Through Any Given Door

1.16 Minnesota Catholics and Cows

1920 • Minnesota ~ When the wheels needed to be changed or the axles greased, my father—not yet a man—lifted the more than 200-pound hay wagon with his back, raised it higher with his arms, and held it steady while his older brother Aloysius, or Louie as the family called him, slipped the new wheel on the axle. That’s how strong my father was.

Grandma Clemens

Working in the fields one burning afternoon alongside his mother, he observed her intently. Stooped and worn, gray strands of hair straggling from her bun, dampened by sweat escaping her forehead, he saw how tired and weathered she looked. Her back bent shocking wheat, she took the sheaves of grain, tied them, then carefully stood the bundles upright in the field for drying. He decided right then and there that wasn’t going to happen to him, knowing if he stayed he’d sink into her footprints forever, tied to endless seasons of disking fields, planting corn, and milking cows.

When he was fifteen, Carl pooled his money with three friends, Paul Adamson, Johnny Mohlke, and Tone Conway (Michael Anthony Conway was his given name; later in life he became One-Eyed Mike). They bought a touring car, an open-topped green Chevrolet with isinglass curtains. It was clunker that cost them $10 apiece; it was all they could afford. When they first got it, Johnny, a fiery redhead who didn’t weigh more than 150 pounds and never sat still for more than ten seconds, was the only one who could drive, and he drove like a maniac. He was the drinker of the group, sometimes pouring it down for a week. Tone and Paul drank heavily too, but not like Johnny. Carl, the oldest of the four, was the only one who didn’t partake; alcohol made him sick as a poisoned pup.

They often rolled the car on the country dirt and gravel roads, got out, and tipped it back up on its wheels to take off again. It didn’t go over 60 miles per hour, but Johnny put the pedal to the metal, in town or out. Carl soon took over the driving. He was reputed to be a hot-rodder, accelerating with the cutout wide open. He drove fast, but he drove sober. Every time his mother heard their phone ring, one short and one long, she would shake, sure her son was in another accident and someone was hurt, or worse, dead. Nobody was—not seriously anyway—although Carl did come home once with his arm torn open. A scar ran the whole length of his forearm. It wasn’t something he bragged about.

St. Mary's Farmstead, Minnesota

St. Mary’s Farmstead (current photo)

My grandmother was of the opinion boys should stay home and work on the family farm. Carl was of a different opinion. Trying to please his mother was about as easy as jumping over his own knees, and one morning he disappeared and didn’t come back. Grandma was hurt; she worried about him constantly and prayed he’d return home. No matter to Carl; he was tired of being told what to do. He didn’t go far, just off to his uncle Frank Nigon’s place east of Rochester to work. Then in 1923, he and Tone got a job at St. Mary’s Hospital Dairy Farm, milking cows for a year. The farmstead was a pasteurizing plant and supplied the milk for St. Mary’s hospital. Starting with forty acres, it was run by the Sisters of St. Francis from 1900 until 1925. It was a huge tiled barn built like a U, the east wing used for milking the herd of forty cows, the middle section the bullpen, and the west wing stabling the twelve to fifteen horses. At that time a team of horses cost more than a car. They raised turkeys and chickens too, with everything used for the hospital. A boss and five men did the milking. Carl lived in the bunkhouse over the milk house with Paul Adamson and Tone Conway, each making $15 a month plus their room and board. They did general farm work, milked the cows, and handled the horses, playing penny ante poker in their off time. The nuns worked them hard and paid them little and after a year and a final straw, the three friends had enough and walked out.

Seattle construction site, Carl(?) white cap, front row

When he was eighteen, Carl and Tone decided to head west for work and adventure. They called up Johnny and Paul, and the four friends each packed a cowhide suit case and hopped into their Chevy. The three of them drank their way to Seattle while Carl drove. Sobering up, they decided not to stay, dropped Carl off, turned around and drove back. They knew they were farmers, rooted to the soil of Minnesota. Carl remained in Seattle, first getting a job in the lumber mills and then for a dairy delivering milk. He eventually landed in California where there was better work and better weather. His brother Lawrence joined him for a time, and they gained employment with Frederickson & Watson Construction Company, traveling from job to job; in those days, to find work, unless you were a farmer, you had to go were the jobs were. My father, the only man in the family to leave the farming life, was considered the smart one.

to be continued …

© 2017. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

Share this:


  1. From my cousin Terry Conway: Catherine – I really enjoy your historical notes about our families in Minnesota. I have sent the link from 2013 talking about St. Mary’s farm, which indicates it was built in 1923. I am pretty sure that they were still milking cows there into the ’60s. We knew a farm worker named Gene Fitzgerald who had worked for Dr. Oliver Beahrs (Mayo Clinic) on his farm next to ours on the north side of US 14 and across from the Hemp Farm. (Dr. Beahrs was called in to consult after Ronald Reagan was shot). My sister Marilyn would baby sit for their kids in the late ’50s. He left there to manage St. Mary’s Farm until they ceased farm operations. I am not sure when that was since I left the area in 1967. Dick Hauser may be able to provide more information as his dad was the director of maintenance at St. Mary’s until he retired and moved to CA in the mid ’60s. He probably knew what was going on in those days.

  2. Jim Chatfield says:

    Cathy, you have a wonderful way with words. I can not imagine how much time, travel, and research you have put into all these stories and to find all the pictures to go along with the story. You are amazing and I enjoy every story. Keep up the good work.

    • Hi Jim, I can’t imagine how much time and energy I have into it either. Years, actually. It is nice to have a place though to gather it all and share it with the world, especially family. Thank you for always being such a support!

  3. I feel so lucky to be able to read your posts, they are just wonderful

  4. Susan Davidson Dalberg says:

    I am amazed at how much information you have gleaned about your family’s history. You must be able to speak to the dead, Catherine!! Great story so well written!!

    • When I hit a brick wall I do ask for help and it nearly always appears soon after. A little woo-woo, but I’ll take any help I can get. Fortunately, I was able to interview so many before they passed. Maybe they are still helping me too!

  5. Catherine, You paint your stories so vividly I felt like I was sitting in the front seat with Carl, streaking toward whatever adventure beckoned over the next horizon. Linda

  6. Nicely done! And a great story. You have a gift of describing scenes in such a way that I feel that I am right there.

  7. Marian Clemens says:

    Hi Catherine, This is so important that you wrote that story. I’ve heard you and Gordon talk about it, but not seen it in words and you did it so well. What a different life it was for young people back in the early part of the century. And to make a decision to leave the normal expected life was really major. What a special man your dad was, even when he was a youngster! Wonderful to honor him! You’ve written it vividly. Thanks!!!

Speak Your Mind