Noe Valley Voice September 2001

Florence's Family Album

By Florence Holub

Lately I've been thinking about the old days and of how lucky I've been to have lived in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st.

Since the 1930s, I've enjoyed the benefits of the New Deal introduced by Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Social Security, unemployment insurance, and federally insured bank accounts were all born in his time, and these same social programs still hold our society together, from cradle to grave. Prior to the New Deal, we had no safety net -- and many a family had a harrowing story to tell.

My own family was mindful of the plight of my mother's oldest sister, Aunt Mary. Mary lived in Butte, Montana, at the turn of the century, with her adored husband, Alex Newman, and their five young sons, two of whom were twins. In 1907, when Mary was just 25, Alex died suddenly, probably of pneumonia (this was before antibiotics). His last words to his young wife were: "Mary, I'm glad I'm leaving my boys in the hands of a woman like you." These words of trust proved to be very precious to her, and would help her through many dark hours.

Today, raising five children on your own might seem an impossible feat, but somehow this spunky woman rose to the challenge -- and without the govern-ment assistance we now take for granted.

Aunt Mary knew her task was to provide food, clothing, and shelter for her five growing boys. So her first idea -- a remarkably practical solution -- was to open a grocery store.

Before she did so, her banker advised her not to extend credit to her patrons, for indeed these were hard times. But Mary was a kind person, and upon hearing a few heartrending tales, she decided to allow some customers to charge their groceries. Although they promised to pay their bills, some didn't ...or couldn't. Soon Mary was unable to pay her own bills and was forced to go out of business. What to do?

Mary's Little Book

After reviewing her options, Mary decided to take advantage of the Homestead Act. The Homestead Act, passed in 1862, encouraged westward expansion by granting free land to families willing to farm it for five years. Quite a few members of the Swede-Finn community were intrigued by the offer, and after a trip to see a thriving Swedish settlement on the Colorado prairie, members of Mary's family became convinced that they could do just as well and signed the necessary papers. Mary's little boys needed a safe and healthful environment to grow up in; she prayed this new farm would be it.

She and Alex had always been able to talk things over when there were problems or big decisions, and this closeness she missed terribly. Not wanting to burden others with her troubles, she began to write a diary as though she were actually conversing with her mate.

Mary began her journal to Alex on New Year's Eve, 1910, after she had tucked her little ones in bed and listened to the copper miners of Butte welcome in the New Year. "It is twelve o'clock," she wrote, "and all of the mine and train whistles are blowing. Gunshots and even dynamite blasts shatter the air, that fairly made the earth tremble."

She recorded the sights and sounds of the only home she'd ever known, before she and her boys said goodbye to their dear friends and boarded the train that would take them to the small town of Salida, out on the Colorado prairie. There they would become pioneers!

Mary's Little Home on the Prairie

Her father had gone ahead to ready the claim for simple living. The women, children, and a freight car full of furniture, clothing, and household items came months later. The new prairie home had two rooms, with a lean-to of two more rooms, on a vast prairie of brush and greasewood.

The new settlers had to work hard clearing away the brush, in order to plant crops like they had seen at the Swedish farm. They piled up the brush, and in the evening the five boys had great fun burning it. They marched around the bonfire like a band of Indians, Mary wrote. Henry, the 2-year-old, took the lead, announcing boldly, "I'm the captain!" His older brothers found his stance most comical and filled the air with hoots and howls. From that day on, Henry's nickname was "Cap."

But homestead life was full of disappointments. Unlike the rich, fertile soil at the model farm, the land Mary's family settled proved to be parched and dry. An early 1911 diary page reveals: "Mother arrived during the night, and in the morning she awoke and got a good look at our new home. 'Odemark!' she said [in Swedish]. 'Wasteland!'" When the seeds the settlers planted finally came up, the night frost struck them down. Hay was the one successful crop.

Mary bought a cow to provide milk for the boys, but it gave very little. So a whitefaced Hereford was procured, which presented the farm with a heifer calf. Unfortunately (for everyone but the animals), the calf got almost all of his mother's milk. On May 30, 1911, Mary wrote: "Today's my birthday, 29 years old. I must celebrate by trying to milk that cow, but she just looks at me with fire in her eyes."

Next, Mary bought 12 chickens, but although the creatures ate lots of grain, they did not lay a single egg. Too late she learned that the elderly hens had passed their egg-laying days. However, the family did enjoy feasting for a dozen Sundays on Mary's delicious chicken with dumplings.

In the face of so many hardships, Mary's parents, sisters, and many others of the Swede-Finn pioneers soon gave up and returned to Butte. But Mary and the boys struggled on through several winters, farming the land and trekking many miles to the closest rural school. Still, she worried that without a good formal education her children's futures would be jeopardized.

Three years after she arrived in Salida, Aunt Mary had only enough money left to buy train tickets back to Butte for herself and her five little men. Her diary ends there, upon the family's return to Montana in May 1914.

Over the next decade, Mary supported herself and the boys by weaving rag rugs for sale, scrubbing floors in hotels, and doing housework for the wealthy mine operators' wives. After her sons were schooled and married off, the devoted mother finally felt free to marry the man who'd been waiting patiently for her through the years. Her second husband, Matt Varn, was a man of soul -- and also many soles. He operated his own shoe repair shop!

Mary's sons Warner, George, and Cap eventually settled in California, but the twins, Dave and Leo, chose to remain in Montana. Every one of them grew up to be fine men, and Dave Newman became a Montana state senator.

My man Leo and I visited Mary in Butte in her later years, and we could see from her window how the trucks and bulldozers circling the open pit mines were gobbling up the town. When the earth movers got too close for comfort, Mary moved to California to be with her oldest son, Warner Newman. In 1967, she came to visit us in Noe Valley, and Leo snapped a photograph while we were enjoying one another's company.

She died a year later in 1968, within six months of returning to Butte. Mary's little book was transcribed and reproduced for the family by Warner's daughter Barbara Johnson, and by Kitty, the widow of Mary's youngest son, Henry "Cap" Newman.

During her lifetime, Mary was aware of the injustices in the world and spoke out against them. She also was the first person in the United States to sign up for Medicare. Her local newspaper even wrote a story about it!

I think if she were alive today, she would be outraged by the actions (and inactions) of George W. Bush during his first year in office. She would be delighted, however, with the San Francisco Mime Troupe's biting political satire, 1600 Transylvania Avenue, in which "Dubya" plays Dracula. You can see this terrific musical in Dolores Park on Sept. 1, 2, or 3 at 2 p.m. It's insightful, hilarious, and free of charge!