On the Green Bay and Western Railroad

When ski jumping was in its heyday in Trempealeau County, the railroad was ready to step up and transport passengers to the excitement.

On page 68 in my book LOOK OUT BELOW! Ski Jumping in Western Wisconsin’s Trempealeau County, I included an ad from the January 11, 1912 Whitehall Times and Blair Banner. That ad gave the train schedule for spectators wanting transportation to the Sunday, January 14, ski jumping tournament in Tamarack south of Arcadia in Trempealeau County. There were stops in seven small towns before arriving in Arcadia at 10:00 a.m.

Recently I found a copy of the old Green Bay and Western train route through Jackson and Trempealeau Counties that helps visualize that trip. Here it is:

Green Bay and Western Railroad

This copy is from Rolling Through Time: Trempealeau River Valley Towns and Trains, prepared by The Trempealeau County Historical Museum Board of Directors (probable year 2,000). Here are the departure times Sunday, January 14, as the train goes west:

  • Merrillan, 8:00 a.m.
  • Alma Center, 8:10
  • Hixton, 8:26
  • Taylor, 8:36
  • Blair, 8:54
  • Whitehall, 9:14
  • Independence, 9:31
  • Arrive Arcadia, 10:00 a.m.

Twenty-five cents additional would get folks transportation between the depot and the Tamarack ski hill. Beginning at 5:00, the train would make the return trip leaving from Arcadia.

By 1927 ski jumpers from Blair, Pigeon Falls, and Whitehall (including Borresons) were competing at Tamarack. Whether the GB & W still making spectator runs then, I don’t know, but ski jumping was big enough in 1912 for the company to give this a try. By this time, the GB & W had been operating about four decades.

1873 had been the big year for rail construction in Jackson and Trempealeau Counties, completing a route across Wisconsin. According to the above booklet, “On Dec. 18, 1873, the first regular passenger train from Green Bay to East Winona began. It took 10 to 12 hours for the 209-mile one-way trip.” This railroad route would go on to determine the plotting and success of towns like Taylor, Blair, and of course Whitehall, all adjacent to the tracks.

Hixton Depot

It was likely the spring of the same 1873 year that Elias Borresen and his family made the final step of their immigration, departing Onalaska, Wisconsin, to make their home in Fitch Coulee, not too distant from Whitehall. The next year, 1874, nearly a quarter of a million bushels of wheat were shipped by train out of Whitehall. Perhaps Elias was among those wheat producers.

As you can see by the map, there was also a nine-mile railroad from Blair to Ettrick, the Ettrick and Northern. Beginning December 1917 it operated for two less-than-ten-year periods, ended by the convenience of truck shipping. It was the shortest independent rail line in Wisconsin.






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Syverine at Northern Colony

A very different chapter in the Borreson family story was the stay of Syverine Marie, Emil’s older sister, at Northern Colony or the “Wisconsin Home for the Feeble Minded” at Chippewa Falls. In an earlier post, I indicated the possibility that her basic problem may have been more a major hearing loss than mental issues. If she had been born deaf or lost her hearing in infancy, that would have impacted her development significantly.

Last fall I contacted the Wisconsin Historical Society which I learned had archives with old records from Northern Colony. That search ended quickly when I was told the records I wanted were lost, probably there, but misfiled. Bummer. When I recontacted them this week, I received a quick response that a staffer had found them. Now I was excited!

My contact in Madison proceeded to send me all they had on Syverine for her stay at Northern Colony. It turned out to be handwritten records on one side of one sheet of paper. For ten years! Amazing! Obviously, here was minimal bureaucracy.

So what did I learn?

At the age of 39 years, Syverine was admitted February 1, 1909, her father Elias of Pigeon Falls listed as her guardian. She was located in #2 “B” at the home. She was five feet, two inches, and 209 pounds. Her hair was black, her eyes gray, complexion dark and skin condition good. Her behavior and cleanliness were also listed as good. Remarks? “Don’t speak English.”

Wis Home for Feeble Minded, built 1909

Further remarks about her [maybe near her admission date]: She was described as heavy and clumsy but quiet and good natured,… She was willing to do what little she could,[which seemed to be, as I read it] operating a floor polisher.

The next comment was from June 1910: “Condition not changed.” Thereafter, there was approximately one update each year, anywhere from three or four words to the same number of brief phrases or sentences. No changes were reported four times. In May 1912 she was “gradually deteriorating” but “good natured and contented.” She was about the same in November 1915 but “keeps physically well” and continues her work polishing floors. By February 1918 she had recovered from an eye infection called “erysipelas” and “has become quite thin.” On October 18 of that same year the last comments were that she “died from organic brain disease 6-28-18. Contributing cause – acute indigestion. Remains shipped to Whitehall for burial.”

According Aunt Clara Cook’s Homestead family history, Syverine’s death certificate indicated she came down with an acute case of meningitis June 20 and died seven days later.

So, we know a bit more but mystery remains. There is a grave marker for her in the Pigeon Creek Lutheran Church Cemetery with her parents Elias and Kari, but – but there is no record of her burial according to the church records. An error of omission perhaps? And we still don’t know how her hearing loss affected her mental development.




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A Death in 1909

Do a search in this blog for “Emma Borreson” and you’ll read news of our grandfather Emil’s sister who married Carl Olson in 1907, moved to South Dakota with her husband, and then died by drowning in 1909.

When I was searching historic newspapers on the Chronicling America website, quite unexpectedly I discovered news of her death in three South Dakota town newspapers (Pierre, Watertown, Mitchell) and one of these I am posting here.

mitchell-capital-25-mar-1901-image-1This item is from The Mitchell Capital, Mitchell, South Dakota, March 25, 1909. One of the other newspapers indicated her home was seven miles north of De Smet and that she was twenty-nine years old.

The article raises at least one question with me – the reference to a brother being in the house. According to both Clara’s account in Homestead and a news item from that time in the Whitehall paper, Emma’s brothers Emil and Charlie traveled to South Dakota to bring the body back to Pigeon Falls for burial. The above article makes it appear that a brother was already there. Could it be that Emil or Charlie was visiting when this tragedy took place? My own guess is that there is an error, that the news item should refer to Emma’s husband instead of a brother. Whoever it was surely must have dealt with a burden of guilt and “what if’s.”

It’s a sad story, another example of the hardships our pioneering ancestors endured.

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A Hospital’s Roots in Pigeon Falls

Yesterday as I was perusing a history of Gundersen (Lutheran) Hospital in La Crosse, Wisconsin, I came across a surprise: the meeting for its founding was held in Pigeon Falls!

Pastor Emanuel Christophersen, who married Emil and Gina Borreson in October 1899, was host the same month to a group of Lutheran pastors who met at his home for the specific purpose of founding a hospital. Among the eleven clergy were Pastor Soren Urberg of Blair and North Beaver Creek, as well as Pastor Otto Albert Myhre of French Creek at rural Ettrick. On October 5, 1899, these eleven pastors and five lay persons made up the original corporation of the hospital in La Crosse. The pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran in La Crosse, Andreas Kittelsen Sagen, was the key organizer.

The Christopherssen home in Pigeon Falls

The Christopherssen home in Pigeon Falls

Motivated by Jesus’ love and words “I was sick and you visited me” (Matthew 23:36),  these pastors believed that faith always reveals itself in good works. And the care of the body was important as well as the care of the soul. Their action reminds me of all the missionaries of the same era who had success by building hospitals and bringing in doctors and nurses, thereby demonstrating that they truly cared for the whole person.

That same October 5 these men elected officers and trustees as well as forming an executive committee authorized to do whatever it required to build a hospital. That included raising funds, acquiring a site, and hiring an architect. They acquired land on Front Street (later South Avenue) for $8,000 from the C. and J. Michel Brewing Company.

img_0856Although all these men were from Norwegian churches, very quickly they realized their work needed a broader base. In January 1900 the first annual meeting of the corporation amended their initial articles so as to include German Lutheran congregations. All their efforts eventually resulted in a new hospital building dedicated November 27, 1902.

I found it fun to read that the beginnings were in Pigeon Falls the same month our grandparents were married by one of the incorporating pastors.

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A Family Moves to Canada

While the death of Emil Borreson’s uncle Bernt eludes me, I am learning more about his family than I anticipated.

As I wrote previously, not only did all four of Bernt’s daughters end up in North Dakota, but so did his son Bernhard. I discovered that he had lived in Sawyer, Ward County, North Dakota before something inspired his move to Canada about 1910, to the Ponteix, Saskatchewan, area about 50 miles south of Swift Current.

In my most recent find, not only do I locate him and his wife in a 1921 census of the prairie provinces, but right below them as the next family are his mother and step-father Clara and Andrew Anderson! According to this census, all three – Bernhard, Andrew and Clara – had immigrated to Canada in 1910. Both Bernhard and Andrew are farmers, and if the usual township numbering is used, Andrew’s land is immediately north of Bernhard’s.

Checking the 1916 census for the same area, Bernhard’s sister Florence is residing with her mother and step-father, and back to the 1911 census, his sister Cora is the one living with them. This leads me to think there may have been fair amount of communication among these siblings, and some travel or movement back and forth. (Andrew, by the way, was a widower with two sons and daughter of his own living with the family in 1911.)

I recall that I had located Clara Anderson (along with daughter Bernice) in the 1910 U.S. census living in Bangor, Wisconsin (near La Crosse), but her husband was absent but apparently not dead – quite puzzling. I am referring to Andrew Anderson, whom she married in 1905 after Bernt’s death. Now I am guessing Andrew had already left for Canada and would bring the family to join him later in the year.

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Homesteading in Saskatchewan

After discovering that Bernhardt Hjalmer Borresen homesteaded in Saskatchewan, Canada, I wondered what I’d learn if I sent for a copy of the homestead papers held in the provincial archives. What I received was a pleasant surprise! (Remember that Bernhardt is a first cousin to our grandfather Emil Borreson.)

“Benjamin Borresen” was the name on the papers filed for a quarter section of land in southern Saskatchewan in October 1908. I even wondered this was the right person until I came across an “Instrument of Cancellation” which established that Benjamin Borresen was in fact corrected to be Bernhardt Hjalmer Borresen. Good. (I think he’d been signing his name as Ben and perhaps an official assumed this was short for Benjamin.)

When Bernhardt filed for his quarter section, he was a single man who had come from Sawyer, North Dakota. That was Ward County where three of his four sisters had settled, meaning much of Bernt’s family from the La Crosse, Wisconsin area ended up within an hour of Minot, North Dakota, at least for a time.

The address for this quarter section was Notre Dame D’Auvergne, a French Catholic settlement later named Ponteix (pronounced pon’-tex). In fact, Bernhardt arrived in 1908, the year this little town was founded.  But of course he had been a farmer in North Dakota, and that’s what he would be in Canada as well.

Homestead west of Moose Jaw

A homestead west of Moose Jaw

The patent for Bernhardt’s claim was issued March 29, 1912, by which time he had spent about three years on his homestead. In fact, by the third summer he was there, 1911, he was cropping 116 acres. On this property he had a lumber house 10 feet by 12 feet in size (value $80) and a granary (worth $350). No land was fenced.

In 1914 a law was passed allowing homesteaders to acquire a second quarter section of land. By 1918 Bernhardt filed and acquired his quarter section immediately south and adjacent to what he already owned.

His living circumstances had changed by then. Not only was he now a naturalized British subject (that’s the language of the papers), but he was married too. There’s nothing here about his wife, but the two reside in a 16’x24′ frame house worth $600. Additionally he had a 28’x32′ barn worth $350, three granaries worth $600, a blacksmith shop $100, and a well $100.

Bernhardt had no livestock, so it appears he was into grain farming. Between 1912 and 1917, his acres under cultivation varied from a low as 118 to as high as 202. After 1914 the homestead law required a certain amount of fencing and he had 55 acres fenced (value $150). The 1924 wheat pool map below shows an elevator at Ponteix (upper right), where Bernhardt likely brought his crop.

A 1924 Saskatchewan Wheat Pool map showing elevators

A 1924 Saskatchewan Wheat Pool map showing elevators

The papers required Bernhardt to show that he was a resident on this land, and the first two or three winters he did not stay there. Here there seems a discrepancy, or least a question. In a form he completed, he indicated he was guest of friends in Wisconsin. On sworn forms from two Saskatchewan neighbors from Bourgogne who knew him, he was said to winter in Minot, North Dakota. With sisters in this area, that would make sense.

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A Borresen in Ponteix

Bernt Borresen, Emil’s uncle and baptismal sponsor at Halfway Creek in La Crosse in 1872, remains something of a tantalizing mystery. He married Clara Olson, had five children, and worked for the railroad in La Crosse, Wisconsin, for some years. But after moving to a farm in nearby Monroe County about 1900, he apparently dies within a few years (Clara remarries in 1905). Any information about Bernt’s death escapes me.

Bernhard Hjalmar, Bernt and Clara’s eldest born in 1885, leaves home in the first decade of the 20th century, and eventually, I locate him and his wife Edna in Ponteix, Saskatchewan, Canada. The town today is still but 600 people, located about 50 miles southeast of Swift Current in what appears to be wheat county. Here’s one current distant photo of the town in a landscape rather like “Big Sky Country” Montana’s just to the south.

Ponteix viewOne interesting fact about Ponteix is that it must have significant French background and population. Of the 605 residents yet today, 175 of them speak both French and English. Perhaps the bilingual character was even stronger when Bernhard and his wife Edna were there in the thirties. It would interesting to know what drew them to this part of the country.

Ponteix Catholic churchReplacing an earlier church that burned, this Roman Catholic Church (Notre Dame d’Auvergne) was built in 1929 when the Borresens would have been farming in the vicinity. There  the (very likely) Norwegian-speaking Bernhard would have lived among many French speakers, an exceptional experience in our wider family.

Actually I have discovered that there is a record of Bernhard homesteading in Saskatchewan. In the section where he owns the SE land, there is a Benjamin Borresen who owns the NE land. What are the odds that two unrelated Borresens would have adjoining land? Could Benjamin be Bernhard’s son? Oh, it seems like I’m close to something here!

Some years later Bernhard and Edna Borresen left Ponteix: I located their death records in Vancouver, British Columbia. I even found a street address for them in Vancouver. But more about their lives in either of these places still eludes me – as well as learning if they had children.

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