By Michael E.
Theodore rose from his study to adjust the wood stove. He placed two more logs on to the fire and then opened up the floor vent, allowing oxygen to rush in. The warmth felt good on his unkempt beard and the light illuminated a small weathered man, face smeared in sut. Alone in what used to be his family home.
If you had seen this man or his home just a year ago you likely would not recognize either. But those were happier times, before the Schoolhouse Blizzard swept through the Dakota Territory, robbing Theodore Veblen of his family and his happiness.
Veblen had moved to the frozen plains of the Dakota Territory from his ancestral home on the Hardangervidda plateau in Norway because of the similarities in climate. But the cold winters back home did not prepare him for such a wide open, windswept and foreboding territory. When Theodore first arrived, there wasn’t a single tree on his plot of land to block the merciless wind.
But what Theodore lacked in material comfort, he made up for with the infinite energy of his youth. In Spring, he would plow and sew his fields and in autumn he would harvest. And in between he would fill his days running wild and free, barnstorming across the Dakota Territories. It was then that he found his first true love, baseball.
It didn’t take too much longer for him to find his second true love and start a family. And while Theodore was never all that large in stature and was a man of few words, he exuded a deep contentedness. It was obvious to anyone who looked upon them, how happy and loving the Veblen family was.
As the trees that Theodore planted as a windbreak grew tall and strong, so did the residents of the farmhouse inside. Theodore and his wife Elizabeth were blessed with three children. Then came the tragedy.
The morning of January 11th, 1888 was unseasonably warm. The temperature had crept above freezing already by the early hours of the morning, a welcome reprieve from the -20 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures of the day before. The Veblen children gleefully went off to school on horseback, when just the day before they had to walk beside the horse to keep from freezing. But they were never to return, just like hundreds of other children on that somber day.
Around the time that school was letting out for the day, the temperature suddenly dropped to some 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. And powdery snow which had fallen in a blizzard earlier in the week, mixed with a new incoming blizzard that made it impossible to see a foot in front of your face. Newspaper articles from that day described the appearance of it being midnight in the middle of the day.
The loss of his family shook Theodore to his core. He rarely left his house in the next year, barely preparing enough food for him alone to survive on. He swore off any sport or jollyment as his eyes sunk deeper and deeper into his head from emaciation.
The one thing he had left to maintain his sanity was box scores which he followed religiously in the daily newspaper. He obsessed over them, tracking the ebbs and flows of players over the seasons and devising strange and innovative baseball strategies. A man truly gone mad.
Then out of nowhere, a letter came from some family out East. They had chosen to settle in Western, New York in an up-and-coming city named Rochester. They seduced Theodore with the tales of warm summers in a bustling city. Rochester had for decades been one of the larger cities in the United States, but it had now tripled in size in just the last twenty years.
Theodore’s family referred to Rochester as the Flower City. It was once a settlement known for its flour mills along the Eerie Canal. But with Westward expansion and increasing industrialization, it then became known for its flower seed companies which were the largest in the nation. It was one of the fastest growing and most progressive cities of the 19th century, home to both Frederick Douglass of the abolitionist movement and Susan B. Anthony, of the women’s suffragist movement.
Additionally, with the collapse of the National League, it was a city ripe for a baseball team. But they would need a manager to lead them. While Theodore wasn’t the most naturally talented of all baseball players, he did have a quiet confidence about him, he was a natural leader and he was known for his fiscal responsibility.
A cousin of Theodore, Thorstein Veblen, was one of the nation’s predominant critics of conspicuous consumption. So much so that he invented the term. The entire Veblen family, in fact, was known for their practicality, fiscal responsibility and their work ethic. And Theodore was no different.
In correspondence, Theodore’s family begged him to come east to New York to help with this new venture. They had already collected endorsement’s from the cities most prominent businessmen, George Eastman of Eastman Kodak, and John Jacob Bausch of Bausch and Lomb.
They wanted to put together a team that celebrated the progressiveness and the innovation of the city, as well as their spirit of freedom. And they had suggested naming the team the Rochester North Stars, after the abolitionist newspaper that Frederick Douglass had published from his headquarters in Rochester.
This short story is based roughly on my actual family history. My grandmother really did come from a family of Norweigan immigrants who settled in the Dakota territory. The story of the Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888 really did happen, and was passed down to her. Upwards of 200 people died in the blizzard, many of them schoolchildren walking home from school. There are other tidbits of the story from her childhood, such as having to walk to school beside her horse to keep from freezing in the brutal Dakota winters.
The other side of my family really did settle in Rochester, NY as well. For those who don’t know, Rochester, NY was one of the largest 25 cities in the United States throughout the 19th century and it did see a large population explosion between 1860 and 1890. It also got it’s first baseball team in 1889 (the Rochester Broncos, now the Rochester Red Wings). It’s one of only six professional sports franchises in North America to have played in the same city uninterrupted since the 19th century, along with the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals. And it’s one of only two sports franchises in North America to have won a league championship in every decade of the 20th century.