|Ann Treacy holds her family’s past close, and features this image in her house.
Her grandmother, whose story figures into Treacy’s latest fiction, is pictured dressed
The Search for the Homestead Treasure is a middle-grade novel about a Swedish boy befriending a Gypsy boy on a farm in Goodhue County, Minnesota, in 1903. It seems I’ve been “pre-writing” this book all my life.
My grandmother was a young girl in 1903 on a Minnesota farm. She feared large horses, and had a sister, Annie Koehnen, who died of diphtheria in 1893 at the age of eight. Life expectancy for Americans in 1903 was forty-nine years. Children commonly died from diphtheria, typhoid, cholera, and measles. My family’s details and more have simmered for years, distilling into this work of fiction in which fourteen-year-old Martin Gunnarsson tries to hold his family together on the homestead where his Swedish ancestors died of diphtheria during the Civil War. Martin’s life is complicated when Pa suffers a logging camp injury, and again when he befriends a Roma boy, Samson—and cannot let his family know. Martin discovers his Aunt Cora’s diary, penned 40 years before and hinting at a family treasure. But what exactly is he looking for?
When I was growing up, an old family photo hung in our living room (pictured above), and now hangs in mine. My grandmother is the youngest child, wearing white in front. Annie is the pencil sketch in the middle. This photo would have been taken sometime between 1900 and 1910—a momentous time in US history, though I also think of it as a quiet time.
During that first decade of the century, following the depression of the 1890s and before the world went to war in the teens, President Theodore Roosevelt governed a country of 80 million people (compared with roughly 323 million citizens today). It was a time of many firsts. The first World Series (a best-of-nine series) was played in 1903, with the Boston Americans winning five games to three over the Pittsburgh Pirates. That same year, Orville and Wilbur Wright made aviation history with their first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Farmers still mostly used horses, although there were some automobiles—about eight thousand throughout the country.
I wanted to bring alive historic details for young readers, including what farming with horses was like; the difficult work of rock and stump clearing; and pumping all the water needed to fill a bath tub, then emptying the tub by hand. Today kids think that “working out” means exercising. With few social or government programs, our ancestors who could not afford to feed their children often sent to them to “work out” as free farm help, where they labored in exchange for food and board.
Many nations of the world have nomadic people known by various names as Gypsies, rovers, walking people, and travelers. Gypsies came to America in the second half of the nineteenth century, when many Europeans immigrated. For all of her 101 years, Grandma Minnie (who was born in 1896) spoke of her childhood fear of Gypsies who roamed the rural countryside. She blamed them for the theft of anything from clothes off the line to kidnapping. Whereas Grandma would never have spoken to them or gotten closer than seeing Gypsies perform tricks in town on a Saturday night, I used to wonder: what if you could get to know one of the Gypsy children personally?
|This chair belongs to a former neighbor of Treacy’s,
whose family set this chair outside their dwelling and
offered goods to the traditionally nomadic Roma people.
The Roma history in Minnesota intrigued me again when I was in college, helping an elderly neighbor clear her attic. We discovered an ancient chair, pictured above, which belonged to her grandparents. When Gypsies were in the area, they set the chair outside their cabin with chickens tied to it, or left fresh loaves of bread on it, believing that by sharing enough they would not be stolen from. The Roma did not have the habit of knocking on doors, and had different ideas about distributing wealth. The Minnesota Historical Society suggested I read farm journals for background information, as rather little is recorded of Gypsies in Minnesota. Perhaps they shunned photography, and newspapers of the day tended primarily to report their presence in an area as a warning, such as this August 15, 1895, account from the Red Wing Daily Republican:
A number of gypsies who have been in camp near this place for the past few days, canvassed the city yesterday, begging money and making themselves a nuisance generally. Some of the merchants say that it required close watching to keep them from carrying away articles in their spacious pockets or bundles which they carried with them. A trained bear and monkey, and the singing of antiquated songs by young girls, were some of the methods used to attract attention and draw pennies from the pockets of our citizens.
This story could have been set in any Midwestern farming community. Traveling Roma (commonly referred to as Gypsies from a mistaken belief that their ancestors came from Egypt) immigrated to North America when most European immigrants came. From the late 1800s until the mid-twentieth century their traveling lifestyle brought them from town to town and farm to farm throughout the states, territories, and provinces of North America, where their culture often clashed with others, including other immigrant groups. Yet despite cultural differences, children and young people have a way of developing friendships through shared experiences.
This piece was adapted from the Author’s Note that appears in The Search for the Homestead Treasure.
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Ann Treacy is author of The Search for the Homestead Treasure and coauthor (with Margi Preus) of A Book of Grace. Her writing has appeared in Lake Superior Magazine as well as Highlights for Children magazine. She grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Marshall Avenue near Finn Street (Marshall and Finn are horses in the novel). She lives in Duluth, Minnesota.