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Our Neighbors...Astrid Johnson

Astrid Johnson serves her homemade "caramelized" rolls and gingersnaps in the kitchen of her Cloquet apartment recently. Johnson, who learned how to bake bread from her Swedish mother at the age of 10, enters her baked goods in the Carlton County Fair every August - and has a hamper full of prize ribbons to show for it. Wendy Johnson/

A sign on the wall of Astrid Johnson's kitchen reads, "Give us this day our daily bread." Johnson takes that a bit more seriously than most. For many years, Johnson's homemade bread, rolls, pies and other baked goods have taken ribbons at local fairs. This year - as Johnson approaches her 94th birthday - she's ready to fire up her oven once again for the Carlton County Fair.

"I wait until two days before the fair and then it's full steam ahead," said Johnson. "I generally make rye bread, whole wheat bread, white bread, caramelized rolls, buns and something the Swedish people call 'Mor mor's [grandmother's] bread.' It's a flat bread, and you make a round loaf and cut it in wedges. The fair has an ethnic division, so I try that every year. It takes a lot of doing," she admitted.

Johnson said she has liked to bake from the time she was a little girl, and she first learned how to bake bread at the age of 10. She has a fistful of ribbons from last year's county fair hanging on the wall of her kitchen to show for it, as well as a picnic hamper full of all of ribbons she's won in the past, including many purple grand champion and blue first-place ribbons from fairs at Proctor, West Duluth, Barnum and Esko.

"We used to have a fair in Esko years ago, a big one," related Johnson, who lived there for many years with her husband and children. "They had animals and everything."

Johnson first started entering baked goods in the fair when her oldest son was in high school.

"He was in the agriculture group, and his teacher, Don Gustafson, encouraged him to take part in the fair," said Johnson. "Don was over at our house one day and had some of my cinnamon rolls - and he decided I should bake for the fair!"

Johnson did that very thing, and she said she's pretty sure she received at least a few blue ribbons for her efforts.

"You need that to encourage you to do it again, because you're sure not in it for the money!" she said with a chuckle. "It's fun and you get to know people. I look forward to it. I just hope I can hang together long enough to do it again this year! It takes me longer every year to do the baking, but at least I still remember what to put in it!" she said, explaining that she seldom relies on recipes.

She especially likes to bake bread and does all kinds - except for wild rice bread.

"I leave that up to Mrs. Olson in Esko," she explained. "She does a beautiful wild rice bread, and I wouldn't compete with her for love nor money!"

Johnson has a cherished covered pan that she uses to raise her bread that she estimates is close to 100 years old.

"I've had it for over 50 years," she said. "I got it at a rummage sale because it was similar to the one my mom used. Twice a week I scald it in the sink. It even has little vents in it for moisture."

Johnson said she bakes "just about anything that goes in the oven," including two blueberry pies for the fair every year. Her niece, who lives just off Old Highway 61 in Carlton, usually picks a couple of quarts of blueberries to bring over to her each year for her pies.

"I don't like the blueberries you buy in the store," said Johnson. "They don't even taste like blueberries."

And the secret to her award-winning pie crust?

"Lard and ice water!" she said. "When you eat out, notice how many people actually eat the crust on their pie," she pointed out. "Most of them just leave it."

Johnson is justifiably proud of the long family legacy that taught her sound values and a strong work ethic.

She grew up as Astrid Munter in the Sandy Lake/Blackhoof Valley area and went to the very two-room country school that's still standing there.

"The teachers lived right there in the building," she related, "which was quite modern for that day."

Her parents were both born in Sweden, where her grandmother ran a little bakery. Her father's family immigrated to America in the late 1890s, settling in the Sandy Lake area of Blackhoof Township in Carlton County. Johnson's mother and father knew each other during their childhood years in Sweden and they reconnected as adults after her mother immigrated to Superior, Wis., in 1896 at the age of 18. They eventually married and homesteaded in the Blackhoof Valley area where her father worked as a carpenter, paper hanger, painter and general "man of all trades." Her mother was the community midwife.

"She was often seen headed for an expectant neighbor's home with the well-known black satchel in one hand and the inevitable kettle of chicken soup in the other," wrote Johnson in her memoirs.

Life was far from simple, however, for the Munter family back in the "good old days," as Astrid put it.

"We pumped water for the cows and for our household use by hand, carrying it from barn to house to fill pails and the reservoir on our black, nickel-trimmed kitchen range," she said. "What wonderful memories of homemade breads and waffles made directly over the fire on the cast-iron waffle iron, 'top-l-grytan,' [a savory meat broth for dunking limpa bread], fragrant soups, homemade beans and 'bruna boner [Swedish brown beans],' nor could we forget the old menu - 'sil-o-potatis [a potato dish].' In the winter we often made our own potato sausage, head cheeses and pressed cheese. Often there was a large kettle of whole milk on the back of the stove - first stage of the homemade cottage cheese we loved."

Astrid was the youngest of six children, and she said they learned to create their own entertainment.

"Dad made our crude skis by hand," she related. "We had ice skates that clamped to our shoes, jump ropes, sling shots, boomerangs, 'jumpers' made from old car springs and willow whistles to keep us occupied."

She said one of her most distasteful chores was herding cows.

"Small farms like ours did not produce much hay so we were compelled to herd our few Guernseys along the roadsides," she explained. "However, we did get a little extra reading done along the way, sometimes forgetfully neglecting the cows! Horatio Alger's 'Strive and Succeed' and Porter's 'Girl of the Limberlost' have long since disintegrated and gone with the four winds."

In the winter, she said she and her five brothers and sisters often found themselves confined indoors because of inclement weather, but the family always had music to keep them occupied.

"Dad played a small button box, or concertina, and also his cherished old violin," she said. "Years have passed and I still hear in my head snatches of old melodies we heard - sad tunes and happy tunes, Swedish folk tunes, waltzes, mazurkas and schottisches."

Johnson recalled that her mother had a beautiful, old table harp she had brought over from Sweden but for some reason, it was put away in the attic and they seldom heard her play. Her mother sang a lot, however, both Swedish and Norwegian airs and occasionally even a lilting song from Lapland.

She said she and her siblings walked a mile to the little Sandy Lake School, and in bad weather their parents took turns bringing them with horses and sleigh.

"We only had one horse but Dad always took his turn, although there would be more tumbling behind in the deep snow than inside our very small conveyance!" said Johnson.

"With the arrival of spring," she continued, "we picked wild arbutus (quite rare and protected now) and Mayflowers. Later, we found luscious wild strawberries and Juneberries. In late summer, blueberry and raspberry picking was a project for the whole family. Many quarts of berries were canned to be enjoyed the following winter."

Johnson graduated from Barnum High School in 1936, and not long afterward she met her future husband, Arnold Johnson, when both were out dancing one night with friends.

"We were two jitterbugs!" she said with a laugh. "We were of the old school."

They dated - and danced - for the next two years.

"We followed Lorren Lindevig, who was a family friend," said Johnson.

Astrid and Arnold were married and Arnold worked as a farmer and herdsman on the H.C. Hanson dairy farm near Barnum, working with Guernsey cows.

"Our first four children were born when we were living on the farm," said Johnson. "I used to call them the Guernsey bunch!"

After seven years, her husband found work on a farm in Iowa for a couple of years before they eventually moved to Esko, where he went to work for Arrowhead Creamery and Franklin Creamery in Duluth.

Astrid often baked as sort of a sideline.

"I used to put an ad in the paper that said, 'Astrid's baking again,'" she said, "and by 11 a.m. the next morning, everything was gone!"

A lot of time people from her church would also ask her to bake for them because they didn't have time to do it themselves.

In all, the Johnsons raised eight children and continued to live on the farm in Esko up until Arnold's death 15 years ago. Astrid moved to an apartment in Cloquet the day after her husband passed away, which the two of them had already been planning because of Arnold's failing health.

Today, she spends time reading and also enjoys writing her memoirs as well as humorous articles and poetry, and she gets up around 6 a.m. every day.

"That's the best part of the day," she attested, adding that she never goes to bed at night until after 11 p.m. and she never naps. Though she no longer drives, she has good friends who give her rides to church and the grocery store and help her take her entries to the fair.

She still subscribes to the practice of hanging her clothes outside on the line to dry as often as she can.

"The neighbor ladies used to have a $5 bet over what day and month I would have my first clothes hung out on the line!" she said. "And one year, there was a picture of me in the paper. I was about 90, and I was compelled to do a snow angel out in the yard when [neighbor] Pete Mills took a picture of me. Someone's gotta have fun!"

She does the crossword puzzle and the Sudoku puzzle in the newspaper every day and bakes several times a week.

"I heard that if you have a hobby, you last longer," she said . "It makes the wheels go 'round!"

Realizing that in just six years, she'll be 100 years old, Johnson said she feels blessed to have already lived this long and always tries to think positively.

"When you live alone, you can eat as many cinnamon rolls as you want!" she said.

And just what's left to do that she hasn't already done in life?

"I'll find something!" she said with a sparkle in her eye.