The Earliest Years of Saint John's Abbey, 1856-1862
Part 3 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)
At the same time the orders of Father Prior Demetrius directing me to take charge of Richmond, St. James and St. Joseph reached me, I was instructed by the Right Rev. Abbot Boniface Wimmer of St. Vincent's to select a suitable piece of land on which a monastery could be erected. The two claims held by the Rothkopps furnished little fuel and no pasture. In making a a selection, therefore, I had to keep in view these two essentials, besides a third, water. This task presented difficulties, which the present inhabitants would not imagine: (1) The government had but recently purchased the land from the Indians; it had been surveyed to some extent, that is, township divisions had been marked by notches cut into trees; (2) I was a stranger, had no idea as to where suitable land might be found; (3) I could devote but one day a week, Monday, to this task, and was expected home at St. Cloud in the evening. I made this distance on foot; (4) One great difficulty was the greed of the settlers, who were well enough pleased to have the monastery in their vicinity. Everyone wished to hold a claim close by the land selected for the monastery, so close in fact, that we would have been under the necessity of erecting an air castle.
A relative of Mr. J. H. Linnemann led me through the thickets along the banks of the Watab, and here it was, that I struck upon the splendid pastures of Section 31, irrigated by the northern branch of the Watab. The bush lying toward the south had been burnt by the Indians in the previous year. The land thus cleared might be turned into pasture. To the west, as far as my eye could reach, I could see nothing but dense forest. I concluded to make a detailed exploration of the country. On the Monday following I made a start. Providing myself with a tin cup, a loaf of bread, a sharp hatchet, a double-barreled shotgun and a small compass, I turned my face westward in nomie Domini. Where should I find the line of the government survey? Everywhere I struck upon trees recently notched, but this had been done by settlers from the prairie, who had taken timber claims in hopes of realizing there from maple sugar, fuel and timber for building fences. I was at a loss to find the right marks; however, it was a task imposed upon me by obedience and my perseverance was speedily rewarded by my discovery of the township line and section pole on that same day.
Now I proceeded to inspect, mounting hills and climbing trees, to get a view of the surrounding country, and frequently consulting the compass and counting my steps lest I should not find my way back to St. Joseph. Despite its scorched hills, Section 31 pleased me, because it furnished water and meadows with fine grass. Now for timber, I went prospecting with little success. Section 6 suited me better. On these expeditions my twill trousers and blouse were pitifully lacerated by the thorns and shrubbery, and blood trickled from my hands and face. Several times I was so horribly tattered and blood-stained, that I did not dare to enter St. Joseph during daylight. Once I fell and unhappily broke my compass; in consequence I lost my way and night overtook me in the woods. The bark of trees is coarser on the north side than on the south, and this knowledge served me instead of a compass. To increase my embarrassment, I was escorted by a pack of howling wolves, fire-eyed ghouls, who seemed to ask me: What are you doing around here? I preserved a peaceful attitude and did not fire upon them, although their gleaming eyes directed my aim. They also preserved neutrality; I might say, indirectly led me onto the right path. I had gone too far southward, the wolves pressed me back in the opposite direction towards the township line. And strange to say, no sooner had I turned my steps towards St. Joseph, after examining some of the trees, the wolves left me; they had done their share. I had indeed found land, but there were two sections and in order to comply with the requirements of the law, at lease four men were required on each section. There were but five Benedictines. Father Prior and Father Cornelius had assumed the management of the Rothkopps' claims and I was destined to hold the claim at St. Joseph. Besides I was not instructed to make the claim, but only to look up a suitable place. We therefore explained the whole matter to Abbot Wimmer, adding the request to send us more priests and brothers. Rev. P. Oswald, now Prior of St. Vincent's Abbey, was our greatest friend at that place. In response to our representations, we were favored with a personal visit of the Abbot, as I have mentioned above. With him came assistants for us: Father Alexius Roetzer and Brothers Wolfgang Beck, Vincent Hoermann and Roman Veitl.
As there was at this part of the year continual danger, lest ice might impede navigation between St. Paul and Dubuque, the visit of the Abbot was rather limited. Father Alexius was appointed to take charge of the English-speaking Catholics and occasionally to assist in St. Cloud, St. James and Richmond. I was ordered to take up residence from date at St. Joseph with three brothers, who had recently arrived and to begin work upon our claim. Our financial resources were represented by the previous Sunday collection at St. Joseph, 35 cents, really a royal capital for four men to begin with in the wilderness. Towards evening we arrived at St. Joseph with our baggage, and, as our cook , Brother Roman, was not deeply initiated in his future avocation as to be able to prepare a supper out of nothing, we took out meal with Mr. Seifert. This entailed on us an expense of 25 cents per capita, which caused our treasury a deficit of 65 cents. This was our beginning in St. Joseph.
The pastors residence at St. Joseph was a log house 14x20 and 8 feet high, with a pitched roof, so that we were enabled to place beds in the attic. There was not room for bed-steads, the ticks were spread on the floor. We could reach our beds only by creeping on hands and knees. After Holy Mass on the following morning we took breakfast on credit as we had done the evening before; then provisioned with dry bread and armed with an ax, we cut timber for our new home on the monastery land. For the sake of greater security we kept close to the township line and began cutting tamaracks for a small hut 16x20. Near by we had cleared a small space for building. This clearing was a short distance south of the present Collegeville station. None of us ever imagined that a railroad would be built in that vicinity so soon. We were interrupted in our building by a heavy snowfall. We had no teams to bring the logs to the building site, but had to carry them. We proceeded to build, but as we had neither shingles nor boards for the roof, we made one side of the building higher than the other, laid tamarack poles across and overhead and covered these with brush and sods. Over this we spread a layer of ground to add weight to the roof. The house was finished in two days. The larger spaces between the logs were filled out with wood and the whole structure rendered weather-proof by a coating of clay. A pane of glass in the door and one in the wall admitted light very sparingly. We returned to St. Joseph on the evening of the first day. On the next morning we brought with us a small stove, a board to serve as a door, and our bedding. All these materials we lugged on our shoulders, as there were no roads. Grass gathered from beneath the snow was the filling for our ticks. The brisk fire in the middle of the room dried the damp grass of the roof and bedding and the moist clay on the walls. The hut was occupied by the three lay brothers, and thus was laid the foundation of the future Abbey.
It would be difficult to imagine or describe the privations endured by the pioneers. Father Bruno daily carried provisions and other necessaries to the Brothers, and made measurements and selected places, where the improvements required by law could be easiest and most speedily made. We were beset at all points by claim-jumpers. These measurements were made with rather primitive instruments. I went ahead with my compass and sighted some distant tree that stood in the direction pointed out by the compass. Then I made for that tree reckless of shrubs, thorns and marshes. I could not mind my feet for fear of losing sight of the tree. In this was I sacrificed several pair of trousers. I had to mark off quarter sections. With my short legs I could make only 1000 steps to each quarter mile. To avoid danger of losing track of my count I picked up 10 chips and threw away one of them after every 100 steps. When the chips were exhausted, I had arrived at the end of the quarter section. The brother, who followed me with an ax, marked the trees along the line. In the course of this survey, we one day arrived on the shores of the beautiful lake, near which the University now stands. I was bound to acquire this sheet of water for the monastery. But how? Of course I must claim it. But how could I claim it? There were not enough of us to establish legal claim besides those we held already. Eight men were required and we were but six. All however, insisted that the lake must be ours. I might easily have sacrificed the two quarter sections of Section 31, because most of the woods had been badly scorched, but in that case the section would have been broken, we would have lost an approach to the meadows and probably some undesirable neighbor might have been wedged between our possessions. I was unwilling to lose hold of Section 6 on account of the timber on it. This put me in a quandary. Moreover, how was all this land to be paid for? We had no money on hand, debts enough on account of our provisions, and could expect nothing of the grasshopper stricken congregations.
In later years I was frequently reproached for not claiming more land west of the lake. Nowadays the eggs are always smarter than the hen. At this juncture a solution of this puzzle occurred to me. I had a personal friend in Washington, whom I requested to submit to Congress a petition for land for a monastery and college for the foundation of which Father Demetrius had already acquired a charter. At the same time I put up about 20 signs in different parts of the land I intended to claim, with the inscription: "Application for this land is made to Congress for St. John's College". These signs effectually kept off intruders. My application to Congress was unsuccessful, but we were no longer disturbed by land-sharks.