NEAR SUNDOWN -- Splotches of sunlight penetrate the forest's fretwork, falling onto the grave of the little girl who died here a century ago.
One story people tell is that she was killed by wolves. The girl had wandered away from the cabin, which would have bordered swampy Horseshoe Lake, and all that was found was her shredded clothes. Another story is that she was born with serious deformities and simply didn't live much beyond two years of age.
The uncertainty of the oral history, and the location of the grave -- the headstone rests alone in the woods at the end of a long, one-lane trail used mostly by hunters -- have lent it mystery. The inscription on the headstone reads: RIP Hulda Ostman, Born June 14, 1910. Died Sept. 10, 1912.
Who was she? How did she die? What became of her family? Why is she buried alone, about 10 kilometres from the nearest cemetery, in this mixed spruce-aspen woods?
The location--the trail runs north of Highway 201, just past the hamlet of Sundown--may seem like just forest today but it was once the main horse-and-wagon trail for pioneers. There was no highways 12 or 201 until at least the 1940s and 1950s. A half-dozen Swedish immigrant families settled in that spot and may have even been squatters since the site is Crown land today. Hulda's parents, Nils Erik Ostman and Lisa Margreta Sihlen, were both from Sweden, according to history pieced together from interviews with local people and Manitoba's Scandinavian Cultural Centre. Hulda was one of 10 children.
But conditions were harsh and the settlers soon moved on. An old wooden shack the Ostmans lived in has long vanished. In the 1950s, workers for Ducks Unlimited were installing a small dam on Horseshoe Lake to make habitat for waterfowl when they stumbled onto the rotted wooden cross on the girl's grave. They were so moved that they erected a proper tombstone.
In the 1980s, a local resident, John Tkachuk, was employed as a fire ranger with the province. He initiated putting up a wooden fence around the grave and tending to the site "just so the brush wouldn't devour it." He has long departed that job but Manitoba Conservation staff still cut the grass at the gravesite. When I visited, a bouquet, now faded, and some artificial flowers, were placed on the grave. The inscription has also been recently repainted.
About 15 years ago, two elderly gentleman visited the area in a pickup truck, asking directions to the gravesite. They explained they were from Ontario and third cousins of Hulda. It made an impression on people that so many years later, her family had not forgotten her.
John Tkachuk, like most people, dismisses the aforementioned causes of death, as well as another story that Hulda drowned. His wife keeps records for the local Menosino Cemetery, and knows that many children were laid to rest in unmarked graves between 1912 and 1917, with the cause of death listed as diphtheria. Diphtheria would be his bet, a bacterial infection in the respiratory tract. Today, children are vaccinated against it.
There are only 15 Ostmans listed on 411.ca, and I reached about half of them by telephone, mostly those around Dryden, Ont., but no one knew anything about Hulda or her family. It may be that a descendant will contact me once this story goes out on the Internet.
The Scandinavian Cultural Centre found that the parents are buried in the Berglund Cemetery in the Lake of the Woods area. Two family members moved to International Falls across the U.S. border. Another child, in addition to Hulda, died prematurely, and another died in a fire at a young age. None of the 10 children is still living today.
In the end, my research seemed to indicate nothing much at all. No story, as they say. Except...
Except the grave has a strange power over you. It reminds you how hard life was back then for those pioneers.
"A lot of children back then died," said Carol Bolin, a nearby resident.
But there's something else, too. "People who drive there, they see the little girl. It's sort of like so lonesome there. So isolated," said Bolin.
Tkachuk volunteered a similar sentiment: "It's very sad to see... It's just like a lost soul. She's got nobody. There are many graves you see where the family passes on and nobody comes to visit. It's just where it is, out in middle of nowhere. When you have children yourself, your heart goes out to it."