A House for Minnie Williams
It was getting on towards autumn when she finally settled on the house she wanted. Model 7016 in the 1921 Sears Modern Homes catalog. The price was $1200.00 for a four bedroom, one bath, pre-cut home; the “Glendale.” For her money, she was to get: framing, interior walls, yellow pine trim and floors, a brick chimney, asphalt shingles, exterior siding, exterior doors, windows, two porches, all paint, nails, varnish and hardware.
Minnie Williams tilted her head and viewed a calendar on the wall. September 1, 1921. Her eyes glanced around the dirty interior of the place. Oily smoke curled up from a kerosene lamp on the table. The lamp’s dim light allowed her to see only a portion of the room she occupied.
Richard had promised (when he brought her from Des Moines, Iowa to Fredenberg Township, Minnesota) that she would not have to raise her children in a log cabin. That promise had been made five years and two babies ago. She sighed. Richard always kept his word…eventually. The door opened behind her.
“Good evening, Richard.”
Minnie smiled at her husband as he walked into the light. He was short, no more than five-foot-five, and slight of build. His eyes caught the lamplight, reflecting blue. His black hair was shoulder length and greasy from a hard day’s work. His face was rough and bearded.
“Evening, Minnie. What’s for supper?”
She rose slowly and pushed herself away from the table. She stopped, pausing to rub her swollen belly. She massaged the fabric of her dress, working a cramp deep within her womb.
“Anything wrong?” her husband said as he reached around her engorged waist.
“No, just a spell. It’ll pass. There’s chicken and dumplings on the stove and milk in the ice box.”
Richard eased her into the only other room on the main floor. The room held their rough-sawn bed, a leather chair, a chest of drawers and a small end table. “Sit yourself down in the good chair. I’ll fix myself a plate.”
Richard filled a tin plate with food before sitting down at the table. He studied the open catalog as he ate.
“This the one? ‘The Glendale?’”
“That’s it. We need the four bedrooms. Can’t cram another child into this cabin.”
Minnie tilted her head back in the chair, hoping the pain would subside.
“We got $500.00 from Great Northern Dam and Improvement Company for the flowage rights a’ front of this place. That plus the money I got from the white pine I cut should be enough for your Sears house.”
Richard gingerly lifted a piece of boiled chicken from his plate with his knife and slid the food into his mouth. White grease and gravy dripped onto the worn surface of the pine floor.
Minnie smiled and leaned back in the chair. Long blond hair spilled out from beneath her scarf. At thirty, she was two years older than Richard. Plain featured and of modest figure, she stood four or five inches taller than her husband.
The couples’ two boys slept soundly in the darkness of the loft above her. The boys slept together on a thick homemade mattress stuffed with straw warmed by the rising heat of the cook stove; though much of the stove’s heat escaped the cabin through countless gaps in the log walls.
“Maybe we oughta ride over to Taft and catch the train to Duluth. You can go in and see Doc Smith. We’ll order the house from town.”
“I’d like that.”
It was easier than she had expected.
Imagine, she thought to herself as she mailed off a
cashier’s check and order form to Sears during their visit to Duluth, imagine a world where you can look in a magazine and order your home lock, stock, and barrel.
On October 30, 1921, two months after Minnie had ordered the home from Sears, four large bundles of building materials were shipped from Homan Avenue, Chicago, on the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, bound for Taft Station. In Duluth, the flatcar carrying the Williams home was switched to the Duluth, Winnipeg, & Pacific line. The same day, Richard Williams and five men from the township met the train at Taft. It took a come- along and the strength of all six men to load the bundles on separate wagons for the final eight miles of the journey.
Minnie Williams and the other wives stood outside the cabin. November was unusually warm. There was no snow on the ground. The route towards the new home site sliced through an empty land. Great white pine stumps bore mute witness to a vanquished forest.
Off in the distance, the draft team pulling Richard Williams’ wagon came into view. The horses trod with steady power on uneven ground. At the edge of the west bank of the Cloquet River, the farmer motioned for the parade of wagons to halt. The cantilever bridge that would eventually connect the two ends of the Taft Road had not yet been built. The main road over the Island Lake Dam was closed for reconstruction. There was only one way to get Minnie’s new house to the other side of the river.
Williams urged his two Percherons down the loose soil of the hillside. The horses snorted and stomped. Their great ebony flanks shivered in excitement. For a brief moment, Minnie feared that the animals would turn away from the black water. But Richard knew his horses. He coaxed them into the steady current of the river. The other drivers watched quietly as Williams’ team advanced to the far shore. The other wagons entered the stream only when the lead wagon was safely across.
The aroma of hot food and coffee greeted Richard as his wagon crested the eastern bank of the river. Once on the level, his eyes fell upon a white cross singularly positioned in short brown grass. He slid out of the wagon seat. The tails of the horses twitched though there were no flies.
Richard’s first wife, Cora, was buried in the cold earth before him. She had died at twenty. Minnie was her older sister. A gentle hand touched his shoulder. He turned and met Minnie face to face.
“Cora loved this place.” Minnie’s voice was subdued as she handed him a cup of coffee. Her eyes floated over his face like clouds blown by the wind.
“This is no time for cuddlin’,” another voice declared. “We best get this house together before the snow flies.”
Emmett Johnson strode towards the couple as he spoke. Johnson was a carpenter. Short and rotund for a Norwegian, his brown hair and beard were speckled with gray.
“Got the plans right here, Emmett. Let’s take a look.”
Williams pulled the blueprints out of his coveralls and handed them to his neighbor. Johnson stared at the documents. Each piece of lumber was pre-cut, labeled, and corresponded to the numerical scheme of the blueprints.
“That’s the way to build a house. What are we waitin’ for?”
Richard nodded in agreement. It was time to build Minnie Williams a new home.
I can’t tell you what happened to the Williams family. I don’t know whether their third child survived the winter or whether the couple lived a long and happy life. What I can tell you is that, on this January night, as a bitter northwest wind assaults our seventy-five-year-old Sears home, the love of Minnie and Richard Williams can still be felt here.