Father, pilot, farmer, husband. June 15, 1913 - December 3, 2011

98 Years


Leonard Ernest Johnson, my father and the father of my 10 siblings was born on June 15th 1913 to Gustav & Josephine Johnson. His birthplace was a sod house built by his father on the homestead that was founded in 1904 and is 6 miles south and 2 miles east of Turtle Lake North Dakota. The homestead flourishes to this day as the family farm. He was the third of three sons. Below is a picture taken in 2005 of the approximate area on which - to the best of my knowledge - the sod house stood. Perhaps it was a day like the day in which the picture was shot and the view may have been similar.

Our father passed way on December 3, 2011 at the age of 98 and 1/2 years. For the previous 2 1/2 years, he had been a resident of a nursing home. For the previous 96 years he had lived on the farm that he was born on.

Our father's life is a window into history. A window with a width of almost a century. In 1913, sod houses were as common as frame houses on farms.

Transportation was as likely to be on horseback or by horse-drawn wagon or bicycle as in a car. Cars were present but few. The Model T Ford had been in production for 5 years. Roads were few and primitive. Most horsepower used for farming was produced by horses at that time, but both steam and internal combustion powered tractors could be found.

In 1905, the nearest town of Turtle Lake was founded when buildings from the westward town of Wanamaker were moved to the town site at the terminus of the railroad. Most of the buildings were moved by steam tractor. In 1913, Turtle Lake was 8 years old and horses were tethered on Main Street. World War I was a year in the future, but according to historians of that period, European nations were already preparing for war and in fact, some of those in power were actually looking forward to war. In 1917, when Dad was 4 years old, his parents built a frame house. Like the sod house, it had no electricity or plumbing. That year, the United States entered World War I. Dad would live there for 35 years.

One of our Father's earliest memories was of the 'Spanish Influenza'. The quotes are used here because it is more likely that this epidemic began at an Army facility in Kansas. Between 50 and a 100 million people died world-wide. Perhaps due to the sparseness of the population in that area, some may have been ill, but our father has no memory of any deaths. Another early memory he has shared with our family is of the Wolf Murders. In 1920, when he was 7 years old, eight members of one family north of Turtle Lake were murdered. At the time, this was considered the largest non-military mass murder in US history. But we have come far since that time!

Lighting in that house was by kerosene lamp. Heating was done with a pot-bellied coal stove. Other heating and cooking was done with a cast-iron, enamel-plated range. The range would have been fired by either coal for long cooking jobs like baking or for shorter jobs, dried cow manure. In later decades, my siblings and I would use the same dried cow manure in lieu of frisbees. At first, coal was hauled from a mine near the town of Wilton. The mine was about 20 miles away. A load of coal took two days to bring in – a day to get there by horse and wagon, then a stay overnight with friends and a day coming back.

At that time, the prairies had more people. There was perhaps an average of two households on every section (one square mile) of land. Visiting was treasured.

There were all-night house parties with dancing and home made music. Harvesting was often done with multi-family teams called threshing crews and stationary threshing machines that were powered by a tractor with a pulley and a belt. Bundles of grain were picked up by teams of horses pulling hay racks and farmers with pitchforks. Horses were the first voice-activated devices. Harvest was often a combination of the pragmatic and the social.

My father attended a one-room township school. A township in that part of the world is six miles on a side or 36 square miles. There were 4 schools in each township. Thus, any student would have to walk no more than 1 1/2 miles to school. Most schools had one large room for instruction. There was usually an arctic entry way where coats were hung and overshoes were stored. Often times basketball was played there. Since the schools had no plumbing there would be one or two outhouses and a small horse barn, since many rode horses there. Instruction was in a single room. All classes were heard by all students. My father's school, which I also attended my first five years probably had a maximum of 20 students. Because of limited transportation, teachers oftentimes lived in a small room in the school or stayed with neighbors.

There is a picture of my father in a small cart behind a horse. He appears to be about 8 or 10 years old. When he showed my that picture, he said that he was on his way to visit Thorald Imsdahl. Thorald lived a half-mile north and a mile west of Dad's home. He was two years older than my dad. The picture was taken in the winter. My dad drove that horse across the prairie. The wind blows five days out of six there and for 4 3/4 of those days it is from the northwest.

By the 20's in North Dakota, airplanes could be seen overhead. My father fell in love with airplanes. That love would last for his life.

County highway 29 ran along the west edge of the quarter that my grandfather had harvested. The 1920's were the time of prohibition. My father oftentimes saw bootlegger's vehicles on the road (also called the Red Trail) heading south, coming from Canada. He often saw federal agents pursuing them.

In 1927 my father finished school by graduating from the eighth grade. That same year, his father got a used Model T Ford. This model had a fabric top which had decayed and fell away by the time that they got it. Hence, traveling wasn't a lot different than traveling by horse wagon. Maybe a little faster and you didn't have to put up the horses when you got home.
Dad started learning to fly in the early 1930's. In 1934, he found a Curtis Wright Junior in a tree in Idaho and hauled it home on a hay rack pulled by the Model T. He repaired it and learned to fly it over the next several years.

Dad and his friend Martin Sabe, who had gone with him to get the Curtis-Wright used to like to go fishing at Brush Lake, which is about 12 miles north and east of the farm as the crow flies. They would take the Model T and go as the crow flies. In other words, they pointed the car in the direction and just went. They crossed prairie, pasture and farmer's fields; taking care not to drive on crops. Land was fenced, but all fence lines had gates. If they stayed off of crops and left gates they way they found them, there was no objection to their crossing.

In the 1930's, electricity came to farms in that area. The Rural Electric Adminstration (REA) brought in utility lines with usually one drop to a light pole on farms. There was light for the yard on the top of a 30-foot pole. There were a few outlets which enabled running an extension cord into nearby buildings. Radios were now available.

In 1941, Dad got his first tractor. It was a new Model V Case. It could pull a two-bottom plow. I.E. it was a 'two-plow' tractor. It had twice as much power as a team of horses and was somewhat faster. It was measured at delivering about 16 horsepower at the drawbar. I'm still trying to figure that one out because despite the great leap forward in technology, the Model V couldn't do the work of 16 horses. And it wasn't voice activated. Go figure.

The Model V is still running like a champ. My brother Eric and nephew Joseph restored it in 2003. Still a sweet machine.

On December 7th, 1941 Dad and one of his brothers were east of the farm harvesting meat for dinner. Jack rabbits, that is. It was 12 years into the Great Depression. Potatoes were the staple. They had a small dairy herd at the time, but meat was in short supply and was usually taken from the land. By that time they had motorcycles and were using them for the hunt. Loaded with rabbits, they turned towards home and it was getting dark. By that time one could see nearby lights shining on the prairie and know which neighbor they belonged to.

From where they were, they could see the lights of both Wilton and Turtle Lake. But this time, all was dark. There were no lights. It was as if the lights in the world were turned off. When they got home, they heard about Pearl Harbor. People feared an attack from the air. By then, my dad knew enough about airplanes to tell his parents and neighbors that there was no plane that could fly from a Japanese facility in the Pacific to the very center of the continent without refueling and refueling would have met with substantial resistance. But folks were taking no chances.

In the late 1940's, my father upgraded to a Model L Case tractor as his main plow tractor. He has still using horses. After all, they were voice activated (unlike tractors of the time). The Model L could do two or three times the work of the Model V. It had 3 gears with a top speed of 5 miles per hour.

In 1948 Dad bought a 1947 PA11 Piper Cub Special. It had been wrecked. He repaired it and he flew it for the next 58 years. Yes, 58 years. That is not a typo.

In 1952, Dad built his own house for himself and my mother. This house was wired for electricity, but had no plumbing until 1965. The first heating was from an ultra-modern enamel-sided coal stove which stood in the living room. In the winters, all slept with lots of blankets. Not long after, he upgraded to a forced-air heating system with a coal stove in the basement. Coal was now hauled from the new coal mine near Underwood. And by that time, Dad had a 1941 Ford one-ton that could make the round trip in half a day. While riding in that truck, you could see the gravel on the road if you looked down at the floor boards. Things were always upward and onward and a step up.

The new house had a telephone. By 1950 Rural telephone utilities were providing service in that part of the county. I recall getting on the phone and calling a friend my age and whilst chatting being interrupted with something like the following : "Wouldya kids get the hell off the line and let someone who has something to say use it. Why dontcha?" And we had a record player. Our Mom bought 78s to play on the record player. They made better frisbees than cow patties but had unintended consequences. Such as: 1)Our Mother's profound wrath. 2)Sore bottoms.

Technology innovation brought us the Bomb. We all got to practice Duck and Cover and read Sci-Fi stories about post-atomic-apocalypse landscapes. I remember reading about and discussing cobalt bombs. They were really cool! They could destroy all life on earth. In 1957, Dad got a new big tractor. It was a model 400 Case. It couldn't do any more work than the Model L, but it had a starter. It did not have to be cranked to start. It also could go up to 15 miles per hour.

The Township school closed in 1960. That last draft horse had died in 1959. We started riding a bus to town for school. That same year or so, the Feds began the Minute Man missile project, which put atomic warheads into underground silos all over our state. We never felt so safe!

Dad drilled a new well close to the house in 1965. He put plumbing in the house. And a TV. The outhouse did not go away, however. After all, there were now 13 of us living in the house. By 1968, Dad had at least 5 tractors. On easter vacation from college, I drove his latest tractor - a 1968 730 Case Comfort King bought from the Zwickers Case dealership - home from town.

This tractor had hydraulics – a big labor-saving addition. By this time, he had a tractor for every kid that could drive one. We had another horse by then. But this one wasn't voice activated. He was a pain the the rear.

By 1971, I was living in Alaska. Roger, son number 3 by age had graduated high school along with cousin Norma (daughter of Dad's older brother, Arvid). They had to share the Valedictorian award since neither one of them had as low as an A- for grades. That same year, the Licklider Protocols established the procedures for the transmission of emails. Our dad could care less.

About that time, Dad, Arvid, Roger and others began to offer resistance to Eminent Domain practices that were forcing farmers off of their land. It would not be long before (whether they knew it or not) they were employing methods that made use of the Licklider protocols to promote their goals. Really folks: there is such a thing as Licklider. Google it. You use the Licklider protocol when you send email or use Facebook®.

Dad was still farming in the 80's, but Roger had bought the farm. Roger built a shop with solar panels. Pickup trucks had two-way radios. A radio mast towered over the farmstead. The frame house that Dad's parents had built in 1917 was gone. Four-wheel drive tractors and pickups where common, rather than a novelty. Most bigger tractors now had cabs. The main heating was from Natural Gas, but Dad was cutting firewood for a new wood stove. After all, firewood warms you twice. Once when you cut it, and again when you burn it. Dad turned 72 in 1985 and arguably he was still in his prime. After 50 years of flying small planes, Dad had his first ride on an airliner.

The 90's brought computers. Something that Dad took note of but had no use for.

Cell phones were there now. The dairy and beef herd was gone. It had grown quiet around the farmstead. By then Mourning Doves can be seen and heard during the middle of the day. A lonely sound in a lonely country. Cable and satellite dishes provided hundreds of channels, whereas in in 1965 we had received one channel well and another poorly.

Dad began to tell stories of the early life. By his 80's, his long-term memory had grown stronger and at that time surely was pretty accurate as to time and facts. In 1999, when Dad was 86, one of us observed him walk across the yard carrying a 60-lb bucket of salt. He reached his pickup and with one hand opened the tailgate and with the other effortlessly lifted the bucket into the bed of the pickup. He was still formidably strong. The muscle memory of decades of working with horses was still there.

Dad was 90 in 2003. My wife Barbara and I walked two miles with him - to the Township school and back. We are fast walkers. We didn't have to slow down for him. Along the way, he talked about his days of flying supplies and passenger when the roads were impassable. In 2006, Dad took his last flight in his PA11. Eric, who is a pilot rode with him. Dad had passed his pilot's test earlier that year. His takeoff and landing was flawless, but his memory was now failing. In the air and alone he tended to become disoriented. He sold his plane to Eric. Eric restored it to its original condition, but changed to a 90-horse engine.

On December 8, 2011 we saw our father for the last time. He was buried at the South Saint Olaf cemetery, once the site of the Lutheran church that our dad and his parents attended until 1955. Now the cemetery stands alone and unsheltered with sweep of the prairie all around it.

The cemetery lies a mile and a half from the farmstead, about two miles from where he has born. Our father lies next to his parents and his brothers and his youngest son and his old friends.

The wind was blowing from the northwest at 30 MPH and The temperature was five above zero fahrenheit. Our mother sat down behind a wind screen in front of the casket and we laid several quilts on her.

At that moment Dad's PA11, flown by Eric, came from the east and Eric saluted our father by dipping the wings of the plane.

Born to sod, our father was covered by sod by the next harvest time.

Today you can go for miles without seeing a farm, but it will be a big one, with perhaps thousands of acres. Now a typical harvester is worth a quarter of a million dollars and can harvest half a section in a day. Tractors are not yet fully voice-activated.


Not yet.