Call him ‘Ansell Appleseed’
Streaks of sun blast through any opening the light can find in a thick grove of scotch pines. Blackbirds sing and flutter through the canopy – nearly 50 feet high after nearly 40 years of growth.
Branches on the lower two-thirds of the trees are largely bare. The trunks remain strong, with their distinct orange hue holding steady under flaky bark. The tree tops are greener than Christmas and constantly gifting their owner with the practical shelter he envisioned and the beauty he cherishes.
Ansell Johnson gladly shared the story of his trees on Wednesday. The quiet, mini-forest setting on his farm – a few miles west of Wolford on N.D. 17 – is a rarity on the golden prairie. Johnson, 83, retired to Rugby a few years back, but farmed and ranched the land beginning in 1971 when he purchased about 640 acres.
Seven years later he had 10,000 trees planted on his property, with help from the forest service in Bottineau on 6,000 of those.
“The wind would bring the snow right over the hills and into our pasture,” said Johnson as he maneuvered his way through the pines. The even bed of brown pine needles made for a peaceful walk, interrupted ever so slightly by the crunch of pine cones.
“The snow kept coming and coming and coming and I thought I had to do something.”
When he started there, Johnson had about 100 cattle and the herd reached 300 over the years. The cattle pastured west of the family’s house and east of a big ridge. The wind would sweep down from the northwest, so he had a line of junipers planted about 20 yards wide on the edge of the hill. Then thousands of neatly lined scotch pines followed, stretching about 100 yards wide and running about 300 yards north to south.
“Everybody thought I was crazy,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t worked up, but the hill made a trough and it worked perfect because it caught the water coming down the hill and it grew like crazy.”
He made the mistake of putting a fence around the trees, but soon removed it to allow the cows in. Mice grew too comfortable in the grass and were eating the bark.
“We took it down and let the cows trounce the grass and that was the end of that,” Johnson said.
The trees took about four years to really take off and the scope of the wooded area even caught Johnson off guard.
“I thought what in the heck did we do?” he said with a chuckle. “Everybody was laughing (at first). They thought they’d never grow in there.”
The family no longer ranches, but Johnson’s son Craig, the president of Merchants Bank, handles the farming. He grows durum, barley and flax. Though many farmers have gotten rid of old groves to use the land for crops, Craig Johnson emphatically is opposed to that idea on his father’s land.
“Heavens no,” Craig Johnson said. “He’s been a tree lover his whole life, so none of the family members will cut them down unless they die.”
Craig Johnson was about 14 years old when the majority of the trees were planted and enjoyed growing up around the vegetation. The farm also has a fair amount of spruce trees along the driveway and in the yard.
“He just loves tree and you can tell by the yard,” Craig Johnson said. “I think the rest of the family enjoys them, but he has a passion for them.”
Ansell Johnson, the son of Swedish immigrant Alrik Johnson, is humble and didn’t speak much about himself, but his passion for trees is obvious. He spoke of his two heart surgeries – at age 51 and 63 – and said he’s enjoying retirement with wife Janice and trying to take care of his health.
A large part of his wellbeing and content nature is tied to the love of his land. A Johnny Appleseed of the Pierce County prairie, Johnson’s legacy lives large, strong and green like those scotch pines on the unassuming prairie.
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