Laforest E. Potter, an Example of Early Minnesotan Grit and Determination

On a lark one day, I meandered around on the internet, searching for one of my great-grandfathers on my mother’s side. Imagine my surprise when I discovered he has his own Wikipedia entry, plus a YouTube video done by a stranger. Not bad for a man with humble beginnings who lived most of his life in the 1800s.

Why does he merit such acclaim in 2022? One reason is that he was a Minnesota state senator. Another is that he was a regent for the University of Minnesota. The final reason has to do with bricks. Yes, bricks. I’ll explain near the end of this post.

Laforest Potter

A cousin recently sent me recollections that Laforest, also known as “L. E.” (for Laforest Edgar), wrote later in life about his younger days. I’d like to share some of the highlights.

Laforest Potter was born in the same year that Minnesota became a state — 1858. But he was not born in the state where he spent most of his life. He was born in Ripon, Wisconsin. Both of his parents (John Potter and Olive Weymouth Potter) had moved there from Maine. His father was an orphan who farmed rented land and worked in the woods and on the water.

When Laforest was six, his father “rigged up a covered wagon and loaded in his belongings, which were mostly kids,” (he had ten!) “and started with others for Minnesota.” Laforest remembers crossing the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. It was on the Mississippi where he saw his first steamboat.

The family lived on the banks of the Watonwan River near Madelia, Minnesota, in the upper story of a log house owned by another family, who lived on the first floor. That family ended up spreading typhoid fever to Laforest and one of his brothers, who both survived.

Laforest remembers when he fell ill: “Father was working on a threshing machine to earn a living for us kids and one day in late fall, us boys were going to the woods to find wild grapes that had dried on the vines (and there were plenty). We got a short distance from the house when I became so sick, I had to turn back, and that was the last I remember until I was getting well.”

The next spring, they rented a log home across the river. That winter they were hard up for clothing and food. “At one time all we had was some small potatoes and not many of them. Father was away most of the time working at whatever he could get to do. Work was scarce, wages, low, and prices high.”

The family survived a deadly snowstorm that blocked roads and drifted through the cracks between the logs in their home until “our beds and the floor were covered when we got up in the morning . . . Father, knowing the condition we were in, started for home on foot with food. He made the trip where a less robust, determined man would have perished.”

When spring arrived, the family moved again to a farm near Mankato. They lived there for two years and Laforest got his first taste of farm work, made especially challenging after his father fell ill with appendicitis. “Us three boys, the oldest thirteen years old, did the fall work and husked the corn. We had no husking gloves then, and I remember the row I husked could be told by the blood on the husks where my fingers bled, but we stuck to the finish!”

It was near Mankato where Laforest first began to attend school when he was ten. In 1869 the family settled a land claim (I apologize to any Native Americans who may be reading this) fifty-five miles away near Springfield, Minnesota, the area where he was to live for the rest of his life.

He describes the area as “Fifty miles from a railroad, thirty miles from a doctor, and a day’s journey from a schoolhouse. This part of the state was one vast prairie with lakes and sloughs abounding with muskrats, mink, skunks, badgers, foxes, and some wolves, lots of buffalo bones, some Indian relics, all kinds of ducks, geese, sandhill cranes, prairie chickens, and jack rabbits.”

When they weren’t farming, the boys trapped. The family’s crops were destroyed for three years by grasshoppers. Laforest was able to receive about fifteen more months of schooling and survived more snowstorms.

Laforest writes about livestock and how he prized “the company and friendship of good animals more than that of some people I have met.”

He also recounted an incident that happened when he was a teenaged fur trapper one winter:

The ground and ice were covered with a clean layer of snow. There was a fox in one of my traps. He had lost a part of his tail and appeared as though he had been unfortunate at least. He was jumping and whirling around. I watched my chance and struck him on the head with my hatchet with sufficient force to kill him. As he lay there on the white snow with blood running from his mouth and nose, he sobbed and cried like a baby. I will never forget the effect this had on me, out there in the still morning, everything frozen and white, with death at my feet. I believe I have been more careful since in causing pain or death to animals unless necessary.

Wow – what an image! I can just see that fox. Perhaps this is where I get some of my interest and empathy for animals from.

Laforest worked his father’s farm until his father died in 1885. Less than two months later, Laforest married Ada May Redford and then purchased a farm not far from his father’s. His “Shady Lane Stock Farm” outside of Springfield was highly successful. He raised Hereford cattle, pigs, and sheep. His Herefords won numerous awards and are what probably got him an “in” with the University of Minnesota, leading to his appointment by the Minnesota governor as a regent (1920-22).

The “shady lane” on Shady Lane Farm in Springfield, Minnesota (2016)

He was also involved in many agricultural groups and became a sought-after speaker. My guess is that this is what led to his election to the state legislature.

According to the YouTube video I mentioned earlier, Laforest was also a proponent of home improvement, believing that farmers should improve their homes with conveniences “for the comfort of their wives.” He said that farm wives had “as much right to the benefits of labor-saving conveniences and a pleasant home in which to work, as the husband has to improved machinery and fine farm buildings.” Quite a progressive thought for the time, I’m sure. Or perhaps his wife Ada was the one who wrote his speeches?!

Laforest’s Shady Lane Farm was one of the first in the county to have electricity. His home still stands today, and I had a chance to see it a few years ago.

The Shady Lane Farmhouse that Laforest built (2016)

In 1911, Laforest built a silo on his farm from curved hollow clay blocks (rusty orange in color) purchased from the Ochs Brickyard across the road. This is what piqued the curiosity of Vince from Minnesota Bricks. He wondered about the silo’s history, since he has an abiding interest in bricks.

He did some research and discovered Laforest. He shared his knowledge in this impressive YouTube video. Laforest’s silo is no longer standing.

Laforest survived poverty, typhoid, killer snowstorms, child labor, grasshopper plagues, and a lack of formal education. He succeeded through grit and determination. He summed up his philosophy with these words:

First, believe you can do a thing, and then do it or bust a hame strap!

(A hame strap is one of the straps on a harness for horses. It sometimes broke when the horse pulled extra-heavy loads.)

Kelso Ancestor Quest: Adventures in Scotland, Part 7

Springfield Ancestor Quest 013

“Main Street,” Springfield, MN

My trip to Kelso starts, not in Scotland, but in the small southwestern Minnesota town of Springfield. That’s where my mother (from whom I get my Scottish blood) was born, and the museum there is home to a set of family scrapbooks she put together.

A few weeks before my Scottish trip, I visited the Springfield Museum on a quest. You see, one of my ancestors — my great-great grandfather William Dick — was rumored to have worked for Floors Castle in Kelso. He was the lead carpenter (or “joiner”). But when my parents and aunt visited Kelso in the late 1970s, they were told by the castle estate office that they had no record he worked there.


My Scottish great-great grandparents, Susan and William Dick.

As a journalist, I know that could mean a lot of things. It could mean the records were lost. It could mean no records were kept so far back (the mid-1800s) or it could mean nobody looked very hard for the records.

While tooling through the family genealogy book one day (months before my trip), I noticed mention of a newspaper article about William Dick working at the castle. The note said the article was in the family scrapbooks.

The castle, on its website, says it is interested in historical information about the people who worked there, so I thought a visit to the museum was in order to find records to prove that my great-great-grandfather worked there.

I also noticed in the genealogy and census records that at least one of their ten children, Isabella, was born on the castle property in 1842. Why would she be born there if my ancestors had no connections to the castle?

Since it’s a good chunk of a drive from Duluth to Springfield, my oldest son kindly offered to join me in the quest. This was also a good chance for him to learn more about his family history since he had never been to Springfield.

We took off one afternoon with tents in tow — planning to camp in the Springfield City Campground overnight so that we could get to the museum in the morning. The museum wasn’t actually open on the day we planned to visit, but I had made prior arrangements with the museum director to meet us there.

Springfield Ancestor Quest 017

Very helpful Springfield Museum Director Carole Young with some of my family’s scrapbooks.

We met the director, Carole Young, as planned. She had the scrapbooks waiting for us, spread out on a table. It didn’t take us long to find the newspaper article in question since my dear organized mother had indexed the scrapbooks by family name.

There it was, a story from the Spirit Lake Beacon, a newspaper in Iowa. It was dated 1913 and had the title, “Scenes and Reminiscences of a Spirit Lake Lady Reared Among the Royalty of England and Scotland.” It was an interview with Isabella (the one born at the castle) and the story featured her memories of life growing up in a grand house on the castle grounds. Her father was the head state carpenter at the castle, holding the position for “upwards of fifty years” until he retired.

Their house was apparently near a cricket field and castle visitors, such as Queen Victoria and the Prince and Princess of Wales would drive down from the castle to their house to watch the games. The article says “rooms were prepared especially for them” by Isabella’s mother and the children. During these visits, Isabella said, “We children were always on our best behavior and willing to do little things to make it pleasant for the visitors,” who often stayed three or four days at a time. Isabella also met famous composers and pastors. She and her siblings were sometimes called on to “make up the required number” for a cricket game, and Isabella was proud that they could play the game well.

Eventually, Isabella, a widow with children, left the U.K. and came to America to marry a childhood neighbor who lived in Illinois. They later settled in Minnesota and then Iowa. Her brother, Francis, came to America also, settling in Minnesota. He was my great-grandfather.

Viola! Proof that William Dick worked at the castle! Unfortunately, there was no way to photocopy the article from the scrapbook, so my son and I took scans and photos with our cell phones. However, they didn’t turn out so well. Once I returned home, I searched for a digital copy of the story. I couldn’t find it in the Spirit Lake newspaper database, but I was able to find the same story in The Des Moines Register, which had published it a week later. Score!

I sent the story and a photo of William Dick and his wife to the castle. I had also emailed the castle previously, but did not receive a reply to either attempt.

Harrummph. Whatever. It was proof enough for me. And the quest was a good bonding experience for me and my son. I realize there’s almost nothing more boring than reading about someone else’s ancestors, but I hope this story wasn’t too painful.

Next posting: Kelso — for real this time!

Springfield Ancestor Quest 015