My mother’s grandfather, John Martinus Femrite, had a fascinating career trajectory. After graduating from Windom Institute in 1887, he began teaching in public schools in Lac Qui Parle County in western Minnesota. The book “History of Chippewa and Lac Qui Parle Counties Minnesota” (Moyer and Dale, 1916) says of John that he was “one of the most efficient and popular teachers of that period, his services being in great demand.” However, in 1901 he quit the teaching profession and went to work for Farmers State Bank.
It was during his two year stint in banking that John turned his attention to agriculture, hardly a common or predictable path from his beginnings as a successful school teacher. He began buying unimproved farms, making improvements and then selling them at a profit. In today’s real estate parlance he apparently was “flipping” farms.
Eventually, he began retaining some acreage and farming it himself. At the peak of his farming career, John owned 1,060 acres of land in western Minnesota and 310 acres in eastern North Dakota. Those were enormous holdings in the midwestern United States in the early 20th century. I haven’t found any information that will tell me how he acquired all of that land, but I know that he primarily used it for raising livestock, particularly cattle. He specialized in Aberdeen-Angus cattle and Duroc-Jersey hogs.
Sometime between 1915 and 1920 John sold or lost all of his land and livestock. My mother never told me the details of this enormous turn of events in the family, but on several occasions she shared with me the bitterness her father Hiram had toward his father. As in most farming families, Hiram was made to work hard on the farm as a young boy, but when he reached the age of maturity, he had nothing to show for it. My grandfather graduated from high school in 1916, but this was in the middle of the period when the family’s wealth and Hiram’s economic future was disappearing before his eyes.
I don’t know if John was swindled or made bad decisions and had to liquidate under duress. He may simply have had a run of extremely bad luck due to weather or illness in his herds. After all, these family events occurred during WWI and the influenza pandemic of 1918. Life was not easy for many people during that time. By 1920, as a direct result of their change in fortune, the John Femrite family had left rural Lac Qui Parle County and moved to Minneapolis.
I don’t have any information about my great-grandfather’s working life after leaving farming. I believe he went back into education, but I don’t know at what level he worked or what his position was. This spring I hope to spend some time at the Lac Qui Parle Historical Society going through their newspaper archives looking for evidence of land sales. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find some answers about John Femrite’s business transactions.