Bridget (Delia) Snee Brennan

Photo:Bridget Delia Snee Brennan

Bridget Delia Snee Brennan

Author, personal collection

Photo:Richard Brennan, son of Bridget on right

Richard Brennan, son of Bridget on right

Author, personal collection

The Brennan Saga

By Pete Langenfeld

Our grandfather was Patrick Brennan, born in Sligo in 1837. He was eight or nine years old at the time of the terrible potato famine in which considerably more than half the population of the western counties died of starvation. Possibly our great-grandparents were victims of that tragedy and grandpa was somehow taken care of by others for a few years. He and our grandmother emigrated on the same sailing ship during the early sixties, they spent six weeks crossing the Atlantic and landed at Boston. Here he found work in the construction industry “carrying the hod” which was a box like implement on a wooden pole to be filled with wet mortar and carried on one’s shoulder up the scaffolding to the place where the bricklayers would be working.

Our grandmother was Bridget Snee of neighboring County Mayo, born August 15,1845. She came to America in the company of her father, James Snee, and of her two of her brothers, James and Patrick and two of her sisters, Anne and Mary. Anne became Mrs. Maurice O’Connor and one of her daughters is now Mrs. Oliver Frost. Mary married John Henry and one of her daughters whom we remember most clearly was Mrs. Alrick Hartman.

Our great grandfather stayed only a short time in America and returned to Ireland where he lived for over twenty years before finally arriving one day, unannounced, in Hastings. Pat Brennan asked young Biddy Snee if she would be his bride and she answered that first she would have to ask her sister Anne. Pat said not to take too long to decide about it for if she didn’t soon say yes; he would be off to join the United States Army fighting in the south. Anne must have approved the match, and so here we are now, part of their progeny.

From Boston to Minnesota

In Boston the young couple had two sons, James in 1864 and Thomas in 1865, then they must have scrimped and saved up enough capital to be able to leave the back breaking toil of Boston behind to secure a little farm of their own in the newly developed land of Minnesota. They rented a farm for a year or two near Colby’s Lake in Woodbury Township. The land is fertile there and the distance to the bustling new city of St. Paul was not very great. Grandpa thought they should establish permanent residence in that area, but the Snee’s had all settled on farms along the St. Croix and Grandma prevailed upon him to buy a tiny hillside farm there so she would be near her people.

For the rest of their living days Grandpa was in the habit of throwing it up to her that the reason they were as poor as they were was because she had not agreed to making their home and farm at Colby’s Lake. However the land was all new and not subject to erosion, the amount of wheat that could be grown upon an acre was fantastically more than could be grown on an acre of the stony ground they had known in Ireland so that for a few years they were comparatively prosperous.

A son named John was born 1867, Charles in 1869, and another son in 1871 who only lived a few hours. The baby’s body was buried at a spot along the north line of the farm and for years the family maintained a marked there but the exact location is now long forgotten. Our father, Mark, was born August 20, 1873. Grandpa was working on the public road that day and Uncle Jim who was then nine was instructed to go and summon his father home. On the way little Jim began to wonder why his father should leave his four dollar a day job to come home and sit around while a baby was being born. So he sat down on the ground to think it over and Grandpa came home on schedule at six o’clock and discovered his sixth son squalling in the cradle.

After having six sons, Patrick and Bridgit became the parents a daughter in 1875. They named her Katherine, but everybody called her Kate. She became a teacher and later married a city man, Archie Emerson so that, while all the rest of us cousins were somewhat the products of the soil, our Emerson cousins were somewhat more sophisticated and represented to us the glamour of St. Paul. The other members of the Brennan family have long ago died, but Aunt Kate still lives in 1971.

Richard was born in 1878 and the baby, Margaret, always to us, “Aunt Maggie” was born in 1880. Aunt Maggie married Morris James and went to farm in Saskatchewan. Not thriving in Canada they came back to our area for a few years only to take off again to try farming in the woods around Pine River. That venture was no success either but Aunt Maggie, who had always heard her mother blamed for spoiling the family's opportunities, left the decisions to Uncle Morris and willingly accompanied him on all their moves.

Tales by the Hearth

It must have been quite crowded at the Brennan farmhouse when all the family was together, but they even took in boarders the year that the railroad was built along the river from Hastings to Stillwater. The house was probably not very snugly built so on the coldest nights some of the brothers would sit up most of the night adding fuel to the fires to keep the place warm. It would be interesting now to know what the subjects of their conversations were through the long dark winter hours. Grandpa could not read, but he loved to hear the tales the others told and no doubt he could also tell a few of his own. A lot of their firewood was from white pine logs which had gone astray on their journey down the St. Croix the saw mills at Prescott and Point Douglas. Such logs often washed ashore and the beach and could be had for the taking. In the summer no window screens ever graced the windows and the flies and mosquitos that came in were something that had to be lived with. There was no well on the farm, water was hauled in a wooden barrel for household use and the animals had to descend a steep incline to the river in order to drink. It must have been a problem to find open water for the livestock during the months the river was frozen over. The cows were milked only in the summer months and no sweet fresh milk was available for the growing boys and girls, but it was all left sitting in pans until it turned sour so that all the cream could be skimmed. Grandma made butter from the cream and carried it on her back uphill and downhill all the way to Afton and sold it for pennies a pound to get some necessary spending money.

The house they lived in stood there until 1908 when it was replaced. The walls of the old house were used by our dad then to build an extension on our house and they are still there serving their purpose. During a period of remodeling once, pine boards two feet wide were discovered nailed perpendicularly in the wall.

On occasion, Grandpa liked to drink whiskey and Christmas Eve was always an occasion. One year on the day before Christmas he and his brother-in-law, Pat Snee, walked on the frozen river all the way to Hastings ten miles or more and walked all the way back each carrying a gallon jug of whiskey. Climbing up the steep icy bank within a few rods of his home Uncle Pat slipped and fell, breaking the jug and spilling the precious contents. Whether or not Grandpa then shared his treasure with the unfortunate Uncle Pat we will never know. Our dad told us about one Christmas eve when he was a little fellow his father and big brothers  were enjoying their cheer and his brother Tom extended a full cup at arm’s length and proceeded to make an eloquent speech. On impulse little Mark took the cup from Tom’s hand drained it down and passed out like a light. On hearing the tale forty years later I asked in wide-eyed wonder, “What did your father do then?”-  “He didn’t care,” my father answered “there was plenty more in the jug.” When our grandmother started out to tell a story she had heard from her Pat, he would sit with his mouth open until she finished and then he would storm, “Devil take a mon for ever telling you anything!” then he would tell it his way.

Employment on neighboring farms

Of course there wasn’t enough work to keep all the boys busy on their little farm so they sought employment on neighboring farms. Our dad recalled that Lou Orr could be depended upon to find some task for him to do when he needed a little money for a special purpose. Grandpa would go to some of the farmers who owed his sons some wages and collect them for his own use, but Lou Orr would pay the wages only to the boy who had earned it. Uncle Jim, the eldest son, was the first one to go into farming for himself and lived as a bachelor in a shack on a small farm a few miles north of home on Trout Creek. His brothers and sisters remembered afterward that they were often called upon to work for their brother Jim without pay but, the way he remembered it, he never got ahead very much on his farm because he so often was asked to bring his horses and equipment to help out back home. When he was thirty-four year old he married Elizabeth Murphy, the spinster oldest daughter of a well-to-do farmer who lived a few miles west of his place and he purchased a large fertile farm only two or three miles from Hastings. Here he was quite successful, building a large stock barn with a lofty hay mow. He raised horses and cows extensively. He employed competent help and raised good crops besides taking on such outside activities as driving his team on a school bus route and also driving a team every other Saturday to St. Paul to market produce and to bring back supplies that could be bought at favorable prices. He bought a Model T Ford in about 1914 which he was still driving about fourteen years later. As he drove he sat practically in the middle of the seat with his knees spread wide so that anybody riding in the front seat was practically outside the car. Whether the steering mechanism was faulty or whether he just had adopted the habit of over steering, the fact was that he always drove on both sides of the road.

Uncle Jim and Aunt Lizzie never had any children of their own but they made a home for two little girls, Mamie and Catherine Stenson, whose mother died at the time Catherine was born. Their father, Jimmy Stenson lived there too and worked on the farm. In 1918 Aunt Lizzie’s father died and Aunt Lizzie bought a house at 411 Tyler Street in Hastings and took her Mother there to live. Uncle Jim somewhat reluctantly went along, having rented the farm to Jimmy Stenson and Jimmy’s brother Martin. Life in town was not for Uncle Jim however and he bought eighty acres at the top of the long Hastings hill about one mile from town. He moved a tar paper shack on to the place and built a nice barn there and continued to farm. He slept alone in his shack at night and went into town with his milk every morning and stopped up on Tyler Street for breakfast. Aunt Lizzie’s house, for years, was a handy stopping place for the numerous Murphy and Brennan country relatives. Agnes lived there two years while attending high school. Dorothy and Lawrence put their horse in the little stable onthe alley in the back and walked up to school each day. During my final two years at Hastings High I often stopped in for noon lunch and on several  occasions stayed overnight. Agnes moved into the house in 1942. Uncle Jim died in 1944, Aunt Lizzie in 1959 and Agnes still has her rooms up on the second floor of the house.

Tom Brennan was small in stature but strong and tough and was said to have licked a man twice his size. He was never much of a hand for staying home but he was ever out seeking adventure. One Sunday afternoon, while the members of the community were enjoying a leisurely outing in the woods, Uncle Tom hitched up a pair of unbroken colts and created a sensation when they ran away with him and demolished the buggy at the picnic grounds. He was, no doubt, admired by his older brother Mark who chose him to be the best man at his wedding in 1896. In 1898 gold was discovered in the Klondike region in Alaska and Tom was one of the hordes of venturesome men who went on the long cold arctic trail to seektheir fortunes. The family received a few letters from him which told that he hadseen some of the freshly panned gold but never that he had secured any for his own. Later, word came from strangers that he had been the victim of an accident and that he had died and was buried there in the frozen north. About the actual conditions of his final days, his loved ones could only guess.

Jack

John Brennan, always known as Jack, was the show-off of the whole group, the one picked to call at square dances or to lead the singing at informal entertainments. He stopped the music at one country dance to make the announcement that a purse containing a large amount of money had been found by Miss Helen Hunt and that anyone who lost his purse could just go to Helen Hunt for it. Uncle Jack, like the traditional Irish boy, was in no hurry to settle down to married life; he spent winters in the logging camps of northern Minnesota where of course he must have entertained the roughnecks there in the long winter evenings. He enjoyed the companionship of lots of different fellows and learned new tricks from some of them. He memorized or helped to compose ballads of lumber camp life mentioning, among other things, the vermin that infested the bunks. He got to be proficient at dealing his cards and was even reverting to the old habit years later but by that time his work worn hands tended to make him honest. During the harvest months he sometimes went to the Dakotas when prairie chickens were so numerous he once killed one with a pitchfork. His voice was loud and clear; late one night as he was expected home with his team from a long trip, his brother Jim heard the familiar tones of one of his favorite songs coming from down the road and hurried to prepare supper. It was over an hour later that Jack finally arrived, his song having gone on ahead of him five miles.

Cousin Picnics

Over forty years ago, when Uncle Jack was about the age I am now, he was the center of attention at our huge “cousin picnics” and I can hear him yet, at the call to lunch, shouting, “Ice cold lemonade, made in the shade and stirred by the finger of a dirty old maid and sold by honest John who never told a lie!” When he was thirty-five years old he finally drifted into a situation that resulted in his marriage to Agnes Murphy who was Aunt Lizzie’s childlike younger sister. Aunt Aggie was the victim of various physical or psychological ailments that kept her in bed a great deal of the time, often without speaking a word for weeks. They had three children, the oldest, Milton, died in infancy, the second, a beautiful girl, was what we called “feeble minded.” Later a child of such nature would be called“retarded” and now I notice that we have special schools for “exceptional children.” Her name was  Mabel and she died during her teenage years at a state school at Faribault. Roy was born in 1908 and lives now in Hastings. Uncle Jack was a hard, willing worker and the exertions of his youth made him suffer with rheumatism as he grew older but he wasn’t a prudent planner and didn’t prosper much. They were on two different farms in Washington County and on one near Cannon Falls before buying a farm six miles south of Hastings. Hardening of the arteries began to cause brain damage when Uncle Jack was getting old but as he had always been such a clown anyway it was some time before lots of us could  realize that he was not just putting on an act. In 1944 he was visiting at Reg Frost’s on threshing day and accidentally hitched a ride with the threshing crew up the highway to another farm. Someone got him headed back in the direction he belonged and I discovered his talking to himself and sliding his pitch fork in front of him straight down the center line of highway 61 past our place. He died in the hospital in St. Peter on October of 1945.

Uncle Charlie

People always told me I resembled my Uncle Charlie in appearance and personality. My father, especially, didn’t always consider the statement a compliment for Uncle Charlie had found ways to avoid pitching into hard tasks and he was slow in his manner of speech and somewhat of a dreamer. I first knew him when he visited us a few days at Christmas time in 1918 and I shed tears of regret when it came time for him to leave. This pleased him so that I came to be considered his favorite nephew and I considered him my favorite uncle and chose the name Charles for my second name at confirmation. Charlie’s early interest had been steam engines and it was his delight to serve as engineer on the threshing crew, arising long before dawn to build up the fire and be the first one in the countryside to sound the morning whistle. He went out to western Minnesota to work on farms and there he met and married Sophie Buck, the daughter of a farmer who had migrated there from Cottage Grove a few years before. They rented farms in Big Stone County where things were done on a bigger way than at home and he was more scornful of his younger brothers operations on their tiny farms, saying he spent more money foolishly than they made in a year. They admitted this but then made him admit that, as each new season began, they had just as much to go on as he did. He thought he recognized an opportunity in homesteading on virgin land in North Dakota and moved his family out onto some bleak treeless acres somewhere near the Missouri River along the southern border of North Dakota about 1910. They had two daughters, Barbara and Beth, and a son Maurice. It was necessary to live there seven years to qualify to receive title. Life was hard in the primitive environment, Aunt Sophie was resentful of the fact that she and her daughters had to endure it. She entreated Uncle Charlie that if she were to die he was not to bury her there in that God-forsaken land. It was not easy to derive much income from their acreage there and Uncle Charlie had to leave the rest of the family on the farm while he contracted to do freight hauling across the prairie with his team. At that time he let his beard grow as full as possible to protect his face from winter wind. Seven years passed and the farm became theirs and they moved back two hundred miles east again and rented farms once more in Big Stone County among Sophie’s friends and relations. Soon Uncle Charlie learned of a job opening on the railroad at Linton, North Dakota. His talent really was operating steam engines and the salary would surely be more than they could expect to clear by farming so Aunt Sophie again kissed her sisters good-bye and they went west once more, although she reluctantly boarded the train that took them away.

In 1920 she spent several months at our house as our mother was slowly dying of cancer and we all loved her for it. Anyway at Linton they lived in town, first in two converted box cars beside the tracks, but later on, in a nice little painted cottage on a sunny street. I spent two lazy weeks there when I was twenty, visiting Uncle Charlie as he worked on his train, playing cards, attending movie shows or sightseeing the neighborhood. When I got home I had gained ten or fifteen pounds. Aunt Sophie died in 1932 and, true to his promise, Uncle Charlie brought her back to Minnesota and buried her here at Hastings. When he had retired from the railroad he divided his time among Barbara at Clinton and Beth at Clara City and Maurice who lived in our neighborhood. He came to stay overnight with us quite often and loved to play cards. He especially enjoyed winning, which made his laugh with glee, but he always looked somewhat sober when he appeared to be the loser. He left Barbara’s one winter day in 1946, supposedly either for Beth’s or Maurice’s, and never arrived at either place. For two months everybody wondered where he was then one day in the spring his body was discovered in the Mississippi River at South St. Paul. How he happened to be there will always remain a mystery to us.

My Own Father

Writing about one’s own father is somehow different than writing about other well remembered loved ones because his influence on our own lives is so intense that it’s hard to be objective. He has been dead forty-two years but never a day passes that doesn’t hold some memories of the time we spent together. His formal education was all obtained at the one-room Basswood school and, except for one trip to Big Stone County about the turn of the century and one to Pine River twenty-five years later, he was never more than thirty mile from his birth place, but he had an eager curiosity and a retentive memory that made him a more brilliant person than many who have gone through college. We still have a boyhood account book he kept which reveals that at twelve or thirteen he was chewing tobacco. Another journal of a few years later records the meager expenditures for his wedding and the early years of his marriage. The open school that is attracting so much attention now as an innovation and a great step forward was already a fact back in the nineteenth century at Basswood Grove. If there was work to be done on the farm the children didn’t come to school, they attended when no other duty called them elsewhere. They didn’t have rigid grades but progressed in each subject according to their individual interests and ability. Dad was still going back for short periods of instruction during the winter months when he was seventeen years old and way taller than the teacher. He regreted later on that, though several of the other members of the family got to attend high school at Hastings, his chance at it never came. He learned all the poetry in the reading books because there was nothing more available in the country school to work on, and he recited the poems to us years later.

When dad was eighteen he went to work on a large farm for a man named Mac Murphy who lived east of Prescott. We have seen the high mound there that he used to climb to look longingly up the St. Croix toward home when he was lonesome. In his early years he loved to make an exhibition of his strength and endurance, which was a good deal for the employer but paid for in aches and pains by my father forever after. He somehow managed to buy a team of broncos and a little bit of equipment and he and Ed Priestly went into partnership renting the farm that is now Harold Stenson’s. While there he began to spend his leisure hours at the George Harris farm adjoining his and wooed and won beautiful Josie Harris. She was eighteen and he was twenty-two. They married at six o’clock in the morning February fourth, 1896. They lived with her parents and her brother Blake for a year or more from where Dad continued operating his rented farm and also assisted at the Harris place. For a short time during the winter he had employment with a manufacturing company somewhere in the Twin Cities. The company was having financial difficulties and laid off the men with no money on hand to pay their final wages. Walking disconsolately away from the job, Dad noticed a new scoop shovel, unattended, and he appropriated it for his own. We were still using it, in battered condition, when I was a boy and Dad’s conscience bothered him a little because the company had eventually paid the men their back wages. Our folks rented a farm near the Denmark town hall; there Marie was born. They rented a different farm across the road and that was Agnes’ birthplace. In 1903 they bought a little farm of their own that remained the Brennan place until Miriam and I sold it to Jerry Wright in 1964. There they raised eight children, six daughters and two sons, and there all the cherished memories of our association with our parents are centered.

Lent

Our father didn’t exactly subscribe to the belief that to spare the rod is to spoil the child but I do recall a few occasions where he applied the palm of his hand to the seat of my britches in order to build my character. The season of lent was observed in our household, then the whole family knelt at various spots in the dining room each evening to recite the rosary. Dad had given up the habit of chewing tobacco but did enjoy smoking a pipe. Every Ash Wednesday, in spirit of sacrifice, he put away the pipe until he joyfully lit it up again on Easter morning. He was intensely interested in public education and was one of the prime movers in the effort that resulted in the construction of a modern school building at Langdon in 1918. Maries had already finished high school but it was Dad’s pleasure to send all the rest of us to the school at Langdon and he followed closely the progress of each one of us there through the years. He was a member of the school board as long as he lived and rarely missed a social event that took place at the school house.

Road Boss

Dad was as interested in work on the public roads as he was in farm work/ He had the position of what was known as road boss on rebuilding projects on portions of Cottage Grove township roads. He was paid a lump sum from town funds and then with his own personal checks he paid the other farmers who worked there with their horses. After 1921 the road past our farm became known as state highway number 3 and at a later date number 61. Dad had the job of maintaining the condition of five miles of the highway until the first pavement was built there in 1927, his daily trips on the horse drawn road grader provided lots of opportunities for conversations with passing farmers on their wagons and with farm wives who might be out working in their lawns and with motorists confused in their directions or stalled engine trouble. Life surely moved along at a more leisurely pace fifty years ago that it does now.

Our mother died in 1920, the very year that Marjorie was born, and it must have been a fearsome prospect for our Dad to look to the future without her. I guess none of us was aware of the task he had of being protector, provider, disciplinarian, counselor and companion to each of us. He was afflicted about 1926 with some kind of ailment that was never firmly diagnosed although he visited every doctor in town. Every movement became painful but he still managed to do some work, as he was directing the spreading of gravel on a Washington County road the hour that he died. The date was August 16, 1929

Uncle Dick

As he was the youngest son, it became Uncle Dick’s lot to be the one to remain at home on the family farm and to take care of our grandparents. After his parents died Uncle Dick made a cash payment to each of his brothers and sisters and became owner of the land. One of our Uncles once asserted that Dick had been favored because he obtained the farm by making such small money payment but the truth of the matter was that he probably could have done better, had he settled at another place. By this time the land was now longer new and water erosion on the long hillside that led to the river was taking its toll in the productivity of the land. All of his brothers and sisters were glad to have him remain there to maintain a home base where they had all put down roots. When he was a child, Uncle Dick had injured a foot by sliding down a straw stack and landing on frozen ground. Because of the poor quality of medical care that he received, he was permanently crippled and was never able to touch the heel of his foot to the floor. He married Clara Robinson of Hastings and they became parents of Robert, Evelyn, Paul, Elinor and Ruth. Evelyn died at a very young age but we were good friends and playmates to the rest of the children as we were growing up. Uncle Dick seemed to me to be a rather severe head of household and I was a little afraid of him when I was small. I’m sure he really had a sentimental nature; I know he never missed an opportunity to kiss any one of his numerous nieces. The farm was too small to return much income from grain crops or cattle but Uncle Dick and Aunt Clara were expert at poultry and garden production and we always went there in June to get strawberries. In the hot weather the beach of the St. Croix was the scene of many happy gatherings for us.

Uncle Dick spent part of his time maintaining the public roads of the neighborhood and he sometimes worked on the ice of the river with his horses in a project of sieving out the rough fish. As a potential of the St. Croix as a recreational retreat for the city dwellers began to be developed, Uncle Dick had work in the construction and upkeep of summer homes not far from their place. I spent a week at Uncle Dick’s in June of 1935 where I lowed a few acres of land with a walking plow, following his old white Patsy and Paddy back and forth across the field with my hands guiding the plow. Exploring the premises where my Father had spent his childhood and listening to the reminiscences of his brother Dick made it a memorable week. Uncle Dick had driven a team of horses, one time, all the way home from Clinton over unmarked country roads, inquiring for directions as he traveled along and stopping overnight where friendly farm people welcomed him. The route traversed the entire width of Minnesota so that he spent several days making the journey. Grandpa Brennan had died in January of 1912 and the day of his funeral procession wound its long slow way to Hastings was long remembered as the coldest day ever experienced in our locality. Grandma Brennan was a victim of Diabetes before the discovery of the use of Insulin. There was no known treatment as her impairment caused the flesh of her feet to continue to decay. Aunt Clara had been called upon to trim away her mother-in-law’s toes, while Uncle Dick made the task bearable by filling the room full of tobacco smoke. Grandma died in 1915.

Uncle Dick rented a large level farm eight miles south of Hastings in 1928 and all the family except Robert moved off of the old place for two years for more expansive farming but by 1931 they were back home again where they lived for another dozen years. In a way, the homestead began to seem more isolated because, as the public roads continued to be improved, their half mile of driveway deteriorated and the family was often stuck there at home when they had rather been away. Finally they sold the place to Jimmy Snee and they moved to town. From then on they lived in various places; sometimes Uncle Dick and Aunt Clara would be by themselves and sometimes they would be with one or the other of their sons or daughters. Part of the time they were in Hastings but mostly they had rural homes in Dakota County. Aunt Clara died in 1952 and Uncle Dick became somewhat lost without her. As he grew old he suffered a personality change that made him extremely hard to live with. Finally the children had no other choice but to have him go stay at the mental hospital in Hastings. I visited him there two or three times and found that he would be perfectly lucid for a few minutes but then drift off into unreality. His death came in 1958, for the last time, I helped to carry one of my uncles to his grave.

We had a chance to visit the location of the old homestead in 1971. All the buildings have been removed and weed and brush have grown up around the site. An old windmill tower is the only visible sign, as you drive by, that a family once lived here. Pushing my way through the brambles, I came upon the old cellar and stood on its edge in silent, sad contemplation of all the years that have so swiftly flown.

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