Writing optimistically in her native German, Catherine Hoofhower poured her heart out in an 1877 letter from her log cabin in Lydia, Minn., to her teenage daughter in school in Ashtabula, Ohio.
"It is hard, dearest daughter Karolina, that we have to move around the world like this, but I try to be positive and think it will be better again when we can go back to our homeland," according to a 2011 translation. "After dark clouds follows sunshine. … Don't forget your mother and write back to her soon."
Hoofhower never realized her dream of returning to Germany. She died 100 years ago, at 85, and was buried at St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery near Jordan, Minn. Sometimes, old letters like hers are the best and only surviving clues into ancestors' lives.
Not this time. Thanks to some impressive fundraising and carpentry, the New Prague Area Historical Society has renovated Hoofhower's 1870s log cabin. The structure was moved about 8 miles south to New Prague's Memorial Park in 1956 as part of the community's centennial.
The spruced-up cabin, and an adjacent new shed filled with artifacts, will open to the public on Saturday, Sept. 22, from noon to 5 p.m., just south of Hwy. 13. It's part of New Prague's Harvest Festival, known as Dozinky.
Born Gertrude Hertig in Baden, Germany, in 1833, Catherine changed her first name when she emigrated to America at 19. She took her husband Joseph Hoofhower's last name at their 1855 wedding in Pennsylvania.
The 1870 census shows him working at an Ohio glass factory. When he died in 1872 at 59, she moved with her 11-year-old son, George, to Sand Creek township about 40 miles southwest of Minneapolis. Their daughter, Mary, lived nearby in Scott County while Caroline made the Ohio-to-Minnesota trek in the late-1870s.
"I am content so far," Catherine wrote to Caroline in 1877. "I am in Krug's butcher shop in Jordan. I am doing the work of two men and don't have it too tough."
In 1875, Catherine Hoofhower plunked down $160 to purchase 80 acres in Lydia and built the simple cabin. Generations of her family would live there — sometimes amid heartache. Her son George's 2-day-old twin babies died in 1893. His wife, Martha, died from childbirth complications 11 days after delivering their daughter in 1895. George remarried and raised two more kids in the log house at the end of 1800s.
Fast forward a half century: The log cabin was dismantled in 1956 and moved to Memorial Park in New Prague amid speeches delivered in Czech and English.
Skip ahead another 62 years and meet Dennis Dvorak, 75, who ran the New Prague schools' art department before retiring and taking over as president of the area's historical society.
"This little log cabin is important because it tells the story of the immigrant experience," he said. "Catherine Hoofhower, like so many women of the era, had to pick up her skirt and get to work when her husband died. She was resourceful in a time when there were no social services like we enjoy today."
In Catherine's case, that meant doing "the work of two men" at the Jordan butcher shop.
Dvorak and his wife, Linda, helped raise more than $50,000 in grants and donations to finance the two-year project to renovate the old Hoofhower cabin.
"The interior was in good shape and a good roof kept most of the moisture out," Dvorak said.
Mark Johnson, a carpenter from Kasota, helped stabilize the cabin with new chinking between the 400-year-old logs — originally milled from central Minnesota's Big Woods.
Dvorak slathered on a fresh coat of whitewash inside the cabin and used reclaimed barn loft flooring to fix what was most likely a dirt floor in the 1800s. The original step-down threshold has been updated to make it accessible.
A four-burner 1878 iron stove — "a recent find," Dvorak says — replaced a single burner wooden stove. Originally, the cabin included a loft upon which young George slept. That never made it to New Prague from the original site in Lydia.
But "the two doorways and four window openings are original to the home," Dvorak said, adding "the exterior material and footprint have not been altered."
Along with the new shed displaying New Prague artifacts, the cabin will help schoolchildren and area residents learn more about the experience of early white settlers to the region. Some of the farm tools found in the cabin in the 1950s are now in the shed. Two dozen such artifacts come with written explanations. Dvorak helped build the shed with rough-cut maple and oak processed at a family sawmill nearby.
"I'm proud of this community history," he said.
And Catherine Hoofhower, no doubt, would also be proud. She was an optimist, after all. As she opened that 1877 letter to her daughter: "So far I am healthy and happy," she wrote, more than 140 years ago.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at www.onminnesotahistory.com.