Paynesville Press - July 17, 2002

Community Perspective

Letters describe life in Paynesville 125 years ago

By Nancy Ellis

How does one measure progress? By newly paved roads? By the size of one's SUV? Does history matter?

In 1867 -125 years ago - a youth of 17 living in Massachusetts was told that teachers were needed in Minnesota. Being an adventurous and forward-looking person, he left his hometown and arrived in a Minnesota township organized that very year...Paynesville.

Excited about the farm he acquired, he sent reports of his life as a settler in Minnesota back to a friend in his old hometown.

My family treasures these letters. The following are excerpts from some of them:

He wrote, "You certainly could do better at farming here than in the east. I got me a farm of 170 acres, 160 prairie and 10 woodland. The woodland is some of the best in this part of the state. The prairie is also excellant. Not hardly a dozen stones on it.

"I wish you had been here to have supper with me last night. We had Roast Goose. They are as thick around here as the crows about. The ducks are thick also. We are going to have venison for dinner.

"There are a lot of Indians camped in Paynesville for the winter. They have regular Tepees to live in. I am going to have them make me a pair of moccasins to wear this winter. They make them for a dollar a pair.

"I have commenced me a library, have two books in it. 'Pilgrims Progress' and Holland's poem 'Kathrina.' It's a splendid poem. Have you ever read it?"

In 1870, he wrote, "A fellaw can't afford to be sick out here in this country this season, for money is so awful scarce. I haven't seen but about ten (dollars) in cash during the whole of the winter thus far: Still I worked steady all winter at paying my old debts. I have been at work getting out timber and plank for a bridge. I got only $1.50 per day for myself and team and board ourselves out of it. Times are the hardest here this winter that I ever saw them. Before this winter money was about as plenty and wages about as good as they were in Mass. The first months that I was here I earnt $240.00 working by the month. I saved $200.00 and paid it towards getting me a farm. It cost me only $40.00 for clothes, boots, shoes and spending money during the year. Wheat then was worth $1.00 per bushal. Now it is only 50 per bushal. I guess I'll clear about $175.00 before the first of April.

"I am fully convinced even during this tight pinch, that a young man can make more money a year and live on less than half that he could in the East. To be sure things are not quite as convenient and comfortable here as they are in the East, but every year brings us nearer to the manners and customes of the East.

"We have had a pretty good supply of snow this winter. In the woods it's about straddle deep on a man. The winter has been more mild than it was during the other two winters I put in in Minnesota. The coldest weather we have had thus far has been only thirty-six degrees below zero. We have had since I have been here some desperate cold weather, fifty degrees below being about the coldest."

In July 1871, he wrote, "I am in the woods at Minnesota Pineries about thirty miles from any person besides our crew which consists of ten fellaws, and about as jolly a crew of lazy men as can very often be found. About 30 miles from here is an old U.S. agency or Indian trading post and about five miles from there is our post office. Only three white men live there, the post master, store keeper and saloon keeper. The rest are Indians. I came here about the first of May with three other fellaws from Paynesville and calculate to stay here till about the first of December. We are getting $42.00 per month. Pretty good pay for this country.

"I put in 60 acres of wheat, oats and barley before I came here and hired a man to harvest and threash it for me."

On Nov. 3, 1872, he wrote, "I have taken a school for five months to commence next Wenesday morning. The same school I taught last summer and winter.

"By the way how are politics in your part of the country? Out here that is the whole sum and substance of the conversation nowdays. It's nothing but Grant and Greely all the time. Suppose that day after tomorrow will decide which of these illustrious gentlemen will rule our great and glorious community for the next four years.

"Thank you for the flower seeds you sent. We had a splendid assortment of flowers this summer. I tell you this country can not be beat for such things, if one has a mind to take an interest in them.

"The young men of our town have just been getting up a brass band, your humble servant among the rest. I commenced with playing the snare drum, but exchanged it for one of the instruments and am learning another fellaw to play the drum.

"Our baseball club has done but poorly this summer as three or four of our best players have been gone all summer.

"Business is commencing to be lively, expect it to be a great deal more after the election."

On Feb. 19, 1875, he wrote, "Since Christmas it has been between 25 and 45 degress below zero. Many cattle are dieing. I have only lost one head as yet.

"Next Monday eve there is to be a gradn celebration in honor of the birth of George Washington. The Paynesville Cornet Band is to open the entertainment. One of the members of said group, me, plays the B flat cornet.

"I have been trying everything during the past few years that I could think of to make money even to Town Clerking. Have been town clerk for two years, is not a very good paying office yet you know that every little helps.

"What is grain worth with you this winter? There is scarcely any barley to be sold. What there is is bringing a good sound price. So much so that next year everyone will go raising it and then it will not be worth any price at all.

"Potatoes are all frozen. I think we shall have to go without or eat them frozen.

"Do you do any hunting these years? If you want some good hunting just come out here next fall about the first of September and stay till New Years and I will warrant that you will find hunting the likes of which you never saw before in your life. I have just bought me a splendid barrel shot gun that is warranted to kill every time no matter how far off the game is that I'm shooting at. Even if it is as far as you are I believe I could hit your old rooster from my southeast door. Anyway you hold him out some fine morning and I will give him a trial."

Yours truly,
A.E. Bugbee

Albert E. Bugbee was my grandfather. He lived in Paynesville for nearly 50 years. When he acquired his farm of 170 acres only ten acres had been broken. Later he purchased 80 acres, where the Paynesville Area Elementary School and the city park now stand.

My grandfather was the clerk of Paynesville for 43 years and also treasurer of the school board for a time. In 1873 he married Janet Haines, who also came to Paynesville in 1867. They had six children. The youngest, Lura, was my mother.

Many times I think about what it must have been like in my grandfather's time and, though times were tough, what he accomplished here through hard work and love of the area.

I see the nice park in town and I'm so glad my grandfather saw the need for a park and gave Paynesville the land for one.

Yes, history does matter! It helps form where and what we are today. "He who careth not from whence he cometh; careth not whither he goeth."

Ellis is a seasonal resident of Lake Koronis and a member of the city's park committee.

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