for young men to help him on railroad construction work. This was the beginning of my father’s further trek westward. He accepted the job of assistant engineer on surveying the old “B. & M.” lines – Burlington, on the Mississippi river to Council Bluffs, on the Missouri. That was in the early ‘50s, and it was undoubtedly rough going; but the work was finished and about that time the young engineer was called to look over the possibilities for power development at St. Anthony Falls, the present site of Minneapolis. There were no railroads, no roads of any kind, in fact, between Council Bluffs and St. Paul, but they had compasses, good horses, and camp outfits, along with strong constitutions and hearts full of courage.

The journey overland from Council Bluffs to St. Anthony Falls, in a straight line, took them (as luck would have it) across the northwestern section of what is now Emmet county. Here the party of three or four, of which my father as head, camped, as he often told us, “on the banks of a lovely river, just above a beaver dam, with beautiful wooded hills on the west.” This was the Des Moines river, and that beaver dam was later to become the basis of the dam and milling property which my father established.

Going on to the Falls, much activity as found, and my father took a railroad-construction contract that kept him there another year or so. In the meantime, another engineer had come out from the “effete east” – from New Hampshire – and had brought his sister with him, a charming young teacher of a young ladies’ seminary at Dover. The natural thing happened – the rough engineer from the west was charmed by the young school-ma’am – and they got married! Then to look for a home! In that vast wilderness – with all the beautiful land in that domain of such great possibilities, where was a man to make his home? It did not take my father long to decide. “The most inviting spot I have seen in all my travels,” he said, “is that rare mingling of river, and prairie, and wooded bluffs, that I saw when we camped on the banks of the Des Moines river, on our trip to St. Anthony Falls.” And so it was decided that there is where they would make their home. The journey to the new and wild domain was without incident – made in the fall of 1858 – and in April, 1859, my sister, Mrs. Frank Lathrop, now of Portland, Ore.) was born – the first white child to be born in Emmet township, and the second (or third) in the county. It seems that during my father’s stay in Minnesota (where he incidentally made $6,000 in gold, and which was about the only cash brought into the county in my recollection) the country had been “settling up”. Several families were there, notably the Ridleys, who had come from the coast of Maine, Al Hagedorn, the Guptils, Redners, and a few others, and for the next year or two several hundred had gathered from several points – ranchers, trappers, fur buyers, etc., and it was not long before there was a demand for “organization” and local self-government. In those days the duties of the present day county supervisors were performed by one county judge. An election was called and my father was elected as the first county judge of Emmet county, and it seems that he performed the duties of the office so well that he was elected for a second term. After that period the county supervisors succeeded to that office. I recall that Judge Asa C. Call was the county judge of Kossuth county, on our east, a very able man, who frequently visited at our home. His grandsons, Asa and Joseph, are judges in the courts of Los Angeles at this time, and needless to say, serving with distinction.

My father continued in the milling business at the “old mill site” until about 1876, when his health failed and he gave up all active work, serving a term, I believe, on the board of supervisors. He passed to the Great Beyond in 1886, at the family home in Swan Lake, 10 miles east of Estherville. My mother and the others of the family soon moved to the Pacific coast, where they have since resided, my mother passing away at the good old age of 84, in 1916, in Portland.

To speak of the early days in Estherville one’s mind is crowded with a thousand events, some amusing, some pathetic, many tragic. I recall the “hard times” of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s; the grasshoppers, the long winters, the blizzards (and remember well the man who coined the term “blizzard” and saw the item printed in the old Vindicator) which, by the way, was established by the half-brother of Ann Bates, my father’s mother, mentioned in the beginning of this paper. Bates was a very able editor, in fact, the family had considerable newspaper talent; Morgan Bates, an uncle, established the Detroit Free Press, was lieutenant-governor of Michigan, and other members of the family conducted newspapers at Traverse City, Mich., for many years.

The nearest railroad head those early days was first at McGregor, on the Mississippi river, nearly 200 miles east; then at Mankato, Minn.; then the “iron horse” crept westward to Algona, where in 1878, I traveled overland, through sloughs, mosquitoes and much misery, three days and nights, a distance of 75 miles to see my first sure-enough railroad locomotive. And what a sight was the “iron horse” those days!

All the talk of farmers and business men was to “get the railroad to come through,” and finally when they did get it with the usual tax to help build the line, it required but a few years to start the agitation to tax the railroads, to make them lower their rates, etc., notwithstanding that the coming of these same railroads enhanced the value of farm lands from $1.50 an acre up to $25.00, $50.00 to $100.00 and more, and the building of prosperous towns, where many fortunes were made. But it was good politics to cuss the railroads those days – and still is! Or is it?

One of the glories of those early days was the beauty of the virgin prairies. I know as to that very well for I “rode the range” as they call it out here in movieland, in other words, “herded cattle” for Ned Mulroney. And a finer Irish gentleman never existed. My “range” was all that country south of Swan Lake and up and down Jack Creek. No plow had dared to touch any of that rich acreage – about 15 by 20 miles in extent. The Prairies were blossoming with wild flowers (wild roses galore) and the numerous groves of hardwood were filled with wild plum, grapes, cherries and berries; (the recollection of those wild strawberries spoils the taste of all California fruits). The lakes and streams were practically alive with fish; wild ducks, geese, brandt and prairie chicken were too numerous to be classed as “game.” The fur business was just commencing to decline, as I recall, but there were numerous shipments of otter, beaver, mink, muskrat, wolf, fox, raccoon, etc., pelts and I remember well the great fur warehouses of McKay, McLaurin and others.

I recall many of the “old settlers” as they came in – although they were all young men at the time. There was Howard Graves, later banker. My father, who was postmaster, gave Howard the post office job to help him along. Stamp sales amounted to only $10 or $12 a week, of which the postmaster got 60%, but that was a heap of money those days, and it was fully appreciated. Then a couple of young Irishmen drifted in – jolly, handsome lades there were, too – Mart Whelan and Frank Davey. Soon they were teaching school, Frank got hold of the Vindicator, also was County Superintendent; Mart was sheriff, and all went well, till the Big Fight came on – I refer to the contest for removal of the County seat to Swan Lake. That was some “scrap” and I recall how the timely courage of Mart Whelan averted bloodshed, and how, finally, the whole matter was forgotten, and Estherville got back the books, and the great seal, and the “perquisites of office” and was happy ever after. Swan Lake, in the meantime, reverted back to a “Sweet Auburn” and quietly passed from the map. But it was quite an important spot for a while. Harvey Mathers published the “Mercury” (when he could get the bundle from the express office) and on such occasions the columns would brim with choice bits, much wisdom and the usual amount of political junk. That, too, faded, but you will find the old files in the Vindicator vaults; also the old Emmet County Herald, published by H.I. Wasson; a bitter enemy, I thought at the time, yet later when I got to know him in Oklahoma City I found him a fine fellow.

The early-day print shop was an institution, and those of Iowa were typical. I recall as a boy of 8 or 10 that loafing around the old Vindicator office was my happiest form or recreation, and there is where I was shown the mysteries of type lice by Frank Day who later became State Senator for many years, also Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota and publisher of the Martin County (Minn.) Sentinel; and Charley Dillman for many years the able editor of the Blue Earth (Minn.) Post with Frank Davey as spectator and friendly counsel. That was after Editor Bates had gone on to fairer fields. Here, too, I got acquainted with Abe Funk, a tall, good natured young fellow of 16 or 18, clerking for his father in the village grocery store. He, also, puttered around the Vindicator office and later got hold of the Spirit Lake Beacon, which he made famous for its sound editorial policies. From Swan Lake I went down to Emmetsburg and for several years tried to learn the mysteries of journalism via a Washington hand press and the practical eye of John Bennett and the encouragement of Col. T.W. Harrison – two of that county’s best citizen, but much maligned, by the mossback Democrats, who were in the majority in that benighted section. I learned much of political degeneracy, party dictatorship and of the petty prejudices that control otherwise good people who should know better by having graduated to the editorship of the Palo Alto Reporter, Emmetsburg’s only Republican paper) during the Blaine and Logan campaign of 1884. It was red hot – and I can still hear the howls that burst forth from the opposition the minute our paper was grabbed off the old Washington hand press – for which I also supplied the ink with an old-fashioned two-handled roller. But it was lots of fun, and I am glad all the old enemies are now my good friends. Those old newspaper fights now seem like so much baloney.

My earliest recollections of how the people managed to find entertainment and diversion so far from large towns, and especially during the long winter months, so that they were an exceedingly jolly bunch. There was the oldtime “lyceum” with its debates, recitations, dialogues, etc., in which all took part. I recall Mrs. Graves and Mrs. Esther Ridley furnishing the song numbers, Edith Graves (later Mrs. James Espeset) reciting “Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight” and Frank Davey and John W. Corey in fierce debate on such topics as to whether there is “More Pleasure in Pursuit than in Possession” and similar vital issues. Small stock shows were often put on by local amateur thespians. Gus Peterson was generally in charge of all this class of plays, and he was excellent not only as a manager but none of the professionals of today could beat him as a blackface artist.

Those were not the “horse and buggy” days, but they were the days of ox teams and covered wagons, preceding the coming of the nifty horse-and-buggy outfits of a later period. In fact, many families came there in heavy wagons, drawn by ox teams of four to six sturdy oxen; and much of the breaking of the tough prairie sod was necessarily done by big ox teams, and the boy who could not “yoke” a team of steers was considered a “sissy” although that word was unknown at the time. The road were most impassable the larger part of the years, and cross-country travel was generally by horseback. There was much good timber along the river, and for several years practically all the homes built were of logs. My father built our first home (about two miles below the old mill site) of logs and a very comfortable home it was. Later we had quite a pretentious home, built largely of black walnut lumber, sawed in the mill. This house was about a half mile above the mill site, on the bench, near where the railroad commences to cross the river. And so, after waiting forty years for the railroad, here it came across our front yard – after we had gone! Such is life.

In the meantime the country was developing, new people coming in and the frontiers were narrowing. I recall the early-day doctors. And when a task was theirs, and how nobly they met the challenge! I recall Dr. Ballard, just fresh from Ann Arbor, but a wizard with the tools of his trade; always ready to face the worst blizzard to care for the sick, no matter how poor the family or how doubtful the chance of getting his pay. He was unmarried when he came into our little circle, but the local school ma’am, who lived at our home much of the time, was the charming and vivacious Amanda Kirkpatrick – “Mandy” to all of us. She was having great sport with the numerous young men – future merchants, bankers, statesmen, etc. – but the new doctor won out, as all knew he must, for a handsome or more talented young man would have been hard to find. And so they were married. Their son, Carl is now a specialist, practicing here in California, and the daughter, Ruth, married Geo. Fullenweider, banker of North Dakota.

The cultivation of churches, schools and of education generally, was a leading part of the community’s activity. My father was generally on the school board, and I feel that the high standards of our school system were greatly furthered by his and my mother’s interest. Both were old school teachers, our library was the largest in the country, and our home always open to preachers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and anyone who could offer a sane and progressive idea for the benefit of the community. And here I should offer a tribute to that mother. Like so many others of her type, she came from the comforts and culture of an old New England home straight into a veritable “howling wilderness” – and yet she was never overcome by the rawness of the new life, but as so many other cultured and kindly spirits who helped to conquer the frontiers, she overcame all by her influence for good and her helpfulness at all times. On its 100th anniversary Iowa does well to recognize the influence Estherville, on its 80th anniversary wrought by such women; and ary can well point with pride to its own first women.

Contributed by Merllene Bendixen. Source: Vindicator and Republican, Estherville, IA, August 16, 1938.


"Tell Anders Sundre and Elif Hagen that they ought to be here. The day's wage is better than in Norway. An able worker gets a dollar a day, sometimes less and sometimes more." This was the advice in 1862 of Gro Svendsen in a letter to her parents in Norway soon after her arrival in America.

The letters to her family written by Svendsen from 1862 until her death in 1878 were translated into English and printed in a book called Frontier Mother: the Letters of Gro Swendsen, translated and edited by Pauline Farseth and Theodore C. Blegen, published by the Norwegian-American Historical Ass'n, Northfield, MN, 1950.

Gro Nilsdotter Gudmundsrud was 21 when she became the bride of Ole Svendsen Skrattegard and left her home in Aal, Hallingdal, Norway. Her father, a teacher for 40 years and an office holder in his rural community, provided well for his family. When Gro desperately wanted to marry a young man who was planning to emigrate to America, her parents objected. Gro wrote a letter to Ole imploring him to talk with her parents; apparently they relented and the marriage took place.

Gro left the home where she had been raised so comfortably and found herself far away in a sparsely populated area of a country where the language was different and life was difficult. There were 105 people living in Emmet County in 1860. The first white settlers in the county were two men who arrived in June of 1856 only seven years before Ole and Gro came. Ole and Gro had lived with Ole's parents in St. Ansgar, Mitchell County, Iowa from April 1862 until September of 1863. Letters from home took six or seven weeks to reach her and the letters she wrote back expressed her longing for her family and the home she left. She wrote of the "unspeakable sorrow" she had caused her parents. "My husband fully understands what sacrifices I made when I left everything most precious to me to go with him into the unknown...You must not worry about me and my happiness. As long as my husband is kind to me, I shall never complain."

A letter written in November 1863 tells her parents that “we have taken land here in Emmett (sic) County, where we now are. We are staying with Lars Paulsen Troos [great grandparents of the writer of this article] until we get a house of our own. We are busy building now, and in a few weeks we hope to have shelter for ourselves and our cattle. Our land is on the Desmans [Des Moines] River."

Gro's letters provide an insight to the way of life in the latter half of the 19th century in the newly populated area of northwest Iowa.

Gro found that washing clothes in her new country was more work. Lye had to be used to soften the water. After the lye was prepared and poured into boiling water, the scum that was formed had to be skimmed off before clothes could be put into the water.

Ole had to learn how to drive the pair of oxen he bought for $30.00 at St. Ansgar, Iowa. Oxen were preferred over horses for plowing the prairie and for pulling heavy loads.

Gro found that fleas in America could bite just as painfully as they did in Norway.

Until Gro discovered how hot Midwestern summers were, she could not understand why milk wouldn't keep as well as in Norway. She learned that it was not possible to make cheese in the summertime because it would be alive with bugs. And to preserve butter in the summer it was necessary to pour brine on it or salt it. It was best, she learned, to sell the butter as soon as possible. She was paid eight to ten cents a pound for her butter.

In May 1864 Gro wrote "I've taught school for one and a half months. The pupils come here three times a week, and there are five of them....I get $12.00 a month."

In the following month she wrote, "Now that we have our land and a wagon and oxen, we are self-sufficient and can even help others." She tells of buying a kitchen stove for $25.00 and with it got "2 kettles, a boiler holding 5 or 6 pails of water, a teakettle, coffeepot, a frying pan, five bread pans and several other articles."

On October 4, 1864 Ole received a letter from the draft board ordering him to report at Fort Dodge for military service in the Civil War. Although they had lived in America less than three years and had not yet become citizens, Ole was "coaxed and threatened--told that anyone taking a homestead would have to be a citizen." He left for Fort Dodge early in the morning of the same day that their second child was christened. "The agonizing memories of that day will never leave me as long as I have the strength and power to think. What I endured that day I could never tell you, nor could anyone imagine my sorrow and despair. Ole had already departed, and I stood there like a frightened bird with my young, alone, bewildered, forsaken." This was written seven months after Ole left to serve in the war. She had wanted to conceal her sorrow from her parents and did not write until she had learned that her parents had found out from other sources about Ole's conscription. Ole returned from serving with General Sherman's 17th Army Corps in August 1865.

She wrote that in 1865 the three acres that they had fenced and plowed on their land had produced 90 bushels of corn, 24 bushels of potatoes, and 18 gallons of sorghum molasses which they divided with the man whose pressing and cooking machine they used. In their garden they grew watermelons and muskmelons as well as other fruit. Gro wrote that "she couldn't compare the melons to anything she ever saw in Norway. They are as big as a child's head; some are larger. They are round and the inside is red or yellow. They are sweet and juicy and are eaten just as they are taken from the field, provided they are ripe." Gro and Ole sold melons for ten cents each to passers-by, but shared most with friends.

In 1865 they had 16 farm animals of their own and fed others for cash. They butchered two pigs in December. They had built a stable for 12 head of cattle and were building another. Gro wrote that some stables were "built of branches and hay; others of sod or turf. I have even seen a barn where the walls were built of layers of manure piled up one above the other."

Because their farm didn't have many trees on it, Ole bought twelve and a half acres of woodland for $100. It was located six miles from their home.

In July of 1868 Ole had 18 acres of wheat to harvest. It took eight men two and a half days to do the harvesting. That fall their harvest provided 320 bushels of wheat and about 100 bushels of corn as well as several bushels of potatoes and some sorghum.

That fall, while Ole was in Waseca, Minnesota selling his wheat, he bought a new plough for $26.00.

In a letter to her brother written in February 1869 Gro wrote, "The other day some Americans came in to get warm, as it was bitterly cold outdoors. Among them was a woman named Esther, for whom the town of Estherville was named. She was the first white woman to settle here. Ville means city; so in Norwegian it would be Esther's town...Esther's husband, Erwin [Robert Edwin] Ridley, was the first American that my husband worked for. He is a kind and friendly man. He, too, was drafted and had to go to war with Ole and Nils Pedersen. Fortunately he also came back with them. Our township is Petersen Township, named for the Norwegian who first settled here. His name is Nils Pedersen Brujeld [great uncle of the writer of this article], and he comes from Sogn in Norway."

When Gro wrote in February 1870 she said times were not good. The preceding summer and fall were cold and rainy which caused them to harvest very little corn. The potato crop was poor, but they got 32 bushels of turnips plus some other vegetables. They had harvested 340 bushels of wheat and 146 bushels of oats, but the price of wheat was so low that they hadn't sold any and couldn't pay their threshing bill of $42 which included the wages of 11 men and the use of five teams of horses.

The following year the weather was hot and dry so their harvest was small.

In the fall of 1870 Ole sold his working oxen and did his farm work with horses. Gro wrote that their team of bay horses was the finest in the countryside. Their

Locusts ravaged their fields in the spring of 1873. The crops provided enough for their family's use, but there was none to sell. Ole was burdened with debts. Gro, wrote, "Times have been hard this fall--much harder than any since we came to this land. The future is uncertain. No one knows what the morrow will bring."

The locusts devastated the crops again in 1874. They consumed all but a little corn and the potatoes. Gro wrote, "This was a hard blow for a family as large as ours." They now had six children.

During the summer of 1876 all of Gro and Ole's children were ill with the measles. A little daughter who was 20 months old recovered from the measles but remained sickly and died in November.

Another daughter, their 9th child, was born the following February.

The locusts returned again in 1877 and on the 24th of May all the prairie grass in the county was burned in order to kill the eggs. Those locusts that did hatch were unable to fly and perished. Ole sowed only corn and earned a small return. "So we managed even better than we expected. Last year everything seemed far more hopeless. You must not feel sorry for us."

In her last letter written November 30, 1877 Gro listed the stock they had; it included five horses, 16 head of cattle, 20 sheep, two pigs, 25 chickens, a dog, and a cat.

Gro had her 10th child in 1878 and died soon after. She was 37 years old and had had 10 children in 15 years. Her grave is in a cemetery east of Wallingford, Emmet County, Iowa; it is close to the plot of the Paulson family who had befriended them when they first came to Emmet County.

A year after Gro's death, Ole sold his farm and with his children, oxen and cattle he migrated to North Dakota where his brother had settled. The older children walked barefoot most of the way on the month-long trip there.

Ole prospered on his farm in North Dakota. He died there in 1918.

In 1996, descendants of Ole Svendsen Skrattegard donated the 15 1/2 by 17 1/2 foot log house that Ole built at Northwood, North Dakota to the Hallingdal Folkmuseum at Nesbyen, Hallingdal, Norway. The museum was interested in creating an emigrant center, which would include the kind of house that the early emigrants from Norway built in America.

In 1997 a museum consultant came to rural Northwood and supervised the dismantling of the cabin. The logs were stored at the farm until they were transported by tractor-trailer to the Minneapolis, MN International Airport where they were unloaded with the help of U. S. Air Force forklifts. On April 6, 1998 all the material was loaded on a Royal Norwegian Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft. It was flown via Iceland to Bergen, Norway where it was unloaded and transported to Newsbyte. Included in the shipment were the Swendsen's Bible, Ole Swendsen Skrattegard's wooden trunk bearing his name and the year, 1862, he left Norway, as well as household goods that were appropriate for the time that the family lived in the log house.

Contributed by: Ruth Hackett.

Gro Svendsen is buried in the Wallingford Lutheran cemetery. Gravestone photo available.

Frontier Mother Records Early Life in Emmet County

Gro Svendsen's Letters Many Hardships
By Deemer Lee

Letters to relatives in Norway from a young Norse bride who in 1862 emigrated to America and one year later settled on a farm in Emmet county, near Estherville, comprise one of the few written records of early history in this area.

Prairie fires, locust scourges, blizzards, pioneer rigors and deprivation of bare necessities of living are recounted in the words of a talented young Norwegian housewife.

She performed the service of scribe for neighbors and friends, while the letters she wrote to her parents in the land of picturesque fjords and snow-capped mountains form a poignant account of what hardships earliest residents of this community endured.

These letters, hitherto little known, have been published in a new volume, "Frontier Mother," first received here by the B. O. Wolden family and a copy of which has been presented since to the public library by the Rev. Lawrence A. Mathre, former Estherville Lutheran church pastor.

"Frontier Mother" letters were translated and edited by Pauline Farseth, teacher of Norse language in Minneapolis public schools.  She is a friend of the B. O. Woldens, whom she visited while in the community to obtain local impressions for editing the book.

Editing assistance was given the historical project by Prof. Theodore C. Blegen, dean of the graduate school, University of Minnesota and author of "Norwegian Migration to America."

Gro Svendsen's letters were addressed mostly to her parents, in Hallingdal, whom she reluctantly bid goodbye when she married Ole Svendsen and set sail for the new land of hope and opportunity.

The young couple first went to St. Ansgar, after landing on the American continent in Canada, and one year later, Nov. 8, 1863. Gro wrote her parents, sisters and brothers that Emmet County is "beautiful, though there are few trees."

Breathlessly she reported she and her husband were already anticipating the building of a railroad only six miles from their farm.

The farm they settled is known as the Knute Scattebo farm, south of Estherville in Twelve Mile Lake township, and which now is occupied by Donald Richards.

She described the farm as on the "Desmaines" river and the name of the county was spelled with two "t's."

In took the young immigrant woman, talented with the pen and accomplished on the alpenhorn, some time to accustom herself to a land of no twilight in the summertime, as in Norway, while thunderstorms were "so violet that one might think it was the end of the world." Snakes were a worry, too.

Gro had other occasion for distress. Merchandise on the frontier was "shoddy" and workmanship "careless." "Norwegian clothes...are better and much warmer." Use of lye in clothes washing astonished her as much as oxen harnessed for power.

She must have been one of the community's earlier school teachers. At $12 per month, for teaching five children three times a week, she also must have been one of the earlier underpaid ones.

Husband Ole bought a pair of oxen for $30 and after two years was offered $85. He thought he could $100, because a full-grown ox had a common market value of $120 to $130, he advised his wife.

A wagon for the farm cost $35 in 1864 and another precious $20 also borrowed from Ole's dad, went for a kitchen stove. Bitterest blow was a charge of six dollars to get the $25 "stoov" delivered.

The stove deal wasn't an altogether bad bargain, though, because the outfit included "two kettles, a boiler, five bread pans" and more.

When Ole went to fight the Civil war Gro worried, but in 1865 she reported in a letter: "I got a message from the postmaster in Estherville that I need not worry any more about my Ole . . . Jefferson Davis has fled and General Lee's army was cut in two and annihilated."

At last, after 7,000 miles of marching, Ole returned from the war and soon the whole family was busy again with farm problems. A woodland was obtained six miles from the home place.

During the winter of '65 the Svendsens fed 21 head of cattle, two pigs (sow and boar), two horses (mare and colt), and three sheep belonging to brother Ole. "I also want to tell you we have sold butter for $35."

Unfortunately, the village of Estherville supported no resident photographer but a traveling cameraman helped fill the want.

In 1868 locusts came to the locality for two days and devoured all the food in sight, settling down like "a blinding drift of snow." Fields in three counties to the south and east "were totally ruined," she reported.

In September of that year Ole took a load of wheat to Waseca, Minn., where he bought a $26 plow to use with a harrow obtained the previous year.; "All farm machinery is very costly."

The Northern Vindicator, she wrote home, was established in 1868. "The paper is nicely gotten up and is considered to be quite good. Since the paper is printed in English which we read with some difficulty, we have not subscribed for it."

Gro also related that Estherville was named for "a woman named Esther . . . the first white woman to settle here," for whose husband, Robert E. Ridley, Ole took his first job in the employ of an American.

It was with Ridley and Nels Peterson (Bruhjeld) that Ole went to war. For Nels Peterson, who emigrated from Sogn, Norway. Peterson township, then called, was named.

Peterson township comprised the present Twelve Mile Lake township and the west half of present High Lake township. High Lake township comprised what is now Jack Creek and the east half of what is now High Lake township.

She mistakenly thought the county was named for the first white man of the county. It was in fact named for Robert Emmet, Irish patriot.

In the same historical vein she recorded that "Iowa is an Indian word meaning the "the beautiful land."

As Gro sat writing her parents one evening in March, 1869, the clock struck 11, which reminded her, perhaps with pain, that the clock "cost nine dollars." But, comfortingly, it was "beautiful" and "keeps excellent time."

He borrowed the money but the fields showed promise of "good harvest" and the Svendsens were not fretting about the debt incurred.

But worries came, nonetheless. Harvest produced 340 bushels of wheat, 146 bushels of oats, almoswt no corn because of a cold summer and the potatoes spoiled of dry rot. But there were 32 bushels of turnips and other vegetables.

The wheat market nose-dived to 50 cents a bushel, while threshing alone cost $42, all told. "Times are not good." More troubles lay ahead:

There was a fearful storm that lasted two hours. It broke large trees, blew away haycocks and destroyed 10 tons of good Svendsen hay.

Fires were a menace, took burning cattle to death and only by "a miracle" did the Svendsen barn escape. In a farm fire Svend Hoff's daughter was burned to death after "great suffering."

Location in the community of a permanent pastor, the Rev. H. H. Hande, was important news to write home and especially because he seemed concerned mainly with "the spiritual distress of his parishioners." Mrs. Hande is buried in the East Side cemetery.

Locusts were back in '73 ravaging fields. There was enough food produced for family living but none to sell for debt payment. Since it is our destiny, we must not complain, but be strong, undisturbed and unafraid.

The railroad was expected to reach Emmetsburg by the summer of 1875, the correspondent reported, while there was the exciting news to convey in '77 that the Estherville courthouse burned. "It is believed that the fire was deliberately set," confided Gro.

That fall the locusts left 124 bushels of wheat, 224 bushels of oats and 11 bushels of barley. Ole was seriously considering sale of the farm.

The next spring late melting snow caused a flood that tore out half a new Estherville bridge and water was so high all spring and part of summer that the Des Moines river couldn't be crossed.

No crop year, but a well was dug and at least she could report the pleasant news "we have good water near at hand."

Some of the sugar cane was saved from locusts. There was enough to make 29 gallons of syrup, a welcome pantry item, "especially for a family with children."

But it was not Gro Svendsen who sent the saddest news of all back to Hallingdal. That event was for some one else to relate--her letter of Nov. 30, 1877, would be the last one received.

Ole sent his parents-in-law a lock of Gro's hair and described her white marble stone (since replaced with a modest gray, granite marker by her brother, the Rev. Ole Nilsen in Wallingford Lutheran cemetery.

Gro had braved the frontier, met every challenge it flung at her, lent her husband to General Sherman's army, and survived locusts, thunderstorms, blizzards, prairie fires and other hardships.

Then in 1878 she died after her tenth child was born.

Unusual was the woman's ability to write but all of her experiences were typical of frontier life in Emmet county.

Source: Estherville Daily News, Estherville, Emmet County, Iowa, April 17, 1951.

CC Note: Frontier Mother: The Letters of Gro Svendsen, translated and edited by Pauline Farseth and Theodore C. Blegen, The Norwegian-American Historical Association, Northfield, Minnesota, 1950.

Gro Svendsen is buried in the Wallingford Lutheran cemetery. Gravestone photo available.

Indians, Grasshoppers, Prairie Fires Make Life Hard

by Grace Butterfield, Ringsted

Imagine a vast unbroken tract of rolling prairies stretching away in all directions beyond the range of human vision, with little groves of timber and small lakes and streams. Such was the appearance of Emmet county when the first white men came to establish their homes. At numerous places were swamps, and here muskrats and waterfowl abounded. The other animals that inhabited these localities were beaver, otter, mink, elk, deer and prairie wolves. The county was "fresh from the hand of Nature." The pioneers through their endurance and patience have made this vast prairie into beautiful farms.

In June 1856, the first two pioneers located in Emmet township and took claims for themselves and four of their friends who expected to join them in a short time. The first house in the county was built [in Emmet township] by George Granger, who also bought a small stock of goods and opened the first store there.

In 1857 the Spirit Lake massacre took place. Joseph Harshman, who was the only settler of Emmet county to be killed at this time, had gone to the "Lakes" for some flour and was one of the many who lost their lives.

The winter of 1856-57 was very severe and the pioneers suffered greatly for lack of supplies as the closest place from which they could be obtained was Fort dodge and the trip of seventy miles meant many difficulties and dangers.

After the Indian scare of 1857 many of the settlers left Emmet county to go to the older counties while others went back to their homes east of the Mississippi. A few of the people remained after this time and among them were Mr. and Mrs. Ridley. Later Mr. Ridley was given the privilege of naming the town and named it Estherville in honor of his wife whose name was Esther.

In 1859 the county was organized and a committee, which as appointed, chose Estherville for the county seat.

One of the many annoyances with which the early settlers had to contend was the great number of mosquitoes that infected the county. In the evening they would attack the cabins in such swarms as to make life a burden for the pioneer.

Another of the obstacles that the pioneer dreaded was the prairie fire. In October 1871 a fire started and the damage in Emmet county amounted to one thousand dollars. Many families lost their entire winter supplies.

The grasshoppers were another source of distress to the pioneer, making the region almost uninhabitable. Various methods were resorted to for ridding the country of the pests. The second invasion came in the summer of 1876. Scarcely a green plant was left, and many settlers were obliged to mortgage their homes; others gave up the fight, disposed of their homes and left for other parts of the country.

The people of this county should be proud of the hardy pioneers who faced many hardships and helped to make Emmet county one of the best and most progressive in Iowa.

Contributed by: Ruth Hackett. Source: Vindicator and Republican newspaper, Estherville, Emmet County, Iowa, November 26, 1924.

Mrs. Eliza Bemis Writes of Early Days in Emmet County

(Mrs. Bemis was 79 when she wrote this article. She came here from New York with her husband, S. E. Bemis and Mr. Bemis' brother, D. M. L. Bemis in 1866. They lived a short time in East Chain, Minn. before coming to Emmet County. Mr. Bemis was a Civil War veteran. Mrs. Bemis was 21 years of age when they arrived in Estherville. She and her husband reared seven children. The following article appeared in the Vindicator and Republican, weekly newspaper, on August 13, 1924.)

By Eliza M. Bemis

When we first came to Estherville, the year after the close of the Civil War, there was scarcely a dwelling house on the town site; in fact there was no town site. There was a fort, Fort Defiance, which had been built for protections against the Indians. Several families lived the [abandoned] fort.

There was a hotel, however, not far from the present Rock Island bridge. This was kept by Mr. Haskins and was known as the Haskins Hotel. Here we deposited out scant supply of dry-goods and groceries which we had brought with us to start a store. During that first summer, while building was going on, we conducted our store at the hotel but lived in a little house which the men had put up in a few days after we arrived.

There was one other store already when we came. It was Fisher's store, a little grocery down by the river.

Our nearest railroad was Fort Dodge. Our mail came from there, brought by stage, once a week. Goods for the store were brought from Garden City, Mankato and Blue Earth, Minn. These had to be brought overland by team and wagon and it was several days' journey to any of these places. Then the goods must be purchased and the return journey made. It was no small task in those days to make the trip.

During the first summer quite a good deal of building was done. Our old store building which used to stand where the postoffice is now was one of the first ones built. The lumber was brought overland from Fort Dodge and Garden City, all except that used for interior finishing. That was sawed from native timber at the old saw mill down by the river. It was all black walnut, the shelves, counters and even the floor. Today that lumber could not be duplicated and if it could would be worth a small fortune.

Graves and McKay opened a store in a building where the Ford garage now stands.

The same summer brought a post office. It was a small building scarcely more than a shack, not far from the place where the Myhre and Jeglum store now is. Near the present site of the court house a school house was built. The school house was built for all purposes. On Sunday it was a church. Gatherings of all sorts were held in it. People still living in Estherville were married there. Later this landmark burned down.

Many of the early settlers lived on farms near town. This was after the Spirit Lake [and Jackson county, Minn.] massacres, but we had many Indian scares, most of them unfounded. One time the boys went to Jackson to play ball and they must have won for late that night they came home whooping and yelling. We all thought that our time had come. It seems funny now as we look back on it. but it was far from funny then.

It is a worthwhile experience to have lived through those days and to see the wonderful things that can be done by people determined and persevering, to see a great rich prairie changed to prosperous farms with big barns and fine homes, and to see a beautiful little city grow up where once there was almost nothing.

Contributed by: Ruth Hackett.

Those Were the Days, He Recalls

By O. H. Raleigh

The prairie, a vanished vision now, was one of the most impressive sights. It was in fact a panorama, changing with the seasons, never for long the same. In retrospect I see vast stretches of waving grass, bending under the caress of summer breezes, through which during the summer months many varieties of flowers burst forth in ever-changing colors. The long summer days were punctuated with thunder storms, high winds and tornadoes. Heavy rains turned the creeks into raging torrents and the sloughs and swamps into miniature lakes.

Cattle roamed the plains and hills. At night wolves howled, often near the houses where children huddled within. And there were the great pageants of the skies. There may be other sunsets and cloudland scenes more lavish and colorful than those seen from the prairie, but I have seen none. Nor have I ever beheld a more thrilling and terrifying spectacle than a prairie fire at night when the abundant grasses were dry as tinder and a strong wind fanned the flame, driving it along from horizon to horizon as fast as a horse can run.

Many a fatality among the wild animals occurred, and occasionally among unwary settlers who failed to guard against such contingencies. In winter there was an unbroken blanket of snow reaching to the horizon. Occasionally a raging blizzard suddenly descended upon the settlers without warning, catching them by surprise, blinding and confusing them. Some were lost and frozen to death.

Note: O. H. Raleigh was at one time a postmaster at Graettinger, Iowa, and was secretary to Congressman Frank Woods.

Contributed by: Ruth Hackett. Source: Vindicator and Republican, Estherville, Emmet County, Iowa, June 24, 1940.


A valuable chronicle of early days in Emmet county was left by O. O. Refsell, who died yesterday at the age of 89 at the home of his daughter at Wallingford.

In December, 1931, the Emmet county pioneer wrote his reminiscences of coming to this country from Norway and his first recollections of the prairie state of Iowa.

Upon Mr. Refsell's death the reminiscences he had written were made available for publication and they are reproduced here just as Mr. Refsell wrote them:

Many Modes of Travel

"We came from Modum, Norway, in July, 1866. It took five weeks and three days from Drammen, Norway to Quebec and one month from there to Iowa. By sail-ship to Quebec, by train, in box-cars to Chicago, then by regular train to Canover. We crossed the Mississippi from Prairie du Chien to McGregor on a steam ferry. Then by team and wagon to St. Ansgar, then after a delay of two weeks there, we continued by team and wagon to Estherville, Ia. There were six in the group, my father, mother, three brothers and myself.

"We settled in High Lake township, Emmet county, Ia. We have been here ever since. We moved here because we got a quarter section of land on homestead.

Other Settlers Here

"We were not the first settlers in this neighborhood. My uncle, Lewis Paulson, had come here three years before in 1863 [1860]. A few Norwegians had come in 1861 and 1862. Fort Defiance had been built in 1862 as protection against the Indians. The very first settlers were not Norwegians but they came in numbers following these years.

"We lived in a dug-out for the first five years. (We found the dug-outs were more practical than sod houses in this district.) It was a one-room dug-out. it was damp, cramped, but warm. For light, we had one window. The floor was of dirt. In this abode six of us lived for five years. We had a home-made table, beds, stools and a few dishes.

"We built our log house in 1871. Father was occupied in building this for over a year. We didn't add the frame building until 1888. In the year of the Chicago fire, we also had a disastrous fire. A prairie fire swept over the settlement, burning out two-thirds of the farmers. We lost our grain crop. The grasshoppers came in 1876-1877. They were here several years. We lost all our crops so we went east to Mitchell county to work in the harvest fields to make our living. I went one year and two of my brothers went a second year. We walked to Algona (40 miles) from where we caught trains going east.

Amusements Simple

"Our amusements were trapping and fishing. The young people danced some if they could find a place to dance. There was no entertainment offered by the church. Township governments were organized and regular elections held.

"The first school [in High Lake township] was built in 1871. The farmers furnished the logs and built the school and the district furnished the teacher. There had been a school held before but it had been held in private homes.

"The Norwegians conducted their own religious school by having the most intelligent Norwegian in the settlement elected to go from house to house and teach. He only taught the religious subjects as the secular subjects were left to the public schools.

Railroads 140 Miles Away

"The closest town was Estherville, ten miles away, but in order to get to a railroad town, we had to go to Calmar, about 140 miles away. However, in 1871, the railroad was built to Algona, about 40 miles away. We had no products to send to the market. A trip to the railroad town was made about once a year. We drove oxen for the first eight years. Uncle Lewis Paulson was about the only one around who had horses.

"The first railroad came to this settlement in 1882. This was the B. C. R. & N. from Cedar Rapids to Estherville. The C. M. & St. Paul also built a branch through in the same year but this was abandoned in a few years. This made a big difference in the life of the people.

"I was teaching public school that year. I loaded my school pupils in a wagon and hauled them to the town of High Lake to see the train come in as this was the first time my children had seen a train.

"Malaria fever was common in the early days. The country was swampy. Mother especially was troubled with it. There was a doctor in Estherville, ten miles away.

"The first [Norwegian Lutheran] congregation was started in 1871 (approximately). They had had services before but not a regularly organized congregation. Services were held about four times a year. Their first church was built in 1889. Before this we had had service in school houses. We had only four miles to go to church. No English was ever used in our church services. Our church paper was 'Kirke Tidende.' We also had 'Skandinavien', published in Chicago.

"The Indians did not molest our settlement after we had arrived in 1866. They had raided Jackson county, Minnesota, in about 1862 which caused Fort Defiance to be built in 1863.

"The first spring we were here, that of 1867, was very wet. This caused all the rivers and streams to overflow. The absence of bridges and roads made it impossible to travel. Although there was a mill in Estherville, we could not get there and a result we were without flour for three weeks, so we ground our wheat in a small coffee mill and boiled it in milk for food.

"My brother, Peter, kept a diary from about 1875 on. This diary is now in the hands of my brother's widow, Mrs. P. O. Refsell, Worthington, Minn."

Contributed by: Ruth Hackett. Source: Estherville Daily News, Estherville, Emmet County, Iowa, October 12, 1943.

The following story written in a 1924 Estherville newspaper by one of Emmet County's earliest settlers describes his life here in the early 1860s.


By Bert Barber

When many of the people of this county and of southern Minnesota were moving away on account of the [1862 Jackson county, Minn.] Indian scare, our family unaware of any great danger, settled in the then forsaken township of Emmet.

The Indian scare was in August and we came in October. On the road we met dozens of families every day who had given up their homes here because of the "terrible" Indians. They left their chickens, hogs, butter, etc. and taking only what they could crowd hurriedly into their wagons, did what they thought was the safe thing to do, and left the left the country. But they came back after a time.

Our family came from Rock county, Wisconsin. We had two yoke of oxen, a pony and two wagons. The R. T. Laughton family, who came along with us from Wisconsin, were equipped in like manner.

After four weeks of struggling through sloughs and almost impassable country, we arrived at the Chas. Jarvis homestead up in Emmet township. (That is just east of where Emmet bridge is now.) It was sundown on the tenth day of October when our weary family was greeted by the Jarvises.

Find Snug Home

Of course we had no home, but Mr. Jarvis fixed that easily for us. He simply introduced us to one of the homes that had been forsaken by people who had moved on account of the Indians. We accepted. It was [originally] the George Jenkins place. An old log house of about twenty by twenty-four feet, with two floors. All nineteen of us lived there that winter, and that included not only my father's children, but also my brother John's family. It made us a "snug" home.

We had exactly one dollar and fifty cents between us when we arrived here. That meant that we had to hustle.

The Laughtons were better situated, for they had been here before and had filed a claim and built a house.

One of the first things that we did was to come down to Estherville and get some two-inch plank. With this lumber we built shutters for all the window. These we shut and locked at night as protection from the Indians. But that was not all the protection that we had. Six or eight guns and revolvers were conveniently hung about the walls of the cabin.

A fence was another necessity. We built what is called a "worm fence." It was made of small rails that we cut from the vast amount of timber that was then available.

Timber is Plentiful

There was so much timber, in fact, that lumber was almost worthless on the market. I remember that John traded a rifle for five immense walnut trees that we cut up into thousands of feet of lumber. We made tables and all sorts of furniture from those trees.

The provisions which the frightened settlers had left behind them were of considerable use to us that first winter. As soon as we were adjusted to our new home we started trapping. It paid us well. A man from Spirit Lake made the rounds, and he paid a dollar for three muskrat skins. That became our chief source of income. But since we raised much of what we ate and made most of what we wore there was no special need for very much cash.

As I remember it, my father and I were the first in Emmet County to thresh wheat. We used the old fashioned flail. It was my job to take the grain to the mill.

Caught in Storm

In December (of '63) I hitched our pony and Laughtons's pony to our wagon and set out for Spirit Lake with the eight bushels of the grain that we had threshed out. There was no particular road--just a small track across country. The mill was situated on the runway at Orleans. I stayed at the court house in Spirit Lake with the soldiers while the grain was being ground. When the job was finished and I was ready to start for home, the soldiers called my attention to the fact that a storm was approaching. The air was warm and a fine rain was falling. The atmosphere was rather misty. I did not think much about it, but the soldiers said that I had better hurry on for they were certain that a big storm was due.

I had no more than started when the rain turned to a snow, and a tremendous wind arose. It grew worse steadily, and became blinding. I paid no attention to the ponies, as I thought they would follow the road to Estherville. I was not cold, for I had plenty of buffalo blankets.

Finds Way Home

When about enough time had passed that I thought we should be due in Estherville, I commenced looking for some land marks. Nothing could have surprised me more that when we pulled in the Moorehead yard which was a half mile from home. The ponies had retraced their trail perfectly.

The next summer, John, my brother, filed a claim of his own which was a few miles east of our place.

I would sometimes go to Wilton, Minnesota, with a team of ponies and bring back store goods for McKay. He had a general store where the roundhouse now stands. I remember on one occasion that Mrs. John Barber wanted me to bring her some tea. It cost $2.50 a pound.

Ordinary boots cost $10.00. But a cow only cost about $12.00. Anything that was made or raised around here was cheap, but other things were exorbitantly high. That was only natural, however, for transportation, which was slow and costly, made the difference in price.

Game was certainly plentiful. I used to sit on the doorstep and bring down ducks and geese. One could not shoot playfully into the air without accidentally killing a dinner's worth. (Perhaps that last statement is a little strong.)

Discovers Wild Turkey

One time I was in the timber looking for likely firewood. I had a wagon and axe, and was jogging along when I spied an extra large tree that had evidently fallen recently. I thought it would do for my purpose. I got out the axe and started working on the log. Presently to my great surprise, some sort of a handsome bird came fluttering out of the foliage. It was a stranger to me. Thinking that it might possible have a nest in the tree, I started investigating. The search revealed a dozen eggs. I took them home, and had one of the hens set on them. In a couple of days, twelve fine wild turkeys went strutting about.

Contributed by: Ruth Hackett.

Reprint of Walt Lucas Pioneer Story

Funeral services for Walter Lucas, who passed away Monday morning, were held this afternoon at the Baptist church with the Rev. J. A. Riggs officiating. Burial was in the Oak Hill cemetery. [See Emmet County obit page for obituary 1 and obituary 2 of Walter Lucas].

Pallbearers were his six grandsons, James, Mervin, and Edwin Lucas, Charles, Elmer and Allen Burkart.

In connection with the passing of Mr. Lucas we turn back our files to October 13, 1931 on which day he was having a big time helping to make the dedication of Ft. Defiance state park a big affair.

He was the oldest settler in the county and liked to live over the old days. Mr. Lucas had an interesting story to tell about the early settlement of Estherville. He told it in spasms - just as he remembered it - and laughed as he did so; he got a big kick out of remembering his old days. But here's his story:

"We came here in 1862,: May 10th he says. "Father had been held in 1859 looking the land over and had filed claim to land north of town. He had met the Ridleys and the Cloverdales and likes the place. He was anxious to move up here right away but the Indians raided Belmont about this time so we waited to be sure we wouldn't be scalped.

"It took us two weeks and one day to come from Decorah with our three ox teams and two covered wagons. Of course, there were no roads then and we just followed a sort of trail over the prairie - just came west and hoped we were headed right really.

"There weren't many houses here when we came. We built our log shack where the road that runs past George Nichol's house now is. It was a small hut 10 X 15, I guess, with puncheons for floors and shingles called "shakes", three feet long and roughhewn. It wasn't much of a house to live in you can guess.

"Dad was a blacksmith and he got a job with government as blacksmith for the soldiers. He had to work, too, because there were fifteen of us kids in the family.

"Of course I went to school, but they only had it three months in the year so it didn't amount to much. Miss Jenkins was our first teacher. Used to get about $15 a month, I guess, and boarded around the various homes.

"We used to have good times in those days; people were more sociable, maybe. Anyway, I remember those parties we used to have a the "White House" -the old school house where there used to be 150 or 200 couples of us and we had a great time. The railroad spoiled that 'cause it seemed people couldn't get along then. Sometimes there were only three or four couples went to the dances after the railroad came.

"But it wasn't all fun any more than it is now. I remember the famine they had in '67. I know lots of people would have starved that year if they didn't have lots of fish. We lived a week at a time on fish alone, I remember. But there were plenty of fish. I know we could go almost anywhere that there is high land now and catch lots of fish. The place where the Vindicator and Republican now stands was a fishing spot, for instance.

"But even when times were good, the food wasn't anything extra. Hulled corn and wheat was our staples, johnnycake was about as common as bread. There was plenty of milk of course. Sometimes two or three families would make the trip to Sioux City for flour but it was so expensive that we didn't get it very often.

"Indians? There used to be a lot of them around. Quite often there would be a band of two or three hundred camped down by the river and a bunch of them spent the winter over at Mud Lake once. There were Indians in town almost every day. They were friendly critters as a rule, and would do almost anything for tobacco or whiskey. We had very little trouble with them except they'd steal what ever they got their hands on. They'd come in at night, swipe a calf, and go off and eat it. We always blamed them when anything was missing and I guess we were most always right.

"There was no such thing as money except what the soldiers got from the government. We always bought everything and paid for everything and paid for everything in grain.  That made it hard when they collected taxes from us, but we almost always got around that by trapping and selling our furs to fur buyers that would come around every so often.

"Mail used to come in about every two weeks, by Indian pony at first. Before long they brought it by stage coach, always from Sioux City. When the railroad was built to Algona, Jim Ridley ran a stage line to there, making a round trip every day. And then of course we got the railroad here.

"I've often been asked if there was any game around here. Yes, there was particularly antelope. I never saw a buffalo here but I did see a small herd of them in Dickinson county once. When we'd ride on the prairies though we'd find bones of buffalo quite fresh, evidently killed by Indians. And lots of men here shot deer, right to close to town too."

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