Crowded conditions, poverty and rigid discipline induced many people in Norway to immigrate to the United States; they saw it as a land of opportunity. It meant that they had to save what they could in order to book passage to the New World and buy enough food to get them through the arduous trip. It was a sad occasion leaving family members behind, many of whom they probably would never see again. They took whatever clothing they could on the trip, hoping it would last until they could find work. They faced unknown dangers in the New World.
Once they landed, arrangements were made for them to travel westward. They rode trains, got boat rides on big rivers and the Great Lakes, and worked across country. They also encountered people who cheated them.
By the 1840s, the Norwegian immigrants were arriving in Wisconsin. Many came to Rock Prairie, where they had relatives, but they found that the government ground had already been taken, which left Iowa as a likely spot.
Those who came to Allamakee County did so accidentally. In October 1849, Ole Larson, Ole O. Storla, Svend Hesla and Nels Roe left their relatives in Rock County and began their long walk to find a spot. They originally intended to visit the area south of the Turkey River settlement in Clayton County. As they traveled across the Mississippi River, the operator of the ferry between Prairie du Chien and McGregor advised them to go to Allamakee County.
After landing where Paint Creek emptied into the Mississippi River, they were advised to go westward on an Indian trail along the creek. They followed the creek to a place the Indians called Big Springs. This was the site of Waukon, the county seat. They hesitated and went back to spots where markets were being built.
Fewer than nine miles from the Mississippi River, Hesla found a sparkling spring; this looked to him like a logical place to homestead. It happened to be the center of Paint Creek Township. One-half mile southeast, Hesla found another spring for Erick Kittelson, a friend who hadn't come with them.
Two miles north, another spring was found to satisfy Ole O. Storla. Roe and Larson wanted to be closer to the Mississippi River, so they settled in Taylor Township. These men were accustomed to the hilly areas of Norway.
They returned to Wisconsin and pointed out the advantages of their finds. On May 8, 1850, eight settlers and their families set out from Rock Prairie to Paint Creek, driving their cattle and hogs ahead of them. They crossed the Mississippi River on a ferry operated by a horse. They went westward along the Yellow River until they found a natural bridge at Monona.
The distance was about 130 miles, and it took 21 days to cover. After the third group arrived and felt they were there to stay, they organized a church and school. The church is still in operation, but the school was closed and removed. A consolidated school was built in 1922-1923.
Crude, primitive shelters and wagons served as parlor, kitchen and dormitories. Shelters were composed of crutches from trees, with poles laid on the ends. They used elm ends and bark to keep the rains out. There were no doors. One man converted a hollow basswood tree, stuffed it with hay and crawled inside. He used a knothole for ventilation.
Soon log houses were built and roofed with birch bark and turf.
Food was simple, but plentiful. Coffee and brown sugar had to be bought. Salt pork, salt beef and other meat were made into dried beef and sausage. They made bread from their own wheat, corn meal cake, mush, lefse and later, sorghum.
Water came from springs, and sheep wool was woven into yarn. This would be knit into clothing.
Cattle grazed. Prairie grass was as high as a man. They made rail fences; it took 4,480 rails and 1,500 stakes to fence 40 acres. This represented a lot of work. Some fences were also built of smooth rocks. These were permanent.
Wolves, foxes and wildcats – plus a few skunks – were plentiful; strychnine exterminated them. Prairie hens, quail and pheasants provided a variety of meat. The streams had plenty of fish.
Oxen were used for transportation and field work.
Grain was seeded by hand. Later a three-shovel cultivator was bought. Harrows were made by using two logs, fastened at one end with iron pegs about 10 inches apart. Hay was cut with a scythe. Grain bundles were tied by hand.
As time went on the families prospered. They built log houses, which were sided and later enlarged. They were hard-working religious people. Many of their descendants still live in northeast Iowa.
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.