The life and times of J. M. Femrite, pt. 2

Some years ago I wrote about my maternal great-grandfather, John Martinus Femrite. The post was titled “What ever happened to John Femrite’s land and cattle?”

The other week I decided that I would dig further into this family mystery. I went back to the Lac Qui Parle County Historical Society (LQP) archives in Madison, Minnesota for more research into my my great-grandfather’s past.

All of my mother’s people lived in very close proximity to each other in Madison and Hamlin Townships in Lac Qui Parle County in western Minnesota, although I don’t know if the two sides were acquainted before my grandparents, Hiram Femrite and Josie Tryggeseth, got married. The Femrite’s social sphere was in Madison and the Tryggeseth’s and Lindseth’s was in Dawson, Minnesota, about 13 miles southeast of Madison.

As I wrote in my earlier post, John Femrite quit farming sometime after my grandfather Hiram graduated from high school in 1916 and moved his family to Minneapolis. The 1920 Federal Census data is quite clear on that fact. They took up residence at 2724 Chowen Avenue South. What I have never known was when exactly this happened and, more importantly, why?

I made a phone call to the LQP Museum and asked curator Barb Redepenning if she could help answer my questions. I told her about John’s change of fortune and his migration from rural Lac Qui Parle County to Minneapolis and said that I was planning to visit later in the week for a couple days of research.

When I arrived, Barb showed me an index reference she found for John Femrite in the September 19, 1919 issue of The Western Guard newspaper, the weekly paper in Madison. It turned out to be a large advertisement for an imminent auction of John’s livestock and farm implements. From the size of the listing, it looked like he was liquidating much of his business, maybe all of it.

There were manure spreaders, plows, cultivators, harnesses, scales, nine horses, 80 pigs, 300 chickens, and on and on. This wasn’t an estate sale, but the contents of a working farm during harvest season.

The discovery was both satisfying (for a genealogist) and extremely bittersweet. I now knew part of the truth about a family secret that has been in hiding for over a century. I doubt if my mother ever knew about these details. She always told me that her father never wanted to talk about that time in his life and he didn’t. This new-found fact, of course, only led to more questions. I now knew at least part of “what” happened and “when” it occurred, but not why.

The next morning I spent an equal amount of time at the Lac Qui Parle Courthouse looking through real estate transactions and uncovered additional details and layers of the story after the move to Minneapolis in 1920. Then I went back to the LQP Museum and dug more deeply into the newspaper morgue.

I paged through every issue of the paper from September 1919 to December 1920. There were articles on individual and family status changes in the community in each edition, but I couldn’t found anything enlightening about the Femrites in those volumes. No story with a headline on the order of “Farewell to the Femrites: Best of Luck in the Big City!”

It occurred to me that if I started at the beginning of1919 and paged through all the issues of the year prior to the September auction, I might find other relevant evidence.

The first item I found was another advertisement from an issue of the Western Guard in early May 1919. This one was much more positive and hopeful which was confusing to me.

It was an ad in which J. M. Femrite wrote glowingly of his Pure-Bred Aberdeen Angus bulls. “Don’t be satisfied with merely cattle critters, but let your valuable pastures and feed be fed to stock that will give you the best returns.” Does this sound like an enterprise that will be put up for auction in just four months? On first glance, it didn’t to me. However, maybe John had already decided to wind down his operation and he started with his livestock. If a person wasn’t going to raise cattle any longer, he wouldn’t need his bulls. And if he wasn’t selling them at auction, he’d likely get a better price.

I was still wondering what caused my great-grandfather to move from selling his prize bulls to auctioning off his whole business? I may have found the answer in the June 27, 1919 issue of the Western Guard.

If you didn’t have/take the time to read the article shown above, I’ll fill in some details. The article describes a storm that hit the region on the previous Saturday night, June 21, 1919. The storm contained epic amounts of rainfall, high winds and dangerous lightning. The sub-headline called it “the Worst Calamity Ever Experienced in the County”. Fields were flooded “to the depth of several feet” from the six- to-twelve-inch rain event. “Madison and the towns west of here as far as Watertown (ed. note: South Dakota) have been shut off from the rest of the world on account of washouts of the railroad track” according to the news account. It went on, “Between Dawson and Madison considerable of the road bed was washed out”. The Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad line went right through part of the Femrite property so it’s safe to say that at least some of John’s crop land was flooded.

After I returned home from my two-day visit to Madison, further research led to evidence that the entire 1919 growing season in the Minnesota River Valley was problematic. Rainfall was frequent with correspondingly high river levels. Severe weather was not limited to that single Saturday night. In fact, the afternoon following the Lac Qui Parle storm, in Fergus Falls, Minnesota (100 miles NE of Madison), an F5 tornado devastated the town and killed 57 people, the second deadliest tornado in Minnesota history.

 It would not be out of the question to suppose that my great-grandfather had had enough of farming. I don’t know that to be the case, but unless I find a long-lost diary entry or hear other anecdotal tales in the family, that’s probably what I’m going to assume.

As I said earlier, what I learned at the courthouse from following recorded real eastate transactions, there were financial pressures beyond bad weather that affected John Femrite, but I need to spend a little more time on that before I can come to any conclusions about how those may have affected his decisions. Stay tuned!


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