On October 16, 1919, Carl Johnson of Pike Creek Township, Morrison County, mailed an engagement ring to his beloved, Ellen Quarfoot of St. Paul, Minnesota. This was the beginning of a fifteen year engagement. In 1990, a collection was donated to the museum containing various documents and memorabilia related to the lives of Carl and Ellen. The bulk of this collection consists of letters that Carl wrote to Ellen from 1917 to 1932. These letters tell the story of life in Morrison County for a young engaged bachelor during a period dating from the end of World War I to the beginning of the Great Depression.
Carl Johnson was born on March 6, 1895, in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Andrew and Marie Johnson. He had two brothers, George and Iver, and a sister, Marion (Mrs. Otto Olson). For most of his life, Carl lived on the family farm in Pike Creek Township. He attended the Pike Creek School in District No. 24 and served in the army during World War I.
Ellen Quarfoot was born on May 4, 1899, in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Carl and Anna Quarfoot. She had two sisters, Emelia (Mrs. Max Schlesinger) and Lillie, and at least one brother, Ben. Ellen attended the Phalen Park School in St. Paul and took a teacher training course from the Educational Department of the Minnesota Sunday School Association of St. Paul. Prior to her marriage, she worked for several years in New York City.
Carl’s letters to Ellen contain frequent references to health, weather, and major events, subjects which are often considered among the basic elements of letter-writing. Fortunately, Carl’s letters also include information on his various occupations, his social activities, and, perhaps most importantly, his love for Ellen.
Carl was quite a handyman and he had the occupations to prove it. During the early years of their engagement, Carl worked in various lumber mills earning money for the time when he and Ellen would be married. After his father’s death in October of 1922, he wrote to Ellen explaining his intention of taking over the family farm. While farming, Carl also worked for the West Side Co-op Creamery in Little Falls. Carl’s carpentry skills were apparently in high demand. He helped to build barns, silos, and even a garage, and also helped his brother-in-law, Otto Olson, build a new home.
Carl put his various skills to good use on his own house, replacing floors, building additions, and painting and wallpapering. Part of his motive may have been the hope of enticing Ellen back to Minnesota. In a letter dated November 14, 1930, he wrote to Ellen, “I am intending to build another room to the house this fall, if the weather stays nice, but otherwise it will have to go till spring, a bed room for you & me.”
In his letters, Carl often described his social activities. An active member of his church, Carl served as a trustee for several years and also as the church president. He enjoyed attending Luther League activities, such as spelling bees and “ragball” socials, and often expressed his wish that Ellen were there to attend with him. Carl also enjoyed ball games. On several occasions, he played on what he referred to as “the farmer’s team.” Carl had great confidence in the skill of local players. In a letter dated July 26, 1931, he wrote to Ellen, “Little Falls has a very good team. I believe our team could win from the N.Y. Yankees or Giants.” Other important social occasions included birthdays, funerals, anniversaries, and weddings. Understandably, Carl was very careful about remembering to mention weddings.
Carl’s love for Ellen and his desire to be married are evident in his letters. While many of the words and phrases he used remained the same over the years, Carl’s declarations of love retained the sincerity of their original use:
Sweetheart, Love me as I love you, be good as you cannot help but being. Darling you are dearest, sweetest loveliest and best of girls there is no other girl in the world that is as good as you are (4 October 1924).
Carl repeatedly asked Ellen to write. He was “always on the lookout” for her letters and worried when he did not hear from her. A good example can be found in a letter dated February 27, 1920, “…listen dear, I have been waiting to hear from you. Have you received my letters, I wrote two. Listen Sweetheart it is three weeks since I had a letter from you. So please write soon.”
While Ellen was apparently honest with Carl about her desire to have a long engagement, after the initial five years was extended several times, Carl seemed to become increasingly concerned. On March 8, 1928, he wrote, “Oh Ellen dear why keep me waiting so long…I have waited ten years.” Though he repeatedly professed his love for Ellen and his willingness to wait, Carl occasionally questioned her love for him. “Ellen dear I love you so much, more than ever, sometimes I wonder dear, if you still love me…” (10 October 1921). Though her letters may not have been as filled with flowery phrases or terms of endearment as his, Ellen’s affection for Carl is suggested by her careful preservation of his letters.
The seemingly fast-pace of communication today has caused some to fear that letter-writing may become a lost art. For Carl and Ellen, writing letters played an important role in the development of their relationship prior to marriage. On New Years Day of 1935, Carl Johnson and Ellen Quarfoot were married in St. Paul, Minnesota. After a fifteen year engagement, Carl and Ellen spent over forty years together on the family farm in Pike Creek Township.
By Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 2000, Morrison County Historical Society