The Nelson Story

Home/Farm of Hans Peter & Kirstine Nelson, Exeter, NE located about 9 miles northwest of Exeter, NE and about nine miles west of Cordova, NE

Tena and Anna by the cows.

The Nelson Family
Back Row: Tena, Hans, Ole, Anna
Front Row: Axel, Hans Peter, Kristine, Chris


The story of the Nelson family’s pioneer experience continues as they move to Exeter, Nebraska.

When they arrived at their destination it was 1904. They had lived 16 years on the open prairie of western Nebraska. It was not too many years after they moved that these sun scorched fields of western Nebraska would become fertile and fruitful just by summer fallowing or, should I say, by planting every other year. And when the First World War came, the land that they had sold for $3 an acre was now selling for $100 an acre. Now at this time they are leasing it for oil. It was hard for Father to understand why fate had been so unkind to him. But I believe we all feel a certain respect for the folks that they would give up all earthly goods to give what they thought was so much more important for their children, an opportunity to live in the environment that they thought was essential. What our life would have been had we stayed out in the west we don‘t know, but I don’t think any of us would want to take the chance were it possible.

Just a few things that I can remember from our home in Deuel County or at Chappell as the folks always said. Once I remember my brother and I had a leather hitch rein tied to a tumbling weed and it got away and I remember I was afraid we would be punished for losing the leather strap. I don’t remember the details, but at the time we were moving we had just gotten a new sewing machine. The old one was not to be taken along but I remember so plainly that I went around to the other side of the house where it was to say goodbye and then we drove to town to take the train. I remember Mother was crying and certainly I could not see anything to cry about. How little you realize when you are a child and how well it is that you don’t. Father was back to Chappell once but I don’t believe Mother ever got back even for a visit. I don’t remember her ever wanting to go.

I remember them telling of Indians going by at times but none had been hostile. One of the things that bothered the pioneers was the fear of prairie fires. The tall grass with no plowed fields for protection made it destruction certain if a fire would get going. I don’t remember them ever saying they had lost anything, but it was always a fear they lived with. They knew from experience what could happen.

Mother was so very sick when I was born and only by a miracle did she live. There was a Mrs. Paulsen that came to help the folks at such a time and at this writing her “girl,” who is now Mrs. Kaufman lives at Chappell and she has visited us at various times. They were hard times but they were times when people united both in life and in death.

You have probably wondered why our name came to be Nelson instead of Nielsen. It was this way: When Father applied for his citizenship papers the judge wrote “Nelson“by carelessness and when Father mentioned it he said that it would not make any difference, but it did! It is not easy to change the spelling of your name as it enters into so many angles, through papers, notes and deeds and certificates.

One of the things that might be interesting yet almost unbelievable was that for fire fuel and the stove they went out and gathered cowchips which were just simply manure that had passed through the cow. I don’t remember gathering them but I remember having them stacked to dry. You can imagine they were not good for fuel if they were wet. There were no trees and no coal so they took what comes naturally and easiest.

When the folks moved to Exeter they had l2 cows and a number of horses. A pony that they said was part Indian pony we called Bally. She got to be very old and one of her last years she foaled a colt that some of my children can remember. She was coal black with white feet and white face and went by the name of Lady. As old as Bally got, you always knew that whenever she was beside another horse she got excited and nervous as she thought this was the beginning of a race, and you could hardly control her.

One thing that stands out so plainly at the moment that I can hardly believe myself is that Father thrashed wheat by letting the horses walk continually around on the straw and then after it was thrashed he would remove the straw and gather the wheat. What a difference in just a few short years!

Water was hard to get and the wells were dug by hand and the dirt removed by bailing it up by hand in a pail. I believe wells were sometimes over 200 or 300 feet deep. The average rainfall there was much less than here. It was therefore that summer fallow became such an advantage to that part of the nation. We were also a long way from a river so there was only one way for the cattle to have water and that was to have wells. l

Getting feed for all the cattle during the winter was a big job. The hay machinery was scarce and what there was, very crude. There was no alfalfa grown nor was there much tame grass of any kind. So many times the cattle had to seek their own food, and during the season of snow it was hard for the cattle. The horses could always use their feet to paw the snow so they could get at the grass. I never remember the folks saying they ever had hogs. Grass was the best and cheapest feed but hogs don’t do well on that so maybe it would not be practical to raise hogs.

There was no rural free [mail] delivery as we know it nowadays, and I know that Mother always carried on a correspondence with the family and friends in Denmark as long as she lived. It would have been a great thing had we saved some of those letters. Father and Mother, like so many immigrants, lived in a different world than we did.

They were Danish in heart and mind, and it was hard for them to understand the workings and the ways of this nation of ours. Their education was, of course, limited but I remember they had the Danish paper, Decorah Posten, and also Børnevennen, and Child’s Friend. So plainly do I remember when Mother read those stories to us we would all be crying, even Mother, before she was through. They were of course touching stories.

Religion was not learned from the reading we did. As in Luke, “What I have to say is what has been told down through the ages“. We also got our religion from what was told from person to person. We felt it became a personal something that could not be accepted without meaning. As has been stated, Mother’s education was almost nil, yet to me few have had a stronger faith. .She never wavered in her conviction and belief.

When we moved to Exeter, a freight car was loaded with the livestock and household goods and then Father and the two oldest of the boys went with the car as they could ride free of charge. The rest of the children and Mother took the train and I can remember very little of that trip except that at Kearney where we changed from the Union Pacific to the Burlington, Mother bought us some salted peanuts and that was the first time I had tasted them.‘ The distance was about 300 miles. The freight car was shared with another farmer who was going to Grafton so the livestock and all other things were unloaded there and the cattle were herded the rest of the way a distance of 25 miles which was a job by itself.

The farm that Father had bought was 126 acres in York County and even though it was not expensive, it cost probably as much as the two sections brought him in their former home at Chappell. There was a small frame house, a small barn with room for about eight horses and I think six cows, a hog house and a corn crib. A creek with water running most of the time was a great joy, coming from the dry prairie of western Nebraska, and you could also see trees in all directions. One of the first things that struck my fancy when we got there was a discarded toy express wagon worn out, but something we had never seen before.

I was five years old at the time we arrived and started to school shortly thereafter. We had 2-½ miles to school which was a long journey, and we always walked whether it was cold or snow or rain. It was unusual for anybody to take their children to school. The only convenience was with horses either to drive or ride. In the latter years there were some who rode a bicycle.

One of the great things that were possible was rural free delivery of mail. That was delivered by horse also. The route at that time was 42 miles long which took all day, a cold job’ in the wintertime and no gravel roads, sometimes not even graded or passable roads, every which way in the pastures that have not been plowed. I even knew where to find the remains of a dugout, possibly and Indian home, or early pioneer home.

I think the trees and the creek and the water and hills were the great wonders that we all experienced in the new home. Surely the hills were not so much pleasure to Father, as we in due time realized when we started to farm them year after year. We always raised a lot of cattle and milked a large herd of cows. Father was not a gambler and as a consequence what we made was by hard work. I never remember mother doing any milking or any outside work after coming there. It was not necessary and there was plenty to do inside. We were the only Danes in the immediate neighborhood, so I think we grew up with the idea that we were just a bit different from most people, sometimes a bit ashamed of our family. The folks talked a dialect and we were the only family who talked like that, as we even felt different in our conversation, which was also a hardship.

One of the first years that we lived there, a telephone line was put in by the farm but the folks thought that was too extravagant, so it was not until a few years after that they had it put in, a thrill to be sure! Imagine you could talk over a wire, and to me it is still a wonder. Now as l write this we have talked now and then to the three children who are located in Oregon.

We lived very economically as so many did at that time. Potatoes and homemade bread and home butchered pork were the main menu. Sometimes the pork was terribly salty; to keep it required it to be well salted. No refrigeration or ice of any kind was available, I remember that the folks, as was the custom in Denmark, did a lot of entertaining and when the company came it would be for dinner and then coffee in the evening, supper in the evening and sometimes coffee again in the evening again if they chose to stay that long. It does not make sense to us now. With all that work it just was not worth all the trouble, but People could not and did not get together so often so they made use of the opportunity when it was available. As a child I remember there must have been a shortage of chairs on those occasions because at times we children always waited until last to eat and then we often stood up at the table because there were not enough chairs. We were thankful for food and a table to stand by. The men always played cards and we children did various things, some things we should not mention. It makes me shudder now to think that we at times would take the one-horse buggy, put a rope on each front axle and then take it to the top of the hill north of the home place and let it run down the hill without any power except its own, steered by the ropes. We had no control over it whatsoever. Luck was with us. Nothing ever went wrong.

I think it was the first year that we lived here that the two oldest went to confirmation. We had all been baptized by traveling ministers or missionaries while living at Chappell. We always had the distance of eight miles to contend with as we attended confirmation instruction in Cordova, and I believe we were all transported by the old pony that we had with us from Chappell. She was getting old and worn out when I, the last one to use her, was through. If we hurried her we figured we could make the trip in 1-1/2 hours. Now we do it in a few minutes.

The folks had always grown up with the idea that the minister was just a little different and better than the lay person, and when the minister visited us, we children hardly dared come into the house. It was, and partly so yet, that in Denmark when you talked to distinguished people you said “De” and “Dem” which would be as “Thou” and “Thee.” We children never attended Sunday School on account of the distance, but I do remember once we got to church too early and I attended one session. I can’t remember anything except that I enjoyed it very much. Sunday School and confirmation were conducted in the Danish language then and for many years later. We, the younger ones, also attended Danish summer school for a number of years. We learned many hymns and songs, and to this day I remember them and when we sing the translations I can repeat them in the Danish.

Father had a somewhat good voice for singing but Mother could not carry a tune at all. They never had the opportunity to read but they could remember so many sayings and verses that they had learned as children.They had always expected to have a trip to Denmark but it was impossible while they were raising the family and when that was accomplished so many of their family had passed away that they gave up the idea, and the trip was never made. They never travelled a lot although they had a most pleasant trip to Denver and the mountains that they always enjoyed. Another time they took a trip to Canada to visit Mike Olesens’, Mother’s nephew. A trip they never forgot. Folks at that time, and especially farmers never took vacations, transportation was difficult. There were no cars and no buses. Trains were the only way and connections were not always so good.

Note: Chris Nelson wrote “The Nelson Story” sometime in the 1950s. The Nelson story's matriarch, Kristine, is Louise Spencer's grandmother. Anna Nelson (Due) pictured in the Nelson family photograph is Louise's mother, to whom Louise dedicated her folk school thesis.