Thursday, August 28, 2014

We're Having a Birthday!

Nordic Blue is 8 years old today!  Life ebbs and flows, and there are distractions at every turn, but family history marches on...

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

New Museum in Maynard, Minnesota Collecting Memorabilia

The town of Maynard, Minnesota in Chippewa County has a little piece of my heart, being the longtime home of my Norwegian-American great grandparents, Ole B. and Anne Marie (Sloan) Berge, and their children.  I was recently contacted and asked if I had any photographs, stories or memorabilia to help the collection efforts of this new museum, and I'll be doing my part.  Here's a shout-out to my Berge relatives and others with family history in Maynard who can also help.

Please visit the information page for the new Maynard Museum.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Wish Books and Hardwood Floors

Edited and reposted from December 19, 2007

In the early 1960s, shopping was such a special occasion for my family that we went on purposeful expeditions only several times a year.  One time was during the inevitable "back to school" rush, and another always happened several weeks before Christmas.

My sister and I were never under the care of a babysitter, so on the chosen Friday night we waited for Dad to arrive home from work with great anticipation. We gulped a dinner of something like macaroni and cheese with canned green beans. Afterward, Mom struggled to get a coat and hat onto my fidgety little sister, and then checked for a third time that the shopping list was actually in her purse. Finally, we piled into Dad's red and white '57 Ford Ranch Wagon for a drive into town.

Becky sat sandwiched in the front seat between Dad and Mom, while I held on tight in the back seat and pressed my nose to the window, watching as headlights, taillights, and streetlights whizzed by. The color and sparkle of nighttime and festive lights, magnified through rain drops on the window glass, added to my holiday spirit.

We lived in the Richmond Annex along Carlson Boulevard, which consisted of homes built on landfill during the post World War II building boom. Woolworth's on Macdonald Avenue was the store of choice when Mom came out to Richmond from Minnesota in 1945. Department stores quickly became popular in the post war years, though Macy's was a little too expensive for Mom's taste. Once in a great while, we ventured into Oakland to visit the tall Sears Roebuck building, mostly to pick up catalog orders.

Macdonald Avenue at night, Richmond, 1959. Richmond Street Scenes

For us, Christmas gift-buying usually meant driving through the rain and the dark into downtown Richmond to shop at Montgomery Ward. After Dad found a parking spot, we climbed up the few short steps to enter the store and get out of the rain. Inside, the overheated department store immediately made us feel uncomfortable: our wool coats began to steam and smell, and our wet shoes clicked and slipped against highly polished hardwood floors. The foreign sounds of elevator bells and far-away voices on the intercom captured my attention as we wove around islands of neatly piled clothing, as well as other shoppers. At the back of the store was a special area set up for Christmas, and we made a beeline for that before my sister's attention span had a chance to wane.

Mom had been formulating what to buy for weeks, but she always took my sister and I to have a look at some of the things we'd been drooling over in the catalog, known as the"Wish Book." Though tempted by what we saw, we never begged--we were taught restraint. Even so, my active little sister found it difficult to keep from touching all of the glittery treats among the displays, because she loved everything. But, greedy or entitled? Never! We could point and sigh and smile and hope, and that was all we ever needed
to do.

After World War II, Montgomery Ward had become the third-largest department store chain. In 1946, the Grolier Club, a society of bibliophiles in New York City, exhibited the Wards catalog alongside Webster's dictionary as one of 100 American books chosen for their influence on life and culture of the people. The brand name of the store became embedded in the popular American consciousness and was often called by the nickname "Monkey Wards," both affectionately and derisively.

In the 1950s, the company was slow to respond to general movement of the American middle class to suburbia. While its old rivals Sears, J.C. Penney, Macy's, and Dillard's established new anchor outlets in the growing number of suburban shopping malls, the top executives thought such moves as too expensive, sticking to their downtown and main street stores until the company had lost too much market share to compete with its rivals. Its catalog business had begun to slip by the 1960s...


Santa was in the store, of course, but after several unsuccessful attempts to get my sister to sit on his lap, Mom gave up. Becky was terrified by certain things, and one of them just happened to be Santa. Santa Claus in storybooks was a grand idea, but the reality of Santa-in-the-flesh was just too unsettling for her. I am reminded of a time when Becky was about three years old and Mom came home with new, dark-rimmed glasses. Oh, how Becky screamed and screamed - she was inconsolable! Poor Mom had to schedule another appointment and select something a bit less scary. You would never think that my sister, as a grown woman, would be into horror movies and collectibles, now would you?

When the tour of the toy department was completed and any grumbles had been quieted, Mom took us to look at clothing--a huge, dubious wasteland that made up most of the department store. That was Dad's cue to sneak back to the toy area and buy what Mom had instructed. I always knew what was happening, but it was more fun to pretend that I didn't.

Mom struggled to keep my sister in tow while searching for the perfect flannel shirt for Grampa, the tights Becky needed to match her cute holiday dress, or linens for Aunt Mabel. After the shopping was completed--or everyone had reached their tolerance limits--we all piled back into the station wagon for the drive home, grateful to be in the cool evening air once again. The purchased gifts were secretly stowed in the back of the wagon, safe in the dark from prying eyes and distanced from curious fingers.

While Mom and Dad recovered from sticker shock and the stress of another holiday buying expedition, the family headed home to the little white stucco house with red wood shutters in the Richmond Annex. We all anticipated another happy Christmas, but, we had made Montgomery Ward even happier, I'm sure.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Memories from 1987

Our beloved Kippers on the back deck with a cat Jack-O-Lantern pal.

 Happy Halloween!
from 26 years ago...
Go out and make some memories

An impressive ghoul and a fine old fashioned lady (Ian and Courtney), both sensibly dressed for the occasion in athletic shoes.

Friday, October 25, 2013

As I Remember Them

I just finished reading The Distancers:  An American Memoir, by Lee Sandlin, which is an extremely well written account of the history behind his great grandparents' old house in southern Illinois.  The author gradually unfolds the personalities and lives of the elder relatives who lived there, many of whom were a regular part of Sandlin's life as a youngster.  What struck me most was the realistic portrayal of the attitude children often have toward their elders:  not questioning, but simply accepting who their family members are at face value, with all their faults and idiosyncrasies, while any strengths or aptitudes are usually taken for granted.  Questioning, reasoning and approaching an understanding of our elders' choices and actions usually comes later in life, and it often happens too late for us to be able ask the relatives themselves about their experiences or intentions.  And, that is what family history is all about:  piecing together the purpose and meaning of our ancestors' lives in order to better understand them and ourselves.

I was never fortunate enough to experience living with my great aunts and uncles (or grandparents, for that matter), for extended periods of time.  But, I always looked forward to Dad's two week vacation in August when the old Ford Ranch Wagon was packed up with suitcases and a twin mattress in the back for my sister and myself to sleep on.  Almost yearly we traveled from the Bay Area to Salem, Oregon, where we stayed at Aunt Phyllis's house and made the endless round of visits to my grandfather and his many brothers and sisters, as well as a few cousins.

Everywhere we went, modest dining room tables groaned with coffee and milk, sandwiches or pastries, wonderfully diverse jello or pasta salads, and best of all--homemade doughnuts.  As a child, I too was content to observe and wonder, never asking questions of my elders.  If I had, I might have been ignored, or at best, received a thinned-out version of the truth for an answer, or worse--been teased for asking in the first place.  We children knew our place!  So now that these elders are gone, I am left to piece together their lives out of a desire to know how they coped with everyday problems, and where they reaped their rewards.  I also want to know simply because I care.

The following photograph of my grandfather (front and center) and six out of his nine siblings was taken in in 1967, following the funeral of their sister, Thea (Johnson) Humberstad.  Thea was the first of the ten siblings to pass on.   They are all departed now, the last being Oral Johnson in 1996.

(Left to right), Front row:  Cora (Johnson) Moen, Ernest Johnson (my maternal grandfather), and Mabel Johnson.  Back row:  Carl Johnson, Frank Johnson (the youngest of the siblings), Oral Johnson, and Ruben Johnson.  Missing from the photo are Bennett Johnson (the eldest) and Odin Johnson, both from Minnesota, and of course, Thea (Johnson) Humberstad, who was buried that day.  The photographer was one of their neices, either Doris Johnson Wheeler or Phyllis Johnson Rice.  Although the photograph is dated with the printing date of May 1967 on the border, it was taken shortly after Thea Humberstad's death in February of that year.

As Sandlin stated in his memoir:  "all stories of the past are sad."  This photo is sad, too, not just because of the event that created it (a funeral), but because of the shared anguish among close family members after the loss of a loved one, and having to come face-to-face with the harsh reality of their own mortality in the process.  The shell-shocked look on many of the faces--my grandfather's especially--continues to haunt me.  Still, I cherish the photo because it represents my grandfather with most of his brothers and sisters together in one place, with everyone appearing exactly as I remember them during the mid-1960s.

The photograph was shot with a Kodak Instamatic camera, which was all the rage in the mid-1960s.  The subjects posed inside my great aunt Mabel Johnson's living room, on Ellis Ave. NE in Salem.  I cannot fail to recognize the vintage dark red upholstered chair that Mabel always kept by the front door, and I owned it for a time after her death in 1983.  Grandpa must have been given the only seat for the portrait because he was the eldest sibling present.  Most of the family lived in Salem, Oregon or the surrounding area, but three of the brothers, Bennett, Odin, and Oral, lived in Minnesota.  Only Oral Johnson was able to make the trip to the west coast for the funeral.  Thea, the departed, lived in West Salem with her husband Carl Humberstad in a tiny and immaculate white clapboard house with baby pink trim.

The people in the photograph were a big part of the backbone of extended family that I knew and loved as a youngster.  I miss them all, and if I could have one more chance to see them, there would be a thousand questions for each and every one.  All stories of the past may be sad in some way, mostly because they are from a time that is irretrievably lost to us, but that does not mean they should be ignored or avoided.  The reason why some of us spend so much time researching family history is to rediscover the experiences of those who paved life's road ahead of us, winding through all of its mysterious peaks and valleys.  Though their time has passed, there is joy and honor to be celebrated from their journeys.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Little Girl Lost No More!

The Missing Childhood Likeness of Malla (Vigesaa) Larson

My concerted efforts as photo detective continue in the hope of teasing out the identities of more family members from unidentified stashes of the past.  The many photographic treasures that once belonged to my great grandparents, Ole Martin and Malla (Larson) Johnson and other family members, included several Victorian-era cabinet card albums and stacks of loose carte-de-visite images, as well as other assorted prints.  At first, the task of identification seemed daunting.  Some likenesses were easily recognizable, and fewer still were actually labeled on the back.  But, more often than not, a labeled photograph displayed the name of the recipient of the photograph, and not the subject--a common trap to be wary of during the photograph identification process.

I reasoned that somewhere among all of the family mementos, there had to be an image of my great grandmother, Malla (Vigesaa) Larson (1868-1948), as a young girl.  After all, she was the owner of much of the collection I have been trying to identify, and it seems unlikely that her parents would not have had an image or two taken of their youngest child at some point.  But, until recently, the earliest known photographs of Malla were taken around the time of her wedding in 1886, when she was 19 years old.  After cropping and enlarging the faces of many people among her old photograph collection, encouraged by a measure of success, I finally turned my attention to the little dark-haired girl on the carte-de-visite image shown below.  As soon as I zoomed in on the little face, I had that old familiar feeling:  "I know her!"

An unexpected find:  a photo of my great grandmother, Malla (Vigesaa) Larson, at age 5 or 6 (ca. 1874).  The original image is unlabeled except for the photographer's stamp on the verso.  A decorative frame has been added to the image for this post, which is not part of the original carte-de-visite.

What had not been apparent from the small card-like photograph became quite clear while observing the girl's face, zoomed in great detail.  I was immediately convinced that I had found the childhood photograph of my great grandmother, at last.  Everything matched:  the perfectly oval face; the large, clear blue eyes (left eye a little larger than the right); the deep brown, finely textured hair; a slight cleft in the chin (a Larson family trait); the shape of the eyebrows, nose, and ears, and more.  Even the dark, satiny dress with ruffles that she wore in the image was reminiscent of Malla's dark wedding dress with cascading ruffles down the front.  The two dresses look as if they could have been designed by the same seamstress--probably Malla's mother, Kjersten (Stroemstad) Larson.

Verso of the above photograph

I then investigated the photographers listed on the verso of the image.  Malla's family relocated from Coon Valley, Wisconsin to Chippewa County, Minnesota when Malla was a very young child, in about 1870, or shortly thereafter.  The location displayed on the photographers' stamp was a perfect match, since one of the nearest towns to the Larson farm in Chippewa County was Granite Falls.  But, when consulting the Directory of Minnesota Photographers on the Minnesota State Historical Society's website, I discovered a problem.  Olson and Steward (listed in the "Galleries and Studios" section), operated as a team in Granite Falls only between 1884-1886.  Malla was born in 1868, and the photograph of the little girl in question could not have been taken as late as 1884, when Malla would have been at least 16 years old.

Olson and Steward

     Address: Granite Falls, Minnesota
       Dates of operation: 1884-1886
Decades Worked in Minnesota: 1880s

But, hold on!  A photo detective does not give up that easily!

Further investigation into the individual members of the Olson and Steward team led me to believe that the carte-de-visite image of the little girl was still, indeed, my great grandmother, Malla, but that the image was a copy of an earlier image.

H. L. Olson was a Norwegian-born photographer who kept his own photography studio in Granite Falls, Minnesota from 1881-1883.  In fact, the images taken of Malla during her teen years (top row in the collage below, #3 and #4), were both taken by H. L. Olson.  His business partner from 1884-1886, C. A. Steward, kept his own studio in Granite Falls during 1886-1887, and often advertized that any image could be copied cheaply.  It is my opinion that Malla's parents arranged to get a copy (or copies) of her childhood photo in time for her marriage in February 1886.  If this were the case, then the carte-de-visite image of Malla at about age 6 was taken in about 1874 by an unknown photographer, and the original image was later copied and reproduced by Olson and Steward between the years of 1884-1886.  

Even with this logical assumption, I could not rest on my laurels and say beyond a shadow of a doubt that the photo was of Malla.  I had yet to consider that Malla's eldest daughter, Cora Johnson (Moen), was very similar in appearance to her mother.  I scrutinized a known photo of Cora as a toddler and compared it to photos of her as an adult, and compared them both to the probable image of young Malla in the dark dress.  Though many facial features were the same between the two little girls, I noticed a difference in the upper lip, in particular.  Cora had the same large blue eyes as her mother, but her upper lip was more curved, much like her father's side of the family.  Cora also had no cleft in her chin, unlike Malla.  In addition, Cora was a towhead at age 2-1/2, and it is unlikely that her hair would have changed from light blonde to dark brown in just 3 or 4 years.  Adding to the evidence was Cora's birth year.  She was born to Malla Larson Johnson in 1891, several years after Olson and Steward produced the carte-de-visite image of the little girl with the short dark hair.

Cora Johnson (Malla's eldest daughter), age 2-1/2.

Close-up of Malla Larson as a little girl, ca. 1874.

Cora Johnson Moen, at about age 40.

I was only completely satisfied that I had made the correct determinations after creating cropped close-ups of positively identified images of Malla from her adulthood, and then pairing them with cropped close-ups of "newly discovered' images taken during her early years.  The results are evident in the collage below, which shows Malla's development from about age 5 or 6 through her early forties, as the mother of ten healthy children.

Little Malla has been accounted for.  I hope that my many Johnson and Larson cousins will be as thrilled as I am!

(Click on photographs to enlarge).  This photo collage is of Malla (Larson) Johnson from childhood to middle age.  The bottom row of cropped facial shots are from positively-identified images of Malla that have been passed down through family members.  The top row consists of photos that I have recently identified as Malla from unmarked photographs collected through various family sources.  TOP ROW (left to right):  1) Malla Larson at age 5 or 6, Granite Falls, MN; 2) From a tin type photograph in a Johnson family album, ca. 1882; 3 & 4) Carte-de-visite photos taken at about the same age in Granite Falls, MN--note that she is wearing the same dress in both photos, but with different hairstyles, ca. 1881-83.  BOTTOM ROW (left to right):  5) Cropped image from Malla's marriage certificate with Ole M. Johnson in 1886; 6) Cropped image from wedding photograph with Ole M. Johnson in 1886; 7) Cropped image from Johnson family portrait, ca. 1907, Fosston, MN; 8) Cropped image from Johnson family portrait, ca. 1910, Fosston, MN. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Family Bonds--Fast Forwarding the Years

Getting together with my first cousins in August reminded me of how quickly time passes, leaving memories a bit faded, but the impressions as vivid as ever.  We shared a few precious visits together during our youngest years, and they were very bonding experiences.  One visit occurred when I was about two and a half years old.  Dad drove me down to Campbell, California from our home in Richmond so that I could stay with my mother's sister, Phyllis Rice, while Mom was in the hospital for a routine procedure.

Although I do not remember the exact event, my cousin Cheryl tells me that before Dad even left to go back home, Cheryl and I managed to get into a jar of Vaseline and experimented with it as beauty cream and hair gel.  She chided me that while Dad took me immediately to the bathtub to scrub the sticky grease out of my hair, she was left to deal with her own unfortunate circumstances.  Being the only girl in a family with two boys, she was often expected to be a tad more responsible than her years.  She probably also had to look out for me after Dad's departure, being the elder of us two girls.  Ah, the unfairness of childhood.  And, we were off to such a fine start with the Vaseline incident!  I'm sure that Dad drove away wondering if Aunt Phyllis would ever want to babysit me again.

"Our Gang" in 1956

Three siblings and a first cousin at the Rice home in Campbell, California, 1956.  Left to right:  Curtis Rice, Chery Wheeler (me), Craig Rice, and Cheryl Rice.  Cheryl and I are wearing matching dresses with multi-colored pockets, made for us by my mom.

My cousins and I had a grand time during those visits in Campbell.  I have always felt sorry that my sister was born a few years too late to be a part of it all.  We were all about the same age, with Craig born the same year as me, Cheryl one year older, and Curtis, the eldest, was two years older.  We often resembled a step ladder while standing all together.  I was a little frightened and lonely after Dad drove off and left me behind for that first stay of about a week.  Being so young, I did not understand what had probably been explained to me quite thoroughly, about staying with my aunt and cousins for a short period of time until my parents could return for me.

That visit at age 2-something is the first real memory I have of my aunt and cousins, though they were familiar to me at the time from our earlier get-togethers in Richmond, where my parents lived and where my Aunt Phyllis lived before moving to Hanford, and then Campbell.  After allowing myself to mope a little about being left behind, I set about to have some fun with my cousins.  We spent hours tearing around as Cowboys and Indians, and climbed on the dead tree trunk in the yard.  We scrounged for prune plums through and over the fence of a nearby orchard, and hunted polliwogs, caterpillars, and other unsuspecting creatures.  We caught glimpses of shows like "Annie Oakley" and "Tugboat Annie" on my aunt's console television while waiting to get our hair washed in the huge laundry room sink.  At meal times, I admired the multi-colored octagonal Fiesta ware plates that my food was served on.  I was just starting to get used to the idea of hanging out with my cousins when my parents returned to take me home again.

"Our Gang" in 2013

Three siblings and a first cousin at the wedding of Matthew and Chelsea (Johnson) Rice in Aurora, Oregon, August 17, 2013.  Left to right:  Curtis Rice, Chery (Wheeler) Kinnick, Cheryl (Rice) Nibler, and Craig Rice (father of the groom). Although it was not planned, Cheryl and I are again wearing clothes with  a similar pattern and colors!

I still enjoy hanging out with my cousins whenever I have the opportunity, which has not been frequent due to our inevitably busy family lives and work schedules, plus the driving distance between states.  But, we have found ourselves in each other's company a couple of times over the past several years, as our children graduate from college and settle down to married life.  Soon, those children will have children of their own, and there will be new little cousins to form bonds with each other.  The importance of extended family is sadly neglected in the increasing busy-ness of modern life.  But, I can say that whether my cousins and I are near or far from each other, it is comforting just knowing that Curtis, Cheryl, and Craig are out there, sharing some of the same childhood memories and family experiences.  I hope we will continue to have many such reunions as the years progress, though our activities and conversations are bound to be a bit more sedate than those of decades past!