July 2, 2007
A couple of fur trappin' and ginseng grown' brothers
An old-fashioned way of life has proven rewarding for two Waverly brothers
By Jennifer Gallus
An old-fashioned way of making a living has provided two Waverly fur trappers and ginseng growers, now in their 80s, with an abundance of memories, stories, and the desire to keep doing what they do best.
Kenneth and Harold Swanson of Waverly are two brothers who never married because, as they say, “We’re too busy running always on the go trapping.”
“We’d go away a week at a time trapping turtles all over Minnesota, South Dakota, and the Missouri River,” Kenneth said.
Turtles are mostly trapped for their meat, but the real money was made trapping critters for their fur.
“I was 8 years old when I caught my first mink. I sold it for $9. We each bought a pair of four-buckle overshoes and had money left over for candy,” Harold said.
“Now, you can’t even buy one pair of shoes for that,” he added.
The brothers talked about how snapping turtles aren’t a popular meat any longer.
“We’ve been on every river in Minnesota and South Dakota trapping turtles,” Harold said.
“Turtle meat is salty, you have to drink a lot of beer after eating it,” Harold laughed. “Young people don’t want to monkey with turtles,” he added.
“We trap mink, beaver, coon, red fox, skunk, anything we can catch,” Harold laughed.
“I was after those pocket gophers last week they keep digging those mounds,” Kenneth said.
In addition to trapping, the brothers grow, tend, and harvest both ginseng and golden seal. These two plants grow best in a woods setting and have to be grown in the shade.
They have been growing ginseng for at least 60 years and have been learning about it since grade school. Ginseng is used for medicinal purposes and for use in tea.
“The late Jake Pikal from Howard Lake used to dig it wild and grow it in his woods. One time, he claimed he had a million seedling plants in his woods and lost them all after one bad winter,” Harold said.
“Seventy-five years ago there were 25 ginseng growers around the Howard Lake area and Jake Pikal was one of them,” Harold said.
“They overdid it. There were too many growers and only got 30 cents a pound,” Kenneth said.
“They all quit, except Jake Pikal. He taught us a lot about ginseng,” Harold said.
“It can be quite a trick to raise and we still don’t know all the tricks. There’s always more to learn about growing it,” Kenneth said.
Ginseng needs to be at least eight years old before it can be harvested and the older the root is, the more it’s worth. The roots need to be dried before selling and it takes about four pounds of green material to make one pound of dry.
All weeding is done by hand, as well as the harvesting, which entails digging the roots up by hand, washing them, and letting them dry. Not to mention, planting is done by hand also.
“It’s all hard work,” Kenneth said.
“You gotta have a strong back and a weak mind,” Harold laughed.
The two haven’t been growing golden seal, another root crop, as long.
“We’ve only grown seal for about 40 years now,” Harold said.
Golden seal has similar growing requirements, and is used for medical purposes.
The brothers take the dried crops to a few different buyers in the fall.
“I’m 83 and am still going just as good,” Kenneth said.
“I’m 81, sometimes I feel 39 and sometimes I feel 91,” Harold laughed.