Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Ninety years ago, six-year-old Alvin Swanson couldn’t wait for his 10th birthday. That’s when he could finally join the group that has helped define the rural community around Kragnes north of Moorhead for almost a century – the Oak Mound 4-H Club.
Alvin, who now lives at Eventide, spent all of his teen years in the 4-H program, established and still supported by the University of Minnesota Extension Service, along with his sisters Carol and Janet. Tractor maintenance was his forté. As he and his late wife Diane raised their five children on their farm 10 miles north of Moorhead, every one of the three girls and two boys became a 4-Her as soon as they were old enough.
The second youngest, David, married a 4-H girl from Cass County. Then, as he took over the farm that has now been in the family 88 years, he and Cindy contributed their eldest, Ryan, to the family tradition. When he joined the club in the 1990s, his younger brother Alex – too young to officially join — tagged along. But after Ryan aged out, Little Brother drifted away from the family tradition … for a while.
“I wish my parents had pushed me a little harder,” Alex says now. Regardless, he finally joined the club in his last year of eligibility. Not only did he quickly take over as the venerable group’s historian; his sole community service project won at the Clay County Fair and went on to take the purple ribbon that year at the Minnesota State Fair.
All in all, 31 descendants of the Swanson line have been a part of the Oak Mound 4-H Club, still going strong west of Kragnes after 86 years. It’s now the second oldest in Clay County, exceeded only by the Humboldt club of Barnesville. It isn’t second-oldest strictly in terms of birthdays, mind you. Instead, as many rural clubs lost members and consolidated or quit, it won its nearly preeminent place by attrition. The club that had 35 to 40 members in his grandfather’s day, Alex says, held steady at 25 through his father’s years and through the mid-teens when he himself was active.
Statewide, 4-H membership involves about 140,000 Minnesota youth today, as well as 27,000 in North Dakota. Its original makeup – almost all farm kids – has broadened, along with its members’ locations. The once-all-Oak-Mound contingent now includes members, Alex says, from Grandin, N.D., to Glyndon, about half of them town-dwellers.
Founded as the Willing Workers 4-H Club, the Kragnes-based unit was a key element in building the community. It was born in a trio of landmarks that now have faded away: Oak Mound Consolidated School, Oak Mound Church and Oak Mound Cemetery. The school closed in 1957, then lived on as the Kragnes Township Hall until it was demolished in 1993. The church, where Alex played the organ, locked its doors in 2011.
The cemetery perseveres. There you can visit the 4-H project that won Alex top state honors in 2015 – a monument honoring one of the neighborhood’s most famous residents, pioneer pilot Florence “Treetops” Klingensmith. The first licensed pilot in North Dakota and Clay County, she earned a nationwide reputation as an early aviatrix and stunt flyer in her bright red Daredevil airplane. She barnstormed the country during the late 1920s and early 1930s, setting the world record for flying loops (with 143). She was killed in a crash near Chicago during the International Air Races in 1933 and buried in the Gunderson family plot.
Alex’s 4-H community service project focused on elevating that grave. With the help of another former Oak Mound member, Marv Corneliussen of Hawley, he designed a monument with a brass plaque that tells her story. Another club member assembled a model of her plane, intended as a temporary placeholder until a more permanent version can be installed. It was dedicated in 2015. It won “best of show” in St. Paul.
Today, like many of his modern 4-H peers, Alex has strayed from his family’s original focus on farming, but that cemetery may have made its mark. He’s in his final year of the mortuary science program at the University of Minnesota and hopes to practice after graduation in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Meanwhile, he has purchased his grandfather’s farmstead, the home base for so many memories.
“I love farming, but it’s not the best time,” he concedes. Still, the Swanson tradition lives on. He keeps his collection of antique tractors at the farm. It includes the very John Deere Model B his great-grandfather bought new in 1941. It’s the one his grandfather, as a 4-Her, learned to tinker with during his tractor maintenance project – still running where those 4-H roots run deep.