1.8.2023 [archived ~ originally posted 1.18.2016]
*Apparently the poet did not know that although the name of the town is one word, when referring to the river it is spelled Big Fork.
On the Banks of the Bigfork is a poem and song that has been included in several books about Bigfork. The first time I read it I was a kid at my grandparent’s cabin on Batson Lake. It was a cold rainy day, and I was looking for something to read. Over the years I had read and re-read old Boys Life and Science Digest magazines stored on the porch, so I was pleased to have found a thin booklet entitled “On the Banks of the Bigfork”. There was a photograph of Scenic State Park’s Chase Point on the cover and the notation that it was produced in celebration of Bigfork’s Golden Jubilee. On the inside cover was the poem.
On The Banks of the Bigfork Far Away
Round my Minnesota homestead waves the forests,
With its mighty wealth of cedar, pine and spruce,
Far remote from the haunts of civilization,
Where my neighbors are the bear, the deer and moose.
Oh, the moon is fair tonight, along the Bigfork;
From the marshes comes the breath of new-mown hay;
Through the timbers tall the settlers fires are gleaming,
On the banks of the Bigfork far away.
In the foreground runs the roaring Bigfork River,
Just past my little shanty built of logs.
Here contented I could live on forever,
With my wife and babies and my dog.
It is here we relish fish and venison gravy,
And we bid all strife and envy to depart;
For the glorious peace that passeth understanding
Can be found only here at Nature’s heart.
You may talk about the pleasures of the city,
And the comforts to be had on every hand;
But I wouldn’t trade away my little homestead
For all the gold and silver in the land.
Last winter I was amazed when I found this poem in the April 26, 1906, issue of the Bigfork Settler newspaper. The editor prefaced it with: “The following verses will give the home seekers some idea of what the settlers here think of the Bigfork country.” The original title was “On the Banks of the Bigfork” and at the end of the poem credit was given – “By Geo Rahier.” I knew that name!
On my mother’s side I am related to some of the Knotts, who are related to the Rahier’s. In fact, it used to be said that almost anyone living in the Effie area could say they were somehow related to this prolific family. I knew the Rahiers had come from Wright County not long after the Scheers, Cochrans and a handful of others when land opened for homesteading at the turn of the century. I knew George Rahier had been murdered in 1911. But I didn’t know he was a poet, which is what intrigued me most about my 1906 discovery.
I looked again at the 1956 Bigfork Golden Jubilee booklet, also an updated book printed in 1976 and the Bigfork Centennial book done in 2007. All had the poem, but none had George Rahier’s name attached or any explanation of where it had come from. The original poem was changed in 1956 and this became the accepted version. Some words were updated, the verses rearranged and grammar corrected. The Centennial even included music, though no credit is given for the composition.
Before I got very far in my research, l realized that when the poem was presumably written, it was possible there were four George Rahier living in the Effie community. With my history detective persona could I figure out which George was the poet? I decided to give it a try and admit I spent a lot of time on the research – but loved every minute.
The Rahier name first hit the papers in January 1903 when John, his second wife Celina and children arrived in Deer River.
A Large Family ~ Itasca News 1-24-1903
“Speaking of coming west, etc., there was a family who got off from the train Thursday that created a gaze of curiosity owing to the great number of children in it. At a glance everybody knew they were going up into the woods to make a home, and, as there were some good-sized girls among them, naturally some of homesteaders’ boys were immediately interested (amongst whom we noticed Charlie Dickson) thinking they might be lucky enough to have the newcomers for near neighbors. The family went over to the Northern Hotel, and to save time and space, the clerk Joe Bond, put only the name of the head of the family on the register, and someone came along and wrote after the name ‘and 22.’
… Mr. J.B. Rahier is head of this family, which by the way is not so large as reported. He has twenty-two children, but only seven are here. Mr. Rahier is from Annandale and is on his way to township 62-26. He has a dozen head of livestock and intends to do farming on a large scale.”
I used different colors in my notes to follow the lives of the Georges as they were often intertwined and have summarized the information as follows, starting with the most senior.
George Rahier #1 was born in 1851. The 1870 census was the oldest document on Ancestry.com where his name was listed. At that time he was single and farming with his parents Joseph and Ann in Albion, Wright County. By 1875 he was married and living on his own. In about 1890 George moves to Morrison County where he homesteads 160 acres and in 1905 is still living there with his wife and children. By 1910 George is residing in township 62-26 near Effie and died in August 1912.
George Herbert Rahier #2 was born in 1875 and is the son George #1. He is often referred to as Jr. but I have not yet found a middle name for his father so assume the junior was just to keep them separate. In 1900 George Jr. and his young wife Hattie were living with his parents in Morrison County and according to the Minnesota Birth Index their second child was born there in November 1904. I could not locate George Jr. in 1905, but their daughter was born in Itasca County in December 1906. Based on the date of his homestead patent, George Jr. probably resided in township 62-25 sometime in 1905. George Jr. was murdered near his home in July 1911.
George William Rahier #3 was born in 1876 and is the son John and Mary. The 1880 census shows him living with his parents in Albion, Wright County. He was also living with them there in 1900 and in 1905 they were all in township 62-26. George W. homesteaded his own place in 1906 and may have gotten married based on this notice in the Bigfork Settler12-2-1909 “My wife Nancy Rahier, has left my bed and board without any cause or provocation whatever, therefore I will not be responsible for any bills that she may contract on and after this 2nd day of December 1909. George Rahier.” George was living on his homestead in 1910 and died in Itasca County in 1948.
George Alvin Rahier #4 was born in 1904 was the son of George #2. Obviously he was not old enough to have written the poem, but may have been part of the inspiration. So he is ruled out.
1 am going to rule out George #1 because although 1 don’t know for sure when he moved up north, 1 do know that his wife Polly died in late 1907 in Morrison County and he most likely didn’t move until after her death. That leaves George H. or Jr. and George W.
Re-reading the poem, there are several lines that provide a few more clues:
“Round my Minnesota homestead waves the forests” I looked on the Bureau of Land Management site to verify if each filed on a homestead. They both had.
“In the foreground runs the roaring Bigfork River,” I located the homestead claims owned by George H. and George W. on the plat map. Much to my dismay neither was on the Bigfork River! As the crow flies, George H. was about two miles away and George W. quite a bit further. Of course, the river was used extensively for transportation, fishing and recreation, and a few miles was just a hop, skip and a jump for settlers used to traveling a good distance for supplies.
“With my wife and babies and my dog.” This was one of the lines that had been re-written. The 1906 version was actually “With my wife and baby and dogs.” Since I knew George H. had two children by the time he had homesteaded, I wondered if perhaps George W. and the mysterious wife might have had a child. But that remains unknown as I have found nothing more about Nancy Rahier.
Another possible clue comes from Ancestry.com where I found this notation “George Rahier Jr. who homesteaded in Effie, MN in 1904” attached to a photograph of the George H. family. The photograph is the same as the one I shared from the collection of Len Knotts. If George H. was in fact in Effie in 1904 before the birth of his second child (it is possible Hattie returned to Wright County to have her baby) and wrote the poem at that time, then the original line “With my wife and baby and dogs” would have been accurate.
So, I guess unless new information comes to light, I will leave you to decide who wrote this poem. As always, I welcome your thoughts!