James Ross: An Unsuccessful Farmer


Debbie Dykhuis


It seems as though most people who came to the Red River Valley found success or at least partial success in farming, but here is the story of a man and his family who were not successful in farming but came through it with their heads held high.

James Ross, my great grandfather, was born June 8, 1876, to Thompson and Margaret Ross. He was the oldest of eight children. Thompson was a Scottish emigrant and Margaret a German emigrant. At the time of James' birth, they were living near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. When he was a small boy, the family pulled up stakes and moved on to Iowa. Perhaps it was the urge to move West that made them decide to move on. His parents farmed there and naturally that's where he grew up. He helped his father farm there and also taught school in the area of Dows, Iowa.

In 1903, James decided to move to Minnesota to make his fortune selling wild hay. He and his brother Felix came to a town named Foxhome which turned out to be James's home for almost the entirety of his life. Foxhome at that time was the wild hay selling capital of the world. Their means of transportation was the train which almost everyone rode if they wanted to get anywhere in a hurry. All the two boys brought with them were their personal belongings. As it turned out, one couldn't make money if one didn't have a lot in the first place so the whole wild hay business was very discouraging for both of them. After about a year and a half of hard luck, Felix decided to go back home to Iowa, but James stayed on. The location of Foxhome is about thirteen miles east of Breckenridge in Wilken County. This is approximately where the Bois de Sioux and the Red River run together or meet.

In 1904, he met Elsie Delight Russell, who also lived in Iowa; however, he met her in Foxhome. He married her on March 15, 1905.

From that time on, they rented farms, a different one almost every year. He had really hard luck the whole time he farmed. One reason was because the soil was alkaline. It seemed as though he was the only one who had that problem.

In 1906, their first of eight children was born. It was a little boy, William. He was to be followed by a brother, Russell. In 1908, twins were born, Margaret and Francis, a girl and a boy.

Then, in 1909, the children and James, their father, were very, very ill with whooping cough which resulted in the death of Francis. Elsie, their mother, wasn't sick and she was left to care for her sick family and take care of the animals, too. To make things more difficult, she was expecting another baby very soon.

Soon after, another baby, a little girl named Naomi, was born.

Then, in 1910, a great historical event which really has nothing to do with the family, but is worthy of mention was Halley's Comet. My grandmother, Margaret, remembers her mother telling of a neighbor who was so afraid the world was coming to an end that he climbed on top of a haystack and set it on fire. The fire got hot and he hopped off the other side and was the subject of jest and friendly ridicule for a long time after.

In 1911, there was another addition to the family, another little boy named Raymond. In 1912, there was a little girl, Esther, born.

Then, in 1913, James purchased his first farm. That must have been a really great thing for him. At last, maybe he would be able to get somewhere. His farm was already established meaning that there was already a house built and a barn, shed, well, house and granary. Their house had four rooms which now would hardly accommodate so many people but it didn't seem to be too bad. Their farm consisted of one hundred sixty acres of land. He had about one hundred to one hundred fifty head of cattle, horses, hogs, and chickens. My grandma remembers the house looking so big compared to where they lived before.

In 1915, the last one of their children was born, a little girl named Ruth.

The personalities of James and Elsie were much different. He was a stubborn, short tempered, hard working man. Elsie was altogether different. She was very tolerant of other's opinions. She was always satisfied with what she had and learned to be happy. They were both real religious, she probably more so than he.

Like most children those days, the children got most of the childhood diseases most children got. One thing that was quite unusual was that Foxhome had a doctor that practices there and also a pharmacy. This was really convenient.

The kids were also quite mischievous. One of the most fun things they did that they weren't supposed to do when they were kids was to ride the calves. They were fun loving as most children are but were duly punished. The razor strap was kept well polished with all the spankings administered with it.

There was really not much time to play as they had a lot of chores to do. When they did play, they played by themselves mostly or they'd dress up. When my grandma (Margaret) and her sister, Naomi, were a little older, they used to sit in the buggy and memorize poetry.

The chores the children had to do were, the boys were expected to care for the animals and then work the fields when older. The girls had most household responsibilities girls have today. The little kids fed the chickens and other little tasks they could do.

The children walked across the prairie one mile to school every day. They never hardly missed a day. All the children finished grammar school in the country and then went on to high school.

In 1918, the family was stricken with illness once more. A flu called the Spanish influenza came down upon the whole nation. It didn't miss the James Ross family either. In September, the first member of the family got it and it was January before the last was over it. Whole families were wiped out by it and it was hard to get a doctor. The symptoms were, the joints ached, upset stomach and it generally weakened you. Again, everyone but Elsie was sick.

Another event of 1918, was that a tornado struck Fergus Falls, about fifteen miles from Foxhome. My grandma can remember the greenish color of the clouds and the way they rolled. That tornado killed quite a few people and whole parts of the town were demolished.

In 1923, there was a big three day blizzard that particularly stands out in my grandma's mind. She remembers that they had to burn potatoes to keep warm.

Otherwise, the weather there was hardly different than here. These were only two storms my grandma remembers.

One of the things that the family did every week was to make a trip to town. They went to Fergus Falls about three times a year but made a trip to Foxhome about once a week. Their farm was about five miles from Foxhome. Foxhome had two general stores, a post office, bank, saloon, two hotels, three grain elevators, and a pool hall. The town still exists and has a population of about 150.

Great-grandpa Ross was also quite a socialite. He was active in church. He was Sunday school superintendent and served on the church board. He spoke at Women's Christian Temperance Union Meetings, Anti-Saloon League meetings, and fourth of July celebrations. As you can see, he must have been quite eloquent. Their family attended the Methodist Church every Sunday possible. He also served as town clerk and served on the school board for many years.

As soon as the children were old enough, they left home, much to their father's dismay. After all the children were gone, James and Elsie remained on the farm

For about six or seven years before 1942, when she died she was afflicted with diabetes and heart trouble. She had always said she hoped none of her boys would ever have to go to war. It was during World War II that Raymond had to go. He left in March, she had a heart attack soon after and died on May 17. As it turned out, he was only in for a year and a half, never had to fight, got the mumps and got a medical discharge.

After that, great-grandpa really aged. He continued to live on the farm until one night he awoke to smoke and the house burned. After that, he lived around with the kids but didn't like that so he went into an old folks home. He found he didn't like that either because all the other people spoke Scandinavian and he couldn't understand it. William, his oldest boy took him to Kentucky to live with him. He died there on February 3, 1955.

All the children, except Francis, survive today. They all married, also. William works for cattle and horse associations in Kentucky and Tennessee; Russell is a preacher at a mission in Sheridan, Wyoming; Margaret was a school teacher, registered nurse and telephone operator. Naomi, was a teacher, Raymond is a preacher and a carpenter in Kentucky, Esther is a registered nurse and resides in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Ruth worked as an occupational therapist in an insane asylum in Fergus Falls. All the girls were housewives as well as their other occupations.

That is the story of a man and his family who tried to make a go of farming in the great Red River Valley and were unsuccessful but didn't give up. James Ross was too proud to give up. He accepted the fact that it wouldn't be easy and worked hard to do as well as he did. He was a man who stood up for what he felt was right and was one to let people know about it. He may have been an unsuccessful farmer but his life, to me, was far from unsuccessful. I'm proud to look back at him and his pioneer family and I'm sure the rest of my family is too.


Dykhuis, Margaret, Humboldt, Ill. Interviewed, January 5, 1974

Hanson, Margaret, Virginia City, Interviewed, January 3, 1974

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