This Day in History
1893 — Agnes nee Schmalz Ernst. My grandmother. Born in rural McLeod County, Minnesota, Grandma lived on a farm most of her life. In 1913 she married my grandfather, William Ernst, and they farmed near Buffalo, Minnesota where she had two babies, Helen and my mother, Lois. Mom was just a few months old when they sold that farm and bought a different one just outside Lester Prairie, Minnesota. The distance was less than forty miles but with a team of horses pulling a wagon containing all their belongings the trip took a full day. Grandma nursed my mother along the way. They lived in a house that was part log cabin and without electricity or running water. Grandma had three more babies, all boys, Harold, William, nicknamed Johnny, and Alvin, nicknamed Fritz. A new house was built with modern conveniences in the 1930s and a new barn was added also. But in 1938, Harold, while working for the Green Giant canning company was involved in a car accident and killed by a drunk driver. My mother drove her to the hospital at Glencoe and said Grandma prayed all the way there. They met a doctor upon arriving and he just shook his head. Harold was a month short of his 21st birthday when he died. Mom said a low moan came from deep within Grandma. To deal with her grief, after a day’s work, she sat up night after night writing a poem, a long seventeen page poem to her son.
In 1944 my grandfather Willian, died of a stroke at age 55. By this time Helen and Johnny were gone from the farm, raising their own families. Alvin, at fifteen, and Grandma were left to run the farm. My father had been drafted and was in the Army so Mom and I, a six month old baby, had moved back to the farm. Help came in the form of Helmuth, a partially crippled but still strong man who appeared and offered to work for room and board. With his aid and Fritz being forced to grow up fast the farm survived.
1949 — Mary nee Jenneke Riggan. My sister. Mary and Grandma shared a birthday. We lived in Glenwood, a small town in western Minnesota, at the time of her birth. I remember the excitement, and to me at age five, the confusion at the sudden addition to our family. As a shy kid however, I didn’t mind having the attention drawn away from me. Before she was a year old Mary became seriously ill with pneumonia and spent weeks in a hospital. Dad worked and Mom was at the hospital every day so I was sent to stay on the farm.
It was during this period I became close to my grandmother. She was a calm, quiet, devout woman who moved at a slow, measured pace but always with a purpose. Her days were filled with work from early morning to night. Up at dawn she’d cook breakfast on a wood burning stove while the men milked the cows. After breakfast she’d go to the milk house where she scrubbed down all the milking equipment. Then she gathered eggs and tended to the chickens. She’d put out feed for the ducks and geese and made sure there were table scraps for the dog and cats. In the summer she had a massive garden that I helped tend. There were apple trees and a plum tree and bee hives to produce honey. Food was canned, even meat, to be eaten during the winter. The kitchen would often be filled with the wonderful smell of baking break. As a child I never had to wonder where food came from. In the winter she sewed and was an excellent seamstress. But the earlier tragedies of losing a son and husband never left her. Grandma had also lost a sister, Louise, in the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. She’d smile, serenely, but I never saw her laugh. Humor was not part of her life as far as I could tell. I had my moments as a kid when I was good at making people laugh. I knew not to even try with Grandma. I have an old faded black and white picture of her from when she was a young woman. Her and my grandfather were on a picnic, sitting on a blanket with their children surrounding them. With a baby on her lap Grandma is holding out a glass and Grandpa is pouring from a bottle. More than likely a bottle of dandelion wine, they made their own wine. She is laughing as she holds out the glass. It is the only picture, the only instance, I know of her laughing.
My sister was a little chatterbox as a child and to this day she is a non-stop talker. We moved from Glenwood to Lester when I was eight and Mary three years old. For the first year we lived in two rooms behind a barber shop. One room acted as the living room, kitchen, and mom and dad’s bedroom. The other room was a bedroom for Mary and I. There was one bed, a double bed, that we shared. Perhaps not proper but what necessity demanded. I do know that a year later, in a house with my own bedroom, I was quite happy. However for that year every night, after our prayers, Mary would start talking. I’d say nothing in return. Finally she’d say, “Gary, are you asleep?” I’d reply, “Yes.” Then she’d say, “Okay, then I am too.” Several years later, one summer, it was decided to send kids to a neighboring town to take swimming lessons at the pool there. Remember, this was the 1950s so the program was for boys only. This wasn’t oversight or intent, just the way things were. Twice a week a school bus would take us to Glencoe for the lessons. A couple of dozens boys signed up, including myself. And one girl. My sister Mary decided she had the right to go also, and my parents to their credit, agreed. I however was mortified. A busload of boys and one girl, and I of course was expected to look out for my little sister. There was teasing, mean things said, but she didn’t seem to notice as she sat proudly on the bus seat next to me. A part of me was also proud, I admired my sister for what she was doing. The commentary stopped once she started swimming circles around anybody else in the pool. In high school she went on to become a certified lifeguard.
Mary and Grandma were close also. Mary’s middle name is Louise, after Grandma’s departed sister. Religion played a big part in both of their lives and Mary would go to the farm and they’d discuss the bible. After high school Mary got married, moved to Colorado and raised a family of three sons. Grandma lived a quiet, dignified life filled with worthy, hard-working routine and passed away on November 19th, 1975. I was a pallbearer at her funeral. Mary now lives in southern Missouri with her husband Ben. Talking is still a way of life for her.
As I wrote these words it was with some shock I noted the date of Grandma’s death. Another person very dear to me, Kim, passed away unexpectedly in 2015. On November 19th, exactly forty years after Grandma. I don’t know what that says, just some kind of synchronistic connection between two women who were of significant importance to me.