In our family history Homestead, Clara Borreson Cook labels one old photograph “Pioneer Photo 1886-1887.” I love this “oldie” so I had to get it into this blog early on. Somehow I’m fortunate enough to have an actual black-and-white reprint, so I’ll include it here (better quality than in her book) and move to the Estensen side of the family.
Left to right: Gurine Estensen, (grandmother to) Gina and Oline, Maria Thorsen Estensen, (wife of) Bertinus Estenson.
At the time of this photo, only two of the four daughters had been born to Bertinus and Maria. The older of the two, our grandmother Gina, was about six years. Bertinus and Maria had married in 1879 following his immigration in 1875 and hers in 1876.
The stark black-and-white of the photo seems to me to reflect the harsh conditions these pioneers faced. I have the sense they didn’t dally too long for the picture-taking before they were hard at work again.
The other “characters” in the photo are interesting too: the oxen Buck and Bright. Clara wrote (page 5) that the names were provided her brother Bennie from the memory of Oscar Stendahl. She described their work: “A heavy ox yoke was put on the oxen whenever they were used: to go to church services, to plow, to cultivate, and to go to town.”
Oxen were dual purpose animals: they were work horses, yes, and they were milk cows. One of the leaders in Wisconsin agriculture in the 19th century, W. D. Hoard, remarked that they weren’t very satisfactory for either purpose. Nevertheless, they served immigrants like the Estensens until they were able to take the next step of buying horses for farm work. Hoard himself, who founded the renowned Hoard’s Dairyman magazine, would campaign among farmers for a one-purpose dairy cow–to produce milk–and oxen would eventually go by the way.
Here’s what Nesbit writes in Wisconsin: A History: The dairy cow accompanied the pioneer settler as a decidedly poor relation, walking at the rear of the wagon when she was fortunate enough to escape service under the yoke as a substitute ox. Her first function was to provide the oxen, and if a cow proved to be a good milker–one which provided a surplus beyond the needs of her calf–this was looked upon as a happy change rather than a design of her breeding. The slow, clumsy, but steady ox was the mainstay of the pioneer farmer. Wisconsin oxen outnumbered horses and mules by a ratio of three to two in 1850…. By 1870, horses and mules outnumbered oxen by a ratio of five to one (page 284).
Even as our ancestors stepped off the ship in America, the world they became part of was one of constant change. In a few decades, farming itself would look nothing like what they had known in Norway.