Most of us have moved from one location to another in our lifetime some of us numerous times, sometimes by personal choice, sometimes because of business relocation. How do you go about selecting your new location and your new home? Perhaps your first step is choosing a realtor, and then discovering which part of your new town is best suited to your needs. Next you’ll learn about roads, transportation systems, the best school districts, where will you find grocery stores, other shopping, libraries, restaurants, museums, all the things we want to know about a new place to live.
What if none of these questions could be answered in advance?
How secure would you feel if you didn’t know a single thing about your new location?
What if you had very little money and few possessions to assure yourself of comfort after you moved?
What if you had left your extended family behind in another country and you knew you’d never see them again?
All these unanswered questions faced the Scandinavian founders of Ephraim, not just once but three times!
By the time they made the decision to move to what is now Ephraim, they had already tried to form a Moravian congregation in both Milwaukee and in Fort Howard, (now Green Bay). Milwaukee had been a challenge, because work was scarce, and many people spoke German, not Norwegian. Fort Howard was another type of challenge, because they realized they had agreed to communal living, on Otto Tank’s land, and couldn’t own their own property. These immigrants from far away countries had a dream of being land owners.
Pastor Andreas Iverson, the young leader of this small group of pioneers, was worried about making yet another change, when he happened to meet an old acquaintance, Ole Larsen, at a trading post in Fort Howard. Ole was sympathetic to their need to find a good place to call home, and he suggested they consider buying land right across from the island upon which he lived. That island was our Horseshoe Island, also called Eagle Island.
Pastor Iverson said he would discuss it with his small flock, and when he did, they agreed to go and inspect the land. They chose a “nice” day in February, and a few men joined the pastor to begin the visitation trip. It took them 3 days to walk the 75 miles from Fort Howard, over the frozen ice of the bay of Green Bay. They must have shivered with cold as they slept on the snow-covered ground at night.
Arriving at Ole’s house at last, they were welcomed with a hot dinner and a good night’s sleep in the warm cabin. The next day Ole led them across the ice of Eagle Harbor to the shores of what would become Ephraim.
We can imagine that when they reached land, clambered up through the trees on shore and turned around to look to the West, they were struck by the similarity in appearance of this new land to that of Norway. The beautiful bluff, now Peninsula State Park, resembles many Norwegian coastlines. Perhaps this visual reminder of their far away home might have been one factor in their decision to settle here.
Iverson wanted them to inspect the area with a village in mind, thinking of sites for homes, gardens, even farms. He realized immediately that the forests would become the village’s first cash crop, as they could sell off the trees for telegraph poles, fence posts and shingles. He went so far as to begin to plot out possible streets in this non-existent village. They wondered about soil, so Ole brushed aside some snow, and they dug into the earth as best they could, to determine whether the soil would be rich. (Evidently they didn’t happen to choose a spot where bedrock was near the surface of the ground.)
After the better part of a day, they determined that this would indeed be a lovely place to make another attempt to settle, and the next day they began the return journey to Fort Howard to tell their families the good news.
The first detail to complete was to secure a loan, as they couldn’t afford to purchase a large amount of land. Pastor Iverson wrote to the headquarters of the Moravian Church and obtained the promise of a $500.00 loan. When the money arrived, Iverson went to the land office in Menasha, where he learned that the state was charging $1.25 per acre. He purchased 400 acres for $500.00! If an empty acre was available in downtown Ephraim today, it might cost upwards of $50,000.00!
Each day the men of the group rowed over to the mainland to begin clearing the land for a few houses. This was a monumental job, as the trees presented quite a solid wall, beginning right at the shoreline and extending seemingly forever. In the months from their arrival in May to the coming of winter, they were only able to build 3 or 4 dwellings. The first was a 1-room log cabin and the second was a 2-room log cabin. They realized they had to build the pastor’s house next, making it much bigger because they would need a large room in which to hold church services until such time when they could afford to build a real church.
Iverson spoke of a fairly large log cabin, but the congregation didn’t agree. They wanted him to have a grander house, since he was their pastor, and they would have to hold worship services in it. Iverson drew up plans for a frame house, with hand-hewn logs beneath the framing, and he sailed over to Marinette to purchase lumber. (It would be quite a few years before Ephraim had a sawmill.) As they had done with the first two cabins, all the men worked together to build the pastor’s house.
I’m sure they were all relieved to be in a real cabin or house when winter came, and they surely enjoyed having room in the pastor’s house for worship services. However, life was not easy, even when they had houses. In fact, the first several years were very hard, and that’s an understatement.
Due to the backbreaking work of clearing trees from the land to build houses, there was no time for clearing land for crops, probably not even gardens. They had to spend days cutting enough firewood to last through the winter. There was no general store in 1853, so they would have to have walked or sailed to Green Bay to purchase supplies to last them through the winter. They had to face the fact that starvation was a real possibility, and not wanting to have to endure that, they provisioned accordingly. Thankfully, the bay was full of fish, and they were even able to catch so much fish that they could salt it, put it in barrels, and take it to Green Bay to sell, or trade for other provisions. Several records indicate that eating fish every day was rather boring, and they welcomed the occasional deer or rabbit, making a nice break in the monotony of fish.
The long winter proved to be somewhat less severe than those that followed, and the men continued to clear land on pleasant days. One thing there was an abundance of was hard work! They never lost sight of the fact that they owned their own land and were making their way in the world. They were sure that God was with them, and that life would get easier with each passing year. In the face of hardships, this is a marvelously positive attitude.
I ask you again: Would you have had the courage to be a pioneer?