The Oldest House
by Betty Sedomka (Burnsville History, 1976)
James and Mary Condon Connelly
Poverty from the potato famine moved many Irish to migrate in search of the prosperity they hoped to find in the United States and Canada. Deep emotion accompanied the decision and plans of 29 year old James Connelly and his 19 year old wife, Mary Condon Connelly to leave County Cork, Ireland, in the early months of 1855 and sail for a new land. As the Condon clan from County Tipperary and the Connelly Clan from County Cork bid farewell to their beloved James and Mary, the realization was deep that many years and much of life could pass before they would reunite.
A spirit of self confidence and adventure was evident in James, whose shortness of stature was minimized by a chin held high in determination, a characteristic passed on to many of his descendents. Mary's round face and dark brown hair pulled back in a bun gave her a look of gentleness coupled with strength. This strength was to be needed in the years to come.
The Connellys arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, in the early spring of 1855, followed shortly by the arrival of their first child, Mary Ellen on May 9, just 7 days after Mary's 20th birthday. Excitement filled the warm Alabama air as news arrived that the ice "had broke" and the river was open as far north as Minnesota.
On the long steamboat journey the rythmic splash of the water wheels seemed as a lullaby to infant Mary Ellen, but each turn generated a renewed sense of excitement and anticipation to James and Mary. James and Mary were one family of many on a similar voyage. On the journey north, the steamboats would dock where people wished to land.
Their long journey was at an end as they claimed the 80 acres of fertile land they had arranged to buy. The site had been chosen with care to provide the three essentials each early settler found vital to their existence - wood, water and hay. Long hours of hard physical labor went into clearing the land as trees were "grubbed" to provide the family fuel and lumber for buildings. The trees also provided protection from the winter blizzards and shade in summer. Until wells were dug, the vital water was available from springs in the meadowland below the bluffs. The grass provided pasture for the animals and later was cultivated for crops.
Each family had land in 3 areas - meadow land, cultivated land and woodland. The meadowland below the bluffs adjoining the marshland near the Minnesota River in the present Black Dog Park, Minnegasco area, provided wild hay which was harvested for the animals. The flat areas on either side of the present Highway 13 provided land for cultivation and home sites. The wooded area such as the site of the present River Woods and Ville du Pare area and the Burnsville parkland provided summer pastureland for cattle and wood for fuel and lumber.
In the summer of 1855, James Connelly drew from every physical resource and skill he had acquired in his 30 years to defy the elements and provide shelter for his family be- fore the snow would fly. He dug into the east side of a hill and built, a log cabin in this sheltered area. This was home for 13 years and it was here they welcomed 7 of their 8 children into the world. The indentation of this first home is still visible nestled between evergreens on a hillside.
In the very early days the untamed land provided much of the food. The children would gather plump wild blackberries and tart little wild straw- berries to accompany the meat of game such as rabbits, squirrel, deer and pheasant.
James' trade, wagon making, which he had learned in Ireland, provided a valuable source of income in the winter months. Since St. Paul was the center of the wagon making industry, he would bid his family good-bye for the week and return the following Saturday afternoon carrying provisions on his back for his family for the week.
Mary found winter days short and nights long in that cabin on the hillside. As the 7 children slept the wind blew the snow against the cabin to the accompaniment of the howling wolves. In the daytime the aroma of fresh baked bread sometimes attracted the Indians as they hunted in the area. This was a new and strange fragrance to them since they did not have yeast. A shadow passing the window would alert Mary and the children. They would hurry to put their backs to the door to prevent the Indian from entering. Generally, the Indians would just take food and leave but a woman and children alone were fearful of any stranger.
Long hours and hard work enabled James and Mary to build a new home in 1868. This building, still standing on the William Lannon farm was their home for the next 23 years. This new land had fullfilled its promise of prosperity. Careful planning and saving had enabled James and Mary to acquire over 800 acres of Burnsville farmland.
James' life was active to the end. In his 70th year he was accidentally killed by a streetcar in downtown St. Paul while pulling out of a horse watering station with a wagon load of grain.
In Mary's last 10 years after James' death her health declined. In one of these years - 1902 - two of her children, Kate and Jim, and her daughter Johanna’s husband, Michael Lannon, all died. She also had experienced sorrow years earlier when their 2-year-old daughter Margaret died and their first child, Mary Ellen died at age 16. Life held many sorrows, but also, deep joy and a sense of fulfillment for these early settlers.
In the the very early days the ferry crossings west of Savage and at Mendota enabled people to reach Bloomington and St. Paul. The High Bridge above the NSP plant in downtown St. Paul was the route taken by farmers hauling wood, potatoes, and hay to the "Farmers Market.”
Grocery stores on West 7th Street bought the produce and the hay to feed the teams they used to deliver groceries.
Accessibility to the "Cities" was increased in 1886 by the construction of the Cedar Avenue Bridge and the Borden Bridge located near the present Stagecoach Restaurant west of Savage.
Jim Connelly remembers when his mother was about to give birth to his brother, his father drove the horse and buggy to Fort Snelling to meet the doctor who had come out that far in a streetcar. The doctor stayed two days awaiting the newcomer. He was assisted at the delivery by Enos Gallagher's mother.
In 1904 William and Bridget moved from the "Oldest House" to the present Pat Connelly house, which is located next to the site of the Burnsville Bowl. The original part of the home had been moved from the bluffs and may be the oldest occupied home in Burnsville.
When Pat and Mary Connelly remodeled the house, original boards were found to have square nails.
When her husband died suddenly, Johanna Lannon and her 5 small children moved into the house that had been built by her parents, James and Mary Connelly, in 1868, and they lived there for 16 years.
Hard work and good management, along with the help of her brothers and her brother-in-law enabled her to farm 80 acres and to raise her children to adulthood.
The women seldom did field work, but would help with the milking and most had a large flock of chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys. The money from the poultry, eggs and butter was usually the source of income for groceries.
The "Chug-Chug" of the threshing machine as it approached the farmyard generated much excitement, but it appeared as a challenge to the women who had to prepare the three huge meals and two lunches each day, for threshing crews. The tables were loaded with homemade rolls, pies and the best the land could produce. Later, as the farmers had silos built the process was repeated for silo-filling crews.
The mothers made the family's clothing. One resident recalls being sent "next door" to borrow a pattern for "Grandma's drawers." In the very early days, the women would spin the wool and knit socks and mittens for the family. Many a child got a crack for not holding still as their mother wound the yarn into a ball from their extended arms.
Canning hundreds of quarts of fruits, jellies, jams, pickles, vegetables and meats was a routine part of a farm wife's life. Meat was also preserved by salting and most farms had a smoke house for hams and bacon.
Liz Kennelly is said to have mastered the art of churning butter. Great care was taken to select the sweetest milk and to work the butter with a paddle to just the right consistency. The sweet butter was a fitting accompaniment to the high loaves of home-made bread that lined the pantry shelf. Her husband, Tom, would say, "Dangit! To tell the truth, Lizzie, you're a good cook,” as he came in after a day of chopping and neatly piling cordwood for the winter months. The lumber for their 32 x 60 foot barn, built in 1921, was sawed in their yard from their own logs at a cost of $1,000.00.
The early Irish worked hard but they also played hard. House parties were a regular occurrence Mike Dunn or Will Connelly would play the violin while someone else would play the piano or the Jew's Harp and the kitchen would come alive with square dancers. Lunch was served at midnight followed by more dancing.
Every town had a dance hall that drew people from all the surrounding areas. The dances would rotate between Mendota, Savage, Rosemount, Prior Lake, Credit River, Richfield, Bloomington and Oxboro.
The band played lively 2-steps and waltzes and Jim Connelly called the square dances. No liquor was served at either the house parties or the dance halls. A huge lunch was served at midnight, the hat was passed to pay for the musicians and the band would continue playing until 3:00 a.m. By 4:00 a.m. everyone was on their way home arriving just in time to milk the cows.
Old-timers still squirm as they remember the barn dances at which everyone got a sudden itch. It seems setting hens had been hatching eggs in the barn and the chicken lice had taken over.
Summer was a time for picnics at Antlers Park on Lake Marion or at Boiling Springs. The Wine Garden at Boiling Springs added intrigue to the outing Large church dinners, brought people from neighboring communities to engage in a day of visiting and festivities. The churches also had square dances followed by a basket social every two months .
The 4th of July parade in Savage was a gala celebration of our American freedom with flags, banners, bands and speeches. The children remembered that day as the one day all year they had ice cream. In winter, without the demands of long hours in the fields, the farmers were free to do more socializing. The women gathered for chit-chat and quilting bees and each week the men would play cards until dawn. The most popular games were “45" and buck euchre.
One of the social highlights was a basket social at the school each fall. The girls would pack the food they prepared best into decorated box and it would be auctioned. The highest bidder would get the box lunch and the privilege of sharing it with the girl who packed it. There were sometimes baskets auctioned for $10 to $15 as the young men competed for a very favorite girl. That was a sizable amount of money in those days. The proceeds of the auction went for school maintenance.
Another favorite pastime was the ball games. Each town had a team and every Sunday afternoon was the time to cheer for the "home team.” Summer evenings often saw entire families gathered in the Gallagher's pasture or on Jim Connelly's hill to play ball together.
A wedding was a favorite occasion. After the service in the church the community gathered at the bride's home for the celebration. Practical gifts to start homemaking were given to the bride and groom and a day of dancing followed on a platform in the bride's yard. Food and drink were furnished by the neighbors and relatives. Weddings were usually on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, so that the people who had traveled any distance could be home and rested for Sunday Mass.
The Depression years that followed were difficult for everyone. Hogs were selling for 2 cents a pound live weight and cows for 2 1/2 cents. The drought of 1934 cut production of crops. The meadow hay was so short you couldn't see where it was cut. The cattle in Burnsville survived but they didn't produce milk. The government shipped box cars of cows to Savage and turned them loose. They were free for the taking if you could feed them.
Hoping to avoid starvation people walked out from St. Paul and asked to pick the small potatoes that were left in the fields and begged for wood to keep their families from freezing in the winter. Banks closed, buildings went unpainted, clothes wore thin in those hard times.
Bill Lannon remembers spending the last cent he possessed for a quart of oil for his Model T Ford. Although farm life was difficult, there was never the fear of starvation that faced the city people. As the nation recovered from the depression years there was a gradual return to normal living, but the memory of the hardship remained. Deeply instilled in those who have suffered through it was a respect for the value of the dollar and an abhorrence of waste.
Perhaps by an appreciation of the past we can more fully appreciate the present and realize life does not begin to be significant at some point in the future.