Week 13: #52Ancestors – The Old Homestead
By Eilene Lyon
This is the story of four homesteads for four generations of Halses (my maiden name), going back to my immigrant ancestors, my 3rd great-grandparents.
Robert H. Halse and Eliza Jane Drake immigrated in 1850 and eventually settled in Winneshiek County, Iowa. Samuel Drake, who is presumed to be Eliza’s father, entered original deeds on land in Sections 25 and 26 in Highland Township. Robert and Eliza lived on the W ½ SW ¼ S 25 in the 1860s and 1870s.
A distant relative who’d researched the Drake family, as well as the Halses, mentioned that the old homestead was still standing, but in serious decline. I think he wrote that in the early 1970s. I decided to see if it was still there.
Though the parcel is privately owned, it’s adjacent to state land. Since I’ve never been able to find a grave for Samuel Drake, I was curious about the Quandahl Cemetery, which according to USGS coordinates was right on the north property line. I plugged the coordinates into my Garmin eTrek and headed to the North Bear Creek Wildlife area. Though I had glanced at the aerial image, I hadn’t really given it a close inspection. Big mistake!
I pulled into the parking area and saw I had 700 meters to my destination. I dutifully followed the arrow: uphill, through the woods, downhill, across the creek, bushwhacking through dense, chest-high weeds which all had burrs of some sort just for extra fun.
Until I got to within 100 yards of my destination, and found myself on a dirt two-track…leading directly back to my car! So, I did not feel quite so bright at that moment. Damn technology!! To be fair, taking the road also required a couple of walks through the creek (note to self: bring river sandals). A couple fishermen in the area probably wondered what exactly was wrong with me, wandering all about like that.
Anyway, if there was a cemetery, there’s no sign of it anymore. Samuel Drake’s burial will probably remain a mystery. But right near the property line, I had this excellent view of the crumbling homestead. I later got in touch with the property owner, but she knew nothing of the history of the place, unfortunately. I don’t have any documentation on when this structure was built, but it is probably the Robert and Eliza Halse home.
Back at my campsite in Decorah, I cranked up a fire to dry my clothes and ruefully began picking burrs out of socks, jeans, hair, pretty much head to toe, and pitching them into the fire to spark their way into history.
Robert and Eliza’s oldest son, Richard, married the girl next door, Meltha Lucinda Painter, daughter of William Painter and Betsy Self, the second white family to settle in Winneshiek County. About 1881, they decided to homestead in the Dakota Territory, selecting a 160-acre parcel in Dexter Township, Codington County.
Richard’s mother and four of his five siblings also established homesteads in Dexter Township about the same time. Robert remained in Winneshiek, a permanent resident of the Big Canoe Lutheran Cemetery. Richard’s sister, Elizabeth Halse Casterton, also stayed in Iowa.
In 1885, Dick and Lucy, as they were known, had a large structure built called the Half-Way House, because it was half-way between Watertown and Webster. They operated it as a stage stop with lodging, a restaurant, post office (known as Halse, Dakota Territory), and all-around entertainment venue. The croquet course was very popular. Lucy was also reputed to serve as midwife to the local women. She had only two children herself, both boys.
They closed the business in 1904 and moved to Florence in 1907. Their son, Guy Halse, my great-grandfather, lived there for a time. It eventually became home to four families in the Depression, including my grandfather, Everett Halse, and his wife, Reatha.
Because it was deemed important in the development of the Dakotas in the late 19th century, the building was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. The owners at that time did nothing to preserve it, so it no longer exists.
Half-Way House article
The Half-Way House in the 1960s or 1970s
The property in 2012 (E. Lyon)
Dick and Lucy Halse (Courtesy of Wayne Halse)
Great-grandpa Guy Halse’s 160-acre homestead was just up the road from the Half-Way House. He was not the original homesteader, but owned the property as early as 1910, perhaps earlier. He married Mable Pearl Cutting and they had eleven children who all survived.
The large farmhouse was Mable’s domain, as was rearing all the children, so it’s no wonder she always looks exhausted in photographs!
My trip to the homestead was too late to see the house where my grandfather grew up. I met the current owners of the property, a very nice young couple. They told me the house was literally falling down around them (a big chunk of bedroom wall had nearly fallen on them one night).
The cost of restoration was prohibitive, so they tore it down and replaced it. They did have this aerial photo taken of the property beforehand and they let me walk around and take pictures.
Mable and Guy Halse with seven of their children at the homestead.
Guy and Mable in front of the house in the 1940s
This last home isn’t technically a homestead like the previous three, but it’s the one I’m most familiar with.
Everett Halse and Reatha Gusso began their married life in the Half-Way House in 1933, then moved south to the small town of Florence, South Dakota. In 1942, they packed up their household and three small boys and headed west to Corvallis, Oregon. Everett’s brother, Al, had promised him a job there.
At first the family lived in a house on Harrison St., then later bought the family residence on NW 5th St. The house was built in 1909, so they were certainly not the first to live there. I lived in the house several times: the last few weeks of first grade, half my sophomore year in high school, and a couple months after college.
Most of my life, I’ve lived far from Oregon, but we did visit on occasion. I recall how as I grew, each visit to the house made the impression on me that it was shrinking! It actually is fairly large, over 2000 s. f.
Everett and Reatha had a fourth son and they all grew up in this house. Everett died in 1961, before I was born. Reatha never remarried and lived in the house the rest of her life with the exception of the last few months. Her late-onset ALS required around-the-clock care at that point. I think it broke her heart to leave her home behind.
I can still recall the smell of Grandma’s house and would recognize it instantly today. The floors were covered with the hideous WWII-era linoleum. There was a lovely built-in pass-through china cabinet between the kitchen and dining room. The dining room was later converted to a bathroom.
We probably all assumed that when Grandma was gone that the house would be razed to build a parking lot for nearby commercial buildings. Instead, we were pleasantly surprised that the buyer invested a gob of money renovating it. They tore out the linoleum and carpet, revealing the original wood floors; stripped off the wallpaper to find, I kid you not, fresco paintings of grape vines; scraped off lord-knows-how-many layers of paint off the windows frames and all the trim to reveal the natural wood. I haven’t been inside, but my aunt took photos.
There’s no question that today the house is far more beautiful, and I hope the people who live in it love it as much as I always have. I’m so grateful it’s been preserved.
(Apologies for such a long post – thanks for reading!!)
Reatha and Everett Halse in South Dakota, 1934
Reatha and Everett Halse in front of the NW 5th St. house, 1950s
The Reatha Halse home on NW 5th, Corvallis, Oregon, in 1972 (Courtesy of David Halse)
The Halse house since its renovation (E. Lyon). Check out how big that myrtlewood tree has gotten!