OKLEE, MINN. — Four boys grew up on the Red Lake County farm near Oklee that their father homesteaded in 1896, a swampy bog south of Thief River Falls that took time and heroic effort for John and Mary Larson and their sons to drain, plow and make a going concern.
Roswall Larson, the eldest son, died in 1975, age 71. George also died young, at 85, in 1992.
But William and Carl lived on, seemingly ageless and content as they continued to work their fields and animals, clean barns and cut and stack firewood well into their 90s.
Except for military service in World War II — William scrambled ashore at Normandy, while Carl served as a medic in the South Pacific — neither brother left the farm. They often said they never would.
Town: ‘The poorest place you can be in’
“We feel the town is the poorest place you can be in,” Carl Larson said in a Minnesota Public Radio interview last year. “That’s about the same as these nursing homes. If you live in town you just sit and look out the window. But here we can go out and do something, you know.”
Early Wednesday morning, two deer hunters came upon a man lying in a dirt field. They called 911 and tried to help the man as they waited for the ambulance, but he was unresponsive, and when the EMTs arrived they pronounced him dead.
It was William, 98.
He was found about a quarter mile from his home. He had wandered out in the predawn dark and wasn’t dressed for the chill of a November morning in northern Minnesota.
A neighbor was dispatched to the farm house to tell Carl.
Carl wasn’t there.
Neighbors, friends, volunteers with the Oklee Fire Department and Red Lake County sheriff’s deputies fanned out, searching for Carl, 95.
Edward Larson, no relation but a friend and across-the-road neighbor, found him lying in a ditch about a tenth of a mile from home.
“I thought he was a goner when I first came up,” Edward said. “But I saw his foot move.”
Planning on coming home
Suffering from hypothermia, Carl was taken to MeritCare Hospital in Thief River Falls, where he was listed initially in serious condition.
“But he’s still with us, and he’s planning on coming home,” Edward Larson said.
Edward and his wife, Sharon, visited Carl at the hospital, where a nursing supervisor said Monday he remains in fair condition.
“They’re doing a little therapy with him,” Edward said. “But for lying out in the elements all night, he didn’t even get a cold. He was able to make a smile and said he felt strong, and he was looking forward to coming home.”
Carl knows that his last brother is gone, that he is the last of his line, and he has accepted that, Edward Larson said. “He said that William had been failing for some time. He had been sleeping close to 24 hours a day the past few days.”
Carl told his neighbor that William had dozed off the night before he died as the brothers worked in an outbuilding on the farm, skinning a deer someone had given them.
Carl went to get coffee, but in the dark — their yard light was turned off — he “missed the house and got completely turned around,” Edward Larson said.
“He told me, ‘I wandered around. I was crawling. I saw your yard light and tried to make it, but I didn’t.’ Apparently William woke up, and Carl wasn’t there, and he must have panicked and went looking for him.”
They were the Swedish bachelor farmers of Red Lake County. None of the brothers ever married.
“We never found a woman who would take second place to a horse,” William said in a 1992 interview with the Grand Forks Herald, though he attributed that explanation to his brother Carl.
Even then, the three brothers — George was still alive then — raised and sold Belgian horses. In their 80s, they mowed, baled and stacked 8,000 bales of alfalfa hay to feed the horses, stacking the 75-pound bales the old-fashioned way on a flat-bed truck. They cut and stacked poplar and oak to heat the house.
“We do everything the hard way,” Carl said in 1992.
“We’re too old to change,” William said.
They lamented some of the change they saw happening around them.
“In a way, we liked it better when we first started,” William said. “When we first started, we talked with our neighbors across the fence lines and across the roads. Now everyone is too busy.”
But Bobbi Berberich, who lives in the area, remembers running to the Larson farmstead on Halloween night with girlfriends in the mid to late 1980s.
“They were the sweetest little old bachelors, and the house was always neat and tidy,” she said. “They loved us, and they gave us all kinds of candy. They always had cookies, too — and they were really good cookies.
“Everybody is talking about them. They were so sweet.”
In the 2008 interview with Minnesota Public Radio, part of MPR’s effort to mark the state’s 150th anniversary by telling the stories of some of its people, William and Carl said their father was working as a cowboy in Montana when he heard that free land was available in northern Minnesota.
To claim his 160 acres in 1896, John Larson walked 40 miles through unbroken country from Crookston, Minn.
‘Just nothing but swamp’
“This land was just nothing but swamp,” Carl said, but the family — using horses and their own labor — gradually expanded the farm to 1,000 acres. By the age of 5, each of the boys was feeding chickens and driving horses. Their formal education ended at the eighth grade in a nearby one-room schoolhouse.
“They were still clear as a bell, both of them,” neighbor Edward Larson said. “They could talk to you about anything. They were amazing.
“Just a week ago, they were over here, and William was talking about how he went ashore at Normandy in 1944. He said, ‘I can’t believe how lucky I am. I went in and they were hauling bodies out on trucks, and I never got a scratch.’ “
Sharon Larson said the brothers put their remarkable energy into a big garden in recent years, distributing much of the produce to neighbors.
“They brought us 22 ice cream pails of strawberries this year,” she said. “We didn’t have to pick them. They did that.”
“Yes, Carl will want to get back in the garden,” her husband said. “First of March, he’ll be seeding his plants in the house.
“It’s going to be so different for us now with Bill gone,” he said. “We take it for granted they’re over there. We always have.”