The Minnesota prairie could be a brutal, unforgiving place 150 years ago.
People like John Hanson willingly sacrificed to tame the wilderness and build a future for themselves and their descendants. Sometimes they paid the price with their lives.
It’s that selfless sacrifice that motivated Tim Bergstrom to ensure his great-grandfather’s death was memorialized with a historical sign just north of Atwater in Kandiyohi County.
“It’s some kind of place to remember him,” said Bergstrom, a Grove City native and news director at KLFD radio in Litchfield. “You think about being a pioneer and forging this … starting this life here.”
Hanson was just 34 years old when he died Feb. 2, 1872, becoming the first white man to freeze to death in a blizzard in what is now Kandiyohi County.
The approximate site of his death, at the corner of county highways 2 and 10, was memorialized by a historic marker, one of several that were first erected by Kandiyohi County and the Kandiyohi County Historical Society in the mid-1980s.
Through the years, however, the sign was damaged and eventually disappeared. Bergstrom once found it face down in the water-filled ditch, and the county put the sign back up again.
At one point, Bergstrom recalls, the sign was in such tough shape that he painted it himself.
Finally, last summer, with a grant from the Kandiyohi Power Charitable Trust and the Kandiyohi County Historical Society, a new Hanson sign was erected.
As the anniversary of his great-grandfather’s death approached this year, Bergstrom shared the story, which was recorded in “A Candle Still Burns,” a booklet written by Hanson’s son, Bergstrom’s grandfather, Alfred A.A. Miller, and edited by Bergstrom’s sister Julianne Johnson.
Hanson and his wife met in a small village in southern Sweden, and they emigrated along with their baby boy, Nels, from Lovestad, Skane, Sweden in 1868. Shortly after their arrival at Swede Grove in Meeker County, their son died.
The following year, they located in then Monongalia County, building two dugout homes in the side of a hill, one for family and the other to be used for a stable. Two children were born to the couple while they lived in the dugout — a daughter, Hilda, and a son, Alfred.
Alfred became a well-known and respected banker in Grove City and in adulthood, on the 60th anniversary, wrote the story of his father’s death in the 1972 blizzard, from which the following was gathered:
Hanson rose early on Feb. 2, 1872, so he could get an early start for the timberland about 8 miles away to get a load of wood. Telling his wife, “I will return as soon as possible,” he headed out. But by 3 p.m. that day a blizzard roared in. It continued its onslaught through the next two nights.
On the second morning after Hanson’s departure, the storm abated, and a neighbor appeared at the Hanson’s homestead. “He was anxious to know if father had returned, as he had seen him depart for the timber,” A.A. Miller wrote.
The neighbor and others launched a search for Hanson when they found he had not returned home. And his frozen body was found later that day, about 100 yards from a pioneer shack in Harrison Township.
He was buried in the new Baptist Cemetery in Grove City, one of the first to be interned there. “Many others made the same supreme sacrifice in those early days, doing their duty to provide for their dear ones,” Alfred Miller wrote.
“My father did not live to enjoy the home he had labored so hard to build. The story of those early struggles and that last fatal trip was recounted to me during my early childhood by my mother, and it has made a vivid and lasting impression on my mind and my life.”
Hanson’s wife remarried and moved to Grove City. And, in tragic irony, she died “forty-seven years, two months and fourteen days” after her husband in a house fire.
“Often I sit and think of the strange fates they met — the one frozen to death, the other burned to death,” Alfred Miller wrote.
Bergstrom said his family has never been able to identify the plot in which his great-grandfather was buried in the Grove City cemetery, part of the reason that having the historical marker erected was so important.
“It just seems like there should be some sort of recognition for that life that was cut short,” he said.