The Milwaukee Journal Friday, June 12, 1936
This should have been written by a Rolvaag or Hamsun, or, better yet, by one of the old bards who sang of the deeds of men in the days of the Vikings. But they are not here; one of a softer breed must write of the strong.
At Prentice, in Price County, Wisconsin, a white haired, rather bulky shoemaker pounds and pegs every day, putting “lifts” on heels for young girls and nailing stout soles to heavy boots. To the town he is “S.T.” At the postoffice, his mail is addressed to S.T. Nelsen. He has made and repaired shoes there for 50 years, this summer he will be 80 years old, though he seems no more than 60.
It was to talk of 50 years in the shoemaking trade that the call by the reporter was made. Fifty years seems a long time to work in one town at one job, but soon the question arose: “Why not.” For “S.T.” is one of the iron blood, a man of steel still under his deceptive padding. He once walked 60 miles through knee deep snow with the temperature far below zero, without food or water, in one 28 hour stretch! Why shouldn’t he last 50 years and more, at any trade?
“What? You want to put something about me in a paper?” A snort of derision as he picked up nails and kept on pounding. His mouth puckered under the bristling white mustache and his blue eyes peered sharply through his small gold-rimmed glasses.
“Put me in the paper! No, S-sir!” There was just enough drag on some of the vowels, just enough extra pressure behind the sibilants, to betray his Norwegian mother tongue. But the reporter knew something else about the old school Norwegians, about their ingrained modesty and manners of refusal. Many a hungry Norwegian has stayed hungry because American born hosts haven’t understood that he was just being polite when he refused a meal two or three times in as many breaths. Here was the same hanging back, every sentence of an interview would have to be coaxed as a matter of etiquette.
Well, yes, he had learned the trade, learned it well, as they do in the old country. Two years at Kristiansund, two years at Trondheim, a hitch in the King’s army, then to America.
“Yes, they shipped me over all the lakes in God’s country. I got to Milwaukee in 1880, by boat. There wasn’t much there then, I tell you. The grand encampment of the G.A.R. was being held there that year. I saw Gen. Grant and Gen. Sherman, and—Say! You’re not putting that down, are you? Well, I never—hmmph!”
A stomp around the shop in mock indignation, then back to the standing bench. Well, it seemed funny that anyone should care to know; but after he came to this country, he worked at his trade in several cities in Minnesota and even in Canada. That, he thought, was quite a joke.
“That makes me a Canadian and an American and a Norwegian,” he laughed. The conversation was going much better now.
And how had he got to Prentice? Walked, by god; walked from Cameron. A flash of pride behind the gold rims, the pride of the oldtimers in having been “good men.”
“Yes, that I can tell you about, all right. Let me see. It was in 1886; there was a lot of snow that year. I had left Faribault, Minn., Jan. 7. We were snowbound for days at Ramsey. Maybe you know where that is. We got to La Crosse Jan 1. Well, I stayed at La Crosse five or six weeks and then I hired out as a sort of foreman or straw boss to the Soo line to clear a right of way up in this country. They shipped 42 of us to Cameron Junction then, and eight miles east of there was the end of the tracks. We got there Feb. 20 at 8 o’clock at night. It was 69 miles to Millrue, just west of here. Boy, was it dark and cold! No place to stop and not a house between here and there. No Ladysmith, no Bruce, no Weyerhauser, nothing at all but a blazed trail. So we walked.”
“So we walked.” There it was in those words, the epitome of the courage and work of the Scandanavian immigrant of 50 and more years ago. No [unintellegible] of terms, no heroics, no oratory on high purposes, no flame of adventure. Sixty-nine miles to the next place. “So we walked.” Perhaps, romanticists, to the contrary, that was the stolid, realistic spirit in which the Vikings spread out over the Western seas a thousand years ago—“so we sailed.”
The shoe soles were getting Nelsen’s full attention again so he had to be started over.
“How cold was it?”
“Cold? At least 20 below, colder part of the time. Two or three feet of snow and more in spots, all the way. But we made it, or most of us.”
“Go ahead. How did you start out?”
“Well, there was no such thing as staying there. So I said, ‘Well, boys, we better start hiking.’ We were all big Swedes and Norwegians except one little fellow. All tough. I mean physically tough, we weren’t criminals, you know. Everybody had a pack on his back and a pint of alcohol in his pocket.
“Everybody was feeling good then. Hollering and whooping. I didn’t drink much in those days—I never have, just some beer now and then or something like that—and I thought to myself, ‘You boys will get tired of that before long.’ And [unintellegible] ’s enough. When they [unintellegible] -ed they made so much noise it would scare a bear out of the country. A bear? You could scare a lion out with that noise. At 11 o’clock you couldn’t hear a word.
“Well, we walked all night and all the next day. Not a bite to eat, not a bit of drinking water. Once in a while we’d take a little snow. We didn’t see a soul, just that trail.
“The end of that day, at 7 o’clock, I and that little bit of a Norwegian got to Millrue. There was a contractor had a big tent and we stopped. The others came in by twos and threes all during the night and the next day. No, not one of them was frostbitten. But I know there were two who never came through. We never found out what happened to them. Years later a fellow named Dixon out near Catawba told me they’d found a skeleton close to that trail. The must have been one of them; of course you can’t tell.”
“You must have been pretty weak and tired after that hike.”
“Tired? No-o-o. In those days, we didn’t know what it meant to be tired. But I tell you, when we went into that tent, I asked if we could get supper there and they said, ‘yes, for 25 cents.’ Well, that was all right, I had 35 cents in my pocket, and you can believe me, I got my money’s worth!
“Then, you know, we had to walk 25 miles farther to the place we worked, at McCord. We got there the next night; of course we’d had a good night’s sleep.”
The reporter couldn’t help but think of his own puffing after a few blocks through last winter’s worst.
“But how did you get through that first night? How did you keep to the trail?”
“Well, sir,” and a meditative stare at something outside the door, “that’s a conundrum to me to this day. I don’t know how we kept to the trail. But we did.”
That’s the end of the part about the walk. Shoemaking, by bare mention, seems an anti-climax. But shoemaking was strenuous in those hard days: “S.T.” didn’t enter a softer life when he quit his woods clearing work a few weeks later and dug his cobbling tools out of his pack. He started a shop in Prentice, and then walked from lumber camp to lumber camp, measuring lumberjacks’ feet for boots. Lumberjacks paid good money for leather, waterproof boots in those days. It was before the advent of the rubber bottom. Soon “S.T.” had other shoemakers working for him, as many as four at some times.
“Shoemakers came around like lumberjacks in those days. Here was our shop”—picking up four or five tools in his big fist and motioning toward the last. “Some shoemakers had big shops. John Lundgreen, at Fifield, had 130 men working the year ‘round, but that didn’t keep up.”
[unint.] searching out a small four-page pamphlet, “I had a catalog, running in competition to Montgomery Ward. We used to make the entire shoe. I still do sometimes; some of the old customers send for them. I make my own, too.”
From under the bench he produced a partly completed shoe, ready for the sole. It was a neat job, as complete in all details as any machine made shoe.
“That will fit. These I’ve got on are store shoes, see how they run over. Now don’t put that down. Oh, well, I guess it’s all right.
“Buckskin? I never would have it. Lots of people wanted me to make moccasins, but I said, ‘Let the Indians do that. It isn’t shoemaking.’ Ladies’ shoes? I can make them; I learned that in the old country. When I first came here the only women were—well, you know the kind of women there were in those towns. I had to make high top shoes for some of them. It was all snow in the winter and swap in the summer, except on the railroad tracks. They had to have them.”
The rubber bottoms brought the machines; the shoemakers couldn’t stitch them tight to the leather tops by hand without tedious and hard work. Since that first machine “S.T.” has worn out five sewing machines and four benches. He has been burned out more than once and started over. His sons are grown and departed. His old cronies and political friends—“S.T.” has been in politics, too—have been replaced by new generations, but he endures and goes on. He stays alive with new customers, taking an active part in the village which he has watched grow from a handful to a booming lumber town and then drop to fewer than 500. He is plugging for new paving on Highway 13 and is writing a continued history of the early days for the weekly paper.
Prentice goes to him for advice and is proud of him. It should be while it has the chance; they’re not casting men in that mold these days.