Ole Branstad

(by Stanley Selin)

   Ole C. Branstad was born Ole C. Anderson in Moss, Norway on May 18, 1839.  He changed his name to Branstad as it was the name of the farm from which he came.  He left home at the age of 12 to become a common sailor and lived a life of perilous adventure.  According to family verbal history, he sailed on a number of ships, visiting many of the major world ports.  On one of the South Sea Islands, he was nearly captured by cannibals.  At one time, he sailed with a crew of Irishmen, and succeeded in learning the Irish brogue so perfectly that he was mistakenly thought to be of Irish descent.  At another time, on a  voyage that was bringing immigrants to North America,  he was scheduled to return with the ship to England with a load of square timbers for shipbuilding.  After the immigrants disembarked at Quebec, Canada, and as the ship proceeded back up the St Lawrence river,  Branstad noticed rats jumping overboard.  Since this was an accepted belief that the ship was about to sink, he told the captain, who then said they would never make the trip safely.  The prophecy proved correct.  The ship had hit a rock and had torn a wide hole in the keel.  Indians on the coast of Labrador saw their plight and rescued them. The Indians had numerous scalps tied on their waistbands, but did their captives no harm.  They did plunder the ship, however, stripping out all the brass, instruments, and any ornaments that could be pried loose.  They fed the sailors for an entire week, until a passing vessel rescued them and returned them to Quebec.  From here, Ole went to Milwaukee, and spent some time sailing on Lake Michigan.

   By 1862,  fighting in the American Civil War was becoming more intense, and more and more volunteers were needed.  Under the Federal Enrollment Act, districts were allowed 50 days to meet their enrollment quotas.  Most districts waited until the last week or so to fill their quotas.  Meetings took place (similar to religious revival meetings) in which draft eligible men were exhorted to contribute funds to hire volunteers or substitutes. Men were slow to volunteer, until they were sure of receiving bounties (usually $100) raised by the district.  Ole Branstad enlisted in the  Fifteenth Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment on August 30, 1862,  commanded by Colonel Hans Christian Heg.  This practically all-Norwegian regiment of 1,046 men fought in the battle of Chickamauga during September, 1863, and suffered frightfully heavy losses.  Due to faulty communication , their flank was left exposed to a barrage of rebel bullets, canister, and grape shot.  The men bravely held their ground, not yielding an inch, but about half their number were killed or wounded.  Colonel Heg was wounded and died the next day.  Ole Branstad was captured by the Confederates and held in captivity at Danville prison one month, Bell Island prison one month, Cassell Thunder prison two months, and at Andersonville, Georgia, for 12 months.

   Andersonville prison, completed about February, 1864, was initially a 16½ acre enclosure surrounded by a high stockade.  It was built by black slave labor and was designed to hold 10,000 captured Union soldiers. Prison guards, mostly older men and boys, watched from sentry boxes, called "pigeon roosts", with orders to shoot any prisoner who crossed a wooden railing, called a "deadline".  Due to the large number of prisoners being captured, and the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system, the enclosure was enlarged in June 1864 to 26½ acres. However, by August of 1864, the prison population  had swelled to over 32,000.  The terrible overcrowding and filthy conditions resulted in 12,912 deaths by the end of the war in May of 1865.  Available shelter was gradually reduced to tent fragments, huts made of scrap wood, or simply holes in the ground.  Many had no shelter at all against the rain, heat and cold. Some wore rags, and a few wore nothing at all.   The daily ration for the prisoners was the same as the guards, one pound of corn meal, and either one pound of beef or a third of a pound of bacon per day.  Occasionally they received peas, beans, rice, or molassas.  Often the food was spoiled or contained vermin.  Diseases such as dysentery, gangrene and scurvy took their toll.   Ole Branstad survived,

however, and was released from prison on April 17, 1865, but weighing only 98 pounds by one account.  He never fully recovered from the ordeal and suffered from prison-related ailments for the rest of his life.

   After Ole was officially released from prison at Vicksburg, Mississippi, he was scheduled to board the steamer Sultana on April 27, 1865,  with 2,000 other former prisoners and Union soldiers for the trip back  home.  These former prisoners were extremely impatient to get started.  Many were semi-invalids, and longed to get back to their homes for good food and care. The side-wheeler stayed at Vicksburg for an extra day in order to repair a leaky boiler with a riveted plate.  During this time in port, men tried to muscle, bribe, and threaten their way on board until the ship was bursting at the seams with soldiers. One of the impatient soldiers had a ticket for a trip on a later steam boat, and happened to ask Branstad if he would trade tickets.  Ole agreed, since he was not in a great hurry to leave. The Sultana by law was supposed to carry 376 persons, including her crew. Over 2,400  passengers had crowded on, and the side-wheeler slowly plowed upstream against the fast spring current.  At 2:00 AM, about 9 miles upriver, one of her four boilers exploded in a huge fireball, destroying half the ship.  Some 1,700 Union veterans died instantly or from the resulting burns.  Ole made it safely back to Wisconsin on another steamer.

  Branstad rested a year to recover from his prison ordeal, and again sailed the inland seas until the fall of 1868.    At this time, he purchased 128 acres of farm land about two miles south of Grantsburg.  He donated land to build a creamery. Other businesses followed, and it was decided to name the town "Branstad".  He married Sophia Anderson in 1870 and had eleven children.  William Branstad, a son, tells the following story:  "One day, Ole met William McKee, a former Confederate soldier, in Alex Stenborg's blacksmith shop in Grantsburg.  McKee was a southerner, one who had moved up to the settlement called Alabama, near Atlas, Wisconsin.  In their conversation about wartime experiences, McKee showed Branstad a knife he had taken from a Union soldier.  Branstad recognized it as his own knife, taken when he and other Union soldiers were taken prisoner in the Battle of Chickamauga." 

.  Branstad was a farmer and also took an active interest public service.  In 1879, he was elected Register of Deeds for Burnett County and held this office until 1887.  In 1889, he was appointed county treasurer, and held this office until 1893. He held this office again from 1897 to 1899.  At one time, he was town chairman and justice of the peace.   Branstad wrote the following comments as a supplement to the Burnett County Sentinel in 1904 on the subject of county politics. Photos from Selin collection.

"READ CAREFULLY!  Ole C. Branstad's Fight for the Poor and Tax-Ridden Farmers of Burnett County.

My Fellow Citizens:--  By looking over the proceedings of the Annual Session of the Board of Supervisiors of Burnett County for 1903,  Resolved, by the Burnett County Board of Supervisors, that the salaries of the county officers shall be for the term commencing January 1st, 1905, as follows:

                    County Clerk, $800.00 per year.

                    County Treasurer, $800.00 per year.

 Now that makes in one term for only two county officers for the round sum of $3,200,  and increase of $800.00  for one term of two years, of which not one dollar is spent for labor or improvement of any kind for the benefit of the county as they have  no property to improve and pay no taxes, save $13.20, bur every dollar is hoarded up and gets out of circulation. I want it distinctly understood that I don't find any fault with the county board.  They acted in  good faith as they were informed by the button-holers that Polk County paid her county cleark and treasurer $1000.00 a year, when it is $750.00; see page 663 Blue Book of Wisconsin for 1901, then see Blue Book of Wisconsin for 1903, page 244, and compare the assessed valuation of Burnett County lands, which is $842,142 to Polk County lands; which is $3,746,940

and see who can afford to pay the most salary.  Then look at page 162 of the same Blue Book and compare the population of Burnett County which is $7,428  to Polk County's population, which is 17,801, and over 10.000 more than Burnett County according to the United States census of 1900, and then take the late railroad map of the state of Wisconsin and compare the number of railway stations in Polk county where the farmers in that county have good markets for their produce to Burnett county's only one.  I am very much surprised to find people who I believed to be well informed don't know anything about this late salary grabbing.  I will say to you and every tax payer in Burnett County, keep one, or still better, both The Journal and the Sentinel and keep yourself posted on what is going on; it is money well invested, and don't shut your eyes and let them pick your pockets.  Don't you know that they have set an $800.00 trap for you and in order to save you from going into it, that is, if you don't want to, I have placed myself in the field as an independent candidate for County Treasurer to fight to a finish.  And I shall handle them without gloves, and if I am elected I shall pledge my word and honor that I shall return the four hundred dollars into the general fund of Burnett County for the benefit of the tax payers, and the county clerk has a perfect right to take the hint if he wants to.  I served the county as treasurer for six years at a salary of $600.00 per year and would think myself very well paid if I got $600.00, and it was entirely unnecessary to raise it to $800.00 so long as nearly half of the county is sold every year for taxes and the candidates are running to break their necks and resorting to all kinds of dirty tricks to get the office at $600.00.  They will come again this fall, call you by your first name, shake your hand, and treat you to a two-for-a-nickle cigar and tell you how good they ae going to be if you will only vote for them.  Don't you believe it.  If they were sure they had no opposition, they would not pay any more attention to you than a dead dog.  They have figured to hold the office for another term of two years and have succeeded in having their salary raised from $600.00 to $800.00 per year.  They succeeded in roping in enough delegates at the county convention to get the nomination but the next question is:  Will the people submit to it?  I have an idea that the poor farmer  who is digging a living out of the sand hills of Burnett county and laying awake at night figuring out how to get around to pay his bills, thinks his taxes are high enough.  This is something that concerns every tax payer in the county and everyone should take issue on one side or the other.  Of course, if a person thinks he can afford to pay a few more  dollars in taxes in order to make up the extra $800.00 salary, then vote for the nomination ticket, and if you don't feel constitutionally inclined that way then vote for Ole C. Branstad, the independent candidate for county treasurer and it will save thousands of dollars in the future.   

      Very respectfully your obedient servant,  OLE C. BRANSTAD,    R.R. No.2, Grantsburg, Wis."

The Branstad family. Photo taken June 5, 1891

Caption:  Photo taken June 5, 1891.

Standing: Newton and Lillie

Sitting: Ole holding Edna, William, Stella, Sophia holding Benjamin.

Colonel Hans C. Heg, Mortally wounded, September 19, 1863

Caption: Colonel Hans C. Heg, Mortally wounded, September 19, 1863

Tents in Andersonville prison, near Macon, Georgia

Caption: Tents in Andersonville prison, near Macon, Georgia.

The overloaded steamer Sultana, leaving for the trip up river. A few hours later, a boiler exploded, instantly killing 1,400 Union soldiers heading homeward after the Civil War

Caption: The overloaded steamer Sultana, leaving for the trip up river. A few hours later, a boiler exploded, instantly killing 1,400 Union soldiers heading homeward after the Civil War.

View of the first Branstad creamery on a busy day

Caption: View of the first Branstad creamery on a busy day.