maryseveryns

Some of the life history of Mary Severyns, who came to this country from Lanklaar, Belgium as a young woman to homestead in Custer County, Nebraska.  



Edmond and Mina Mary Severyns Haumont
abt 1910
 

Written by:  Lucille Kleeb McArthur (grandaughter)
 Feb 3 1909 - Apr 10, 1985

I should like to preserve for her descendants some of the story that I remember that went to make up the life course of that indomitable ancestor we all knew as Momo, The story of course, will include Popo, and the others with whom she came to Nebraska. But, since I remember Momo so much better and since so many of the stories I heard about this little group seemed to have her as a central character, I will say this is a story of Momo.
        Momo grew up in the French speaking part of Belgium. When she was a young woman, advertisements appeared in Belgian newspapers telling how one could become the owner of land in Nebraska in amounts of 160 acres simply by filing a homestead claim, and then living on the land for three years. A second 160 acres could be added by planting 10 acres of it to timber, and filing a timber claim.
        Momo's family ran an inn or small hotel on a canal in the village of Lanklaar in Belgium. It provided them with the necessities of life, but little beyond that, and the idea of free land in the United States must have looked pretty tempting, Surely, many discussions concerning it must have taken place among them.
        Whether they decided that one of the family should go first to America to investigate the homesteading situation, or whether one of them, Joseph, decided he would go whatever the others did, I don't know. In any case, this boy of nineteen did come first, and alone, to America.
        As a boy, Joseph (Mary's brother)) had had rheumatic fever, and he suffered from bouts with it all his life, On this first trip west after he reached America, he found himself having another attack of the fever. Here he was, unable to speak English, with very little money, sick, and on the streets of Chicago. He saw a doorway with a step where he could sit down, and he stopped there to rest a moment. The fever got worse, and he sat still. Pretty soon a police officer came along, Joe could not explain except in French and the officer decided he was drunk and took him to the police station. But there they soon decided he was sick, and they took him to a Catholic hospital where the nuns cared for him until he was well.
        Joseph had been brought up a Catholic, and at this time he probably still felt himself to be a Catholic. Later he and the others of his family who immigrated to America rejected Catholicism, but for the rest of his life there remained in his heart a tender feeling for all Catholic nuns.
        After his recovery, Joseph must have continued on to Nebraska, taken up a homestead in Hall County and probably stayed three years to prove upon it. Then, he returned to Belgium for a short time, perhaps to encourage some of the rest of his family to come to America. One of his own stories of his trip back to Europe concerns the troubles he had trying to manage a pair of antlers he was taking back as a souvenir.
        After Joseph's return much deliberation must still have preceded the decision for all of them to go to America, but when Momo's other brother, Thomas, and cousin Jules, from Vachmael, Belgium, decided to go with Joseph back to America, Momo (Mina) made up her mind to go along. This, in spite of the fact that she had been a crippled since she was three, as a result of a fall from a window. After that she always walked with a decided limp.
        Raising the money to make the trip was a problem, but they finally managed to get enough together to buy tickets that would take them as far as Moingona, Iowa, and they decided they would go that far and figure out when they got there how to make it the rest of the way. How I wish I could go back and ask Momo now what they did when they got off the train there, broke, probably hungry, with no place to go and with only Joseph able to speak some English. How they managed, I don't know, but the men found work in the coal mines there. Also, they found an upstairs apartment at the edge of town apparently with a trusting landlady who took them in out of the bigness of her heart.
        This landlady added to her income by peddling vegetables in Moingona, and when she returned after peddling trip to town she let Mina have her choice of the unsold, and by then, somewhat wilted vegetables for almost nothing. These were a great help toward feeding the group.
        One day this landlady's curiosity concerning tenants got the better of her, and she came upstairs to see what was going on. For some time, at intervals of a few days, she had been hearing what sounded like an odd chopping or beating sound that continued for a considerable time, then when it stopped, it stopped completely until the two or three days interval was up, and she would hear it again. But, the explanation was simple; somehow they had managed to find a butcher, who, for very little, or perhaps from the hogs he butchered and these Mina cooked, then carefully removed all the meat from the bones and made it into headcheese. She had no grinder, so she minced the meat by chopping it with a small hatchet on a board and it was this chopping that the landlady heard. Thirty years later two of my favorite foods were Momo's headcheese, and her greens soup, and I am sure she learned to season both of them experimenting in that upstairs apartment in Moingona, Iowa.
        After they had been in Moingona a year, Jules' brother Edmond came from Belgium to join them there. But it was still another year, during which they lived with unbelievable frugality, before they had money enough to go on. This time they knew they needed more than just transportation to the new land. They would have to have horses and other livestock, plows and tools, seed, household goods and food to last until they could plant and harvest a crop.
        When they finally felt they had enough to go on, they bought tickets to Grand Island, Nebraska, which was as far as the railroad went. There they found that all the available land for homesteading near Grand Island was already taken, but they were told that there was still land farther to the northwest. They began to buy supplies, but again ran out of money, and found work around Wood River, Nebraska. I don't know what they did there nor how long they found that the valley land was gone there, but the table land was still available, and they all including Joseph filed claims to adjoining homesteads and each also took up a timber claim on a table which later became known as French Table, named for the language these Belgian immigrants spoke.
        Sometime after they reached Nebraska, Louis Haumont, a brother of Jules and Edmond, joined them, and took up a claim but whether it was one or several years later I do not know.
        Somewhere, either in Moingona or shortly after their arrival in Nebraska, Mina and her cousin Edmond decided to marry. It may or may not have been a marriage of convenience, but I'm quite sure it was a happy marriage. However, at the time there was no money for a wedding ring or for any other frills, and they were probably married very simply by a judge or a justice of the peace.
        Now, at last, they had reached the place which was their destination when they left Belgium more than two years before, and they set about the business of making it their home. The immediate problem was a house in which to live.
        This was grassland with very little timber available to build log houses, and lumber for a frame house was much too expensive. So, the earlier settlers had found a much cheaper and readily available material. The plows which 'broke' the sod to turn it into farmland, turned it over in flat slabs, which could be broken into 'bricks' held together by the grass roots. These sod slabs were used to build very satisfactory thick walled houses. However, managing a roof that did not leak was a problem. Most roofs were made of timbers brought from trees that bordered the nearest creek. The timbers were overlaid with sod. This worked all right if it didn't rain too hard or a rainy spell didn't last too long, but the standard greeting among the settlers, after a hard rain was, "Did your roof leak last night?"
        So they built sod houses on their claims. Mina and Edmond's one room house was made larger than the others, about 14 X 20 and all of them appeared there for meals. But the rules said that a homesteader must live on his claim, so each had his house, about 8 X lO on his claim and went there to sleep.
        Their supplies included two teams of horses, a cow, some chickens and 150 sheep. There surely was a plow for breaking the sod, and I remember a hand corn planter, that consisted mainly of a seed box with a sharpened tube-like affair two or three feet long, to reach from the box to the ground. There was some sort of a catch that could be pulled to release two or three kernels of seed into the tube. There was some apparatus for carrying it perhaps a strap to go over the shoulder, and one walked along the row sticking the tube into the ground, releasing the seed, pulling the tube out, and repeating the performance until a row was planted.
        Their corn crop must have been exceedingly small at first, but they were good gardeners and the potatoes and other vegetables they raised were perhaps their most important crop at first. Meat was more plentiful, both from their chickens and sheep, and from the abundance of wild game.
        It was probably during the 'hard winter' of 1880-81 that most of their stored potatoes froze, and that winter they lived mostly on meat. Occasionally one of them would say "See how much meat I've eaten without taking a single bite of potatoes."
        Surely there was plenty of work for everyone, converting this grassland into farms that would produce enough to support them, and they probably all worked very hard. But Mina was the only woman with the four or five men, and they all took it for granted that she would do the usual 'woman's work!" which meant cooking, washing, mending, and in general taking care of all of them and at times she was bound to get pretty tired and short tempered.
        The men were supposed to supply the kitchen with firewood, but too often they would go off with only an armful of wood in the wood box, and perhaps the logs they brought from the creek banks not yet even chopped up. Finally, Mina had about all she could take of getting her own firewood, so one day she prepared the meal as usual, put it on the stove to cook, and let it cook until the fire went out for lack of fuel. Then at noon she served the food in whatever partly cooked condition it happened to be. It was some time before she ran out of fuel again.
        On another occasion, Jules had brought the evening milk to the house, and put it down, instead of taking it to the cellar to cool, as he was supposed to do. Mina's job was to go to the cellar, put the milk into the other containers to let the cream rise, and then wash the pail and put it in its usual place for the next milking. But this time, with the heavy pail in the kitchen she hadn't gotten around to taking care of it and in the morning when Jules couldn't find the milk bucket in its usual place, he went to the cellar to look for it, and came fussing back up the steps with, "Haven't you managed to take care of the milk yet?" Mina had started to go out with the milk and was above him on the steps. Suddenly angry, she upended the bucketful of milk over his head, and with a "There's your milk pail" she turned and limped backed to the house. That outburst must have cost her a considerable bit of cleaning up afterward.
        Living was still pretty skimpy, when Momo's first baby, Paul, was born, and his 'layette' included one safety pin. That pin served to keep his diaper in place through the first few months of his life, but a day came when the pin broke under the strain of its continual duty, and that was one of the few times in her life that Mina broke too, and gave into tears. Edmond tried to fix the pin but it was beyond repair. They replaced it (with a spare or two, I hope) on their next trip to Grand Island. But what did they do in the mean time, I wonder?
        Probably Mina cut up part of the clothes she brought from Europe to make clothes for that first baby. Anyway, it was about then that a neighbor come in one day and saw her working dressed in a very good black silk skirt. "Why Mina," she exclaimed, "why are you wearing your best clothes for every day? Are you too proud to dress as the rest of us do?" Mina answered "this skirt is the only one I have left. It isn't from pride, but from poverty that I wear it!"
        Poverty was a fact of life with them for a greater number of years than they at first supposed it would be. But they improved their farmstead with more buildings and raised enough so that they no longer ever went hungry. Travelers often stopped there to spend the night and most of them probably paid nothing for a couple of meals, a place to sleep, and feed for their horses. But one of them must have lost the coin that plays a part in the following story.
        The water supply for the homesteaders for a number of years was the creek that flowed around the south edge of French Table. Water was brought from there in barrels which were loaded into wagons and pulled up the long 'table hill.' But, someone along the creek contracted typhoid fever and contaminated the entire creek. After that all the drinking and cooking water had to be boiled, and the boiled water had a flat disagreeable taste for drinking, so when they could afford it, they made tea or coffee for drinking. But there were times when the grocery money wouldn't stretch to cover such luxuries, and this had been the case at this time. Then one day while working in the barn Edmond spied a coin in a manger. He picked it up and found it to be a fifty cent piece. He ran to the house with it, exclaiming "What shall we buy tea or coffee?" Mina answered "Tea, it will go farther." And so for awhile at least, they could satisfy their thirst with a drinkable beverage.

        Several years later, when they were planning to return to Europe for a visit and were still exceedingly hard up, and were trying to keep their relatives in Europe from knowing that this venture of theirs into the new world had not yet given them the wealth it had promised, Mina somehow managed to hide away enough money to buy herself a ring because she could not bear to face her relatives and tell them that they had been so hard up they were not yet able to afford so much as a simple wedding ring. She wore the ring on the trip home to Belgium, but on her return to America she put it away and at the time of her death it showed very little wear.
        Momo also bought a new hat, either for this trip, or more likely a later trip to Europe. When I was a child, she sent me one day to bring her old hat to wear someplace, I brought the old hat I had seen her wear for dress ever since I could remember, but she said, "No, no, that is my new hat. Bring the other one." So I went back and found another one that she wore to make neighborhood visits. For the rest of her life these were the only two hats she had, and the one purchased last was always her 'new' hat. Frugality had become a way of life which remained with her, even though by this time she had reached a financial condition referred to by the neighbors as being "very well off"
        What kept them going in the face of hardships that to us would seem unbearable? Two things: First, everyone else was almost as hard up. But secondly, and more important, there was the dream the promise of a future that this wild grassland would give to those who could tame her. These early pioneers didn't live for the present, but for the promise of the future. In Uncle Jules' words, "We came to this beautiful country in those early days young, strong, healthy, filled with hope, energy and ambition. Poor, it is true, oh how poor in worldly goods, but rich beyond dreams in everything that makes life worthwhile. I do not care. You will never be as rich as I felt when I first settled on my homestead. I remember the time I did not have the money to buy a postage stamp. We came to win the battle and we did. To what amounted those inconveniences? Compared to the joy we felt when we turned the long furrows of virgin sod, or planted our first trees? We were empire builders. The future was ours."

Retyped by Ellen Olson-Sax (great  grand" daughter of :Mary) July 2003. :My sister, Virginia, gave me a photo copy
of Lucille's story. I wanted to be able to share it with others. Additional photocopies would: have been illegible. EOS

Mary Severyns .Haumont   April 27, 1848- :April 30, 1932
Edmond Haumont                March 9, 1958-Jan 7, 1947




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