OWEN OLE THOE, that was my Grampa's name, died sometime before noon on Oct. 30 of last year on the same North Dakota farm where he was born 87 1/2 years before. He woke up to a sunny, cold day, fixed his own breakfast, put on his galoshes and green nylon parka and went out behind the barn to feed his cows. Beside a haystack, he collapsed. His parka snagged on a fencepost that held him on his feet. When my cousin Randy found him, Grampa's lips were starting to turn blue.
My parents, my two sisters and I flew in from both sides of the country for the funeral in Fordville, N.D. (pop. 300). Grampa had hardly ever been sick in his life, and he died quickly, without suffering or inconveniencing others. So I expected a funeral with few tears -- a ceremony to celebrate the long life of a good man. It didn't occur to me that some of the people of Fordville, including my own relatives, didn't think Grampa was a particularly good man.
There was only a hint at first. The Lutheran pastor who conducted the funeral kept repeating, "We all know that Owen wasn't perfect." Then, on the night of the funeral, only seven hours after Grampa's body had been lowered into the ground, my Aunt Dorothy said she was glad the old farmer was dead. "I hated him," she said.
Aunt Dorothy Thoe, a widow who had been married to Grampa's only son and a woman widely known in Fordville for her good humor, spoke out on a Saturday night, four days after Grampa died. Outside, the first snow of winter had buried the stubble in the wheat fields. There was a freezing wind. Inside the living room of my Grampa's farmhouse, Aunt Dorothy detailed her hatred to us relatives. My family and I squirmed in our seats, numbed by the woman's ill-timed denigration of the dead. It was obviously one-sided and unfair; but just as obviously Aunt Dorothy was trying to tell us what she saw as the truth.
Grampa that night was described as an irascible, unforgiving, bloodless man.
Aunt Dorothy told stories about how Frampa used to meet his brother Pete out in the fields where their farms were separated by a barbed-wire fence, and how the brothers screamed obscure, obscene accusations at each other about land stealing and bad faith. She said Grampa, who ate twice a day in her kitchen for nearly 20 years, had filled her house with rancor and her children with fear.
She even claimed that Grampa seemed to enjoy subjugating his son by denying him control of the farm, and that Grampa was at least partly to blame for her husband's death of heart failure at the age of 54. "You don't be told you're no damn good for 54 years and live a long life," she said.
The mean old man that Aunt Dorothy decried that night was someone whom I had never known -- in fact, had never heard of. The image was maddening. I flatly couldn't accept that my Grampa was a malevolent man. Therefore, I began shifting through his 87 1/2 years.
I knew Grampa as a sweet-tempered, generous, church-going farmer who smelled of aftershave lotion in the morning and who always wore new Florsheim shoes.
He spent nearly a month each winter with my family out in Washington State. In the years when my mother let him drive the 1,200 miles from North Dakota, he showed up at our house in Moses Lake every December with half a pig or half a cow cut and wrapped in his trunk. The back seat of his always new Plymouth (he believed in Chrysler products) was full of presents. They were expensive presents, too. He took time to pick them out for my mother (his only daughter), my father and us four kids. t
Grampa was a full-blooded, broad-shouldered Norwegian with huge, thick-fingered hands and a full head of white hair that he kept trimmed in a flat-top hairdo. He was exciting to have around the house when I was growing up because he played with us children.
As a boy, I noticed that he had the biggest ears of any person I'd ever seen. His legs (when he was in his bathrobe) were remarkably white and hairless, and his breath was good to smell, not sour and heavy like that of other old men I'd come across.
He would sometimes sprinkle salt on the kitchen floor when my little sister and I were doing the dishes. Then, Grampa would dance on salt-scratchy linoleum and laugh and pinch my sister behine her elbow and she'd get mad and he'd laugh. He taught me how to dry dishes with a towel so I didn't get my fingerprints all over the china, and he always tried to persuade me to get an easy-care, no-fuss, sharp-looking flat-top hairdo like his.
My Grampa sang a song around our house that, as far as I knew then or know now, was his invention. He sang, loudly: "Oh, lubba lubba looo! Lubba looo!" It didn't make any sense to me, but it tickled him no end to sing it. I remember him dancing on the salty linoleum while singing. "Lubba looo!"
When my brother was killed in Vietnam in 1967, Grampa was visting us. He didn't talk much in the days when we waited for the body to be shipped back. He was quiet at the funeral. But when I came out of the church bawling and shaking, Grampa gave me one of the few hugs I remember him giving anybody. I knew he was crying inside and that he loved me.
My mother and father, who trembled and sobbed when told of Grampa's death, flew to North Dakota from Washington State the next day. They were driven the 50 miles from Grand Forks airport to Grampa's empty farmhouse through a Halloween-night snowstorm. My mother, in a decision that brooked no discussion, requested that her three children come to the farm. "They do funerals different here than in the big cities," she told me over the phone. d
The funeral and the hours of conversation afterward were profoundly different and more painful than any funeral I'd attended in the big cities. Aunt Dorothy refused to be a hypocrite, even though her words hurt my family. I had no choice but to reconcile the Grampa of Christmas presents and kitchen-floor dancing with the black image of a moody farmer who spat defiance at anyone -- including his own son -- he feared was trying to mess with his land.
The land -- 560 acres of sandy soil, a flood-prone creek and some woods -- was what Grampa loved more than anyone or anything. I believe the land is the key to reconciling the disparate images of the old farmer and to understanding him as a fierce, closed-mouthed but admirable man.
When Grampa visited my mother and our family out in Washington State, his obsession with the land was muted. He knew that none of us was scheming to get a piece of his farm. But when he was on his land, it was as though that sandy dirt charged him with the acid fury with which he fought to keep the farm for 52 years -- to keep it from banks, from his own brothers and from his son.
The land, located about two miles south of Fordville in Inkster Township, Grand Forks County, has never belonged to any man whose name wasn't Thoe. In many ways, it is a desolate and harsh land where winter weeks go by and it's never warmer than 30 below zero. Summers are hot and muggy; in the spring there are floods.
My great-grandfather, Ole Knute Thoe, who was born in 1857 in Hayfield, Minn., and who came to the Dakota Territory in 1881, walked out to the present farm and homesteaded it in 1882. Ole Knute built a log cabin in a wooded valley near the south fork of the Forest River. He and his wife, Louise, raised 11 children there. My Grampa was the fifth of six sons whose middle names were all Ole; he had four sisters.
Old Knute was more mechanic than farmer. He passed up settling in the Red River Valley to the east, where the dark, loamy soil is probably the most fertile farmland in the world. Instead, he settled in the Drift Prairie, where the sandy soil made farming more susceptible to the vagaries of rain and wind and where cattle and pigs were raised as hedges against hunger.
When his boys grew old enough to tend to the farming, Old Knute opened a machinery dealership, photography studio, telephone office, restaurant and feed mill in nearby Medford (which was later renamed Fordville because of all the Model Ts in town.)
My Grampa was put to work at the age of 10 helping to fire a straw-powered threshing machine that Ole Knute owned. The Thoes did threshing (wheat harvesting) for farmers up to 25 miles away from Fordville. When Grampa turned 18, he became the boss of a threshing crew. The crews were composed mostly of itinerant men who followed the grain harvest in the Midwest. They were tough men of dubious honesty, and they were considered slightly dangerous by the farmers. Grampa was apparently a hard enough young man to handle them.
Grampa married a local girl, Mary Martthie, in 1921, and he stayed on his father's farm. The other Thoe boys weren't that interested in farming, and Ole Knute gave them jobs in his various enterprises in Forville. Grampa, in effect, ran the farm for his father. According to the Norwegian custom, Grampa was paid almost nothing for his work. He got to eat and to work, and his wife got to cook.
Ole Knute died in 1927, leaving 320 acres of farm and pasture land to be divided among four sons. Grampa, however, wanted it all. He agreed to pay his three brothers $1,150 each for their share of the land. In addition, Grampa assumed a $4,000 mortgage. Two years later, with a wife, two little children, a marginally fertile farm and nearly $7,000 of debts, Grampa stumbled upon the Great Depression.
In the next five years, tens of thousands of farmers across the country went bankrupt. A bushel of wheat sold for less than 25 cents; hogs and beef went for 2 1/2 cents a pound. Farmers burned their crops and ranchers shot their animals to try to save money. William Allen White, the famous Republican country editor, wrote, "Every farmer, whether his farm is under mortgage or not, knows that with farm products priced as they are today, sooner or later he must go down."
My Grampa did not go down. He became obsessed with the fight to keep his land. He grew wheat, barley and oats, and he raised cattle, pigs, sheep, turkeys and chickens. He sold eggs and cream to buy shoes and clothing for his family. He chopped and hauled wood to pay the interest on his debts. When the crops were bad in the '30s, he refused to borrow against the value of his cattle or pigs, saying that he would never mortgage what, was keeping his family alive.
The hard young man who could handle a threshing crew at 18 became even harder as a 40-year-old farmer. He rarely showed emotion around the farm. My mother cannot remember him ever kissing his wife Mary unless he was saying goodbye or hello. He didn't tell his children that he loved them. Rather, he milked his cows at dawn, plowed behind his horses and slowly paid off the debts. He didn't own the farm free and clear until he was 50 years old.
During and after World War II, Grampa started to make money. He invested it in modern machinery -- tractors, combines and trucks. By then, his son Gene was working full-time on the farm with Grampa. Gene, his wife Dorothy and their two children lived in a house about an eighth of a mile down the road from Grampa's two-story, five-bedroom farmhouse. Grampa and his son worked side by side, but Grampa owned the land, paid the bills and there was no question about who was in charge.
Grampa's wife died in 1950, and he started coming down the dirt road from his big, empty house twice a day for dinner and supper at Gene's house. He never talked about being lonely. Relatives say the farm -- the long hours in the fields and constant dickering over the price of farm equipment, crops and cattle -- kept him too busy. Grampa had become a farmer of well-known intransigence. He argued with merchants over the price of nearly everything, and he was known to drive in his Plymouth between prairie towns in search of bargains.
It became clear that Grampa, even after he was 65 and 70 years old, had no intention of turning the farm over to Gene. "He wasn't about to leave anything to his son until he died," my mother says. "Grampa loved it [the land] so much; he worked at it so hard. It was his life."
Gene and Grampa took to screaming and cursing at each other during supper. But Gene, according to his widow and his friends, didn't have the self-confidence to pack up his family and leave the farm. The arguments continued for years, with Grampa turning none of his land over to his son. Gene died of congestive heart failure in 1977. Before he died, his wife and other relatives said. Gene appeared defeated, as if he didn't want to live.
Gene's son Randy, now 25, took over much of the operation of the farm. Yet, again, it was under Grampa's control. The 85-year-old farmer, who was finally showing signs of age started running his car off the gravel roads around Fordville and spent less time in the fields. He grew to respect Randy's farming ability and told many people that his grandson was a hard-working, talented farmer. It was his highest compliment, but he never gave it to Randy personally. Again his hardness, his distaste for emotion, kept him from looking his grandson in the face and bestowing praise and love.
After Grampa died in October, Aunt Dorothy, her son Randy and her daughter Barbie expected to inherit very little of the old man's land or money. He surprised them. They were given most of the land, all the farm buildings and nearly a third of the $100,000 that Grampa had in the bank. My mother and the government got the rest. Everyone agreed that Grampa, in death, was equitable in parceling out his beloved land.
And Grampa, uncompromising to the end, managed to die without admitting to anyone (but the lawyer who drew up his will) that his fight for his land must end in death.