Jerry Nelson: Our Jersey steers, like our ancestors, tend to be overachievers

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum
The Johnson Family

The pioneer family, dressed in their sepia Sunday best, gazes back at the camera.

The guy seated at the left is my great-great-grandfather Jens B. Johnson; second from the right in the front row is his wife, Anna; second from the left in the back row is my great-grandmother Betsey.

Jens, who was born in 1840 at Thilemarken, Norway, was orphaned at age 15. Six years later he scraped up enough money to secure steamship passage to America.

Think about that, young people! Not only did Jens embark on this epic adventure solo, but he did so without sharing his exploits on Snapchat or Instagram. Bear that in mind the next time you complain about a sluggish internet connection.

In 1873, Jens filed a pre-emptive claim on the northwest quarter of section 2, Nordland Township, Lyon County, Minnesota. It’s clear from his obituary, published in the Minneota Mascot in 1917, that Jens was an upstanding citizen.

“This community may owe as much to some of the other early settlers, as it does to Mr. Johnson, but it is safe to say that it owes no more to any other man," it read.

Reading those words makes me feel like a slacker. I have never so much as thought about taking part in establishing a new frontier settlement.

But there’s more. Jens’ obit continues: “To this day there are people here who speak of the help that this couple extended to the ‘newcomers’ and how they gave of their little store, shared their supply of food and shelter with the poor and homeless pioneers. Mr. Johnson himself came here a poor man. But he was a good manager and a capable farmer, and he became, financially speaking, as the years went by, one of the most substantial farmers in this locality.”

Jens must have done pretty well for himself. Sadly, that particular talent didn’t make it into my branch of the family tree.

Betsey married Henry Nelson in 1885, and the newlyweds left Minneota to homestead in Brookings County, Dakota Territory. Henry and Betsey had 12 children. But that was a different era, before there was cable TV.

My Nelson grandparents, like many others, endured tough times during the Great Depression. In the 1930s Grandpa and Grandma and temporarily moved with their young family from Brookings County to Minneota, where they probably leaned on the largesse of their Johnson kin. This reliance on the Johnsons continued after Grandpa and Grandma moved back to the farm where my wife and I live.

Betsey’s sister Sina was a free spirit, especially given the mores of the early 20th century. The story goes that Sina married a wealthy man, divorced him, then remarried the same guy. She never had children.

According to family folklore, Grandpa and Grandma Nelson would visit his elderly Aunt Sina whenever they found themselves short on funds. I have a letter that Sina sent to Grandma after such a visit. The gist of her missive is, “It was so nice to see you folks! The check is in the mail.”

Tragically, there was no Aunt Sina analogue for me. My wife and I started from scratch and have been scratching ever since.

The farm where Jens homesteaded is now owned by his great-great-grandson Mark Johnson who, I guess, is my third cousin. I called Mark and asked him what he knew about Jens.

Jerry Nelson

“I understand that he helped start the farmer’s cooperative elevator in Minneota,” Mark replied. “There used to be a plaque in the elevator that listed its founders.”

Oh, great! Yet another reason to feel mediocre. I have never so much as thought about taking part in the launch of a grain cooperative.

There have been numerous occasions for me to visit Minneota, a prairie hamlet that sits amidst fields of rich, alluvial farmland. A mile south of town, half a mile east of the south branch of the Yellow Medicine River, is Jens' and Anna’s farmstead. I have driven past numerous times without realizing the import that the place has in my family’s and the community’s history.

One reason for my trips to Minneota has been to purchase Jersey steers from dairy farmers Greg and Becky Moorse. I have known the Moorse family for many years, and they are extremely nice folks. I didn’t comprehend until recently that their farm is situated about a mile east of the Johnson homestead.

For some reason it feels good to know that our steers came from the neighborhood where Jens and Anna settled nearly 150 years ago. And it may explain why our steers, like Jens, tend to be overachievers.

Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at and in bookstores nationwide.