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By the Sweat of His Brow cover

  • Keywords
    • economic development,
    • farming,
    • Midwest history,
    • Minnesota history,
    • North Dakota,
    • pioneer farming,
    • Red River Valley

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By the Sweat of His Brow
The R. M. Probstfield Family at Oakport Farm
by Carroll Engelhardt

“If I had promised to be a priest and kept my word, today I would be . . . a feted-up, high-living hypocrite in the so-called vineyard of the Lord, and not a farmer . . . earning his bread by the sweat of his brow.” Defying his Catholic parents’ insistence that he join the clergy, twenty-year-old R. M. Probstfield emigrates from the Rhineland to Minnesota. After some continental rambling and the federal government forcing Native Americans from the Red River Valley, a decade toiling for the Hudson’s Bay Company persuades him that the Valley’s rich soil offers opportunity, and as one of the earliest settlers establishes Oakport Farm near the well-timbered Red River. Documented from a multi-generational journal and illustrated with vintage photographs, By the Sweat of His Brow sets the Probstfield family’s daily activities in the context of state and national agricultural, social, and political history and opens a window on rural life at the eastern edge of the Great Plains from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. This meticulously researched, eminently readable book colorfully depicts a complicated patriarch, loving wife, and eleven children eking out a living. It will appeal to history buffs and scholars alike.

"Of course I gave it a 5 star since it is about my great grandfather and my aunts and uncles, but if you want to know about the settlers in the Red River Valley this is a great place to start." ​ –Mara, Amazon Customer Review "... Engelhardt delivers much more than a family history--his book is a granular account of frontier life in America, a life of punishing toil that also held the promise of wealth and freedom. Probstfield emerges as a fascinating patriarch of his family (he married Catherine Goodman, with whom he had 13 children); a rugged, secular individualist, he held progressive political and cultural views, including a great attraction to socialism. He was exceedingly active in local political life, a contentious milieu diligently reconstructed by the author. His extraordinary rigor can be a bit overwehlming--there are minutely detailed discussions of Oakport's small-grain production, Probstfield's horitcultural experiments, and various meat-preservation methods. However, for the reader looking for a finely detailed treatment of this period in American history, this is an edifying study. A magisterially researched work in American history." –Kirkus Reviews "By the Sweat of His Brow ... is a fine accomplishment, and a fitting tribute to Probstfield and his family. . . . I like that he portrayed Randolph with warts and all, emphasizing his remarkable accomplishments while remembering his flaws. From my perspective I thought he did an excellent job of telling a story of frontier settlement generally using Probstfield to illustrate the challenges confronting all settlers, expecially in the Red River Valley. I also especially appreciated his intricate portrayal of rural life in the late-nineteenth century, and the relative self-sufficency it required. More than a story of one family, his is a story of the nature and evolution of rural life over several generations. Beyond that I liked his treatment of government in the Valley and of institutions--schools, fraternal organizations, old settlers' groups, etc.--that sustained residents and helped give meaning and purpose to their lives." –David Danbom, NDSU Emeritus Professor of History

Carroll Engelhardt, emeritus professor of history at Concordia College - Moorhead, Minnesota was born in an Iowa farmhouse without electricity, plumbing, or a working furnace. He started doing chores at age six, milked cows by hand from age eleven, helped put up hay and harvest oats, cleaned cow and hog barns, and spread manure on frozen fields until he left for college. Professor Engelhardt is the author of four books: On Firm Foundation Grounded: The First Century of Concordia College for which he received the Red River Valley Heritage Society’s Historian Award; Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo and Moorhead; The Farm at Holstein Dip: An Iowa Boyhood, winner of the State Historical Society of Iowa’s 2013 Shambaugh Award for the Best Book Written about Iowa History the Previous Year; and Concordia Fair Doth Stand: The College Begins its Second Century, 1991-2016. He and his wife have lived in the Red River Valley for over fifty years.


Carroll Engelhardt

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