A lot can change in one generation. A family living below the poverty line in Northern Minnesota has the chance to change their destiny and become defined as middle class in a single lifetime. With hard work and the luck of being raised in America, my family accomplished this mighty feat. But, such a change is social status does not come without toil and the history of my family’s plight to live in Minnesota is one that begins in Norway.

My great-great maternal grandparents moved from Norway to the United States of America as children. My great-great grandmother Aletta Anderson traveled alone when she was only 16 to reach relatives already living in Minnesota. My great-great grandfather Sievert Anderson arrived with his mother as a newborn, in an attempt to escape a life of indentured servitude in Norway. In the late 19th century, Norway’s agricultural economy suffered and many families were forced into servitude as the only means of survival. Sievert’s mother became pregnant after she was raped by the farmer who owned her in Norway. With very little money, but a strong will, she managed to cross the Atlantic ocean with a newborn and begin a new life in America.

Left: Aletta and Sievert with their 11 children. Right: Aletta and Sievert on their wedding day.

After meeting and marrying in Minnesota, Aletta and Sievert raised 11 children on their farm in Pelican Rapids, Minnesota. My great aunt JoAnne remembers summers spent on her grandparent’s farm, flying airplanes off the sun porch and getting perms at the local salon with her sister, my grandma Betty. They always felt like their grandparents had really made it in life because they could afford to purchase their home from the Sears Roebuck catalog for $2,000. 

The Sears Roebuck home

Visiting their grandparent’s house was a treat and they often stayed for weeks at a time, while their parents earned money cutting lumber. Betty and Joanne’s parents, Aaron and Agnes, raised five children in Pony Lake, MN. Their life was anything but easy, but always filled with joy. Aaron and Agnes’ relationship began in utter rebellion. Each came from a strict Lutheran family, where dancing was forbidden and men and women sat on separate sides of the church each Sunday. On Saturday nights, Aaron and Agnes would sneak away and meet at the local schoolhouse dance for a taboo night of spinning and slow dancing. When Agnes’ father, Sievert, was eventually introduced to Aaron he was appalled to see that Aaron’s family was eating fish. He thought, god forbid, they were Catholic. Once it was cleared up that they were simply eating fish, not a member of a different religion, Sievert blessed the union and allowed Agnes and Aaron to wed. 

Aaron and Agnes Lewis raised a family of seven in a tar paper home that barely protected them from the harsh winters. The three boys would squeeze into one bed and the two girls slept in the bed with their parents. Winter mornings would welcome them with a snow covered floor. After Agnes washed the floors in the morning, the kids would have to be careful, because it would become an ice rink in a matter of minutes. The warmest place in the house all winter was sitting on the door to the open oven. Aaron would attempt to keep the family frost-free by filling the cracks in the walls with manure and newspaper, but the home never did seem to heat up until April. 

The Lewis family

Once it began to warm up, it became Betty and Joanne’s favorite time of the year. They would accompany their parents to the local store and pick out the pig, cow, and horse feed with intense interest. Once the animals had emptied the sack, they would get to sew a new dress. Feed sacks came in a wide variety of patterns and were an economical alternative to buying fabric. Flour sacks were the next best thing to feed sacks, because they could be reused as dish towels and sheets. The labels affixed to the sacks were difficult to remove, but that didn’t stop women across the country from using a combination of lye, lard, bleach, and elbow grease to get their new fabric clean. Eventually, manufactures wised up to the resourceful American woman and made it easier for the labels to be removed. They even went as far as stamping the bags with stitching lines for dresses and towels. Manufactures knew ambitious women could persuade their husbands to buy the best looking patterns, so they would increase profits if they appealed to the American woman. A typical woman’s dress took three feed sacks; being able to boast that you were a two-feed sack girl was the equivalent of being a size two today. I am certain that Joanne and Betty’s ingenuity with their dress creations has factored into their lives today. They both have an uncanny ability of creating something from nothing and seamlessly blending into our every day life. 

Left: Two women in feed sack dresses, National Geographic, 1947. Right: Instructions from a chicken feed sack.

As the five Lewis children grew into adults, there lives began to diverge from one another but they never forgot their roots. The three brothers still live in and around Pony Lake and have all found success in farming. Joanne and Betty’s paths came together when they each moved to Staples. Joanne and I traveled to Pony Lake in August to spend time with her brothers and hear the tales of their childhood. As adults, they can now recognize the poverty in which they raised, but never once did I hear a tale about the difficulty of their life. The times they remember are when they were laughing so hard as they watched Betty get her front tooth knocked out while boxing with her brother – even though the cost of a dentist meant she went without a tooth until she was in her late teens. Joanne remembers how she was the lucky child, because she got to eat every meal on her dad’s knee – it didn’t matter that they only owned six chairs in a family of seven. 

Listening to such stories as a young adult who grew up complaining if the temperature in our home dipped below 72 degrees in the winter, I feel thankful and proud. Thankful my family persevered when life handed them hardships. Proud that they worked hard for happiness. I only hope I can continue the family tradition. 

The Lewis family

4 thoughts on “Sacks to Success

  1. Fascinating, Dana! I, too, have loved hearing stories from my grandmother about her time growing up going to dances, teaching in a one-room schoolhouse and enduring the hardships that we would be appalled at now. What strong people. A great read!

  2. That is so great to hear that you, too, like hearing stories of the past. I thought I might be alone! Speaking of one-room schoolhouses, we met a man in Montana that taught in a one-room schoolhouse for the past five years. They even had i-pads for each of the 18 students!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.