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  • Family Legend: Bread-Making and Indian Visitors in 1854

    Eleanor Cooley Rue

    Published Date : August 1986
     The fire was crackling cheerily in the big fireplace in the little, new cabin on the west bank of the Mississippi in the pioneer community of Otsego, Wright County, Minnesota, that chilly wintry day in late 1854. Margaret Faulkner Cooley had punched down the sponge for her weekly bread supply, placed it in a large, bowl-like pan, covered it with a white cloth, and set it on a chair in a warm spot near the fire to rise before being shaped into loaves and baked.  She hummed while busily taking care of other needed tasks. Husband Alvah Cooley, who with his family had arrived in 1853 from Hambridge, New York, was away working as a millwright.  Berton, age eleven, and Ellen, age eight, were studying their lessons at the kitchen table - the family center for eating, working, studying, playing - as a school would not be opened there until November 1, 1855 (with Margaret as the first temporary teacher).  Little Ada, like most five-year olds, was happily playing about and keeping tabs on everything going on.  Hearing sounds, she ran to the window and piped out, “Goody, it’s company; Mom, the Indians are coming!”

    Sure enough, approaching were four friendly Winnebago neighbors, wrapped warmly in their blankets, coming to visit their white neighbors.  Margaret went to the door to welcome them, and the children relinquished their chairs (that Alvah, a good carpenter, had made with other simple furniture for the 16 by 18-foot cabin [addition built later] into which the family moved about May 1st from their temporary home at Orono, now a part of Elk River, across the Mississippi).  Margaret greeted the guests and motioned for them to remove their wraps and be seated.  The Indians knew only a smattering of English, and Margaret and the children even less Indian language, but as among the very few residents of this pioneer rural area, their mutual needs for companionship and friendship outweighed the need for words; and gestures, smiles, and a few words conveyed hospitality and friendship.

    One of the visitors - perhaps it was honest Old Horora - owed Alvah ten dollars at the time a year or two later when all the Winnebagoes were sent north to the Red Earth Indian Reservation.  The following January he and his two grown daughters rode back near 200 miles on their ponies, to repay this debt and have a three-day visit and the best that Margaret’s larder could offer.

    Or perhaps it was the “keen, straight-limbed young hunter White Wolf who, when packed ready to move to the Reservation, gravely came and offered to trade all his prized possessions - the pony loaded down with furs and wampum, and even his valued rifle - for his little playmate, tomboy Ada, who used to sit on his lap and hold his fingers, tracing over the letters in her primer; and who rode away dejectedly when the offer was refused by the family saddened to see their friends forced to move far away.

    Anyhow, one of the Indians spied the chair cozily close to the fire and selected that for his seat before Margaret could whisk away the cloth-covered pan of bread dough.

    Poor Margaret!  Her thoughts swirled! There seemed no way to ask the newly seated man to rise so she could extract the soft cushioned seat into which he had sunk, without appearing rude.  The Indians didn’t understand the making of yeast bread; they baked unleavened cakes.  The children, seeing the dilemma, threatened to burst into titters, but a warning glance from Margaret silenced them.  So all held in during the visit, the glad acceptance  of a gift of nuts and berries brought by the visitors, the heating and serving of hot apple cider (without the spices - cloves, allspice and nutmeg - the children loved, but perhaps the Indians would not), the serving of soda-raisin-cakes from the cookie jar, the mutual exchange of pleasantries, the gift of more cakes for the Indians to take home, and soon, the guests’ departure.

    Later, after the now sad-looking, over-flowing pan of ruined dough was thrown away, they all had a good laugh.  And the children shouted their approval when Margaret said, “I’m afraid we’ll run a bit short of bread before another batch is ready to bake, so how about if, instead of porridge and toast for breakfast, we have buckwheat cakes with maple syrup?”  And when Alvah arrived home, he too enjoyed the amusing tale, as each child excitedly told it in his or her own way, with mimicking gestures. Their descendants continue to enjoy it to this day.

    By Eleanor Cooley Rue
    Nevada City, California

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