Olmsted County Adventures: Viola

The blog is back: Holy Everything returns! I can't say for how long, of course. A day - a week - a year? All I can say for certain is that, at least for today, the party has recommenced after about a 6-year hiatus. How shall I summarize the last 6 years? In a word: gratitude. 
  • Husband: Justin (a woodworker who started his own business 2 years ago)
  • Dogs: Maeve (almost 1) and Finn (7)
  • Employment: Pastor; currently called to serve on the staffs of the ELCA & Southeastern MN Synod
  • Post-Bulletin Column: It's still going every Saturday! 10 year anniversary this month!
  • Hobbies: Gardening, Houseplants, Reading, Adventures, Scandinavian sci-fi television series
Periodically I find myself returning to old archives of this blog as a way to find old photos or remember more details about an adventure. I have better notes and photos here than anywhere else! Blogs were so handy before things like Facebook and Instagram were popular. This daily blog, for about 4-5 years, served as a digital scrapbook. 

I'm not sure what it will be like moving forward. Maybe I'll post today and not again for another 6 years. Or maybe this can be a place to share poems and essays. Let's see. 

For my job as the Director for Evangelical Mission for the Southeastern Minnesota Synod, I'm in a different congregation most Sundays. A few months back I started weaving a brief "history nugget" into most sermons - some story about the community or congregation from decades ago. One of the main sources I've used is the Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub. A multitude of old newspapers have been catalogued and are searchable. 

The more I've learned about Minnesota history, the more I want to know! 

I am especially curious to expand my understanding of the Indigenous history of the state. A difficult and tragic aspect of many of the published state and county histories of the region is that there is often no mention of Indigenous peoples and histories in the texts, and when it is included, it is usually egregiously incorrect and highly offensive. If you have recommendations of resources that highlight the Indigenous tribes, people and histories of the state of Minnesota, please leave a comment. Thanks! 

Another challenge: voices and histories of women are mostly absent as well. There are stories to uncover, no doubt, but it requires more digging. 

Coinciding with my recent interest in history has been a growing fondness for maps! I know,  I know...how did I make it to 38 without using maps or caring about them!? Alas, better late than never. I still like my phone GPS, but I do feel a deepened connection to "place" when I use a map, and that, for whatever reason, feels meaningful. 

When digging into history, sometimes its useful to start close to home; hence, "Olmsted County Adventures." My mom and I recently visited Viola Township in Olmsted County. Prior to visiting, I read about Viola in "Minnesota's Lost Towns: Southern Edition" (2016) by Rhonda Fochs as well as "History of Olmsted County" (1883) by the Olmsted County Historical Society. 

There are a variety of routes one could take to get from Rochester to Viola. We traveled north through town and then took Viola Road all the way. 

Upon arrival, we parked and took note of the Town Hall, a lovely city park with new equipment, a church and some historical markers! I was keenly excited to learn about what is the country's 2nd oldest, continuous town festival: the Viola Gopher Count which takes place every year in June. 2021 was the 147th annual (it started back in 1874)! Side note: the oldest, continuous festival in the United States is the Kentucky Derby. 

Here's an old article from a 1895 edition of the Rochester Post inviting people to come on over to Viola!

After learning about the annual gopher party, seeing the church, walking over to the nearby flower garden, and taking some photos outside city hall, we traveled about a mile out of town to the Oak Hill Cemetery. 

After having read a fair amount of Viola history, I was looking forward to seeing where some of the earliest community members had been laid to rest. 

Quite a number of young men from Viola died in the Civil War. In History of Olmsted County,  it is mentioned that 30 young men volunteered. Of those 30, nearly all of them died. One was Henry Bowers. Another was David Ketchum. His wife, Myrenda, died shortly before the war.

Mr. Carl Bierbaum is buried at Oak Hill. He is attributed with being the first white settler in Viola. He came up from Iowa in the spring if 1854 with some oxen, a wagon, a 22-inch plow, provisions for a few months and some blacksmiths' tools. 

The Vine family has deep roots in Viola. In fact, W. Vine hosted the first gopher count in his barn (with a side of lemonade for everyone). One member of the Vine family named Lydia lived to be 104! She was interviewed for "The Post and Record" in 1906 (a few years before her death).  Here's a portion of it: 


Mrs. Vine's mind is rich in reminiscences of her early life and she can talk continuously of the past. When asked in regard to her health, replied "I enjoy good health. I suffer no aches or pains. Why I live I don't know and probably will never know in this world. I don't like to think of it as it makes me feel queer to think I am so different from others. When I awake in the morning I think 'here am, an old woman, others who were my friends have been at rest in their graves for years.' What purpose the Lord has for prolonging my life is a mystery to me. I don't like to think of it."

Mrs. Vine visits her relatives and often spends a week at the home of her youngest daughter, Mrs. William Williams. Last fall she visited her grandson, Sheriff Vine of Rochester.

She is interested in the financial affairs of her children and grandchildren. She inquires in regard to the number of lambs and hogs they have. She has a good appetite and eats three good meals a day. She has always dressed and undressed herself until last fall. She is now in the special care of her granddaughter, Mrs. Nellie Smith, who has taught the primary department of the village school for ten years. No one else can make her bed or put her soap stone in but Nellie. Grandma waits impatiently for her return from school and when detained always asks what makes her so late. She often wishes the Lord had taken her when she was one hundred years of age.

She has always taken great comfort in reading the Bible until about eight years ago when her eyes failed. She says she doesn't miss her hearing so much, but if she could only see so that she could walk around the time would not seem so long.

Lydia Grunnell was born in New York, Sept. 16, 1803. She married Henry W. Vine in 1824. Nine children were born to them, five girls and four boys. There are now living Marian, Gertrude, Wendell, William and Ida. The oldest child is now eighty years of age and the youngest fifty-seven. She has fourteen grand children, thirty-one great-grandchildren and ten great-great-grandchildren.

In 1860 they immigrated to Michigan and in 1863 to Minnesota and settled on a farm in Viola. She has resided here since, and he died in March 17, 1892, at the age of eighty-seven years.

Mrs. Vine has a strong religious character. 

She has always drank strong coffee but never thought tea agrees with her. She thinks and studies over her long life.

Mrs. Vine is an early riser. When the family sleeps later than 5 o'clock they hear her call, "are you folks going to lie in bed all day." She has always worked hard and often thinks the rising generation is altogether too slow and putter around about too many things instead of getting something done as she used to do. 

She can remember the war of 1812 and many events connected with it, and also the Mexican war. Her father was English but she was small when her mother died and does not remember her nationality but thinks she was part French. "I remember my mother. She was a weaver and would have me back of the loom to band her the threads. I had to hand her just the right kind. I was about six years old when she died and left eight children - my brothers and sisters are all dead."

"I remember about the war of 1812. It made a great talk among the neighbors. I nave lived under the administration of all the presidents from Jefferson. I remember when Adams and Van Buren were elected."

Next up: the Butterfields! Cornelius Butterfield (1827-1899) and Sophia Jenkins Butterfield (1836-1922) are both mentioned in the book, History of Olmsted County. They were married in Massachusetts in 1855 (Cornelius was from Farmington, Maine; Sophia was from Boston, Mass). After spending a few years in Ohio, they bought a farm in Viola in 1863. Sophia played organ for ever festival, religious service and funeral in town for many years. She was very beloved. Cornelius was the town clerk for 10 years and then was elected a Minnesota state representative in 1880. Cornelius and Sophia eventually sold their Viola farm and moved to Elgin in 1895. A few years later, Cornelius died. 

Sophia remarried Mr. John James of Eyota. There's a nice article about Sophia published in the Plainview News shortly after her death in 1922. 

Of Sophia Butterfield James, it was written: "Mrs. James was of an unusually sunny disposition, and as she said, "she had a great deal to be thankful for" being blessed with a sound physical constitution. She was very active in church work, having charge of the music, singing and playing, as she delighted to do to the honor of God and to the enjoyment of those who listened. For very many years she served in this capacity in the combined churches of Viola and later in the Elgin M. E. church. She united with the church of-Elgin in March, 1907. Among her many pleasant traits of character was her sociability. She was everybody's friend and could entertain young and old alike with the equal enjoyment to the entertained as to her herself. In the death of Mrs. James we have lost one of God's noble women who has been a great blessing to the day and age in which she lived."

It was a Saturday well-spent exploring Viola and learning about some of the people and places that shaped the community. I look forward to sharing more stories and highlights of Olmsted County Adventures! 

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