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1943: Colby recalls seeing James brothers in Rock County

Bits by Betty
Lead Summary
Betty Mann, Rock County Historian

The following article is part of the Diamond Club Member group that began in the January 7, 1943, issue of the Rock County Star Herald. Members of this group consist of persons of age 75 and older.
The following appeared in The Rock County Herald on July 1, 1943.
One of the few living persons in this area who can claim having seen Jesse and Frank James, the famous Northfield bank robbers, is Mrs. Ellis W. Colby, Luverne.
Although she has had many exciting experiences during her life, the most chilling moment perhaps came when a sheriff’s posse informed her and her brother, George W. Nelson, that the two men they had seen riding on horseback were the noted desperadoes.
Were Herding Cattle
Mrs. Colby and her brother were herding cattle on the prairie in Martin township when the two riders came over a knoll. She recalls how she and her brother admired them as they came nearer because they not only rode beautiful horses, but they were gaudily dressed. Both wore belts that glittered in the sunlight, and had white gloves on their hands.
“I can remember just as plain as if it were yesterday,” Mrs. Colby states, “that they came close to where we were, and one of them called out, “Hello, there; we’re going on!”, and continued to ride in a southwesterly direction. My brother and I were talking about them when from almost the same direction came a couple of other men. They asked us if we’d seen any riders and we told them we had and pointed in the direction they had gone about a half hour before. Then one of the men told us that he was the Sheriff from Luverne, and that the men we had seen were the James boys.”
Changed Horses
Although the posse continued on the trail of the bandits, they never caught them. Later it was learned that the two had stopped at a farm near Klondike, Iowa, and had changed horses. The farm was operated by a distant  relative of Mrs. Colby’s mother.
Mrs. Colby literally “grew up” with this section of the country because she came here before much settling had been done. Born in Helgeland, Norway, Feb. 16, 1865, she was christened Nickolena by her parents, Nels and Chisttianne Nelson. Her father was a farmer, but also was a violin maker and a shoemaker. Although he never learned to play a violin, he could tune one so it would satisfy the ear of even the best musician.
Three Months at Sea
Mrs. Colby’s father died in Norway, and because most of her mother’s relatives had gone to America, her mother decided to take her two children and go there also. Mrs. Colby was five and one-half years old and her brother was a little over two when they boarded a sailboat and started out for the United States. They were on the ocean 11 weeks. Although a mere child at the time, she can remember several incidents in connection with the long journey. One time, all passengers were ordered to their quarters because of a storm. Mrs. Colby recalls how the boxes slid from one side to the other as the ship rocked in the high wind, and how water splashed into their stateroom.
Also during the trip, an epidemic of measles broke out, and her brother became seriously ill. She recalls how the steward told her mother to take the boy up on deck, “if you want to save his life.”
Most thrilled event of the whole trip was seeing land again after almost three months on the water, Mrs. Colby states.
Rode in Cattle Car
Coming from New York to Ft. Dodge, Iowa, in a cattle car is another of Mrs. Colby’s varied experiences. She explained that travel in those days was not always in luxurious coaches. Although she does not remember a great deal about the trip, she does recall looking at the passing scenery through the openings between the boards of the rack siding of the car.
The train went only as far as Ft. Dodge, and their destination was Buena Vista county, so relatives came to get them with an ox-team and covered wagon to Beloit, Iowa, a small village across the Sioux River from Canton, S. D. There they lived two years with an aunt and uncle, and her mother “proved up” an 80-acre claim.
Mother Worked
Mrs. Colby’s mother worked like a man during those first few years in order to support her family. She helped in the harvest fields, with the grain stacking and even with the threshing. She earned 75 cents a day, which was considered a pretty good salary for a woman. As soon as Mrs. Colby was old enough to help with housework and take care of children, she began working away from home for her board, room and clothing.
A few years later, her mother remarried, and they moved to Martin township, Rock County. There Mrs. Colby experienced the visit of the James brothers, the grasshopper plague and the blizzard of 1888.
The day the grasshoppers came, she recalls, her mother was washing clothes by hand in the yard. When they began to settle, they kept falling in the tub so fast that her mother was unable to scoop them out fast enough, and she gave up the task.
The men had just begun harvesting when it began getting dark, and looking toward the sun, they saw the grasshoppers coming like a great cloud.
Destroyed Potato Patch
They came home at noon, and during the hour they were eating their noon meal, the hoppers had stripped every leaf from a field of corn near the house. “I remember my mother had a nice garden, and a beautiful potato patch.” Mrs. Colby states, “and by three o’clock that afternoon, there wasn’t a thing left.”
Because of the scarcity of fuel, Mrs. Colby learned early in life to twist hay and flax straw. In the winter they would pile it high like cordwood along the side of the wall, just in case a blizzard would strike.
Speaking of blizzards, Mrs. Colby recalls that her husband had been digging a well on their farm the day the blizzard of 1888 struck. He had just come in to change his clothing and had sent his hired man into the well to do the digging when the storm arose. His first thought was of getting the man out of the well, and while he was doing that, the cattle began to go with the wind away from the farm yard. After considerable work and anxiety, they were finally driven into the barn to safety.
This story will continue in next week’s edition of the Star Herald.
         Donations to the Rock County Historical Society can be sent to the Rock County Historical Society, 312 E. Main Street, Luverne, MN 56156.
Mann welcomes correspondence sent to

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