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Del, the Mall Rat

Above:  After leaving Mark and Jayne's house, I stopped at the Mall of America, the largest shopping mall in the U.S.

I visited Mark and Jayne in Minneapolis for four days, spending part of that time getting my truck ready for my trip back to Bellingham.  Then I said goodbye to them on a cloudy morning and hit the road. 

 

Before leaving the Twin Cities, however, I wanted to stop by that sprawling bastion of American consumerism known as the Mall of America, which is located in the suburb of Bloomington.  I don't enjoy shopping and have never understood the mostly-female desire to shop.  Of course, women don't understand the male phobia about asking for directions, to which I can proudly claim, "Guilty As Charged.  But I wanted to see the Mall of America because, as Sir Edmund Hillary said before climbing Mt. Everest, it's there.  The mall was built about 10 years ago and for many years it was the largest shopping mall in the world.  I believe there's a mall in Canada now (in Edmonton or Calgary, I forget which) that now claims that dubious distinction. 

 

Amazingly enough, the Mall of America itself has become a major travel destination and there are actually package tours that cater to shoppers which fly them to Minneapolis, bus them each morning to the Mall, then fly them back home after a few days of blissful shopping.  I find this type of behavior unbelievable, but then certain women -- and you know who you are -- have never understood why I refuse to ask anyone for directions.

 

To be honest, I'd been to the Mall of America once before.  Mark took me there when I visited Minneapolis in 1995 because we wanted to find Michael Fay, the snotty American teenager you may have read about who got caught spraying graffiti on some buildings in Singapore in the early 1990s.  As punishment, poor Mikey got caned on his backside by the Singapore authorities.

 

Here's the ever-clever Randy Newman singing It's Money That Matters.

 

From what I understand, writing graffiti in Singapore is really stupid because it's a very dogmatic country.  Singapore even outlaws chewing gum because people there might step on a discarded Juicy Fruit.  Then there are the urine detectors installed in the Singapore elevators that sound a loud alarm if anyone should happen to pee while riding up to the 5th floor (gee, I guess I shouldn't ever visit Singapore).

 

Anyway, after Michael Fay and his sorry behind returned to the U.S., Mark had read that he got a job at the Sam Goody's record store in the Mall of America, so Mark and I dropped by to say "hi" back in 1995.  Unfortunately, though, Michael wasn't working that day.  He was probably writing graffiti in the parking garage.  Or maybe chewing some gum.  Or peeing in an elevator.

 

Above:  The Mall contains the largest indoor theme park in America with roller coasters, water rides, and a huge Snoopy balloon.  As Charlie Brown might say, "Good grief!"

The Mall of America is arranged in a giant circle that covers 78 acres and has 520 stores on three and, in some places, four levels.  As if all the screaming stores weren't enough over-stimulation, there's a seven-acre theme park in the middle, the largest indoor theme park in the nation.  The theme park, Camp Snoopy I think it's called, has 26 rides including a roller-coaster and a water-flume, a 6,000 square-foot LegoLand play area, a two-story miniature golf course and giant balloons of Peanuts characters, including Snoopy (needless to say, my respect for Charles Schulz took a big hit).  Both fascinated and disgusted, I spent an hour walking completely around the mall, and in a daze from all the blatant capitalism, staggered my way to the exit.

 

In a lot of ways, the Mall of America reminded me of Las Vegas:  there's lots of noise and excitement, there aren't any clocks so you can't tell what time it is, and it's primarily designed to separate visitors from their money.  My visit to the Mall was intriguing, but an hour in this place was all I could tolerate so, with my senses on "overload" and feeling suffocated, I returned to the parking lot and drove off.  All without spending a penny.  And without peeing in an elevator.

 

       

Above left:  I escaped from the Mall of America after an hour, without spending a penny. 

Above center:  This is from the same vantage point, panning to the right.  The mall is fascinating place for some people, perhaps, but get me outta here!

Above right:  Before leaving Mark and Jayne's house, I got my truck ready for my trip back to the Northwest.  That's my 12" subwoofer on the floor, a DC-AC inverter in my cigarette lighter that I use to charge my laptop and camera batteries, and my MP3 receiver.  I mounted a 200-watt amplifier behind the seat and recently installed custom-fitted seat covers.  Looks nice, huh?

 

   

Above left:  My wonderful six-and-a-half foot bed, complete with a four-inch thick foam pad to sleep on.  In the corner are drapes that I made for the windows.  And I installed four speakers in the back (the more, the merrier).

Above right:  Here's my truck's padlocked strongbox, which I made out of 3/4" plywood.  This is where I keep my laptop, camera and other valuables locked up when I'm not carrying them.  I bolted the box to the bed so it can't be lifted out. 

The Dakota Uprising

The weather was cool and rainy as I left the Mall of America that morning heading west.  My destination was the small town of Windom in southwestern Minnesota, because my grandfather (my mother's father) had been born there in the 1890s and I wanted to see it.  I had never been to Windom and, honestly, didn't know much about my grandfather -- or his father -- or HIS father, all of whom lived in the Windom area in the 1890s and all of whom died many years before I was born, so I hoped to do some family research there.  

 

Above:  Little Crow was a Sioux warrior who led the Dakota Uprising of 1862 in southern Minnesota.  The uprising was in retaliation for the U.S. Government's failure to abide by a treaty, which had promised food distributions to the Sioux.

On my way to Windom, I stopped in the pleasant town of New Ulm, settled in 1854 by German immigrants (I'm just guessing here, but they were probably from Ulm).  New Ulm is also one of the oldest towns in southern Minnesota and, interestingly, is one of the few towns in America that was sacked by Indians during the Indian wars of the 1800s. 

 

Back in the early 1860s, the Sioux Indians, or "Dakota" as they call themselves, were angry that the American government had failed to live up to their promises of an earlier treaty.  The Sioux had moved onto a reservation, as they promised, but the U.S. government failed to uphold their part of the deal by not providing them with food and provisions.  It's the same sad story that was repeated in every part of the American West during the 1800s, with the American government failing to fulfill its promises to the Indians.

 

By 1862, much of the U.S. Army had been sent east to fight in the Civil War.  Realizing this, the angry Dakota Indians staged an uprising, killing homesteaders throughout southern Minnesota, including many in New Ulm.  The town's residents retreated to Mankato, abandoning New Ulm to the Dakota Indians who burned down most of it.  However, the settlers returned a few months later, after the uprising had been suppressed, and rebuilt New Ulm into a beautiful town, which it remains today.

 

I had read about the Dakota Uprising in the book, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" when I was a kid.  The story about the uprising captivated me and ever since I've wanted to see New Ulm.  As I discovered, it's a wonderfully quaint town and has a lot of charming, old buildings.  I spent an hour visiting the New Ulm Museum, learning more about the uprising, then I headed to a nearby state park along the Cottonwood River late in the afternoon, where I camped for the evening.  And in honor of the German settlers, I even cooked up some bratwurst for dinner.  But then I do that every night.

 

   

Above left:  After surviving the Mall of America, I headed south.  This is a bank in St. Peter, Minnesota that apparently also serves pizza (and "chickin"wings).

Above right:  During the Dakota Uprising, the Sioux sacked the town of New Ulm, Minnesota.  New Ulm recovered, though, and today is a prosperous and beautiful town.

 

   

Above left:  An old gas station in New Ulm with 15 cents-a-gallon gasoline.  Fill 'er up!

Above right:  Many small towns in the Midwest have quaint, humorous celebrations, like Buttered Corn Day in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota.  But it's August 16-19, so shouldn't it be Buttered Corn DAYS?

The McCone "Soddies"

The next day was sunny and beautiful, and I continued heading west across southern Minnesota, driving by countless fields of corn, alfalfa, and soybeans, all quite bucolic and exceptionally scenic.  Shortly after noon, as I approached the small town of Sanborn, I pulled off the two-lane highway and drove about a mile down a dirt road to visit some sod houses that, according to my AAA TourBook, were built there recently.

 

I'm intrigued with sod houses partly because my mother once told me that her great-grandparents, who had emigrated from Norway and Germany to the U.S., lived in sod houses in Minnesota and South Dakota in the late 1800s.  I'd seen lots of pictures of sod houses but had never been inside one.

 

Above:  A Little (sod) House on the Prairie.  This is at the McCone Sod House exhibit in southern Minnesota.

Following the signs, I pulled into the empty driveway of a spacious farmhouse, then a pleasant woman named Virginia McCone came out and introduced herself.  She had apparently been baking cinnamon buns because the sweet smell wafted out onto the porch as we talked.  A few minutes later, her genial husband, Stan, emerged from the house and I told them that I was heading to nearby Windom to see what I could learn about my great-great-grandparents, who had homesteaded near there in the 1800s.  (For information on homesteading, see my page on The 1862 Homestead Act).

 

Stan and Virginia told me that they had farmed this land for many years and are interested in preserving pioneer heritage, and so, needless to say, I felt an instant rapport with them.  Sort of like in the movie "Field of Dreams," Stan plowed under part of his cornfield a while ago and planted a tall-grass prairie with grasses that are almost entirely extinct now in Minnesota, thus recreating the landscape of the mid-1800s.  He also built several sod houses on his farm a few years ago, one of which is a cozy bed-and-breakfast with wooden floors and a wooden ceiling.

 

As I walked through the sod houses on the McCone farm, I learned a lot about "soddies," as they were called (not to be confused with Saudis, few of whom, I'm pretty sure, ever homesteaded in Minnesota).  For instance, over a million sod houses once dotted the treeless plains of the Midwest during the late 1800s.  Most homesteaders in this area built sod houses because wood was expensive and scarce, which is hard to imagine today because of all the trees here.  However, there were fewer trees back in those days because of the frequent prairie fires that swept through the area, which today, of course, are suppressed.

 

Above:  The inside of a sod house on the McCone farm.  This one has been restored to how it might have looked in the 1800s.  My great-great-grandparents, recently arriving in this area from Germany in the 1870s, lived in one that probably looked like this.

"Sod" is the several inches of grass and roots that lay above the soil.  To build a soddy, homesteaders cut three-foot long blocks of sod, then stacked them on top of each other, placing them upside-down for better cohesion.  Based on most accounts that I've read, sod houses were fairly snug and comfortable, despite their dirt floors.  Indeed, the thick sod walls provided excellent insulation against the bitterly cold Midwestern winters. 

 

The main problem with a soddy, however, was that the roof tended to leak during heavy rainstorms.  Also, soddies were often dark inside, since window glass was a rare commodity on the prairie frontier.  Another problem was that foreign objects, such as clumps of dirt, strands of grass, or various insects, tended to drop from the ceiling and land on the occupants heads or onto their plates of bratwurst (if the settlers were German) or lutefisk (if they were Norwegian).  (For those non-Norwegians, you can read about this delicacy on my lutefisk page).  Sadly, almost all the sod houses eventually melted back into the earth and today the only soddies standing are ones such as these that have been reconstructed.

 

As I walked through the fascinating McCone sod houses, I envisioned my great-great-grandparents living in sod houses such as these while they homesteaded near here in the late 1800s.  It'll be a while before I complain again about my microwave dinner taking five minutes to cook.

 

The McCone sod houses and tall-grass prairie were fascinating and I spent over an hour here.  If you want a real taste of the pioneer homesteading experience -- not to mention one of Virginia's delicious cinnamon buns -- and want to better appreciate the modern conveniences that we all take for granted, drop by the McCone farm near Sanborn, Minnesota.  And don't forget your lutefisk.

 

   

Above left:  Stan McCone recently built several sod houses on his farm here, near Sanborn, Minnesota.  They were featured a while ago on the History Channel.  I talked to Stan and his wife, Virginia.  They're both nice folks and are interested in preserving the pioneering heritage.  Best of luck to you!

Above right:  Imagine cooking on this wood stove.  But there's no wood out here, so instead the pioneers burned cow patties.  And a glass window was a rare and precious commodity back then.  Many sod houses used oiled paper, instead.

 

   

Above left:  This sod house on the McCone farm is also a bed-and-breakfast.  Stan has also restored the prairie here, planting native grasses on several acres.

Above right:  Inside the bed-and-breakfast sod house.  It had a large bed, wooden floors, and a wooden ceiling.  Actually it looks quite comfortable.

The Land at Eden's Gate

Above:  My great-grandfather, Henry Rasche Jr. in 1890.  Henry was born in Germany, emigrated with his parents to Minnesota, then married and moved his family to Regan, North Dakota in 1907 and homesteaded there.  After a life of hard work, he died penniless in 1955 at age 88.

If you've been following my website, you know that one reason I decided to take this trip was to do family research around America and to learn more about where I came from, something I'm doing not just for myself, of course, but for everyone in my family.  Up to this point, all of the ancestors that I've researched on this trip have been on my dad's side and, more specifically, on my dad's mother's side, including the Bradstreets and Chaplins in Massachusetts and the Myers' in Michigan (see My Dad's Ancestors:  Map and Photo Essay).  It was now time to shift gears and start researching my mother's side of the family.

 

My mother passed away in 1999 and never talked much about her ancestors.  She had told me a few things over the years, here and there, but not too much.  Therefore, after she died I spent a lot of time at my home in Portland doing online research, trying to learn more about her family's story.

 

My dad's ancestors, as I described earlier, were among the earliest settlers of America, arriving in New England in the early 1600s.  But all of my mother's ancestors came to America from northern Europe in the late 1800s and homesteaded on the Great Plains (see My Mom's Ancestors:  Map and Photo Essay).  Her father's ancestors came from Germany and Norway in the 1870s and homesteaded near Windom, Minnesota, which is why I was here.  After leaving Windom, I was planning to drive to South Dakota, where her mother's ancestors, from Norway, had homesteaded in the 1880s.  Both families then moved to North Dakota around 1900, where my grandfather met my grandmother.

 

To my knowledge, I didn't have any relatives left in Minnesota or South Dakota, and perhaps none in North Dakota.  Like I say, my mother never talked much about her family's history so this would be a real learning experience for me, as well as for my siblings and their kids.  I wanted to document my mother's family history as best I could, not only for myself but, more importantly, for future generations in my family.

 

Above:  Henry's wife and my great-grandmother, Petrina Blege emigrated from Norway in the 1880s with her parents when she was about 20.  She suffered from thrombosis and in 1927 doctors wanted to amputate her leg.  Petrina refused and died shortly afterwards, at age 61 in Regan, North Dakota.

I spent two days in the Windom, Minnesota area, mostly at the Cottonwood County Historical Society.  There, with the help of two delightful ladies, Bethene and Erma, I discovered several old plat maps of this area showing where my great-great-grandfather, Henry Rasche and his wife Carolina, had homesteaded in the 1870s after they emigrated from Hanover, Germany.  I also learned that my great-uncle, Gustav Rasche, was apparently known throughout Minnesota at one time as "Mr. Alfalfa" because of scientific research he had done -- though I'm not sure if he was proud of that nickname!

 

After spending a couple days in Windom, I drove out one afternoon to find my great-great-grandfather Henry's old farm, which, according to the hundred-year-old plat maps I had, was located just north of town.  I didn't know if there would be anything left there or not, since he died nearly 100 years ago, but I wanted to see the homestead anyway.  Well-stocked with copies of the old maps, I drove down several dirt roads while passing endless fields of corn and beans and, after making a few U-turns, I finally found his farm.

 

There were a few old buildings on Henry's farm, some in nice condition, but no one was around.  It was obvious from the well-kept farmhouse, though, that someone was living there.  An old, red barn stood a few yards away with the date of "1893" painted on the front in large, white faded letters.  Henry had lived here from 1879 until his death in 1910, so I knew he had built the barn.  I was excited to see this old relic, which was part of my heritage.  Of course, I never knew Henry or his son, Henry Jr., or even HIS son, Edward, who was my grandfather, because all of them had died long before I was born.  But it was a thrill nonetheless.

 

As I was walking outside of the empty barn, two farmers about my age stopped as they were driving by, having seen my truck parked there.  I introduced myself and explained that I was an ancestor of Henry Rasche.  They were interested in my story, introduced themselves as Mike and Roger, and we shook hands.  After a while, they opened up Henry's old barn for me and let me walk around inside.  As we talked, I discovered that Mike was a distant relative of mine, the only relative that I knew of in the state of Minnesota.  After a half-hour, Mike invited me back to his farm and the three of us relaxed in his dining room and shared family stories, kind of like an impromptu family reunion.

 

I learned a lot about my ancestors that day, and about the kindness of Midwesterners.

 

 
 

The Trail Band is the best thing to come out of Oregon since Henry Weinhard's beer.  Here's The Land at Eden's Gate, a tribute to the American pioneers of the 1800s.

 

The Land at Eden's Gate

There's a garden God is tending, where the fields are green and deep

With a harvest never-ending there, by waters cool and sweet

There a man can lay his burdens down, there a man can live in grace,

Oh, I hope I see before I die, The Land at Eden's Gate.

 

Oh, the morning sky has broken, like the dawn at Eden's birth

And it lights the pine and meadowlark, and shines on God's great work

Oh, I'm leaving now and won't be back, won't you come with me this day,

Oh, I hope I see before I die, The Land at Eden's Gate.

Oh, The Land at Eden's Gate.

 

May the children of your children, see the wild, rare primrose grow

Hear the gentle rain a-falling down, among these ancient groves

Oh, may angels watch it evermore, and protect its perfect state,

Oh, I pray they see before they die, The Land at Eden's Gate

I pray they see before they die, The Land at Eden's Gate.

 

 

 

       

Above left:  Cooking brats (as in bratwurst) on the prairie in southern Minnesota, just as my German ancestors had probably done a hundred years earlier.

Above center:  The Cottonwood County Courthouse in Windom, Minnesota.  My great-grandfather, Henry C. Rasche (Henry Jr. -- see portrait above) and my great-grandmother, Petrina, were married here in 1890.

Above right:  I spent two days in the Cottonwood County Historical Society and learned that Henry's father, Henry Sr., had homesteaded here in the 1870s after emigrating from Germany.  Bethene and Erma, shown here, were a great help.

 

   

Above left:  After studying plat maps from the 1890s, I learned where Henry Sr.'s farm was, so I drove out to it.  The barn had the date "1893" painted on it, so I knew Henry had built it, since he lived here from 1879 until 1910, the year he died.

Above right:  The inside of Henry's barn.  I was so thrilled to find this barn that I had goosebumps.

 

   

Above left:  The farmland on the right was where my great-grandmother, Petrina Blege (see portrait above), had lived with her parents in the late 1800s.  Many farm roads in the Midwest are laid out in a grid pattern and are spaced exactly one mile apart.  There aren't many landmarks around, so to navigate you need to watch your odometer.

Above right:  After walking through the Westbrook Cemetery, I found the gravestone (in dark gray) of Henry Rasche Sr. and his wife, Carolina, who both died around 1910.  As I learned, Henry and Carolina were from Hanover, Germany and emigrated to America in 1873 with seven children, including Henry Jr. (see portrait above).

 


 

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