Monday, October 22, 2012

Little house on the prairie

In January of 1913, the winter weather was particularly harsh in Washington Country, Minnesota.

On one of those nights, 30 year old Martin Stenson and his 27 year old bride, Amelia, huddled together in their little rented farm house, trying to stay warm as the blustery winds from the north howled outside. Sometime during the evening, nature took its course, and on October 23, 1913, the second child of their marriage came into the world. The named her Anna, in honor of Amelia’s mother, Anna, who had died in childbirth.

Martin had been born in Country Sligo, Ireland, on November 24, 1882, but both of his parents died of the plague when he was a small boy. He eventually wound up working in the coal mines in England to support himself, but emigrated to America to be with some of his siblings, who were working on a farm near the town of Hastings, Minnesota. A few years later, he met a young woman named Amelia Karnick, whom we married on May 3, 1911.

After Martin and Amelia got married, they rented a little farm house close to Hastings, Minnesota. The little rented farmhouse eventually fell into disrepair, and was finally burned down by the local fire department as part of one of its training courses. When Martin and his family lived there , they had no electricity or running water, and he had to chop wood for heat. The fact that the young family managed to grow and prosper is a testimony to the remarkable tenacity of the pioneers of this country, and to the peer group of my mother and her siblings, who lived through two world wars and the Great Depression, and eventually became known as “the Greatest Generation”.

Their first child, Grace Magdalene, was born on January 26, 1912. “Amazing Grace” lived to be 95 years old, and is survived by her 7 remaining children, her brother Harold (now 91 years old) and a LOT of grand children and great grand children.

The marriage of Martin and Amelia also produced 4 other children - Edward, Harold, Fern, and Bernard, but I have a special connection to the child called Anna, and for a very good reason.

She was my mother.

For most of her life, she preferred to be called by her middle name, Mae. For that reason, her tombstone at Ft. Snelling cemetery lists her name as Mae Anna Brennan.

If she were still alive today, she would be 99 years old tomorrow, and I usually think about her, at least briefly, on the 23rd of October. I’ll have to admit, though, that her “place of her origin” comes into my thought process a lot less, and that’s a shame.

Martin and Amelia bought a nearby farm from a relative in the fall of 1929, just before the start of the Great Depression, but managed to make mortgage payments even when times were tough. Their son, Harold, still lives there today.

About the time that my mother was born, 41% of the workforce in America was employed on farms, and roughly 25% of our country’s GDP was from agriculture. Today, agriculture produces less than 5% of our GDP, and less than 2% of the population works in agriculture.

We’ve changed a lot in the last 100 years, but one thing is very clear. For a great many people, we wouldn’t be who we are today if it weren’t for a remarkable institution - a little house on the prairie.

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