Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Family Historian Blinded by Science

My family and friends know how passionate I am about genealogy and history, especially Norwegian-American and pioneer history.  But, there are other topics that also manage to get my heart jumping in a joyful pitter-patter.  I confess--I am not just a family history nerd, but a bit of a science nerd, too.  I have Moon in my Room on a wall in my house, and I have been known to buy calendars with nothing but photos of Albert Einstein gracing the parade of months.

Like many, I can trace an avid interest to a pivotal time or moment during my youth.  I was in junior high school when a perfect storm of events catapulted me into a lifelong long interest in astronomy and science-fiction.  Many years later, it led to a relationship with my husband.  Well, sort of.  Before me, he had never met a woman who appreciated classic science-fiction.  When we met at a dance many years ago, he asked what my favorite movie was.  I responded that it was War of the Worlds (the 1953 version produced by George Pal), which was one of my all-time favorite confort movies to watch and rewatch.  His face lit up and he asked:  "Will you marry me?"  While he said it in jest then, he meant it more a little later on!

Today, I have limited time and energy to keep up with all the news on the science front.  But. I will never forget the sequence of events that began in the eight grade, opening my mind and changing my outlook on the universe... forever.

A traditional planetarium with an ant-like Zeiss projector never fails to get me twitterpated.

During the autumn of 1966, the first episodes of a new television series, Star Trek, aired, and the lunch-time crowd I hung around with at school was obsessed by it.  While I was becoming enamored of Mr. Spock on TV, I was also invited to join a Camp Fire Girls group.  The first outing I participated in was an educational visit to the old Chabot Observatory and Planetarium on Mountain Boulevard in Oakland, California.  Within the domed and darkened planetarium, the tall, bespectacled astronomer dazzled us with images of a breathtakingly starry night sky.  We also experienced sunrise and sunset, the Aurora Borealis, constellations rotating through the seasons, and we did not even have to go outside.

For Christmas that year, I was given a book on astronomy and a modest-priced telescope.  It was a refracting terrestrial model that was better suited for marine landscapes and bird watching, but I didn't care.  I was "over the moon" to have it, and it felt like the mysteries of the universe were at my fingertips, waiting to be caressed.  Later on, I added star charts and a subscription to Sky and Telescope magazine to my hobby supplies.

I began haunting the science-fiction section of my local library for novels and stories to read.  When I learned to drive, I explored library holdings all around Contra Costa County.  My favorite destination was the Pleasant Hill Library, which meant a scenic 20-mile drive from my El Cerrito home along a rural county highway.  I discovered so many other-worldy worlds within the library stacks thanks to:  Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and more.

Then came Creature Features--a program that aired weekly in the Bay Area, with dry-humored, cigar-smoking Bob Wilkins as the host.  There were a lot of campy, low-grade horror movies watched on those Friday nights, but once in a while, the program delivered a classic of the type I appreciate to this day.  Included in these gems were the original Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and the innovative Forbidden Planet (1956)--known for its Robby the Robot character and often considered to be the best science-fiction film of all time.  I was then on the hunt for more films of the same caliber.  Carl Sagan's Contact is one of the more modern sci-fi films that speaks to me in a poignant way.

A school friend of mine, Margot, had a father who belonged to the Bay Area Science-Fiction Club.  Through his membership, he hob-knobbed with some of the local authors whose work I had been selecting from library shelves.  When I was asked to join Margot and her father at a couple of science-fiction conventions, you had better believe that I lobbied my mother with all my might to be able to go.  Luckily, she did not find any reason to keep me at home.

One of the events we attended was Baycon (1968)--the 26th WorldCon (World Science Fiction Convention).  After presenting our admission tickets, Margot and I were let loose inside Berkeley's Hotel Claremont to discover things for ourselves, while her father went about on his own agenda.  There were exhibits of science-fiction art like I had never seen before.  There were hidden rooms down long hallways where authors, including the highly respected Ray Bradbury, and others in the publishing business, gave talks or had discussions.  In an area near the lobby, a panel of people sat behind a length of tables.  Margot pointed and said, "There's Gene Roddenberry!"  The screenwriter and producer of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, was being honored by authors in a field where television was little recognized at the time.  What we were witness to, but could hear little of due to the massing crowd, was Robert Silverberg's presentation of a Hugo Award to the relative newcomer, Roddenberry:

Robert Silverberg (popular science-fiction author and toastmaster of the Baycon Hugo Awards Ceremony, 1968):
 "What shall we do next? We have such a long, long list of events. I’m standing, I have my shoes off, it’s quite comfortable up here. Let us give out another of those little plaques now. There, that shiny one down there. Is there a Roddenberry in the house? I have here a plaque with long pointed ears. This is National Kiss an Executive Producer of Star Trek Week–Harlan [Ellison], kiss him for me... This object says “To Gene Roddenberry for Producing Star Trek, 1967, presented by the Baycon Committee September 1, 1968.” 

Gene Roddenberry:
 "Thank you so much. I’m touched. I am also thankful to Harlan for his response." 

All I can say is "Wow"--that I, as a 14-year-old girl, should have been so lucky.  Margot and her father also took me along to the Bay Area Science-Fiction Club's private release showing of the 1968 movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, at a theatre on Market Street in San Francisco.  For the time, the movie was nothing less than jaw-dropping.

My budding interest in science turned more than just skyward.  Margot's mother took us to explore the Lawrence Hall of Science in the hills above the University of California Berkeley campus.  The view of San Francisco Bay from the parking lot was something to behold in itself.  But, the main thing I remember about the Hall in those early years was the large and dark lobby with many lighted cases where mineral spheres of all different sizes, colors, and patterns were on display.  They were mesmorizing.  My favorite pages within the Encyclopedia Britannica had always been the color photographs of gem and mineral specimens.  Lined up like smooth and precious marbles, the spheres hinted at a story deep in the Earth that I longed to know more about.  Sadly, the geology class I later took in college did not stimulate the romance I was looking for.

Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkely, California (postcard view).

As I continued to pursue interests sparked by the influence of some special friends during my middle school years, I attended several Star Trek conventions.  I have autographed souvenir photographs of cast members as proof.  I did not actually meet Leonard Nimoy ("Mr. Spock"), however, until many years later, when he gave a talk at the University of Washington campus while promoting one of his books.  As I reached the head of the line of people waiting for an autograph, he looked at me expectantly.  Suddenly I felt like I was in the eighth grade again.  I was so nervous that all I could do was smile bashfully.  Did I just lock eyes with Mr. Spock?  The historic moment did not fully sink in until later.  Spock was second in a short timeline of childhood crushes, preceded only by the "cute" Beatle, Paul McCartney.
When I lived in the Bay Area, I took every opportunity to visit the Morrison Planetarium in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.  Morrison was one of the largest planetariums in the nation.  It has been modernized and is now a digital planetarium, but when I visited it was still operated by aprojector.  Attending evening planetarium shows when the California Academy of Sciences building was closed to the public meant lining up in a roped off area alongside towering models in the hall of dinosaurs--an added treat.  Also in the direct pathway of the line-up was the museum's famous Foucault Pendulum.  The pendulum's heavy bob, a hollow 16-inches in diameter brass ball, is suspended by aircraft control wire of a carefully determind length, and anchored to the ceiling.  As the bob swings across a wide pit, the Earth's rotation causes the direction of swing to "precess," or turn clockwise above the floor.  With so many cool things to look at within the building, and freedom from daytime crowds, I loved waiting in line and anticipating the planetarium show as much as the show itself.

Another experience I consider to be a highlight of my life were trips to Lick Observatory and its Summer Visitors Program.  As the world's first permanently occupied mountain-top astronomical observatory, Lick Observatory is reached by a well-constructed mountain road winding eastward from San Jose, California and the Silicon Valley, or by a much longer way around--south along the Mines Road from the backyard of Livermore.  From 1888, the observatory has been under the guidance of the Regents of the University of California.  The Visit Information website has a video of Lick's mountaintop location that was filmed by a drone, offering unique views.

Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton, California

The Summer Visitors Program has been active for decades.  Once you reach the mountain top location, be prepared for a long evening.  Ticket-holders can enjoy the scenery of the Santa Clara Valley below and have time for a picnic dinner before the doors are opened.  After perusing the exhibits and gift shop in the main building, you can attend a lecture on a selected astronomy topic.  Visitors then have the opportunity to view the 120-inch Shane Reflector Telescope from behind a glass window inside its domed building, or look through one of two other telescopes.

The most popular event of the program is the chance to get up close and personal with the instrument the observatory is best known for:  the 19th-century 36-inch Great Refractor.  A select number of people are allowed inside the big dome at any time.  Stepping up and over the track where the dome turns atop the base of the building, you find yourself on a catwalk that hugs the inner curvature of the dome, but made safe by a railing. Then, in even smaller numbers, visitors are allowed to step down onto the wood floor and position themselves near the earth-end of the monster telescope.  But, instead of using just a stepladder to reach the eyepiece, the operator pushes a button to raise or lower the entire floor to bring the eyepiece in alignment with your eye!  I will never forget my first glimpse of the universe through that huge and historic refractor.  Within the dark view field sparkled Messier 13 (M13)--the Great Globular Cluster in the constellation of Hercules.  It was discovered in 1714 by none other than Edmond Halley, of Halley's Comet fame.  With a linear diameter of 145 light years, the Globular Cluster shone like a scattering of diamonds on a black velvet cloth.

Over time, there have been many other events that have fed my interest in science, especially astronomy.  Not least was the documentary series Cosmos:  A Personal Voyage, and its charismatic host and writer, astronomer Carl Sagan, with his penchant for explaining "life, the universe, and everything" in digestible, yet utterly fascinating, snippets.  And, let's not forget the launches of Voyager I and II, and years before those--the memorable day when humankind first set foot on the surface of the moon:  July 20, 1969.

Oh, and did I mention that I once took a drive to a comic book store some distance away from home, just to see a life-size paper mache model of the Martian made for the 1953 War of the Worlds movie?  I told you--a science and science-fiction nerd!

You may wonder what a post of this kind is doing in a blog that is all about Norwegian-American family history.  Since I am part of my own family's story, perhaps some of my tales are worth telling, too.  This is exactly the kind of detail that I often wish I knew about many of my departed relatives.  What did they find interesting or challenging?  What did they cherish the most?  What did they look forward to on a day-to-day basis?  What fueled their dreams and aspirations?

Have you thought about what sets your own heart to beating faster?  You have an opportunity to tell your story and eliminate a lot of guess work later on.  You never know who, present or future, may be listening!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The "Secret" Adventures of Tugboat Billy

It was not until I seriously began researching my adoptive father's genealogy that I found something unexpected among original records and documents.  He was a tugboat cook!  This was surprising to me, not only because my sister and I never heard about his maritime adventures, but because he never showed that much interest in boats, or the sea, in general.  Dad did like to fish upon occasion, but he did not go frequently.  He did not even swim very much, as far as I know.  So, never in a million years would I have guessed that my dad, William "Bill" Robert Wheeler (1922-1975), served on at least two tugboat runs in Pacific Northwest waters.  Perhaps it was a folly of his youth, or, perhaps he was challenging himself to try and raise a sum of money for a certain purpose.

The "Seattle Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1957" database on reveals that he made two border crossings from Canada to the United States, well before he emigrated from British Columbia in 1948.

Bill Wheeler, in 1947/48 (age 25 or 26).  This image
was probably used as a passport photo.

Voyage of the Le Mars

The first document, a "list or manifest of aliens employed on the vessel as member of crew," shows that Dad was on the British MS Le Mars on July 20, 1940, when the tugboat made a port of call at Port Angeles, Washington, in the U.S., arriving from Vancouver, B.C.  There were eight crew members on board:  Stephen Carlson-master, Charles Plister-mate, Christopher Beaton-1st engineer, Oliver Wellman-2nd engineer, with Lawrence Leslie, Rodney Mayall, and James Bavester as "A.B." (able-bodied seamen).  Dad (William Wheeler), was signed on as cook.  Carlson and Wellman were longtime mariners with thirty years experience apiece.  Charles Plester had fifteen years of service under his belt, with eight years held by Beaton.  Leslie, Mayall, and Bavester each had a year's service accumulated, but Dad, only eighteen years old at the time, showed a length of service of "zero."  Obviously, it was his first trip out.  He was described on the manifest as being of "Scot" descent, with Canadian citizenship; he was 5 ft. 5 ins. tall and weighed 160 lbs, having no "outstanding physical marks, peculiarities, or disease."  He was definitely of Scottish descent, as his mother had been born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, and came to British Columbia only after marrying his father.

A modern-era photo of the Le Mars, more recently named Excaliber, ca. 2011. (

The Le Mars, 93 ft. long, was built in 1908, at the Wallace Shipyard in Vancouver, British Columbia.  Originally a steam powered tug, it was later modernized and refurbished with a diesel engine.  The tug had many names over the decades, including:   Osprey VII, S. S. Langston Hughes, and Illene.  It towed under the names of Le Mars and Excaliber for several companies.  (source:

For further information about the Le Mars:  Excaliber ("Le Mars"), "Seattle Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1957."

Voyage of the Goblin

Dad's second tugboat voyage was aboard the British MS Goblin.  It traveled from New Westminster, British Columbia, to a port of call at Bellingham, Washington, arriving on January 26, 1942.  The Goblin was a smaller tug than the Le Mars, and Dad was one of only five crew members.  At this point, he had accumulated one month service at sea.  The master of the Goblin, John Lowry, was an Irishman with twenty-three years maritime service.  Robert Kinkaid, the engineer, topped at twenty-five years service, with Maurice Sjoquist, mate, and Norman Lowry, deckhand, having six and three years experience, respectively.  Dad was still a relative greenhorn, even though a year and a half had passed since his employment aboard the Le Mars.  Why did he make no further voyages between the recorded Le Mars and Goblin runs?

MS Goblin, towing a barge.

A strong possibility for Dad's short length of service, overall, was because of a health issue he faced during that time of his life.  After serving as cook aboard the Le Mars in 1940, his physical description changed somewhat in 1942, on the Goblin manifest.  On the Goblin, he was twenty years of age, and at the same weight (160 lbs.), but his height had decreased a couple of inches, from 5 ft. 5 ins., to 5 ft. 3 ins.  He was also listed as being "crippled--left hip, and lame."  Is this the same William Wheeler, you might ask?  Well, yes... there is very little doubt in my mind., "Seattle Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1957." 

With Bill Wheeler being my dad, I'm fairly certain about his appearance, vital statistics, and other particulars.  He was Canadian by birth, but emigrated from British Columbia to the United States at the age of twenty-six (his age is listed incorrectly as twenty-three on the border crossing document, although the birth date is correct).  Intending to become an American citizen, he crossed the border at Blaine, Washington by automobile on July 14, 1948.  The record lists his uncle's name and address in Oakland, California as his ultimate destination.  It correctly describes him as being 5 ft. 3 ins in height (the same as on the manifest for his voyage with the MS Goblin in 1942), and having brown eyes, brown hair, and two large linear scars on the front of both hips.  Yep, that was Dad.  But, how can we be sure that it is the same man, with the slightly different physical description, aboard the Le Mars on July 20, 1940?, "Border Crossings:  From Canada to U.S., 1895-1956"

Dad was born with congenital hip dysplasia.  He suffered through dozens of operations during his childhood at a Vancouver, B.C. orphanage.  But, hip surgery in the early twentieth century was not as advanced as it is now.  The best the surgeons could do, in the end, was to add steel plates in place of some of his hip bone and remove some of his femur.  After a couple of inches of bone were removed from his left leg, he walked with a pronounced limp.  This all happened years before my mother met him.  Based on varying physical descriptions of Dad:  on the Le Mars in 1940 (5 ft. 5 ins., with no scars or discerning marks); as opposed to the 1942 Goblin voyage (5 ft. 3 ins., with hip scars), it is apparent that the physically-altering surgery was done in about 1941, between his two stints as tugboat cook.

Bill Wheeler, 1953/54.  In this image, he shows off his catch, but you can also see evidence of his compromised physical condition.  With his left leg shorter than the right, following major hip surgery, he had to stand with his full weight on the left leg, and bend the longer right leg in order to accommodate his stance.

Could Dad have signed on for the atypical job of tugboat cook in order to obtain funds for his constructive surgery?  It's possible.  Though he made his second sea voyage aboard the MS Goblin in early 1942, following the surgery, he apparently never made another excursion after that.  Perhaps the second trip earned him enough income to finish paying necessary (hospital?) bills.  Or, perhaps he found that last trip a bit too much to handle.  Steaming down to Washington State aboard the Goblin in winter would have given a fuller effect due to choppier waters, especially as it was a smaller tug than the Le Mars.  Early tugboats did not offer very safe or comfortable accommodations, and it would have been no fun at all having to cook for the crew, if he could hardly stand the sight of food due to sea sickness!

Whatever reasons Dad had for taking on employment aboard the tugboats, it seems he intended it to be a temporary involvement.  He later worked in warehouses in Vancouver, before leaving British Columbia permanently.  After moving to California, he met my mother while they were both employed at the Bell Packing Company in Berkeley.

Hip dysplasia was not the only condition he struggled with.  He also suffered from Type I diabetes for much of his life.  But, even with significant health issues, he continued to work full time in packing and manufacturing plants for many years, engaged in physically demanding duties.  He would usually arrive home at the dinner hour, quite spent, but I do not remember hearing him complain about the cards he had been dealt.

When I was young, I could never fully appreciate the day-to-day difficulties and discomforts he faced.  My discovery of his "Tugboat Billy" adventures reveals more of the determination and stamina he was able to summon in the face of significant challenges.  Dad has been gone for many years now, and I was not old enough to be able to interact with him on a fully adult level before he died.  If I could, though, I'd like to tell him, "Dad, thanks for keeping at it from day-to-day as long as you possibly could, and for taking such good care of your family, in spite of the odds.  I love you."

I wonder what other adventures Dad may have had, that I have yet to discover?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ten Things I've Learned in Ten Years of Blogging

I can hardly believe it, but it was 10 years ago on August 28th that I began Nordic Blue.  My efforts for an unseen audience began tentatively, nervously--prompted by the stellar example and success of a respected writing seminar classmate (have you ever heard of FootnoteMaven?)

From the blog's first baby steps, I had hopes of growing it into a burgeoning collection of family history material, gleaned from wherever on earth I could dig up data and stories, and maybe swiping a bit from the stratosphere, as well.  This blog, in part, represents the ebb and flow of my life over the past decade.  There have been discoveries along the way, and if you have tried blogging, I'm sure you have experienced much of the same revelations as those I list here, and perhaps more.

Chery in a contemplative mood, some years ago.

1.  If You Write It, They Will Come (Eventually)

...Distant cousins and interested parties, that is.  More than a few times I have been pleasantly surprised when a relation finds pertinent information on Nordic Blue. If I am contacted with questions or a request for further sharing, and/or offered appreciation for the information I have made available, it makes blogging worth the time and effort.

2.  It's Okay to "Dabble"

Lisa Louise Cooke of Genealogy Gems was a keynote speaker at the Northwest Genealogy Conference earlier this month in Washington State.  One of her memorable pieces of advice was that it is perfectly okay to "dabble" in genealogy.  We do not always have to be full steam ahead in research to enjoy both the hobby and the challenge.  Sometimes dabbling, or just keeping our feet a little wet in the sea of family history, is satisfying enough for the time being.  Each person should feel free to go at his or her own pace.  Family history should not be not a contest, but a pleasure!

3.  Sometimes, the Laundry Has to Wait

There are moments when a story starts spinning inside my brain, and the reel of thoughts unwinds so quickly that I fear it will get away from me.  I know then that I must sit down and write out the main points before all is lost.  Better yet, I need to get to a computer to type out a blog post draft before the dots connecting before my eyes begin to fade and float out of reach.  "Use it or lose it" is the motto under such circumstances.  Those moments of high creativity are never equal to any forced attempts at a later date.

In addition to important obligations like employment, commuting, and taking care of hearth and family, I can find dozens of reasons why I should not sit down to work on a blog post at any given moment.  And summertime?  Oh, don't get me started!  Summer in the Pacific Northwest is a colorful palate of possibilities:  long walks, berry picking, farmers' markets, canning and preserving, craft fairs, craft projects, antiquing excursions, country drives, picnics, outdoor concerts, gardening, staying in touch with family and friends, and just settling in the yard with a cold gluten-free beer to watch the trees grow.

Breathe...  it's okay.  It's called "life."

4.  Sometimes, the Laundry Can't Wait

Although I occasionally engage in the guilty pleasure of turning my back on the laundry, cleaning, shopping, etc., to do more enjoyable things like family history, everyday life is a distraction that will not be ignored for very long (thank goodness!).  My genes are full of farming blood, and my ancestors would all turn in their graves if I were to ignore my responsibilities on a regular basis. So, when I come home after a 12 or 13 hour day of working and commuting, my first thoughts usually do not settle on blogging.  Dinner needs to be pulled out of thin air, family members need to update me on their latest needs and thoughts, and yes, sometimes there really is laundry, too, or plants to water, dishes to clean, and on and on.  Plus, if the dog pulls one of those "poor me-you've been gone all day-look at my sad brown eyes" routines (bless his little pea-pickin' heart), then he and all of these other obligations must certainly come before any of my hobbies.  Last time I checked, I did not have a clone that I could implore to write blog entries, while the other me focuses on the world spinning 'round.  

5.  Get Refreshed

Just like getting some new clothes for the body once in awhile, the creative mind needs to be refreshed--even the mind of a family history blogger.  When was the last time you attended a genealogy conference, signed up for a writing class, listened to a podcast, joined or started a group, gave a presentation, bought a new book or CD about things genealogical, or even set a new research goal?  There is no time like the present.

6.  Upgrade Your Tools

The right tool for the job, so they say.  Are yours a little dusty or chipped around the edges?  Perhaps you could use some new ones.  I still have so much to learn, and the genealogy conference I just attended convinced me that Evernote and Google Earth Pro are tools I might not be able to live without in future.  Digital storytelling looks like a whole lot of fun, too.  Now I just have to make the time to learn to use them well.

7.  Strive for Improved Organization

Guilty, guilty!  I am a family historian who laments the lack of proper identification on vintage family photographs, but who is sloppy about doing the same for my own, more contemporary ones.  It hurts to admit that, but it is true.  Though once in awhile I make an effort to corral files on my laptop, do backups, and even look for duplicate photos stored online, there are certain things I procrastinate over.  None of us is perfect, but we can always make an effort to do better, especially when it comes to organization.

8.  Flex Your Family History Muscles

You can build your knowledge base and increase the resources available to you in many different ways.  Some ideas are:  join a genealogical society, and actually attend meetings; go to a library or archives--be bold and ask the reference staff some questions; plan out a research trip to somewhere you have never been before; volunteer time on a genealogy project, like photographing grave markers, transcribing data, or doing good deed lookups for others.  And yes, you can even start another blog. 

9.   Stay Open to Inspiration

Inspiration is all around us.  Yes, it's in that DNA test you just had done, but also in that little idea a friend just shared.  It's on display in a store window, tagging alongside on a field trip, and waiting inside your morning shower.  You can find it if you look hard enough.  Sometimes, a cup of good strong coffee helps you to see more clearly.

10.  Blogging Should Not Be a Chore

Blogging would not be so popular if it were not rewarding.  By all means, have a good time.  Try something different:  tell a new kind of story, make a few jokes, use your senses and imagination, but most of all, be you.

I'm looking forward to at least another ten years of blogging about family history.  I hope you will share in the Nordic Blue adventure, and allow me to share in your adventure, too!

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Show and Tell for Posterity

Many family historians, myself included, take the necessary time and energy to track down every detail possible about their ancestors, but make very little time for recording their own lives and experiences.  Who would not rather learn about an ancestor through his or her own writings:  stories, letters, notes, and diaries?  Let's face it, though vital, census, and other genealogy records are useful in many regards, they lack personal perspective.  Like cocoa without sugar... hmmm, something's missing!

Family Tree magazine recently published an article with guidelines for answering some basic questions your descendants will probably want to know the answers to:  "16 Things to Write Down About Yourself for Posterity."  Diane Haddad, the author, states:  "We forget to preserve information about our own lives. Thus, in 100 or 200 years, our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews will be struggling to understand our lives and what we were really like."  To make matters worse, most modern day correspondence is done digitally, through texting, e-mail, and social media, from which the data is not likely to be preserved.  We are less likely to find printed documentation generated by persons alive now within the archives, libraries, and depositories of the future, unlike the paper trail of previous generations.

So, what if you would like to leave a personalized record of your life experiences, but are not much into writing about yourself?  You have heard the saying that, "one picture is worth a thousand words."  A way to organize and preserve family history that I thoroughly enjoy is by designing photo books.  You can create them using many online vendors, including:  Costco Photo, Shutterfly, Snapfish, Walgreens, and others.  There are review websites than can help you determine which vendor to use.  Or, just pick one and dive right in!

Covers from a couple of photo "memory" books I created.

At this point, I have completed a half-dozen photo books, some that contain vintage family photographs, and others that serve as memory books (think "scrapbook").  I have plans for more, because they are fun to create, and the recipients really enjoy them.  Also, the books are "print-on-demand"; you can have just one printed at a time, or multiples.  Your book stays on the vendor website, protected by your log in and password, and it remains available to edit or print whenever you like.  As far as content goes, you could even address the "16 things to write down about yourself" by carefully selecting photographs, and then including names, dates, places, and other interesting information in the captions.  I scanned various memorabilia to add, as well:  cards, letters, childhood drawings, notes, and especially, genealogy and DNA charts.  I also created "favorites" collages using online images; these collages are based on the preferences of the person who is the subject of the memory book.

A "favorite things" collage.
Television shows that had a personal impact.

A Useful Tip
Since photo book vendors can only accept certain file extensions when images are uploaded (.jpg, .tif, .bmp, and .png), you may have to work around this a bit.  To create collages, I used a word processing program (Microsoft Word).  Then, I printed the finished pages out and scanned them as images, in order to create the correct file extension for uploading to the vendor's software.  There may be other methods to achieve the same result, but it is not as hard as it sounds--only a few extra steps are required.

A couple of photographs from my childhood along with a letter sent by Santa Claus (aka, my dad), mailed from North Pole, Alaska, of course!

A U.S. Army veteran's World War II memories.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless with photo books, either for your own story, or for someone else's.  They are fairly quick to self-publish, and there is no end to the ways you can be creative.  Once you get going, I think you will find it hard to stop.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016 Interview

I was pleasantly surprised to meet Tessa Keough recently, who prepares some of the "May I Introduce You to..." articles on the, an online genealogy-based community created by Thomas MacEntee.  I was even more surprised when Tessa wanted to interview me, even though I was previously interviewed in 2010.  She indicated that she wanted to address how a blogger's participation changes over time--how blogging, as well as focus and inspiration, evolves.  You can read the "May I [Re-] Introduce You To:  Chery Kinnick" interview on the Geneabloggers site.  Thank you, Tessa and!

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Elmer Strand, Norwegian-American Bachelor, Continued

As a child, I was occasionally delighted by the mystery of new adults entering into my sheltered world.  They came through the front door, often smiling, and left behind new sights, sounds, and stories.  From their visits, I developed a little more insight into human behavior, as well as a wider sense of connection, and sometimes good gossip to digest.

Relatives, relatives by marriage, or even friends from "back home" in Minnesota would sometimes land in our living room for a mere few hours.  They always left fully-fueled, since my mother's Norwegian-American habits would not have permitted her to let a guest leave without being offered the usual round of coffee and sandwiches, or cookies, fruit... whatever we had on hand.  As a quiet and cautious youngster, I did not ask many questions of my parents, but I could not ignore my curiosity about family connections or how my parents, who had obviously experienced things further afield than I was aware of at the time, came to know people. 

I clearly recall Elmer Strand, a lanky and laid-back older gentleman.  Our visit with him during the summer of 1965 was complemented by the experience of a new location, which was outside the comfortable frame of familiar surroundings at home.  The summer before I entered middle school, my mother asked Dad to drive the four of us (Dad, Mom, my 6 year-old sister Becky, and me) to Sonoma County to visit Elmer.  We had just moved from our house in Richmond, California (San Francisco East Bay), to nearby El Cerrito.  After all the work involved in moving, Mom probably looked for a little rest and recreation.  A drive to Sonoma County from the San Francisco Bay Area was the nearest thing to a pleasant day trip into the country you could manage in a large metropolitan area.  Sonoma County, part of the beautiful Redwood Coast area in California, is also wine country, with long, meandering two-lane highways that climb, dip, and roll gently past vineyards and farms, toward the rugged Northern California ocean beaches I knew and loved as a youngster.

Elmer Strand with his family, to that point (left to right):  Thomas (father), Theodore, Elmer, Arthur, and Regina (mother), ca. 1895, Chippewa County, Minnesota.

When I asked my mother who Elmer Strand was, she could only say that he was a longtime friend of my grandfather's.  Elmer, who was the eldest of his siblings, had never been married, and my maternal grandfather, Ernest Johnson, had been a widower for many years.  The two men were close in age to one another.   Elmer Strand was born on March 4, 1890, and Grandpa (Ernest) was born on January 23, 1889, both in Chippewa County, Minnesota.  Elmer eventually moved to California from Minnesota as an adult, as did Ernest. When Ernest Johnson retired in the early 1960s from the Ford Motor Plant in Campbell, California, he sold his house and took an extended vacation on the southern Oregon coast. Elmer Strand went along.  The two men lived in Ernest’s trailer for a few months and did a lot of fishing.  It must have been old Norwegian bachelor heaven!

It was not until many years later, after I began genealogy pursuits in earnest, that I found out Elmer Strand was not just a friend of my Grandpa's--he was a cousin.  Not even my own mother had been fully aware of the family connection.  Elmer Strand's parents were Thomas and Regina (Winje) Strand.  Elmer's mother, Regina (see post entitled Duty, Fate, and Beauty), was the younger half-sister of my grandfather's father, Ole M. Johnson.

Elmer Strand as a young man, ca. 1918.  Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

In Elmer Strand’s later years, he worked as a ranch hand for a landowner in Sonoma County. Though he developed diabetes, he was wiry and still quite lively at the time my family visited him in 1965. Elmer lived simply, without many belongings, in a trailer on the ranch owner’s property. He ate his meals up at the main house. At the time of his death in 1985, he was a resident at the London House Convalescent Hospital in Sonoma. Elmer was a member of the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco for some years.  Though Elmer was originally a Lutheran, it is thought that the ranch owners converted him to their church, since he had the opportunity to ride along to services with them.   After his death, his ashes were scattered in the ocean, just beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, in a communal, clergy-led ceremony aboard The Neptune Society’s yacht, the Naiad.

Related posts on Nordic Blue:

Elmer Strand, Norwegian-American Bachelor
Duty, Fate, and Beauty

Elmer Strand (center) with Ernest Johnson, and my mother, Doris Johnson (Wheeler).  Photograph was taken ca. 1948 in the front yard of the flourplex where Ernest's sister, Mabel Johnson, and daughter, Doris, lived in Richmond, California.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

635 Souls Missing: A Story of the SS Norge Disaster.

Story updated and reposted from 2013.

SS Norge, ca.1890-1900. The ship's capacity was 800 persons. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, digital ID def.4a15903)

Titanic's Predecessor

Nearly eight years before the sinking of the RMS Titanic, another maritime disaster occurred that should have signaled significant changes needed within the ship building industry.  On April 15, 1912, and after, the news of the Titanic sinking was predominate in media coverage and popular culture, in part because of the catastrophic loss of souls (over 1500) in the frigid waters off Newfoundland, but, also by virtue of its many wealthy and well-known passengers, who had been aboard the largest, most "sea-worthy" vessel to date.

In late June 1904, the SS Norge, a Danish iron-clad passenger liner, boarded passengers at ports of call in Copenhagen, Oslo, and finally Kristiansand, Norway.  The steamship, which was full of mostly poor European emigrants (Russians, Scandinavians, Germans, Britons, and a few Americans), was bound for New York.  On June 28, under calm skies, the Norge ran aground at Hasselwood Rock, the upper portion (cone) of an extinct volcano near Rockall, off the coast of Scotland, and sank rapidly.  Of the 727 passengers and 68 crew, many of the 635 who died were lost at sea in an area where no mariner in his right mind would attempt a rescue.

View Larger Map

View Larger Map

Does the greater number of souls lost on the Titanic warrant greater attention and empathy than the fewer numbers aboard the Norge?  It is useless to compare, and even more difficult to understand loss when dealing with such large numbers.  The tale of human suffering is told with greater clarity when considering one soul at a time.  Among the lives lost at sea aboard the SS Norge that summer's day in 1904 was a 15-year-old Norwegian girl named Josefine.  She had just departed her homeland in order to join her parents and siblings in Buzzle, Beltrami County, Minnesota, where they had settled the year before.  When Josefine began her journey, excited about what life would bring in her new homeland, she could not know that her adolescent dreams would end nearly as soon as they had begun.

Family Lore

When I initially began researching the genealogy of my Johnson family line with a publication in mind, I paid a visit to cousin in Oregon I had not seen in some years, who was the only son of Carl and Thea (Johnson) Humberstad (Thea being one of my paternal great aunts).  I learned something about the Humberstads, her husband's family, that I had not known before.  Carl Rafinus Humberstad emigrated from Davik, Sogn og Fjordane Norway to Minnesota in 1903 with his parents, Jørgen Simon and Anne Martinsdatter Humberstad, and his sister, Oline.  Another of Carl's elder sisters, Josefine, left Norway after the rest of the family.  I was told that her passage had been booked on the ill-fated Titanic voyage, and that she never made it to America.

Who would not be intrigued with the possibility of a Titanic tale among the relations?  Being a self-appointed family historian, I knew I had to get to the bottom of this story, even if it was not about a blood relative.  It was too intriguing to leave alone, and in truth, any Norwegian-American experience appeals to the overall community of affiliated researchers.  So, I went back home to the Seattle area and began researching Norwegian census records and other appropriate sources, and I was able to verify that "Josefine Karoline Jørgensdatter Humbørstad" did exist, in Norway.  But, after reading Titanic passenger lists forwards and backwards, and checking U. S. census records, I simply could not find anything relating to her fate.  I called my cousin to say I was not having any luck proving the information, and asked if he was certain his young aunt had been on the Titanic.  But, he did not know anything other than what he had already passed along to me.

If I have learned anything from years of doing genealogy, it is that success can often be achieved by giving a problem a good rest and revisiting it later on.  Sometimes the wait can produce additional internet sources, and sometimes it is simply a fresh approach that helps most.  This is exactly what I did when I recently decided to do more keyword searches on the Titanic passenger list and Norwegians.  Of the links that popped up was one with a description containing the phrase:  "Titanic's predecessor," and this caught my attention immediately.  I found other references to the SS Norge disaster, but also to a British diving expedition in 2003 that discovered the exact location of the shipwreck in time for the centennial of the sinking.  There was mention of a passenger list.  The SS Norge event was significant enough to the lives of many Norwegians that I was hopeful my new search would be fruitful.

When I located the emigration list for the SS Norge on the Norwegian records database, Digitalarkivet, there was no mistaking Josefine among the names listed.  As expected, she was not among the few survivors; her fate was listed as omkom (dead, or lost).  So, my cousin's young aunt had not been on the Titanic, after all, but on a Titanic-like shipwreck.

More to come on Josefine Humberstad, her family, and her fate, in the next post:

635 Souls Missing: A Story of the SS Norge Disaster, Part II

Story updated (with new photos) and reposted from 2013.

Josefine Jorgensdatter Humberstad, with an unidentified young man--perhaps someone she intended to marry.  Photo taken in Bergen, Norway, possibly just before boarding the S.S. Norge for America, ca. June 1904.  Courtesy of Karen Terrien.

Words cannot describe the anxiety that stirs within a mother and father anxiously awaiting the safe passage of a young daughter from halfway across the world.  It is true now, and was probably even more so in times past, when long-distance travel often meant potentially hazardous sea voyages across thousands of miles of unpredictable ocean.

One can only imagine what new American immigrants Jørgen and Anne Humberstad experienced when, during the summer of 1904, they were notified that their daughter, Josefine Karoline, never made it to the shores of America from Norway, as planned.  Not only that, but her body was one of over 600 lost at sea in the most catastrophic sea disaster to date.  Even more tragic was that it had been an entirely preventable occurrence, if only the captain had adhered to the stringent guidelines of his maritime training.

Jørgen Simon Humberstad (April 4, 1845-October 16, 1916) and his wife, Anne Martinusdatter (July 17, 1854-April 23, 1941) left their home parish of Davik, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway in 1903, and settled on a farm in Buzzle, Betrami County, Minnesota. [1]  Accompanying them on their voyage were their daughter, Oline, and son, Karl (Carl) Rafinus Humberstad.  Their older daughter, Josefine Karoline, remained in Norway with family friends or relatives until the following year, in order to complete her confirmation within the Lutheran Church.  For Norwegian Lutherans, confirmation as a sign of becoming an adult in the eyes of the church was extremely important.  So, it is not surprising that the timing of Josefine's confirmation encouraged her parents to agree to postpone her emigration until the following year. [2]

Map showing the municipality of Davik, Norway with the 1905 boundariesSogn og Fjordane Fylke, 1920.

It appears that young Josefine did not depart Norway on her own.  Another family residing in Davik, Sogn og Fjordane registered for passage on the SS Norge the same day as Josefine (June 18, 1904).   Mikkel Pedersen mmerstøl (58), his wife, Anna Mikkelsdatter mmerstøl (61), and their 15-year-old daughter, Rasmine Andrea Mikkelsdatter, were headed for Lead, South Dakota.  The Tømmerstøl 's eldest daughter, Anne Martine, also traveled with the family, but she was bound for Dagen, North Dakota. [3]  No doubt, the Tømmerstøls planned to see Josefine Humberstad safely to her family in Buzzle, Minnesota before proceeding to South Dakota.  In a sad turn of events, the entire Tømmerstøl family perished along with Josefine Humberstad during the wreck of the SS Norge.  On the passenger list each person's destiny is listed as omkom, or lost.

What happened during the voyage of the SS Norge in June 1904 that caused so many people to perish?  The first news of the disaster appeared in major newspapers on July 4, about six days after the sinking.  Here is what the New York Times published on its front page on July 5, 1904:

Men, Women, and Children Fought for Life.
Captain Went Down with Ship But Came Up and Was Saved.
Probably 646 Drowned
Off 774 Persons on Board Only 128 Are Known to Have
Been Rescued-Tales of the Survivors

GRIMSBY, England, July 4.-A lone pile of granite [Rockall], rising sheer out of the Atlantic 200 miles from the Scottish mainland, is now a monument to almost 650 dead. Bodies wash against the rocks or lied in the ocean bed at its base. Near by, completely hidden in the water, is the Scandinavian-American liner Norge, which was carrying nearly 800 Danes, Norwegians, Swedes and Finns to join relatives or friends in America. Of these only 128 were saved, so far as is known...

As time progressed, the numbers of those who survived versus those lost would change until a final count had been determined.  What was fairly clear to all from the beginning was the turn of events.  On the morning on June 28, 1904, the SS Norge was navigating over St. Helen's Reef near Rockall, a 20-meter high, uninhabited, remote rocky islet in the North Atlantic Ocean, when it ran aground on Hasselwood Rock.  The area near Rockall, about 300 miles west of the Scottish coast, was a well-known hazard to mariners. The ship had been taken off course willfully by its captain.  His decision had far reaching consequences, which he would pay little price for, compared to his passengers.  Ships Nostalgia website contains an explanation for the variation in the ship's course, which resulted in the tragedy: 

The normal route from Kristiansand to the North Atlantic was through the Pentland Firth and north of Rockall. As the weather was calm, with good visibility, Captain Valdemar Johannes Gundel, elected to take Norge south of Rockall. Although the southerly route was considered more hazardous, because of stronger and unpredictable currents, Captain Gundel had used it many times, as it postponed his ship’s entry into the Gulf Stream, with its often confused seas and restricted visibility.

The following is an excerpt of an abstract regarding an article published on February 7, 2004 in London's Daily Times: [4]

As the [SS Norge] steamed out into the Atlantic, one of the passengers, student Herman Lauritsen had no parental responsibilities and was enjoying the new experience. He marvelled at the expanse of sky and sea during the endless midsummer daylight. The morning of June 28 was calm, and as the morning sea mist drifted round the 3,000-ton vessel, he slept soundly. A newspaper report the following week gave his account of what happened next: 'I awoke suddenly when the ship ran aground and I ran onto the deck where there was an indescribable fear and commotion. A struggle for life was ravaging the ship like a storm and a voice from the bottom of the ship cried "Throw my children up on deck." The sight on the top deck was awful. People stood in front of the pile of life vests but they were not able to attach any of them because the ropes were rotten.

The ship was leaning upwards and people sliding downwards into the sea and a crazy man clutching a bundle of paper money just leapt from the top. As we row away from the ship everyone is swimming after us.' One of the five seaworthy lifeboats had picked up the man responsible for the catastrophe, Captain Valdemar Gundel, who had decided to let his passengers see the isolated pinnacle known as [Rockall] at close hand. He lived to face charges of criminal negligence but the ensuing court case was a farce. Both he and the shipping company were cleared of any responsibility for 653 deaths and the incident was airbrushed out of history until Orkney-based diver and historical researcher Kevin Heath located the exact position of the Norge. He is now heading the British contingent in a memorial expedition to HUSBANDS mark the centenary of the disaster.

Herman Lauritsen's story is but one told by survivors.  Others describe an even more harrowing situation, as related by "Phlebas" in a posting of a letter written by his grandfather, Hans (a survivor of the SS Norge disaster) to relatives back in Norway: [5]

We had beautiful weather the whole time [...] The first three days people were quiet, walking forth and back on the deck and talking to each other. The day before the terrible tragedy, people began to enjoy themselves, dancing on the deck, laughing and having a good time. At 10:00 I went to bed and slept all night, only to be awakened early I the morning by a terrific crash. I rushed out of bed to find my clothes, but someone had taken mine by mistake. I heard water rushing under [?] and everyone was up on deck. I was the last one below. I found the stairs from the lower deck broken, so I had to climb to the middle deck. It was crowded at the exit, everyone wanting to be first. I finally got through and saw a terrific sight. The deck was full of adults and children half-dressed and running and crying and calling to each other.

...I went over to the side of the ship and it stood still. I saw it had started to sink some and I saw the ship’s crew coming with life belts on. I knew it was grave, so I ran down to find a life belt and some clothes, but the water was already up to the bearths and I had to get back on deck. Three sobbing elderly ladies asked me to find them a life belt. I ran down again, not finding anything. Now the water was coming up so fast, suitcases and other debris were floating all over. I came back up without anything and they were desperate. I stood and looked at the people. I could not realize that we all should die now. Many were on their knees praying and crying, others were wringing their hands in despair....

Hans managed to jump into one of the lifeboats that had first turned upside down while becoming caught in a tackle, but was freed afterwards by cutting the ropes with an axe.  He continued:

...The Norge should have been sailing north of the area, when it hit the Rockall Bank in the Atlantic Ocean. We could see the ship was sinking fast and the water was rushing over the front deck, then the stern part of the vessel went down. The people had crowded together, but we didn’t hear any crying because the wind took the sound away. Soon we could not see the ship anymore. Slowly, the stern came up and it went under again with about 650 people. It was a sad moment, and everyone in the boat wept. One had his mother, seven sisters and one brother. And others had relatives on board. Now we could wait no longer, the ones who could, began to row.

These are just a portion of the personal memories available in the recounting of events during the Norge's sinking.  And what of Josefine Humberstad's story?  As a non-survivor, we will never hear her words or impressions of that day in June 1904, when so many lives were lost to the sea.  Were she and her traveling companions awake and awaiting breakfast when they heard and felt the first danger sign, like so many others?  Were they able to keep together as they struggled upward to the deck to assess the situation, or did they become separated and face the end without a friend or family member to cling to?  Although her fate and that of many others aboard the SS Norge are known, their experiences can never be fully imagined.

The Norwegian author, Per Kristian Sebak, also had many questions about the wreck of the SS Norge and the experiences of its passengers.  Sebak did extensive research on the shipwreck and related events and wrote Titanic's Predecessor:  The S/S Norge Disaster of 1904 (Seaward Publishing, February 29, 2004).  You will find many additional stories in Sebak's book.

There are also many websites containing information about the SS Norge disaster.  Here are just a few:

Part I of "635 Souls Missing:  A Story of the SS Norge Disaster":

The Jorgen Humberstad family after the death of Josefine.  Jorgen and Anne are in front, with children Marie and Carl in back.  Daughter Olene is not present.  Photo was most likely taken in Beltrami County, Minnesota, ca. 1905/06, after Marie, the last family member to immigrate to North America, arrived from Norway.  Courtesy of Karen Terrien.


[1] Vital statistics from tombstone inscriptions at Aure Immanuel Cemetery, Beltrami County, Minnesota; Humberstads' immigration year from 1930 U. S. Federal Census for Buzzle, Beltrami, Minnesota; Norway residential information from Digitalarkivet (, 1900 Norway census, Davik, Fjordane, Norway; U. S. residential information from 1910 U. S. Federal Census, Place:  Buzzle, Betrami, Minnesota; Roll:  T24_690; Page: 2A; Enumeration District: 0023; FHL microfilm: 1374703 (Jorgen and Anne Humberstad, with son "Rafenus," age 14).
[2] Digitalarkivet (  Digitized parish records for Davik/Davik, Confirmation Records, September 27, 1903, Josefine Karoline Jorgensdatter (born at Humbørstad farm).
[3] Digitalarkivet.  Passenger list for the June 28, 1904 expedition of the SS Norge.
[4] Gourlay, Kath.  "Death on the rocks; How the reckless captain of a ship unfit to sail killed 653 people in search of a new life... and how their bitter legacy was ignored."  Daily Mail [London (UK)] 07 Feb 2004:  36.
[5] The New Coffee Room; post by "Phlebas" regarding a letter by his grandfather, Hans, a survivor of the SS Norge.