By Tucker Henderson
Special to the Dispatch
They say that you should write what you know. Well, I have heard a lot of stories about my Great Grandma Lorraine (Perala) Olsen’s childhood. She used to tell me rich stories about when she was a kid living in the country west of town. Her memory of early events was very good up until the very end. Hopefully, her memories can give you a sense of what a country childhood looked like in the 1930s and 1940s.
Grandma was the second of seven children born to first generation Finnish Americans born in the United States. She, like many of her generation, learned both Finnish and English while a child. Finnish was still largely spoken in this community when she was growing up. She was born on her paternal grandparent’s farm on the north shore of Rush Lake in 1926. Her father, Walter, was orphaned at an early age and he, being the eldest son, helped to raise the rest of his siblings and keep the farm in the family. This was not an easy task and I believe the farm was lost to unpaid taxes.
The community often came together in these situations and helped others out. Grandma’s maternal grandfather built a new house and barn about a mile away which provided a new home for the family. Another community member helped them dig their well and soon the farm was up and running. In the 1930s when no family had much, Walter volunteered to oversee which families received government relief. This automatically disqualified his family from receiving the assistance.
When Grandma was old enough to finally attend school, her older sister Deloris was also ready. They attended country school a mile away and had to walk cross-country through the woods to get there. Their mother,Lempi, was afraid for them to walk all alone to school, so they sent the oldest son, Floyd, (who was a year younger than Lorraine) to school a year early to keep his older sisters safe. Deloris relayed in her later days that she didn’t care for that at all – she had to keep track of two siblings instead of one!
Lempi tied strips of cloth to the trees to guide them on their way to school. They had to cross “The Creek” on the way to school. I’m sure this added to their mother’s anxiety. Lempi was a member of the school board and often hosted the country school teacher for the school year. Grandma Lorraine enjoyed school and she liked living with her teachers. She decided at an early age that her dream was to become a teacher. After she graduated high school, she fulfilled this dream as a country school teacher.
In those days, neighbors visited each other on a daily basis. Lempi would walk to the neighbors with her children in the winter to go and visit. She mentioned pulling carrots out of the snowbank that hadn’t been harvested. Their friends, the Menze family, would come by sleigh across Rush Lake in the winter to come and visit and sauna. Company was never scarce and it was an oddity to have nobody visit on any given day. “A little lunch” was always kept on hand for company. This consisted of bread, cookies, or anything else that could be eaten with coffee. This detail was a point of concern for the lady of the house.
Here is a direct quote from Lempi’s journal from 1941 – 80 years ago to the day. “Mar. 10 – Mon. Nice.
Sander over. Orlie came. Mom, Son & Dad went to Rudy Linds & got car. Mom came home with horses & Son & Dad by car. Mom stopped in Olsens. Lorraine made trip to V. Andersons. Orlie stayed in town. Andy, Ray & Henry stopped for cream.” This seemed to be a typical day at the farmstead, if not a bit slower than usual.
Grandma remembered ice skating on Rush Lake with her mother’s skates. During the later years of the depression, her father took the skates off and used them as shoes. Rush Lake was a great recreation spot for the local youth. In the winter they could ice skate, sled, and play in the snow. In the summer they swam to keep cool from the heat and humidity.
Once in a while, the kids could go to town and go roller skating at City Hall in New York Mills. Grandma Lorraine remembers walking to town for 4th of July festivities when she was ten years old. Another treat was a trip to Perham in the summer for the county fair. Grandma and her siblings were in 4-H and one year, her and Deloris had the chance to sleep upstairs in the exhibit building.
Christmas was a special time for all. Stockings were hung around the living room table. An orange and a walnut were always the childrens’ Christmas treat. Cookies were made in small batches, just enough to last for the day. A memorable gift that Grandma received was a nail file. Her sister Deloris received a pink one and Grandma Lorraine’s was blue.
A Finnish New Years tradition carried over from her father’s side of the family. On New Years Eve, lead would be melted on the kitchen stove and then poured into cold water. The shape that the lead would take would be interpreted (by the person with the best imagination) and everyone’s fortune would be told. Lots of laughs took place in the Perala family gatherings and that family tradition has been passed on as well.
These are some of the memories that my Grandma Lorraine remembered from her childhood. There are many more that I have heard that won’t fit here. I loved to listen to her reminiscing with her cousin and her friend from country school when I was over to her home to visit. Despite growing up in the Great Depression, Grandma loved her childhood and had a lot of fun living on a small farm in the country.