The Mother of Big Stone County

Anna Bolsta

Anna Bolsta

When Anna Christine Bolsta, my great-great grandmother, died in 1927 at the age of eighty-six, her son, Alfred Leonadis Bolsta, wrote this tribute to her. It’s a revealing portrait of the unimaginably hardscrabble life of a pioneer woman who birthed ten children and was the very epitome of selfless service.

PROLOGUE: Ole Bolsta was a blacksmith, having learned the trade from his father in Norway. Ole had come to the United States in 1862 at the age of twenty-one. He met and married Anna in St. Peter and had two sons with her there to join the two daughters Anna had from a previous marriage. In April 1869, Ole and three other men left St. Peter, Minnesota, and headed west on the old Brown’s Trail looking for “wood and water.” They found both in Artichoke Township. Ole walked the 110 miles back to St. Peter, and in June 1869, brought his young wife and four children to Artichoke in an oxen-drawn covered wagon.

Alfred Leonadis Bolsta’s tribute to his mother, Anna Christine Bolsta, following her death on March 23, 1927

After nearly fourscore years and ten, of a life of struggle and sacrifice, thrift and economy through fearsome necessity, the tired body of the mother of Big Stone County lies in peace and rest in her last earthly resting place, in the Ortonville cemetery, not twenty miles from the spot where her then tireless feet first touched the green sod of the virgin soil of Big Stone County fifty-eight years ago.

Anna Christine Bolsta was the ‘first white settler” of Big Stone County and while her life’s story is written with honorable mention in gold upon the pure white page of the scroll of Heaven, her passing, with scarce a mention of tribute, tore terribly at penitent hearts suffering in poignant bereavement and brought tears and sadness to a few friends. With some others their tears and sadness were deceit and mockery—things hated loathingly to the depth of the great, forgiving heart and understanding soul of the mother of Big Stone County.

She sleeps today—at rest—free from strife, worry, heartaches and pain, under the green sod in the clean, sweet, purifying earth of the county she loved, and on the little mound above her are many beautiful flowers, of which, if she could speak to us, she would say, ‘They are beautiful, but there are so many I wish you would put them on the other graves—just leave me that little geranium.”

The ebb-tide of her life of human adventure, such as few women have ever known, reached slowly through the rough breakers of discomfort and suffering toward the sublime beauty of the setting sun which heralds a refuge of peace and rest, just beyond the bar of the Great Adventure. And in that final travail of moral dissolution which she was well aware of, her thoughts were, as always, for the welfare of others, and she said, “I am sorry you have to bother about me, but it won’t be long now.” Then she gave direction, disposing of some of her personal effects, which she knew well were of little cash value, but hoped that they would “do someone some good.”

Thus has passed into the great unknown a great but humble soul.

Ole Bolsta

Ole Bolsta

Anna Wilson was born in Norway and came to America in the “steerage” of a sailing vessel which completed the voyage in just eleven weeks. She married Ole Bolsta, a young blacksmith, at St. Peter, Minnesota, and in 1869, with her husband and four children, came to Big Stone County and “settle” in the township of Artichoke.
[NOTE: The four children included Anna’s two daughters from a previous marriage: Annie Mathilda Schroder, born February 12, 1859; Josephine F. Schroder, born March 8, 1861; and Anna’s two children with Ole: Hartley, born March 12, 1866; and William, born February 8, 1868.]

“Settled in the township of Artichoke” is so simply stated that the tragedy of the accomplishment may not be thought of; therefore, imagine if you can, a team of oxen yoked to a covered wagon straining with “might and main” into the cruel yoke and plodding at a snail pace, even at the urge of man’s command and biting whip, and the tedious, tortuous and dangerous “traveling” of a man, a woman and four small children from St. Peter, Minnesota into the unknown wilderness, the domain of the savage Sioux Indians, three years before the great Minnesota Indian massacre which took place almost at the doorstep from which they started.

It was a “wet” season with every stream, slough and lake full and “running over.” The oxen wallowed belly deep in the mud. The wagon box, which was constructed for the purpose—water tight—was used as a boat when necessary, and after the human cargo had been safely landed across the streams, many return trips were necessary to dismantle the wagon, load the parts into the boat, and finally assemble it again on the opposite shore. The oxen, of course, were made to swim across.

The continuous stress and tremendous toil for the month’s time it required to make that trip of 110 miles was a body-breaking struggle for the man, but the appalling conditions of endless mud, the bitter penetrating cold of ink-black night, the heavy, noisome fogs that clung to the wet ground, the strain and stress of continuous travel, the nerve-wracking repression of the fear of Indians, the worry over the final outcome of the journey, the fear for the health of her family, and the mothering of her tired, fretful and inconsolable children was for the woman a frightful torture.

Poverty stalked grimly along with these hardy adventurers. The supplies of flour, beans, salt-pork, salt and very little else were pitifully small, but the clothing, while cheap, was sufficient. There were neither toys nor candy for the children. The babies were fed food that had been masticated for them by their mother and cut their teeth on pork rinds. As soon as the children were able to walk they began to work.

Alfred Bolsta

Alfred Leonadis Bolsta

The little log house—one room—was built on the west shore of Artichoke Lake eighty-eight years ago, and there the mother of Big Stone County “settled.” Her third son, John E. Bolsta, of Grand Island, Nebraska, was born in April 1870, and he was the first white child born in Big Stone County.

Many of the other “early settlers” stopped at the Bolsta place before they went to “take” their homesteads. They were all given such hospitality as could be given them and none were ever charged for food or shelter. Sleeping accommodations were any unoccupied place on the hewn log floor.

Fortunately, nature was kind to this brave mother and her family. A good sod roof covered the little cabin and t he logs were “chinked” with an abundance of blue clay. Wood was plentiful for all purposes, including a bed, table, a bench and broom made of willow twigs. The lakes and streams were alive with fish, and countless geese, brant [geese] and ducks were everywhere. Fur-bearing animals were abundant. A few deer and antelope and an elk were seen near Artichoke Lake in 1869.

Wheat and rutabagas were the first “crops” sown and harvested in Big Stone County. The wheat was cut with a scythe and threshed on the ice with a flail. It was ground for food in a coffee mill, and usually made into unleavened “flatbread” baked on the stove top. Coffee was bought green and roasted in a covered iron pan on the same top of the little wood stove. Milk from an old scrub cow supplied the family with skim milk and butter. Sugar was a luxury and unknown in that household. Dried applesauce—unsweetened—was a very rare treat. A tin cup of goose-grease that contained a “rag” which extended over the edge as a wick was the lamp which gave the occasionally needed light in the little cabin. All the clothing for the family was made by Mrs. Bolsta, everything from fur caps and straw hats to sack-cloth moccasins and rawhide sandals. The soap used, for all purposes, was made from wood ashes and scraps of fat saved for the purpose.

From the utter poverty of those pioneering days their living conditions improved slowly, but nine children had been brought into the world by this mother and her cares and efforts were greater than ever. Sickness or accidents were terrifying because no doctor could be reached without a week’s travel. Three of her sons were born on that farm with the nearest doctor forty miles away.
[NOTE: The first five of Ole and Anna’s children to be born in Big Stone County were John E., born April 29, 1870; Charles, born June 15, 1872; Alfred Leonadis, born October 11, 1874; and twins Clara Olivia and Annie Othelia, born January 15, 1878.]

The five sons of Ole and Anna Bolsta

The five sons of Ole and Anna Bolsta

But as the “settlers” increased and Ortonville came into being, these conditions finally gave way to reasonable comforts and mediocrity. The family moved from the farm to Ortonville and lived in the luxury obtainable through the salary of from fifty to one hundred dollars a month which Mr. Bolsta received as the County Treasurer of Big Stone County. Another daughter [Clara Annetta, born August 24, 1880] was born in Ortonville.

A quarter of a century has passed since that time and death had taken from her her four daughters, her husband and one son.

Hers was a life of sacrifice and service. Money meant nothing to her except to obtain the actual necessities of life for herself and to give comfort to someone else. The remaining gross asset from the fifty-eight years of her exceeding struggle and economy in Big Stone County is the little old home in Ortonville in which there are few modern conveniences: no heating plant, no polished floors, no washing machine, no bathroom, no rugs, no vacuum cleaner, no radio, and at eighty-seven years of age Mrs. Bolsta was living alone in that little home.

Ella Bolsta, her daughter-in-law, deserves high praise for the tender love and kindness shown her, and her continuous sympathetic efforts for her welfare.

Anna Christine Bolsta belonged to no clubs or societies; she was not “smart” enough, and did not want to be. She had no time to spend that way; she was too busy mothering ten children, nor had she the money to pay for memberships and dues or for the clothes to make her presentable and acceptable. In her fifty-eight years of residence in Big Stone County, a total sum of $10 per year was not spent by her for clothing for herself. Her acquaintances and friends were few because necessity had limited them to those who could think and understand and were not ashamed of her toil-worn hands and homemade calico dress.

Thus was the life of the Mother of Big Stone County, Minnesota. The facts are given frankly and simply, because that was her way and because she was my mother; wondrous, faithful, loving and forgiving Mother O’ Mine.

Ole and Anna Bolsta with son Charles and daughter Clara

Ole and Anna Bolsta with son Charles and daughter Clara

Click here to see all my posts featuring my parents and grandparents.


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