An excerpt from Father Solanus Casey: Revised and Expanded:
The Caseys' Homestead in America (1865-1882) (Chapter 1)
By Catherine M. Odell
It was the twenty-fifth of November 1870 — exactly one month before Christmas — when a newborn’s cry could be heard inside the three-room log house near Oak Grove, Wisconsin, just south of Prescott. The snow-topped cabin was perched upon a bluff high above the mighty Mississippi River, the boundary at this point between Wisconsin and Minnesota. But here, twenty-five miles from St. Paul — across the river and about two hundred miles from where the Mississippi River has its origins — the river was “modest” and not quite so “mighty.”
The snug Irish Catholic family at home inside the cabin had origins far from Wisconsin and Minnesota. Barney and Ellen Casey were immigrants from Ireland to America during and after the years of Ireland’s Great Potato Famine of the 1840s.
Bernard and Ellen didn’t fully know the size of this migration from their native Ireland. They knew only that they had plenty of Irish company on the crossing boats. Historians confirmed their impressions, noting later that four million Irish had sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to America from 1845 to 1900. “Poor Ireland’s done” and “the country’s gone forever,” Irish immigrants told one another in this country.
While the Caseys were still thinking of a name for the newborn boy on this cold day in 1870, his mother, Ellen Elizabeth Murphy Casey, was resting. She herself had also been born on a wintry day — January 9, 1844.
Ellen was born in Camlough, County Armagh, in what is now Northern Ireland. The Irish cherished County Armagh for its connection with St. Patrick. In the fifth century, according to tradition, the great St. Patrick had put up a church there. Armagh, therefore, was soaked in the traditions of the Church. Ellen had carried that well-rooted love of the Catholic faith to America as a very young child.
Ellen’s father died during the potato famine that scourged Ireland from 1845 to 1850. When blight ruined the potato crop for several years in a row, the result was a nationwide disaster. On the table and as a crop the potato was the staple for this small island nation. One-fourth of the arable land of Ireland had been planted in potatoes.
After her husband’s death, Brigid Shields Murphy took her children — little Ellen, her older daughter, Mary Ann, and her three sons, Patrick, Owen, and Maurice — across the Atlantic to America around 1852. The family came first to the Boston area, where Brigid had relatives on the Shields side of the family. But soon thereafter, the family made its way to Portland, Maine. There, Brigid and her two older sons went to work in the textile mills.
At the time, they had few alternatives. Like most of the Irish who came, the Murphys had almost no money left once their passage was paid for. Even with jobs, grinding twelve-hour days and six-day weeks provided little more than a subsistence income. Ellen and Mary Ann boarded with a Portland housewife in exchange for light housekeeping chores. The baby, three-year-old Maurice, was cared for by a family friend.
After almost ten years of scrimping and hard labor, Brigid had money enough to move west to the region around St. Paul, Minnesota. Patrick and Owen, young men by then, had already found work there. Mary Ann had married and moved there as well. Ellen, however, stayed behind to live and work in Biddeford, Maine. Now almost grown-up, she was a petite, lovely young woman with straight facial features and deep-set blue eyes.
At a Fourth of July picnic in 1860, sixteen-year-old Ellen met Bernard James Casey, the brother of her friend, Ellen Casey. A tall, handsome, dark-haired young man, Bernard told Ellen that he’d come from County Monoghan three years earlier. In turn, she told him about her background in Armagh. No doubt they both laughed when they realized that though County Monoghan and Armagh were neighboring counties in the north of Ireland, the two of them traveled all the way to America before they met.
Young Casey had just turned twenty not too long before their meeting. Born June 10, 1840, at Castleblayney in County Monoghan, he and his sister, Ellen, had left Ireland behind for America when he was seventeen. In the Boston area, their brother Terrence was already becoming established. Once he’d settled in, Bernard learned the shoemaking trade and soon went into business with Terrence.
Apparently, Bernard and Ellen felt drawn to each other from that Fourth of July meeting. In the months that followed, they saw each other often. Before long, Barney proposed, and Ellen wrote to her mother in Hastings, Minnesota, about her thoughts of marriage.
Although Ellen’s mother was hundreds of miles away, her authority was persuasive at any distance, and she didn’t want her daughter married at so young an age. So she sent for Ellen, and Ellen traveled to Minnesota. The Casey-Murphy romance would have to be conducted via letters.
As the months went by, however, it was clear to Brigid that the relationship would survive the difficulties of courtship by letter. She finally gave her approval to the marriage. On October 6, 1863, Ellen and Barney were married in a small church in Salem, a Boston suburb. The bridegroom was twenty-three, his bride was nineteen.
For a while, the young couple lived in Boston. The Civil War had begun two years earlier, and wartime demand for shoes by the Union army kept the Casey brothers busy. By the end of the war in April 1865, however, the demand for shoes fell drastically. The Northern armies disbanded and no longer ordered shoes by the hundreds.
Bernard and Ellen Casey, looking for a livelihood, began to move westward in stages. They lived in Germantown, Pennsylvania, for a few months and then went to New Castle. There, Bernard and Terrence opened a shoe store. But the brothers quickly saw that making and selling shoes would no longer provide them with a good living, and they split up.
Terrence decided to move back east to attend law school. For the young Caseys, however, the move to farming and to the Midwest seemed inevitable. The couple already had two children to support — little Ellen, born July 8, 1864, and James, born August 14, 1865.
In 1862, Congress had passed the Homestead Act, which granted 160 acres to anyone wishing to settle on and cultivate public lands for at least five years. Variations on this “homesteading” concept were adapted in many areas. Thus, in the autumn of 1865, Barney and Ellen Casey moved into the area near Prescott, Wisconsin. A small log cabin was soon put up, as was a shelter for a pair of oxen and a cow. Barney, as a new farmer, watched with amazement as his brothers-in-law showed him how to use the steel plow to break the ground. The little family of four settled in, and the head of the house registered his claim. Crops were planted during the following spring.
Most Irish immigrants who came to America settled in urban areas in the East because they lacked the capital to move west. And, despite the fact that the Irish had come from rural settings, American agriculture on the frontier was very different than growing potatoes, or “murphies,” on their small plots in close-knit communities in Ireland. In this respect, the Caseys were unusual, but they were not alone. Pierce County apparently still had plenty of room to offer to newcomers. An 1860 county census, taken only five years before the Caseys arrived, showed that only eighty-two families, including seven Irish families, were settled there.
Although German immigrants outnumbered the Irish in Wisconsin in census reports for 1870, the Irish constituted the second largest group of foreign-born at that time. (After 1870, Norwegians poured into the state, overtaking the Irish immigrants for a ranking behind the Germans.) On the whole, the Midwest was clearly developing a German flavor. German immigrants were settling in such numbers in the Midwest that Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis were said to form a “German Triangle.”
But even though Irish neighbors were few in number, Bernard Casey felt more at home in farming than he had in business in the city. He meant to make it work for himself and his growing family. Like many Wisconsin farms, Casey’s land had a combination of wooded acreage and prairie land. The woods provided fuel and building materials, while the prairie was relatively easy to clear for planting.
Planting and harvest seasons passed by quickly. Wisconsin was a central part of the new “wheat boom,” and the Caseys planted their share of it. New strains of wheat were developed that produced bigger yields. By the 1860s, Milwaukee was rivaling Chicago as the greatest wheat-shipping port in the world. The family was flourishing, too. Mary Ann was born to the Caseys on September 19, 1866. Maurice was born November 7, 1867, and John was born February 10, 1869. Tiny John was just old enough to toddle around the bed when the new baby in November 1870 was lying in Ellen’s arms.
With six little Caseys on the Prescott place now, and a good harvest gathered in that year, Ellen and Barney Casey had plenty to be thankful for on this particular November twenty-fifth. They may have even heard of and celebrated the new Thanksgiving holiday that the late President Abraham Lincoln had established in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War.
The baby exercising his lungs was their fourth boy and had the Casey dark hair and blue eyes. Ellen and Barney believed firmly in God and that all their children were special gifts from him. But Bernard Casey, talking it over with his wife, must have seen this new child in a slightly different light. After three sons, he decided to give this son his own first name.
The sixth child was therefore called Bernard Francis Casey. On December 18, 1870, with Christmas in the air, the baby was baptized at St. Joseph Church in Prescott, a few miles from the homestead. At home, the baby was called “Barney,” his father’s nickname.
Little Barney learned to walk in the increasingly cramped cabin. He grew used to the noise of the rolling Mississippi below the bluffs. The sound of that water was one of his earliest memories, along with the image of his mother hanging laundry on the lines near the house. He also might well have remembered his mother shouting news across the river to Mrs. Cotter, their neighbor.
By the age of two, little Barney may also have been paying some attention to family prayer, a nightly custom. Slowly, he was learning to recognize certain prayers, including the prayers of the Rosary. Though he would not have understood the meaning of such a prayer, little Barney even heard the older Caseys ask “for a happy death and a favorable judgment.” During these evening prayers, the Casey toddlers undoubtedly moved around the table from the laps of father and mother. One can imagine the impression becoming fixed in the consciousness of the children: Prayer was talking. Adults talked a lot. Adults talked to one another and to children. Prayer was simply talking to an unseen God.
Children living on the land in the last quarter of the nineteenth century would have had no doubt about the reality of unseen powers. Summer storms, winter whiteouts, blazing prairie fires, abundant harvests, the flowing river nearby — all these things were the result of great powers that could not be comprehended, though their work could be seen. And, in the Casey home, the God spoken to was regarded as a God who loved his children, just as Bernard and Ellen loved their own.
This daily routine included many intentions for prayer. Like other nineteenth-century pioneers, the Caseys were aware of their need for “daily bread.” Practically, it was fashioned from the wheat and other crops they raised and harvested. But they understood that behind that “bread” was also a merciful Father, the Creator who gave growth to the wheat in the first place. Therefore, in the Casey cabin, prayers were recited for rain; for protection from ravaging insects, blights, or molds; and for dry days to harvest when the crops were ready. They also prayed to be spared from prairie fires and even for the protection of livestock — chickens, cows, the team of oxen, horses, and pigs. The Caseys never really finished praying, as their needs were many.
Living in western Wisconsin in those days wasn’t easy. Cabins like the one the Caseys were living in were, literally, rough. Logs were unhewn, chinked in between with mud. The cabins were roofed with shakes and floored with rough planks. Furniture was also scanty and crude.
By 1873, Bernard Casey Sr. had begun to set his heart on a larger place since good harvests for several years gave him the chance to save some money. But the main reason he craved more space was that his family was still growing. Since the birth of little Barney in 1870, Patrick had been born March 22, 1872, and a new baby was due in the spring of 1874. The head of the family had discovered a more spacious place for sale not far from his Prescott farm. Before the end of 1873, he bought it and moved his clan and all their belongings to a new homestead in Trimbelle Township, just a bit to the east.
With the family’s move to the new property, three-year-old Barney Junior’s world naturally expanded. The new Trimbelle homestead was close to a river of the same name which flowed into the Mississippi just north of Redwing, Minnesota. This farm had a larger house and was closer to a Catholic church and school.
Little Barney would remember this second place more clearly. The house near Trimbelle, Wisconsin, he estimated later, was about twelve by thirty feet with a partial loft for sleeping. The Casey boys had the run of the loft. Their sisters, far fewer in number, bedded down on one side of a divider on the ground floor. The parents slept on the other side of the divider. Otherwise, the cabin was entirely open, with no other rooms.
Much of the country surrounding the Caseys must have seemed quite rugged. “Wild beasts and rattlesnakes seem to have been the most common cause of such anxiety,” recalled Bernard Casey Jr. later. He was thinking of the worries his parents had about the safety of their children in this Wisconsin wilderness. Once, some of the boys even came face-to-face with a bear that chased them.
Some of the dangers of this area, however, had nothing to do with wild animals.
One summer Sunday in the mid-1870s, a prairie fire licked its way across the grasslands in the direction of the Casey homestead. Black smoke billowed toward the house and was blown ahead by stiff winds. Prairie fires terrorized homesteaders. Houses, barns, and crops were sometimes consumed in an hour’s time.
Barney Sr. and about half of the children were away at church. Since the Casey wagon would carry only about half of his large family to Mass six miles away, the other half remained home and prayed. (Thomas had been born March 11, 1874, Martha on May 5, 1875, Augustine on June 14, 1876, and Leo on March 10, 1878.) On the following Sunday, the children who had remained home the previous Sunday went with their mother while the others stayed home with their father.
As soon as she saw the fire, Ellen gathered up her children, took them out of the house, and huddled with them near a tree in one of the fields. For a while, it looked as though the house would be lost. She told young Ellen, her oldest child, to quickly hoe a firebreak in front of the house and pour holy water along it as a prayer. Though the barn was burned to the ground, the fire stopped short of the house.
Little Barney hid his face in his mother’s skirts to avoid the stifling smell of the smoke. Finally, he heard her nervous breathing change. “Thank God,” she murmured. One of the neighbors had run over to let the hog out of the pen adjacent to the barn. The frantic animal escaped just before the barn exploded into flames. When little Barney’s father and the other children came home at about noon, it was all over. The barn was destroyed, but nothing else, including field crops, was lost.
Life on the frontier had its risks, but it also had compensations. Among them was a wild beauty that all the Casey children remembered long into adulthood when most of them lived in cities.
“How rich [it was] in its variety and abundance of wild flowers and fruits and nuts and berries,” wrote Barney Jr. years later, when he was a priest. “There was a pasture field for cattle as well as deer and other animals.” In apparent curiosity, deer would often stop in twos and threes to watch the strange things being done by the two-legged Caseys as they went about their farming chores.
In 1878, however, a different kind of disaster hit the Caseys. The loss was much more devastating than any loss by prairie fire could have been.
Twelve-year-old Mary Ann, the second daughter, was struck with “black diphtheria.” A highly contagious disease seen often in this era, diphtheria was common in the United States and Western Europe. The upper respiratory system was typically affected, with a thick membrane forming up and down the air passages. Victims — usually children — ran high fevers, had sore throats, and sometimes died when the deadly membrane literally shut down their ability to breathe.
Bernard and Ellen could do little for Mary Ann. She died after struggling for several days for breath. But the tragedy was not over. Within three days of Mary Ann’s death, three-year-old Martha also died in the same way. Two children dead in less than a week! The Caseys were grief-stricken but had little time to mourn their daughters. Several of the boys, including eight-year-old Barney, had also come down with the disease.
Trying to isolate their sick children, the parents hovered over their sons who were struggling to catch their breath. The prayers of the parents were answered. All of the boys recovered, although not without some side effects. Barney was left with injured vocal cords where the membranes had infected his throat. From then on, his voice was weak, somewhat high-pitched, and wispy, even into manhood.
Life continued in the face of losses for frontier families. In the 1880s, more than 20 percent of frontier children died before they reached five years of age. Death was usually due to primitive housing conditions and poor sanitation. And, even though their family still numbered nine children after the death of the girls — and although they believed very firmly that Mary Ann and Martha were with God — the loss always felt sharp for the Caseys. But Bernard Casey Sr. did his best to house and feed his children well. Unlike many farmers, he fed his milk cows over winter and always had a large garden to provide fresh fruits and vegetables.
There was an order to the Casey life. In part, it was set by the seasons and the need to gain a living from the land. In addition, Ellen and Bernard Sr. saw to it that another order, the spiritual order, was clearly visible to their children.
By the early 1880s, the Casey family circle had expanded with more children, apparently crowding the little house to its limits. After the death of the little girls in 1878, Edward was born in July 1879, and Owen was born in January 1881. By the summer of 1882, eleven-year-old Barney was in the older half of a clan of eleven Casey children. In order, they were eighteen-year-old Ellen, seventeen-year-old Jim, fourteen-year-old Maurice (who was entering the diocesan seminary at Milwaukee), thirteen-year-old John, Barney, ten-year-old Pat, eight-year-old Tom, six-year-old Gus, four-year-old Leo, three-year-old Ed, and one-year-old Owen. With such a houseful of children, life was rich, but it also wasn’t always easy on a day-to-day basis. So the Irish-born head of the Casey clan began to look for a larger frontier on which to settle his growing American enterprise — his family and his farm.
Order the book "Father Solanus Casey: Revised and Expanded" here.
Also view the video below with scenes taken from St. Felix Friary in Huntington, Indiana where Father Casey spent his retirement.