The “Pitcher”, the “Taker”, and some ND History

Spring is almost here.  We expect perhaps 5″ of snow tonight and tomorrow – but next week perhaps to the 50s.  This weekend, a trip back to the 1880s.

Within this week, I shared the below photo with my siblings, and with my French-Canadian colleagues in the French-American Heritage Foundation.  This is a reminder about  the “old days”, specifically around Grafton-Oakwood ND, very likely pre-North Dakota statehood (1889).  The pdf has a larger scale version of the photo.  The specifics about the photo itself are unknowable, but this doesn’t mean the photo is unknowable…a bit of history of a historical area in the midwest.

Mid-1880s in Grafton-Oakwood Walsh County ND

The likely history of the photo is included in my family history, “400 Years, remembering the Cote, Blondeau, Bernard and Collette families”, compiled by myself in 2010: pdf enhanced by my brother : Collette Walsh Co Homesteads 1880s0001.

The fascinating bio of the likely photographer, Henry A. Ball, is found in the Centennial History of Grafton ND, 1982: Grafton ND Henry Ball.

Grafton, in northeast North Dakota has a present population of about 4,000.  Oakwood, a township four miles east of Grafton, is now primarily a farm township with about 250 people.  These are the communities where my French-Canadian grandparents lived their lives.  Grandma was born there; Grandpa came from Quebec when in his 20s.


“Pitchers” (photos) were infrequent back in the 1800s, but always significant, including the one above, which I’d guess fairly represents the usual rural scene in the early days of settlement of the midwest.  These were not easy times, impossible for us to imagine in these days.

The photographer, Civil War Veteran Henry Ball, came to Grafton in 1883, the year after the town was founded in 1882, the year the railroad came to the area.  His home town was Berne NY, 25 miles west of Albany.  Some years later he took on a partner, and became a fixture in Grafton area for many years.  No doubt my grandparents and my Dad knew him.

Most any community of any size had somebody like Ball, a “pitcher taker”, as my homies in N. Dakota might say.


My ancestors, Collette by name, took up homesteads just to the east of Grafton, in the town of Oakwood.  Their home country was rural Quebec. In between, for about 14 years 1864-78, they lived in what is now the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

My Grandma, Josephine Collette, was born in the summer of 1881, at St. Andrews, a landing where the Park and Red Rivers intersected.  Her parents had arrived in 1878, among a large community of French-Canadians.  Their Oakwood home was at the Park River, perhaps a half mile from the St. John’s church, still an Oakwood landmark and the place where she and grandpa married in 1901.


The above photo is best studied by printing out the pdf and looking carefully at it with a magnifying glass.  Only one person is immediately obvious, but a closer look reveals up to 13 persons in the photo, of which several are children.  There are also two buggies, cattle and horses.

Quite obviously, the trees in the background indicate a river, which quite likely could have been the Park River, but could have been any river in the area.  French-Canadian settlers preferred river locations and long, narrow farms than  the later more common square quarter-sections.  There are, here, two apparently separate households next to each other.

I would guess that the photo was closer to 1883, than to 1890.

There are rich stories in the photo.


In my treasure of photos are the below.  The first shows all of the Collette men, from January of 1887.  This was likely on the occasion of the death of their mother, Mathilde (Vermette).  In the photo is their father, Octave, and the Priest.  (There were Collette women too, at least two of them living in the area – apparently this was a specific photo of the men, and more than likely it was taken at the Ball studio in Grafton.). Almost without question, Henry Ball did the portrait.

Collette men January 1887 ND.  My great grandfather Octave is in back row, third from left.  He would have been about 39 years.


Three more historical photos are below.  This column started with one old photo.  Similar stories can be found in every single family, everywhere.  What are some of yours?

My grandmother Josephine Collette with her brother Arcidas in 1898 Minneapolis MN.  They were there for the funeral of their grandmother Adelaide Blondeau, who settled in the 1850s at Dayton MN.

A tintype.  Octave Collette and Clothilde Blondeau, my great grandparents at their wedding in St. Anthony (later Minneapolis) in July 1869.  She died in 1916, he in 1925.


After completing the above, I was in the local drug store to pick up some photos.  At the counter ahead of me was an older lady with her granddaughter.  The lady was deaf and having trouble communicating with the counter person.  A manager came to assist, and handwritten notes solved the problem.  Afterwards he and I chatted a bit about what had happened.  He regretted he didn’t have basic skills for such communications.  It was very positive.

The difficult exchange caused me to remember my Aunt Josie, Dad’s sister, born in 1903, who was deaf from early childhood – they believe from some childhood disease.

I seldom saw Josie – she spent most of her school years at the North Dakota School for the Deaf at Devils Lake, and all of her adult years in the deaf community in Los Angeles.  She worked as a seamstress in a factory making clothing – a place where deafness was in some ways a blessing.

When we saw her, we could cobble together understanding.  She could make understandable words.  But I’m sure the disability restricted her associations and opportunities considerably.

She was a neat lady.  She was fortunate in that she did have the deaf school.

She died in 1984.

Josie Bernard at right, next to my Dad, Henry. Their parents Josephine and Henry behind them.  By the time of the photo, Josie would have been deaf for several. years.  Very likely a Henry Ball or colleague photo.

COMMENTS: (WordPress comment section temporarily disabled due to technical issue.)

from Norm: I noted several similarities to what I remember from growing up in north central Minnesota including many similar old photos where people had obviously put on the infrequently sued Sunday best clothes to sit for the photographer

I remember an old log barn on my grandmother’s place that was used to house the two work horses that my bachelor uncles used for farming before they bought their first John Deer M tractor.

I understood that the “horse barn” had been the original house as well.

The wooden fences were still around during  my early years as were several long rows of fieldstone that had been picked off of the fields.  Lots of back breaking labor picking the rocks, setting them on the stone pony (sledge) and hauling them off to the edges of the fields.  A never ending task, of course, as the rocks kept surfacing and no doubt breaking some equipment from time to time as well.

On the other hand, wood was generally readily available and cheaper than barbed wire so with the presence of a strong back and good axe skills, they could be set in place at little expense.

response from Dick:  There is a tendency to romanticize those ‘good old days’. It was tough sledding even in the best of times, and they couldn’t take the first flight out, or even catch the train if things went south.  On and on.  My cousin remembered our Grandma (Mom’s mom) saying that early on there was an occasion where “if Grandpa had had a nickel in his pocket, we’d have left”.  Some struck it rich, but most probably left the dreams behind and moved somewhere to at least make a life.

from Jeff: good post, very much enjoyed reading it…great to have access to the photos.   8 inches here in Burnsville. yuk

Happy April Fools Day

from Carol:  in same suburb: This is the view out an upstairs window – and no, there isn’t normally a tree lying on our roof…  It’s not even broken off, just totally bent over from the weight.  When I saw that (and yes, it was windy here…) I decided to sleep downstairs.  So then was treated to the second power transformer in the area blowing – with two huge explosions each, and the whole outside area turned bluish and sizzled.  We did have power for like 15 minutes between the two outages.  And it’s back on now.  I haven’t felt so vulnerable in awhile.

Woodbury April 1, 2023. We apparently had 11 inches, and I can attest it was heavy, wet snow, that is even now beginning to melt.