There’s been an occasion or two when I’ve been asked what it is about history that’s so exciting. My answer is always the same, in that I love a good story. After all, isn’t that what history is, stories about the past being told over and over again? Not just for the benefit of the future, but for that of the listener, so that they, if only for a moment, can escape to a world where time stands still and the stories of the past come to life.
Well, I guess that is what I would subscribe to anyway. A chance to relive another’s memories and to let my imagination play them out once more, as if they were happening before my very eyes. For that reason alone, I would say history is worthy of a little interest by anyone willing to seek it out.
In the spirit of a good story, be it based in truth or otherwise, I’d like to share one with you that recently found its way across my desk. It may be more of an old folktale than a piece of historical fact, but either way, it’s one rooted right here in McLeod County, and one that I think you might enjoy reading as much as I’ll enjoy telling.
So sit back, and let your imagination play out the story of two young hunters and an old hermit who they discovered living alone deep in the Big Woods of McLeod County.
As late as World War I, heavy stands of timber jutted west from the dense woodlands of eastern Minnesota and extended their way onto the prairies that sprawled across western McLeod County. It was in these woods, the Big Woods, that Jack and Elijah Beach (not their real names), two young and ardent hunters, frequented while searching for prey.
One day, while scouring the woods for game, they came across an old hut. Inside lived an elderly and quite reclusive old man. They didn’t know the old man’s name, nor had they heard of his existence, but certain things led them to believe that the old hermit was a young man who Jack and Elijah believed vanished long ago.
Being from the Brownton area, Jack and Elijah were familiar with the story of the White family, a family of five that lived near Lake Addie in 1862. That same year, a large faction of warriors from the Dakota reservation in western Minnesota began raiding settlements and killing white settlers. On the afternoon of Sept. 22, a war party was in the vicinity of Lake Addie. In haste, the White family chose to flee toward the safety of the fort in Glencoe.
They were too late. The Dakota war party caught up to them and the Whites were killed — mother, father, and two children. The only one spared was the oldest son, Samuel White Jr., who had previously enlisted in the home guard at Forest City.
According to the story as told by Jack and Elijah, Samuel White Jr. was never heard from again. As the two young men entered the old hermit’s cabin, however, they believed they might have been in his presence.
The first thing the boys noticed were several guns that lined the cabin walls. One, an old military issue Enfield musket, was the old man’s most cherished. They immediately noted the notches neatly carved into the stock.
“What are those for, have you really shot six bears?” Elijah asked curiously.
“Naw,” said the old man, spitting out the words with forceful venom. “Not bahrs, but them other varmints!”
Jack and Elijah understood that the old man meant Native Americans, believing him to be a veteran of the war in 1862, and they thought best not to question him any further.
The boys frequently returned to the old hut in the woods, and each time the old man invited them inside in a closed mouth, solemn sort of way. As the days waned and summer’s end grew near, the boys again found themselves at the door of the old man. This time, however, the old man was nowhere to be seen. Also missing was his prized Enfield musket.
They assumed he was out hunting and made themselves at home. As the day’s end drew near, and the old man hadn’t returned, the boys decided to head for home, not wanting to traverse the dense woods in the dark.
At the same time, the Minnesota State Fair was being held. That particular year, an incident occurred on the open-air stage in front of the Grandstand. A group of Dakota natives were on stage demonstrating cultural dances in front of a large audience. As they danced, two shots came whizzing across the platform.
According to the story, few in the audience realized what happened, and the only casualties were a couple of feathers grazed off the headdress of one of the dancers. It is eluded to, in the story, that the shooter was not apprehended. However, a cub reporter was present, and the incident was replayed in newspapers around the Twin Cities.
It was a couple of months after the incident at the State Fair, and winter was growing near. Jack and Elijah hadn’t been back to the cabin since their last visit when the old man was absent, so they decided to make one last trip before winter set in.
When they arrived, they found the old man in unusually high spirits. He had an axe in his hand and was chopping kindling for his cooking fire. At first they thought the old man had been drinking, but he soon lapsed into the solemn attitude that he so often expressed.
The boys didn’t stay long, and as soon as they were out of earshot of the cabin, Jack asked Elijah, “Did you notice anything strange back there?”
“Yes,” said Elijah. “The old man was unusually friendly.”
“No, not that,” replied Jack. “There were two new notches on his Enfield.”