LEWIS and JOHN DURAND for THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT
Family stories and first-hand accounts are sometimes received skeptically. When the language of another era is used, the story may seem ‘romantic’ or possibly offensive, discrediting it in the minds of some readers. Yet this story of a childhood in Wisconsin at the turn of the 20th century describes aspects of social and economic history that are largely lost in the narratives we encounter today. The harvesting practices of late 19th/early 20th century Native Americans are documented in photos taken by members of the famous McCormick family of Chicago and held by the Wisconsin State Archives as well as by Russell Lee, a photographer employed by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. Nineteenth-century accounts and current scholarship describe conflicts that arose over berry harvesting in the American woodlands in the past.—Ed.
Lewis Durand was 80 years old and a recent widower when he began writing what he called “history stories” about his early life in northwest Wisconsin. Born in 1905 into a pioneer French-Canadian family that came to number eleven boys and three girls, Lewis farmed his entire life not far from his family’s original homestead. Although his language concerning Native Americans would not be considered politically correct today, it was the language he grew up with. “The Caravan” describes one of his vivid memories as a four-year-old, when his mother sold her entire supply of fresh-baked bread to a passing caravan of Indians. —John Durand
It was an early summer day in 1909. I was four years old. My brother and I had been playing under the large pine tree next to our home. We had few neighbors. Our family was among the earliest settlers in the area. My older brother had been the first white child born in our township. It was not common to see travelers on the road that passed by our homestead.
That is why we were surprised to see this big cloud of dust coming down the road. We stopped what we were doing to watch. The dusty column was very long, and as it came closer we could see that it was an Indian caravan. We could see the braves walking at the head of the procession. We ran as fast as our bare feet could carry us to tell our mother. She had just had finished her bread baking. She had her twenty loaves of bread lined up to cool. My father was not at home that day.
She came out under the big pine tree to watch with us. Our long driveway with open fields on each side allowed us a good view. The caravan must have been a quarter of a mile long. We could see the squaws walking behind the men. They wore long skirts and their hair was done in long braids. Some of the older ones wore their hair in a twisted braid pulled back into a pug. We could see the papooses strapped to the backs of some of the younger ones. Next came buggies pulled by Indian ponies. They were open four-wheeled buggies with very little in the way of a top on them. There must have been fifteen or twenty of them. The older Indians who weren’t able to walk rode in these buggies. Some braves walked with the buggies.
The Indians’ dogs brought up the rear of the caravan. We learned later that the dogs were never permitted to go ahead. They were to protect the end of the caravan. From what? Well, from wolves and other warriors. There was no such thing as a police escort in those days. A well-organized caravan had to protect itself.
The caravan stopped. We saw two braves standing at the end of our driveway. They began to walk toward the house. My mother gripped our hands tightly. They were dressed plainly. Maybe their clothes were made of skin, I don’t know. I know they had deerskin moccasins on their feet. That was the skin age. Shoes didn’t come until later. Their long black hair was tied back.
They were very close now. Mother remained with us under the pine tree. I had crawled under her long skirts and was peering out. They stopped in front of my mother and began to speak brokenly to her. They were on their way to the blueberry camps. Did she have any food she’d like to sell…maybe bread?
I thought about my mother’s bread all lined up in that big row. It had taken her two days to make it. The first day she had mixed it in her large bread pan. (Sometimes my father would borrow this pan to mix medicine for the horses!) Mother was not very tall and I can still see her punching and kneading that big pile of dough. Those were the days before compressed yeast so the bread took longer to rise. Mother’s large iron cook stove kept the kitchen warm enough for that. The first thing she had done upon arising that morning was to bake the bread in their metal pans. She did this three times a week to feed her growing family of hungry boys.
Mother hesitated a minute and then asked the Indians to wait there. She went into the house. (I tailed after her!) She returned with two loaves of bread, handing a loaf to each of them. They each gave her a dime. They thanked my mother and left. When they returned to the caravan with their bread, we saw two more Indian braves start toward the house. They stopped at the end of the driveway long enough to lay their guns down before coming the rest of the way. Again my mother brought out two loaves of bread, exchanging them for two dimes. They did not ask her for more than one loaf each. This was repeated until all of my mother’s bread was gone.
The caravan started to move again. We watched it until it was out of sight. Mother stood there with her twenty dimes. She would be able to buy a 50 lb. bag of flour for 99¢. She would bleach the flour sacks it came in and sew clothing…like the underwear my brother and I were wearing that morning. She seemed pleased. She didn’t seem concerned about whether she had “broken even.” Bread was considered the staff of life in those days and she had been able to share hers. My brother and I returned to our play as she headed back into the house to start her long process of bread-making again. There would not be fresh bread for supper, but maybe she would cut off tiny pieces of the rising dough and fry them for us. We loved to eat these “dough dobbies” drowned in syrup.
It would be autumn before we would see the caravans again…this time on their way to wild rice harvest. This time my mother felt more at ease when they stopped to inquire about her bread. They would camp at a lake about three miles from our home during the harvest. My brother and I would lie awake at night listening to the beat of their drums.
As the years went by, we became more accustomed to the Indians…one of them becoming my father’s closest friend. The caravans disappeared with my childhood…diminishing in size until they finally disappeared. There got to be a lot of Model-Ts around, and eventually families traveled to the blueberry woods in family units rather than large caravans. But I will never forget the mixture of fear and excitement I felt as a boy to see those long dusty columns and to hear the tom-toms in the night!