Historian Traces Tale of area first settlers

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Four years before the Northern Pacific Railroad brought the first rough settlement to the east bank of the Red River, German immigrant Randolph Probstfield and his wife Catherine sank their roots into what would someday be called Oakport Township. It’s a foundational chapter of the ongoing story of Moorhead and Clay County … told by one of the local college community’s veteran scholars in his fifth book, “By the Sweat of His Brow: The R.N. Probstfield Family at Oakport Farm.”

Capturing intriguing snapshots of days gone by has been Carroll Engelhardt’s longtime passion. He shared it with some 6,000 students over 30-some years as a professor of history at Concordia College. But his second career as an author of historical books – a pursuit he never imagined as a younger man – kicked into gear only after his retirement in 2003.

The Probstfield story brings to life the young man who set off for America to dodge his parents’ plans for him to enter the priesthood. His travels eventually brought him to the Red River, where he and his wife Catherine built a cabin just north of what would become Moorhead in 1868. There the Probstfields raised 11 children, growing wheat and initiating truck farming in the region.

Engelhardt’s book, though, stretches far beyond the family to embrace the community and culture of their times. The personal underpinnings are drawn from the daily journals that Randolph kept from Jan. 1, 1873, until his death in 1911. But the author has wrapped what he calls the “pioneer settler narrative” with the context of the era – from agricultural peaks and valleys to the populist, even socialist politics that the book’s namesake embraced. “The family’s experiences were similar to others,” he observes. “These stories differ by ethnicity, but they share the basic elements of hard work, struggle, and the upheaval of the agrarian revolt.”

“By the Sweat of His Brow” is the fifth book in which Engelhardt explores the Upper Midwest’s past. Two chronicle the campus where he spent his career. His first, “On Firm Foundation Grounded,” was published on the occasion of Concordia’s centennial in 1991. Its sequel, “Concordia Fair Doth Stand,” came out on the college’s 125th birthday in 2016. (Their titles borrow the first lines of the Concordia Hymn.)

In the meantime, he published the story of the railroads’ central role in forming Fargo and Moorhead, “Gateway to the Northern Plains,” published by the University of Minnesota in 2007.

The seed for the Probstfield saga was planted then by a colleague who served on the board of the Probstfield Farm Living History Foundation, the organization that has preserved a portion of the family farm.  “Gretchen Harvey told me, ‘You ought to write about the Probstfields,’” he remembers.  “But I had a book about Iowa in mind – a social history of rural America and small-scale farmers in the 1940s and 1950s. That’s a vanished way of life.” That notion became an award-winning volume published by the University of Iowa in 2012, “The Farm at Holstein Dip: An Iowa Boyhood.”

That boyhood was his own. Engelhardt grew up on a farm near Elkader, Iowa, and attended Iowa State Teachers College intending to be a teacher. “One of my courses was taught by a historian,” he remembers. “At 18, I thought, ‘I want to do what he does.’” He has been doing it ever since.

Becoming the author of five published books (with a sixth now on the way) wasn’t something he imagined as a student. “It’s pretty remarkable for a guy who left graduate school determined to never ever write anything again,” he says with a smile. He earned his doctorate at the University of Iowa. “Graduate school was set up to teach you to be a researcher and publisher of history. I wasn’t particularly interested in that, nor very good at it.  And, you know, I just decided research and publication were not for me.

“And here I am today. It’s kind of like a square peg in a round hole.”

Engelhardt’s sixth book is nearly complete. “It’s an academic memoir,” he says, titled “Schooling: An Agrarian Octogenarian’s Life.” It follows his own journey, starting with a memory snapshot vividly remembered: “I was 4 years old, outstanding on our driveway on a warm summer day with the two Kramer boys. They insisted I would have to go to school because it’s the law. I was pretty stubborn. I wasn’t going to do it! Not me!

“Well, the next year, of course, I marched off to kindergarten. and I’ve spent the rest of my life in school. So that’s what my next book is all about.”

Engelhardt’s Probstfield saga is available at Zandbroz and other bookstores, as well as Amazon.com. “Gateway to the Northern Plains” and “The Farm at Holstein Dip” are also available online.

Comments are closed.

  • More Stories

    Houseplant propagation using a vegetative cutting

    January 18th, 2024

    Celebrating the City

    September 15th, 2022

    The Shows Must Go On

    May 12th, 2021
  • Facebook