Olaf Ericson’s Barn Raising

An excerpt from "The Bohemian Girl"

Willa Cather December 9, 2022

In 1912, McClure’s Magazine published Willa Cather’s short story “The Bohemian Girl” in serial form. In section six of the story, the day of Olaf Ericson’s barn raising has finally arrived. Ericson, a prosperous farmer and aspiring politician, is holding a barn raising party to celebrate the community construction of his new barn. During the festivities, his wife Clara, who “seldom came downstairs before eight o’clock” and whose “lateness in rising was one of the many things the Ericson family had against her,”  dances with Olaf’s younger brother Nils to celebrate their plans to run away together.


On the day of Olaf Ericson’s barn-raising, his wife, for once in a way, rose early. Johanna Vavrika had been baking cakes and frying and boiling and spicing meats for a week beforehand, but it was not until the day before the party was to take place that Clara showed any interest in it. Then she was seized with one of her fitful spasms of energy, and took the wagon and little Eric and spent the day on Plum Creek, gathering vines and swamp goldenrod to decorate the barn.

By four o’clock in the afternoon buggies and wagons began to arrive at the big unpainted building in front of Olaf’s house. When Nils and his mother came at 5:00, there were more than 50 people in the barn, and a great drove of children. On the ground floor stood six long tables, set with the crockery of seven flourishing Ericson families, lent for the occasion. In the middle of each table was a big yellow pumpkin, hollowed out and filled with woodbine. In one corner of the barn, behind a pile of green-and-white-striped watermelons, was a circle of chairs for the old people; the younger guests sat on bushel measures or barbed-wire spools, and the children tumbled about in the haymow. The box-stalls Clara had converted into booths. The framework was hidden by goldenrod and sheaves of wheat, and the partitions were covered with wild grapevines full of fruit. At one of these Johanna Vavrika watched over her cooked meats, enough to provision an army; and at the next her kitchen girls had ranged the ice-cream freezers, and Clara was already cutting pies and cakes against the hour of serving. At the third stall, little Hilda, in a bright pink lawn dress, dispensed lemonade throughout the afternoon. Olaf, as a public man, had thought it inadvisable to serve beer in his barn; but Joe Vavrika had come over with two demijohns concealed in his buggy, and after his arrival the wagon-shed was much frequented by the men.

“Hasn’t Cousin Clara fixed things lovely?” little Hilda whispered, when Nils went up to her stall and asked for lemonade.

Nils leaned against the booth, talking to the excited little girl and watching the people. The barn faced the west, and the sun, pouring in at the big doors, filled the whole interior with a golden light, through which filtered fine particles of dust from the haymow, where the children were romping. There was a great chattering from the stall where Johanna Vavrika exhibited to the admiring women her platters heaped with fried chicken, her roasts of beef, boiled tongues, and baked hams with cloves stuck in the crisp brown fat and garnished with tansy and parsley. The older women, having assured themselves that there were 20 kinds of cake, not counting cookies, and three dozen fat pies, repaired to the corner behind the pile of watermelons, put on their white aprons, and fell to their knitting and fancy-work. They were a fine company of old women, and a Dutch painter would have loved to find them there together, where the sun made bright patches on the floor and sent long, quivering shafts of gold through the dusky shade up among the rafters. There were fat, rosy old women who looked hot in their best black dresses; spare, alert old women with brown, dark-veined hands; and several of almost heroic frame, not less massive than old Mrs. Ericson herself. Few of them wore glasses, and old Mrs. Svendsen, a Danish woman, who was quite bald, wore the only cap among them. Mrs. Oleson, who had twelve big grandchildren, could still show two braids of yellow hair as thick as her own wrists. Among all these grandmothers there were more brown heads than white. They all had a pleased, properous air, as if they were more than satisfied with themselves and with life. Nils, leaning against Hilda’s lemonade-stand, watched them as they sat chattering in four languages, their fingers never lagging behind their tongues.

“Look at them over there,” he whispered, detaining Clara as she passed him. “Aren’t they the Old Guard? I’ve just counted 30 hands. I guess they’ve wrung many a chicken’s neck and warmed many a boy’s jacket for him in their time.”

In reality he fell into amazement when he thought of the Herculean labors those 15 pairs of hands had performed: of the cows they had milked, the butter they had made, the gardens they had planted, the children and grandchildren they had tended, the brooms they had worn out, the mountains of food they had cooked. It made him dizzy. Clara Vavrika smiled a hard, enigmatical smile at him and walked rapidly away. Nils’ eyes followed her white figure as she went toward the house. He watched her walking alone in the sunlight, looked at her slender, defiant shoulders and her little hard-set head with its coils of blue-black hair. “No,” he reflected; “she’d never be like them, not if she lived here a hundred years. She’d only grow more bitter. You can’t tame a wild thing; you can only chain it. People aren’t all alike. I mustn’t lose my nerve.” He gave Hilda’s pigtail a parting tweak and set out after Clara. “Where to?” he asked, as he came upon her in the kitchen.

“I’m going to the cellar for preserves.”

“Let me go with you. I never get a moment alone with you. Why do you keep out of my way?”

Clara laughed. “I don’t usually get in anybody’s way.”

Nils followed her down the stairs and to the far corner of the cellar, where a basement window let in a stream of light. From a swinging shelf Clara selected several glass jars, each labeled in Johanna’s careful hand. Nils took up a brown flask. “What’s this? It looks good.”

“It is. It’s some French brandy father gave me when I was married. Would you like some? Have you a corkscrew? I’ll get glasses.”

When she brought them, Nils took them from her and put them down on the window-sill. “Clara Vavrika, do you remember how crazy I used to be about you?”

Clara shrugged her shoulders. “Boys are always crazy about somebody or other. I dare say some silly has been crazy about Evelina Oleson. You got over it in a hurry.”

“Because I didn’t come back, you mean? I had to get on, you know, and it was hard sledding at first. Then I heard you’d married Olaf.”

“And then you stayed away from a broken heart,” Clara laughed.

“And then I began to think about you more than I had since I first went away. I began to wonder if you were really as you had seemed to me when I was a boy. I thought I’d like to see. I’ve had lots of girls, but no one ever pulled me the same way. The more I thought about you, the more I remembered how it used to be—like hearing a wild tune you can’t resist, calling you out at night. It had been a long while since anything had pulled me out of my boots, and I wondered whether anything ever could again.” Nils thrust his hands into his coat pockets and squared his shoulders, as his mother sometimes squared hers, as Olaf, in a clumsier manner, squared his. “So I thought I’d come back and see. Of course the family have tried to do me, and I rather thought I’d bring out father’s will and make a fuss. But they can have their old land; they’ve put enough sweat into it.” He took the flask and filled the two glasses carefully to the brim. “I’ve found out what I want from the Ericsons. Drink skoal, Clara.” He lifted his glass, and Clara took hers with downcast eyes. “Look at me, Clara Vavrika. Skoal!

She raised her burning eyes and answered fiercely: “Skoal!

The barn supper began at six o’clock and lasted for two hilarious hours. Yense Nelson had made a wager that he could eat two whole fried chickens, and he did. Eli Swanson stowed away two whole custard pies, and Nick Hermanson ate a chocolate layer cake to the last crumb. There was even a cooky contest among the children, and one thin, slab-like Bohemian boy consumed sixteen and won the prize, a ginger-bread pig which Johanna Vavrika had carefully decorated with red candies and burnt sugar. Fritz Sweiheart, the German carpenter, won in the pickle contest, but he disappeared soon after supper and was not seen for the rest of the evening. Joe Vavrika said that Fritz could have managed the pickles all right, but he had sampled the demijohn in his buggy too often before sitting down to the table.

A barn raising dance is about to commence. Date unknown. Photograph by Charles Van Schaick, Black River Falls, Jackson County, Wis.

While the supper was being cleared away the two fiddlers began to tune up for the dance. Clara was to accompany them on her old upright piano, which had been brought down from her father’s. By this time Nils had renewed old acquaintances. Since his interview with Clara in the cellar, he had been busy telling all the old women how young they looked, and all the young ones how pretty they were, and assuring the men that they had here the best farm-land in the world. He had made himself so agreeable that old Mrs. Ericson’s friends began to come up to her and tell how lucky she was to get her smart son back again, and please to get him to play his flute. Joe Vavrika, who could still play very well when he forgot that he had rheumatism, caught up a fiddle from Johnny Oleson and played a crazy Bohemian dance tune that set the wheels going. When he dropped the bow everyone was ready to dance.

Olaf, in a frock-coat and a solemn made-up necktie, led the grand march with his mother. Clara had kept well out of that by sticking to the piano. She played the march with a pompous solemnity which greatly amused the prodigal son, who went over and stood behind her.

“Oh, aren’t you rubbing it into them, Clara Vavrika? And aren’t you lucky to have me here, or all your wit would be thrown away.”

“I’m used to being witty for myself. It saves my life.”

The fiddles struck up a polka, and Nils convulsed Joe Vavrika by leading out Evelina Oleson, the homely school-teacher. His next partner was a very fat Swedish girl, who, although she was an heiress, had not been asked for the first dance, but had stood against the wall in her tight, high-heeled shoes, nervously fingering a lace handkerchief. She was soon out of breath, so Nils led her, pleased and panting, to her seat, and went over to the piano, from which Clara had been watching his gallantry. “Ask Olena Yenson,” she whispered. “She waltzes beautifully.”

Olena, too, was rather inconveniently plump, handsome in a smooth, heavy way, with a fine color and good-natured, sleepy eyes. She was redolent of violet sachet powder, and had warm, soft, white hands, but she danced divinely, moving as smoothly as the tide coming in. “There, that’s something like,” Nils said as he released her. “You’ll give me the next waltz, won’t you? Now I must go and dance with my little cousin.”

Hilda was greatly excited when Nils went up to her stall and held out his arm. Her little eyes sparkled, but she declared that she could not leave her lemonade. Old Mrs. Ericson, who happened along at this moment, said she would attend to that, and Hilda came out, as pink as her pink dress. The dance was a schottische, and in a moment her yellow braids were fairly standing on end. “Bravo!” Nils cried encouragingly. “Where did you learn to dance so nicely?”

“My Cousin Clara taught me,” the little girl panted.

Nils found Eric sitting with a group of boys who were too awkward or too shy to dance, and told him that he must dance the next waltz with Hilda.

The boy screwed up his shoulders. “Aw, Nils, I can’t dance. My feet are too big; I look silly.”

“Don’t be thinking about yourself. It doesn’t matter how boys look.”

Nils had never spoken to him so sharply before, and Eric made haste to scramble out of his corner and brush the straw from his coat.

Clara nodded approvingly. “Good for you, Nils. I’ve been trying to get hold of him. They dance very nicely together; I sometimes play for them.”

“I’m obliged to you for teaching him. There’s no reason why he should grow up to be a lout.”

“He’ll never be that. He’s more like you than any of them. Only he hasn’t your courage.” From her slanting eyes Clara shot forth one of those keen glances, admiring and at the same time challenging, which she seldom bestowed on any one, and which seemed to say, “Yes, I admire you, but I am your equal.”

” ‘Oh, but you’re the real Bohemian girl, Clara Vavrika,’ Nils laughed down at her. ‘They’ll always remember us as we’re dancing together tonight.’ ” (Sigismond de Ivanowski)

Clara was proving a much better host than Olaf, who, once the supper was over, seemed to feel no interest in anything but the lanterns. He had brought a locomotive headlight from town to light the revels, and he kept skulking about it as if he feared the mere light from it might set his new barn on fire. His wife, on the contrary, was cordial to every one, was animated and even gay. The deep salmon color in her cheeks burned vividly, and her eyes were full of life. She gave the piano over to the fat Swedish heiress, pulled her father away from the corner where he sat gossiping with his cronies, and made him dance a Bohemian dance with her. In his youth Joe had been a famous dancer, and his daughter got him so limbered up that every one sat round and applauded them. The old ladies were particularly delighted, and made them go through the dance again. From their corner where they watched and commented, the old women kept time with their feet and hands, and whenever the fiddles struck up a new air old Mrs. Svendsen’s white cap would begin to bob.

Clara was waltzing with little Eric when Nils came up to them, brushed his brother aside, and swung her out among the dancers. “Remember how we used to waltz on rollers at the old skating rink in town? I suppose people don’t do that any more. We used to keep it up for hours. You know, we never did moon around as other boys and girls did. It was dead serious with us from the beginning. When we were most in love with each other, we used to fight. You were always pinching people; your fingers were like little nippers. A regular snapping-turtle, you were. Lord, how you’d like Stockholm! Sit out in the streets in front of cafés and talk all night in summer. Just like a reception—officers and ladies and funny English people. Jolliest people in the world, the Swedes, once you get them going. Always drinking things—champagne and stout mixed, half-and-half; serve it out of big pitchers, and serve plenty. Slow pulse, you know; they can stand a lot. Once they light up, they’re glow-worms, I can tell you.”

“All the same, you don’t really like gay people.”

I don’t?”

“No; I could see that when you were looking at the old women there this afternoon. They’re the kind you really admire, after all; women like your mother. And that’s the kind you’ll marry.”

“Is it, Miss Wisdom? You’ll see who I’ll marry, and she won’t have a domestic virtue to bless herself with. She’ll be a snapping-turtle, and she’ll be a match for me. All the same, they’re a fine bunch of old dames over there. You admire them yourself.”

“No, I don’t; I detest them.”

“You won’t, when you look back on them from Stockholm or Budapest. Freedom settles all that. Oh, but you’re the real Bohemian Girl, Clara Vavrika!” Nils laughed down at her sullen frown and began mockingly to sing:

“Oh, how could a poor gypsy maiden like me

Expect the proud bride of a baron to be?”

Clara clutched his shoulder. “Hush, Nils; everyone is looking at you.”

“I don’t care. They can’t gossip. It’s all in the family, as the Ericsons say when they divide up little Hilda’s patrimony amongst them. Besides, we’ll give them something to talk about when we hit the trail. Lord, it will be a godsend to them! They haven’t had anything so interesting to chatter about since the grasshopper year. It’ll give them a new lease of life. And Olaf won’t lose the Bohemian vote, either. They’ll have the laugh on him so that they’ll vote two apiece. They’ll send him to Congress. They’ll never forget his barn party, or us. They’ll always remember us as we’re dancing together now. We’re making a legend. Where’s my waltz, boys?” he called as they whirled past the fiddlers.

The musicians grinned, looked at each other, hesitated, and began a new air; and Nils sang with them, as the couples fell from a quick waltz to a long, slow glide:

“When other lips and other hearts

Their tale of love shall tell,

In language whose excess imparts

The power they feel so well,”

The old women applauded vigorously. “What a gay one he is, that Nils!” And old Mrs. Svendsen’s cap lurched dreamily from side to side to the flowing measure of the dance.

“Of days that have as ha-a-p-py been,

And you’ll remember me.”

Willa Cather

Willa Cather was born near Winchester, Virginia, in 1873. In 1883, when she moved with her family to Catherton, Nebraska, and the following year the family relocated to nearby Red Cloud, Nebraska. There she grew up among the immigrants from Europe—Swedes, Bohemians, Russians, and Germans—who were breaking the land on the Great Plains. At the age of twenty-one she graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and spent the next few years doing newspaper work in Lincoln, Nebraska and teaching high school in Pittsburgh. In 1903 her first book, April Twilights, a collection of poems, was published, and two years later The Troll Garden, a collection of stories, appeared in print. After the publication of her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, in 1912, Cather left her position as managing editor at McClure's magazine and devoted herself fulltime to writing. Over the years, she completed eleven more novels (including O Pioneers!, My Antonia, The Professor's House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop), four collections of short stories, and two volumes of essays. Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours in 1923. She died in 1947.

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