Life and Afterlife on the Prairies

Death is the most common of human conditions. We are all going to die. Mortality is God's version of term limits and we should live each day as if our affairs are in order. The thought of dying can be frightening, so let us exorcise that demon by writing about it.

In this photo of my grandfather, it was haying season eight miles from Turtle Lake, North Dakota – twelve miles from the Missouri River, where Sakakawea[1] met Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery 150 years before. The year is 1954. Grandpa is tall, about 6'2". He has never carried an extra pound and now he is many pounds underweight. He is impatient and annoyed. It's been a long photo shoot and he's had enough of it. The image of his hand is blurred because it is probably twitching from annoyance. He wants to get his horses and cut more hay. It's the last year of his life and he has stomach cancer.

He was born Gustaf Johanson in 1878 near Gammalstorp in Skane Province of Sweden. In 1897 he shipped out of the port of Malmo coming to the United States. He learned English in New Jersey, where he worked in a textile mill. He spoke with a weird, “New Joisey/Svedish” accent. He described the textile mill as something like a slave labor camp. Company goons beat workers regularly. If someone quit on the job, a request for severance pay could be met with a bashing.

By 1902, our Grandfather had changed his name to Johnson and made a claim on a quarter-section – 160 acres – of land under the Homestead Act[2]. He proved (was awarded ownership) on the quarter by 1909. We now call this land the "Home Quarter".


In 1907 he married our Grandma Josie – a Norwegian immigrant. They built and lived in two sod houses, where my father and his two brothers were born.

This picture was taken in 2005 from the site of the first sod house. The camera is pointing north. The land looks pretty much as it did in 1904, but it is likely that there were more trees then. The presence of trees to block the prevailing north wind and the nearness of water influenced the choice of location.

At that time, there was probably a family on every quarter-section of land. This made farms an average of a half-mile apart. Compared to current times, the country was then densely populated.

There weren't many roads in those days. Travel from farm to town and to the railway was by horse and wagon. A nimbler alternative for those not carrying freight was bicycle. In 1904, Bismarck – the capital of North – Dakota might have had a hundred cars for a population of 4000. In the rural areas, cars were practically nonexistent.

By 1905, the towns of Mercer and Wanamaker were equidistant from the homestead. That year someone in Wanamaker angered a big shot in the Great Northern Railway. In retaliation, the railroad cut service to the town. At that time, railroads had the power of life and death over communities. When the tracks to Wanamaker were pulled up, houses were towed by steam tractors from the old town site two miles east to the new railway terminus. Thus was Turtle Lake born.

After thirteen years of life under a sod roof , Grandpa built a frame house in 1917. No doubt, Grandma was deeply grateful.


I got acquainted with death in 1955. I was six years old visiting at my maternal grandparent's farm. When my father came for me in his airplane, he told me that Grandpa was gone. I won't say that my grandfather battled stomach cancer. He endured it for as long as he could. During that time, he did what he had done for the previous 50 years; he farmed.

Many years later, my father told me about our Grandfather's last night. Grandpa was failing. Our grandparent's house and our parent's house were close to each other on the farm. My dad invited our grandmother to spend the night at our house and he stayed with Grandpa until he passed.

In the morning, he told my grandmother that her husband of forty-nine years was gone.

Grandpa Gus was seldom kind and although never physically abusive, he had a hard and heavy hand. Therefore, it was no surprise to my dad that the first thing Grandma said was, "Now I can do what I want to do."

It has been said that the reason my grandparents stayed together was that when either or both of them got really angry with the other, they reverted to their native languages (Swedish and Norwegian) and thus neither could understand what the other was saying.[3]


Despite my grandmother's new-found freedom, I know that she still loved Grandpa or at least held on to the love that they once had. She decided to try to contact him in the afterlife, and got an Ouija™ board for that purpose. Some folks who are holier than I believe that Ouija boards are the work of the Devil, like Barney the Purple Dinosaur, and bingo. Ouija boards were invented in a time period during which scientific theory and technical advancements of the time led to a sort of secular spiritualism.

In the latter half of the 19th century, when my grandparents were born, the world was transformed by the discovery, study and implementation of electromagnetism – radio waves, telegraph and wireless transmissions. During that time there was a theory that some sort of a media was necessary for the propagation of light, radio and other waves. One of the terms for this media was ether. Not to be confused with ether the chemical or the ethernet. An extension of this theory was that there was an essence of human life that could exist in the ether, independent of the body. In other words, the afterlife had a nonreligious or scientific definition.

Seances became all the rage. The Ouija Board emerged as the modem or router with which to log into the ether. A heart shaped piece of wood called a planchette was used to point out letters on the board which spelled out messages from the dearly, or not so dearly, departed. Some had the audacity to suggest that since this pointer had to be touched by one of those at the board, the user was manipulating it. The holier ones might say that demons moved the planchette. By the age of eight, I was already a skeptic and surmised that my grandmother had her tongue in her cheek, but she and I did have a session with the board.

In our case, it turned out that the Ouija Board spoke Swedish. That was not my grandmother's language, but she had certainly heard a lot of it. After compiling quite a lot of letters pointed at by the wandering heart of wood, my Grandmother showed the results to my father, who had learned Swedish from Grandpa. To paraphrase their conversation – it went like this:

Grandma Josephine asked, "This is Swedish?"

"Yup", replied my dad.

Grandma queried, "Sound like Gus to you?"

Dad's response was, "No doubt about it."

Grandma: "What's he saying?".

Dad – "I'd rather not say."

Grandma concluded that, "It doesn't sound like the afterlife has changed him much."


Grandma Josephine in 1951, 68 years old.
















[1]Sakakawea is the spelling and pronunciation accepted in North Dakota. She was born to the Shosone tribe in what is now Idaho. As a young girl she was taken prisoner by another tribe and then was adopted by the Hidatsa tribe that lived along the Missouri River, Sakakawea is a Hidatsa name. Many in Idaho believe that the spelling and pronunciation should be Sacajawea because it is a Shosone name. I use the former out of respect for the area about which I write, but I think that the Idaho opinion has great merit.


[2]The term Homestead in this article refers specifically to the legal document – The Homestead Act of 1862, not the more generic term. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading in the contiguous United States. Claims were available in Alaska until 1986. The last one was in the Stony River area.


[3]At the time of my grandparents marriage (1906 - 1955) divorce was an option in unhappy marriages, but a better option for the man – at least in North Dakota. Property was generally distributed by the courts in favor of the man. My grandmother had been responsible for the development of the cattle herd, but it is not likely that she had an legally credible claim. However, if she had such claim established and had left my grandfather, any bachelor Norwegian farmer would have found her more desirable with the herd in her possession.


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