Sunday, 1 February 2015

John Bardahl 1879-1945 (52 Ancestors #5) Theme: "Ploughing Through"

I never knew my paternal grandfather John Bardahl because he had died by the time I was born. His story is in many respects a fairly typical story of a man from an immigrant farming family who made a life for himself and his family as pioneers in the Canadian west. (My other Scandinavian grandfather, Ingwald Anderson, also moved from North Dakota to Saskatchewan in the early 1900's; Ingwald was just 17 when he came north to homestead with other family members including his grandfather, Israel Anderson.) It is because of the decisions made by my two sets of grandparents, and their determination to "plough through" and persevere as homesteading farmers, that our branches of the extended families are Canadian.

John Bardahl age 27 and Louise Nelson Bardahl age 25
Growing up on John's homestead farm in Saskatchewan,  I could feel his presence in my surroundings: in all the trees surrounding the farmstead, the house, chicken coop, wash shanty, bunkhouse, garage, blacksmith shop and barn, and Bethel Prairie Lutheran Church just across the field, all of which he had been instrumental in establishing.

John was born in Rennville County, Minnesota on 1 May 1879 to Norwegian immigrant Hans Olai Johnson Bardahl and his wife Anna Elton. He had a half-brother Steve, a brother Ole and four sisters (two of whom would succumb to the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic).

The family moved around a few times, but always within Minnesota, eventually settling in Grant County.  By the time John reached manhood, he stood 6 feet 4 inches tall and was a big man in every sense of the word. On 15 January 1906 he made application for a marriage license for his marriage to Louise Nelson.  The wedding was held nine days later in Erdahl, Grant County, Minnesota with John's sister Hannah Bardahl and Louise's brother Nels Nelson acting as witnesses. 
Wedding invitation hand-written by bride's father, Carl Johan Nelson
One hundred invitations were issued for the reception and it was well-attended, according to the Grant County Herald newspaper of 25 January 1906 which also indicated that: "Both bride and groom have grown up here in Grant County, and have a host of friends who admire them for their industry, spirit, affability and probity of character. The groom has a homestead at Skogmo, N.D. and we understand the young couple will go there in the spring to make their future home."

John and Louise moved to Skogmo where their oldest child, Joetta was born in 1908. The only picture I have from their time there shows a lone house in a rather bleak winter landscape.  My grandmother told me that the best land had all been taken up in North Dakota by then, with little hope for expansion into a profitable farm for them. Thus, they moved north in 1909 when opportunity for land was available in the Canadian prairie.

Bardahl homestead, Skogmo, ND
My father Kenneth Bardahl related that early in the twentieth century, "the government was very interested in getting western Canada settled.  To this end, they encouraged homesteaders to come in. The homestead quarter of land could be purchased for a fee of $10.00 with several stipulations, six months residence on same and a certain amount of breaking of land, plus improvements such as buildings, water wells, fences, etc.  After a given period of time, if one survived the hardships and did comply with their wishes, title of said land was given to the homesteader. Today this sounds easy but if one tries to consider the problems they encountered, it is mind boggling.  First, they had to locate land that was available. keeping in mind mile upon mile of virgin prairie.  Even locating the survey pegs was a job unto itself. There were occasions when someone would deliberately change these pegs to add to the confusion, perhaps trying to keep an area open to friends or relatives who would be arriving later.  Sometimes, also, the homesteader would locate several parcels of land, so that he would have an option when he went to apply for a homestead.  This was a very smart move, because originally this all had to be done through the Moose Jaw land titles office." (Moose Jaw was well over one hundred miles away!)

John Bardahl breaking the prairie sod about 1910 (helper probably daughter Joetta)
In August of 1909 John applied for a homestead and pre-emption on the SE and SW quarters of Section 15 Township 18 Range 14 W3M in the south-western part of the recently formed province of Saskatchewan. This area was being settled at the time, mainly by people of Norwegian background.  No doubt there was some sort of comfort in numbers. Several of Louise's siblings also moved into the same area to homestead at the same time. 

John originally built a homestead shack on the SE quarter but then decided there was a better home site on the SW quarter so switched his homestead and pre-emption quarters. By 1913 he had completed the requirements to obtain title to the land. In his sworn statement, during his four years on the land, he had broken over 115 acres of land, had stock and a stable, built a 26 foot by 26 foot home, dug a well and fenced 40 acres of his land. There was nothing but open prairie when they arrived: no automobiles or roads, no communication systems, no buildings. Everything had to be brought by horse and wagon. Yet by 1917, the Bardahl farmstead consisted of a house, a large hip-roofed barn and several out-buildings. By then, the family consisted of John and Louise and daughters Joetta, Marvel, Mildred, Hazel and Lillian.

The Bardahl homestead 1917

My Dad described the importance of the barn: "It must have been a dream come true when in 1917 they were able to build a 32' X 60' hip roof barn with a hay loft to hold the winter's supply of hay. This barn was ample storage for up to 6 head of horses, which were his pride and joy. Even now, names as Pearl, Lucy, Minnie, Kernel, Dandy, Doc and Stella cling to my memory. He was able to finance the whole building with the proceeds of one flax crop." (By the time I came on the scene, the only one of those horses still around was white Stella and she was teamed up with a black horse named Fly. Horses no longer did much farm work by then, but my very first memory is of dashing through the snow in a wagon being pulled by Stella and Fly, snow flying up into my delighted 2 year-old face as I kept ducking behind my protective father's bulk.)

Community was very important to provide education, religious workship, marriages, baptisms and burials, sociability and emotional support. Two nearby one-roomed schools were established that also provided space for community gatherings and dances. This Norwegian community was Lutheran and building a local church for Sunday worship was seen as a priority. Four acres of land just north of the Bardahl homestead had been donated by two other local farmers for a cemetery and church. Dad described how the church building was funded:"Again these pioneers were faced with the problem of arranging finances for this purpose. Many of the wives of these homesteaders formed a group called "the Ladies Aid". My mother, Louise Bardahl, was a charter member of this group. These ladies would serve lunch after church services, along with Fowl Suppers, sales of donated handicrafts etc and any other projects to make money. These funds  were carefully guided and with the help of this group of ladies, a church, Bethel Church was built in the year 1927. Their funding was limited and a very small cellar was built under the church. This was large enough for the coal and wood furnace which was used for many years." Dad often commented that church services were conducted in Norwegian until well into the 1940's.

Congregational gathering at Bethel Church; date unknown but note cars in background
By the time the church was built, three more children had been added to the family: daughter Inez and at last two sons, James and my Dad Kenneth who was born in 1926 when his mother was 45 and his dad 47. The family had tried to move off the farm in 1919, renting it out to another local farmer and moving the family to the growing city of Swift Current probably so that the children could obtain a better education.  John found work with a man named Grogan who had a farm machinery store, but this was a short-lived career change. The man who had rented his farm died just one year into the arrangement and John resumed farming.

During the 1930's, the depression coupled with years of drought caused many farmers to give up and leave the land. Fortunately, the Bardahl family had become fairly well established by this time. My Dad said: "Mother and Dad had not really gone into debt more than they had to. Dad was a great planner and usually had a few things bringing in some much needed cash. I will list a few things that he did to do this. In 1928 he had purchased a truck and was able to do some custom work, both grain, cattle and gravel hauling. He also set up a building on our farm for custom grain grinding. This grain grinder was driven by a belt from a tractor pulley. Over the years, hundreds of loads (each app. 50 bushels) were ground up for neighbors for their livestock production. A holding bin was built above the grinder and it fed by gravity. After the grain was crushed it was fed into an elevator which carried this ground chop to the back of the building to dump into the waiting wagon. All this for $2.00 a load. My parents always had a lot of livestock. Of course farming was done with horses in this time era. At times he could sell the odd colt or two from the above. On the other end of the barn was the cow barn with stalls for up to 9 head of milking cows. On the other side of the aisle were 3 pens for calves, pigs or whatever. In the mid 30's also the Government of the time were trying to upgrade the quality of these farm cattle. To this end they would supply to an area a registered Hereford bull. To my knowledge, Dad took in one of these first bulls into this area. I can recall helping? when such animal arrived by freight box car in Leinan. He was a big brute, never had I seen an animal of this size. He was very docile though and neighbors for miles about brought their cows for his service. Cost 50 cents which Dad was supposed to collect."

Ken and John Bardahl with John's very useful truck

My Dad went on to add that: "Another venture that Dad had was his threshing machine for harvesting purposes. This machine was pulled with 4 horses and the binder would cut and bind into sheaves in one operation. A unit called the bundle carrier would allow the operator to carry about 6 sheaves when they could be released with a simple fast manipulation. This procedure was very slow, only cutting an 8 foot swath, 12 to 15 acres per day limit. After this being completed, these bundles had to be put up in stooks, grain end up for drying, about 6 or 8 bundles to a stook. People became adept at this and it was a beautiful sight on completion. It was hard manual work with the old water jug not to far away at any given time. The next operation was when the threshing machine pulled into this field. The machine was set on level property, with wind at your back. Next, the 6 or 8 teams of horses and hayracks would load up their bundles. Each man went in rotation taking turns into the machine for the threshing. Each unit was proud of their big and well build loads and if you went in early with a small load, you found out quickly that this wasn't a very popular thing to do. Dad had a machine as such and even though it was not a big money maker, it did help in his financing."
John Bardahl (left) with his threshing machine and crew
I was surprised to learn that my grandparents made a pleasure trip to Minnesota in 1934 to visit family during the tough depressed times of the "Dirty Thirties".  My Dad Kenneth was eight years old and had this single visit with the only one of his grandparents he ever got to meet - John's mother Anna Elton Bardahl.
John and Louise Bardahl family 1934
John and Louse are center front with my 8 year-old Dad Ken between them; Joetta is front left and Inez front right;
back row: Marvel, Lillian, James, Mildred and Hazel
By the autumn of 1944, John's health was deteriorating and he and Louise left the farm for Vancouver to be near some of their daughters.  He died of cancer on 29 January 1945 at age 65 and is buried at Ocean View Burial Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Louise would survive him by forty years to die in 1985 at the age of 103. By the time of her death, their descendants numbered 8 children, 16 grandchildren and  29 great-grandchildren, a number that has continued to grow every year since. All of their descendants can thank John and Louise for "ploughing through" the tough times to establish their family in this new community.
Laying John to rest, Ocean View Burial Park 31 January 1945


  • Bardahl, Kenneth, private memoirs written for his grandson Grant McClure early 1990's
  • Grant County Herald, Elbow Lake Minnesota, 25 January 1906
  • Ellis, Hazel (Bardahl) letter to her brother Ken Bardahl dated 10 February (no year specified, early 1980's)