Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Norwegian-American poetry: Robert Bly

When I was an English Lit major, not too long before I switched to history, it was poetry that captured my imagination, ranking alongside Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, and other writers of well-known classics. Years ago, I went through a period of writing poetry: a time when every coat and sweater pocket contained torn bits of paper with scribbled phrases, fleeting descriptions, and seldom captured words. I even had the great privilege to take a class with Nelson Bentley, one of the University of Washington's most respected and beloved poets and professors. But, it was during a period of my life when misery was too close to the skin's surface for comfort, and although mooning around made better than usual poetry, I could no longer create quite the same when my mood lifted.

I have not lost my awe of poetry, and I wanted to share my recent discovery.

Robert Bly, an American icon now in his 80s, was born in Minnesota to Norwegian-American parents, and attended St. Olaf College and Harvard. His poetry illicits movement and hidden possibilities, like harvest soil crumbling rich through the fingers or crystalline sapphire waters surging at the head of the Mississippi.

Poet Robert Bly Gives Voice to Men's Movement

Earlier this month, a close family member of mine passed away, and when I read this November poem by Robert Bly, it seemed to capture perfectly the mixture of change, loss, and chilling beauty that is late autumn.

Excerpt from "Solitude Late at Night in the Woods"

The body is like a November birch facing the full moon
And reaching into the cold heavens.
In these trees there is no ambition, no sodden body, no leaves,
Nothing but bare trunks climbing like cold fire!

My last walk in the trees has come.
At dawn I must return to the trapped fields,
To the obedient earth.
The trees shall be reaching all the winter...


and because I can't resist, here's one for those of us emeshed in genealogy and family history, especially during the Christmas season:

Excerpt from "Driving my Parents Home at Christmas"

As I drive my parents home through the snow
their frailty hesitates on the edge of a mountainside.
I call over the cliff,

only snow answers...


Intrigued by Robert Bly? So am I! You can learn more about him at: Robert Bly, American Poet

Monday, November 19, 2007

All I want for Christmas...

...is a time machine. That's all... just one basic model, functional, reliable, user-friendly time machine. Sure, I'll take pretty if I can get it, but I don't really need the fuss of all that leather, brass, and crystal ornamentation, a la H. G. Wells. Simple is okay.

Time machine image courtesy of Danny Cardle, artist and creator of Visual Engineering

Forget for a moment, if you will, about asking if a time machine is plausible, or just plain crazy. Forget the fact that Santa can't possibly fit it into my stocking. Shoot, he probably can't even fit it into his sleigh.

I'm not really asking for much. It doesn't even have to go into the future: we'll leave exploration of that to genealogists and historians who will come later on. I just want to be able to travel purposefully and selectively into the past, as any historian dreams about.

Oh, the people and the sights I would see! The questions I would ask! The notes I would take! A time machine would provide hour after hour of useful entertainment. It's such a good idea for a present... so, well, educational.

For starters, I'd like to go back to about 1917 and meet my grandmother at just the time when she was tying the knot with Grampa. "Howdy-do," I'd say. "I'm your long, lost granddaughter. And by the way, lay off that cow's milk, will you please?"

If Grandma hadn't drunk cow's milk, she probably wouldn't have gotten T.B. If Grandma hadn't caught T.B., my mother wouldn't have been orphaned so young, and perhaps she wouldn't have been left with such a complex, and maybe (just maybe), I would have gotten yelled at a little less. I'm kidding of course. Mom's done a fine job, but I sure have missed the particular pampering of a grandmother all these years, not to mention the extra Christmas cookies and overnight stays.

All I want is one basic, easy-to-use time machine. I'll clean and oil it regularly, and make regular insurance payments... promise.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The 161 Meme

"Turn around, Bright Eyes..." and there's another meme challenge! Well, this is a whole lot more fun than chain letters. So, here goes. My friend, footnoteMaven,, has tagged me for this meme. The rule is: pick up the book you are reading, turn to page 161, and divulge the contents of the sixth sentence on that page.

One of the books I am currently reading--the most grab-able one, anyway--is a biography/autobiography: "Hazel Wolf: Fighting the Establishment," by Susan Starbuck, University of Washington Press. Wolf is known for her environmental activism and connections with the Seattle Audubon Society, and typically used plenty of smart one-liners to help throw her modest weight around. An incredible Pacific Northwest woman...

Wolf's statement on the sixth line of page 161 is:

"I"m going to clam up, for the simple reason that if I say that I know them, they're going to be tarred as Communists, and they'll be hounded and harassed, and I'm not going to have that happen to any of my friends, or anybody that signs anything or is associated with me in any way."

Hmmm, who do I tag? The rule is five people. I'm going to go with a smattering of geographic locations, from Spokane in my home state of Washington, to Carmichael, California, and then on to St. Louis, Missouri, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin; finally, across the Big Water in the UK:

Ladies and gentlemen, consider yourself tagged for "161":

Miriam of AnceStories

Craig of GeneaBlogie

John of Transylvanian Dutch

Brian of Zalewski Family

and Nikki-ann

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Woolly Dog Nights: Tale of a Prairie Blizzard

On January 7, 1873, the day before my great great grandmother's 32nd birthday, a severe blizzard struck the upper Midwest. It was swift and overwhelming in its onset and lasted for several days. Many Minnesota and Iowa settlers and their livestock perished from it.

Bertina Johnson had been widowed only six months before. Baard Johnson, the husband with whom she had emigrated from Norway in 1866, was dead prematurely at age 37, from typhoid fever. Johnson lay permanently at rest on his homestead of five years, and could not know what challenges lay ahead for his wife and two children.

The day started out quite warm for that time of year, and the snow on the ground began to melt. The break in the cold weather provided an opportunity for people to go outside to work, or to run errands and make visits that were long overdue.

By afternoon, a frightening change occurred. Witnesses reported a rumbling in the northwest that sounded like distant thunder, followed by a hundred-foot high white mass that bounded across the prairie at a terrifying speed. People caught on the prairie without shelter were enveloped in an avalanche of whirling, blinding snow, along with an intensely cold wind. Many were without coats or extra protection because of the warm afternoon, and they froze to death.[1]

The annual meeting for the Wegdahl Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church of Chippewa County, Minnesota, was scheduled to be held on January 7th at Ole Anderson's cabin, a couple of miles from the Johnson homestead. In 1873, the congregation did not yet have a chapel, so meetings were held at various locations.

The following is an account of what actually happened to many of Bertina Johnson's friends and neighbors during the blizzard of January 1873:

About 11 o’clock [on January 7th] the sky became cloudy, and by noon it began to snow and blow and shortly a big storm came up, making every object invisible. Stranded were 35 men who had come for the meeting in the one-room log house of Ole Anderson with the wife and children, 38 in all. The storm got worse and very cold. Luckily a few days before Mr. Anderson had been in New London and purchased a sack of flour and a gallon of syrup. They made [mush] which they lived on for 2-1/2 days.

The chopped wood gave out and the wood pile was completely covered [with snow]. Near the house was a pile of wood rails, so the men made a line from the door of the house with Mr. Anderson at the end. This made a line long enough to reach the pile. One by one they handed the rails to each other until they had enough to hold out.

Pastor Edward Eriksen was there and had devotions every day. When the first night came, the bed was given to [Mr. Anderson's] wife and children. A big, brown woolly dog had come with one of the members. It also had to come in the house during the storm. Pastor Eriksen, who thought of occupying the place under the bed, had the dog as something warm to sleep by. The postmaster of Wegdahl also crawled under with them, and slept with the rest of them on the floor. Every few hours they would change off so all could get some sleep

On the third day, the storm let up at about four o'clock. No one was allowed to leave alone. In small groups, homesteaders and farm hands helped each other to get home. At one farm, cattle had to be dug out of their stalls before they could move at all. At another, a man was helping shovel snow when he uncovered a rooster, which promptly jumped out of the snow and crowed in relief.

Although Bertina Johnson may have been fortunate enough to have some family members at home when the blizzard struck, many neighbor women could not have been equally as lucky. If thirty-five men were stranded at the cabin of Ole Anderson, it meant that nearly as many local families awaited the return of the head of the household after the storm. As it often happened, pioneer women were required to fend for themselves and use their own wits and strength to protect their children, elders, and livestock during disasters.

Lars Eriksen Winje, Bertina Johnson’s soon to be father-in-law, was probably among the men stranded at the Anderson farm during the blizzard. Lars Winje was a charter member of the Wegdahl Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church, first organized in 1870. There were 99 Norwegians, 16 Swedes, and 2 Danes (25 voting members and 115 persons) making up the initial membership.

Among the initial tasks of the church’s charter members was to determine where to locate a permanent church and cemetery. They decided on 80 acres on County Road No. 6, along the south edge of Leenthrop Township in section 31, bordering Granite Falls Township. The Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad donated ten acres of land to the community, and the remaining 70 acres were purchased for $650.00.

In 1886, the existing Saron Lutheran Church, a gleaming, gothic chapel, was built at a cost of $4,750.00. The church’s initial framework was later damaged during a windstorm, so the height of the steeple was lowered a bit during the rebuilding. The cemetery went into use soon after the land was secured.[3]

Saron Lutheran Church, Chippewa County, Minnesota, from a postcard, ca. 1900. Johnson Family Collection.

All four sets of my maternal great grandparents met during the early settlement years of Chippewa County, and many relations are buried at Saron Lutheran Cemetery. As a family historian, I can't help but ponder just how many of their stories, whether spectacular, humorous, poignant, or mundane, could have been preserved. Instead, many details have filtered down through generations of family lore, and have since slipped into the dark whirlpool of unrecorded history, much to the dismay of those, like me, who long to know.

From "Waves of Grass," Chapter 3 in "A Long Way Downstream: the Life and Family of Thibertine Johnson Winje, Norwegian-American Pioneer," by Chery Kinnick.



[1] The Midwest blizzard of January 1873: Tvedten, Lenny, “Blizzards in Martin County,” Martin County Historical Society. http://www.co.martin.mn.us.mchs/pages/art_blizzard.htm (accessed 15 January 2006).

[2] Saron Lutheran Church annual meeting and the experiences of attendees during the blizzard of 1873 are described in: Christianson, Mrs. John. Our First 100 Years: 1870-1970. Chippewa County, Minnesota: Saron Lutheran Church, 1970, 7.

[3] Details about the Wegdahl Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church and the building of Saron Lutheran Church is described in Christianson, Our First 100 Years: 1870-1970.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

"Yule" Love This!

There is a treat coming up for anyone in the Seattle area who is interested in Scandinavian culture. The Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard is hosting its annual Yulefest on November 17 & 18.

I would love to show you the very colorful poster for the event right here, but you'll need to go to the following site: http://www.nordicmuseum.org/index.php and click on the Yulefest link in order to see it.

The Yulefest features live entertainment, Scandinavian arts and crafts, and best of all, those wonderful pastries, lefse, and other cultural reminders of your childhood and Grandma's way of doing things. Come and see the wonderful costumes, and maybe buy yourself a Norwegian sweater.

I never miss this event.

Var so god!
(loosely translates to "there you go!" from Norwegian; the phrase is commonly used as an invitation to partake.)

Friday, November 02, 2007

Peas, Porridge & Pie: Food on an Early 20th Century Farm

Phyllis Johnson (left) and Doris Johnson (middle), shelling pease on the kitchen stoop with their grandmoterh, Malla Larson Johnson.  The family dogs are Cubby and Teddy.  Leonard, Clearwater County, Minnesota, 1938.

What better way to prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday than to think about food? For family historians, that means the food of days gone by: slow food... real food... the sustenance that our ancestors spent most waking hours growing, preparing, and preserving. The following excerpts deal with day-to-day life on a Norwegian-American farm belonging to my great grandparents, Ole and Malla Johnson, three miles outside of Leonard in Clearwater County, northern Minnesota.  The information for this piece was gathered during a 2002 oral interview with their granddaughter, Doris Johnson Wheeler (my mother). Doris and her older sister, Phyllis, lived on their grandparents' farm from 1922-1945, after the girls' mother died from tuberculosis and left their father a young widower.

Each year, the Johnson women canned meat, pickles, string beans, peas, and other vegetables. The girls gathered blueberries and raspberries, and they sometimes walked many miles in order to find enough, though continually plagued by flies, mosquitoes, and ticks along the way. There were wild plums to be plucked, and gooseberries that grew in the pasture, as well as wild strawberries, currants, choke cherries, and pin cherries that would be made into wonderful jams and jellies. Malla Johnson raised ground cherries in her garden, little yellow berries with lots of seeds, from which she made sauce. Her husband added to the summer bounty by buying one or two lugs each of peaches and pears. Ole Johnson never forgot to include a basketful of dark blue grapes, because he loved grape jelly so much...

To feed her perpetually hungry family and hired hands, Malla Johnson liked to make traditional Norwegian porridge (groet), lefse, Johnnie cake, and feather cake, always without frosting. Breads, cakes, cookies, pies, and puddings were produced regularly. Mabel Johnson, the youngest daughter, seemed to be allergic to yeast, since she always got a tremendous headache whenever she baked bread. She had to do it anyway, because there was no such thing as skipping out on a chore.

When Phyllis Johnson was old enough, she began to help Mabel with the baking. One time, Malla asked her granddaughter to make a batch of lemon pies for the threshing crew. Phyllis had never made a pie before in her life, and she was nervous about presenting her novice efforts to an insatiable and highly expectant work crew. Much to her relief, the pies turned out fine, and no one complained...

Like many men from Norway of his generation and earlier, Ole Johnson drank hot coffee from a saucer in order to cool it quickly. He also ate peas with a knife, which was a custom of uncertain origin. The habit of lining up peas on a blade may date back to the Stone Age when there were only knives and bowls. Or, it may have started as a sporting challenge between men in Viking society. However it began, the custom was passed on through many generations as sort of a cultural icon in Norwegian-American society. Years later, at least a few of Johnson's sons were observed still struggling to mind their "peas and q's" in a similar fashion.

Ole Johnson was not a big coffee drinker, but he did enjoy a glass of milk, especially with a slice of warm apple pie. To his disappointment, warm apple pie was difficult to come by. One reason was that apples were not grown locally, and they were bought only during the holiday season. Another reason was that freshly made pie was always cold by the time he came in from work on baking days, and it was not easily reheated. So, whenever the family was in nearby Bagley and had the opportunity to drop in at Mogster's Hotel for a bite to eat, the most important thing on Johnson's agenda was warm apple pie...

A typical holiday meal with the Johnsons included: lutefisk, mashed potatoes, vegetables, lefse, butter, milk, coffee, and a dessert--like the apple pie that Ole Johnson never quite caught up to while it was still warm...

Before Christmas, Johnson would hitch two horses to a sleigh and ride into town to buy the annual Yule treats for his family. Everyone looked forward to their Christmas goodies, as simple as they were: a couple of boxes of apples, and a big bag each of peanuts, mixed nuts, and hard candy. Baking cocoa was available, but chocolate candy was not a regular treat, even though Ernest Johnson did bring some to his daughters, Phyllis and Doris, upon occasion. A shortage of chocolate would be a nearly unimaginable hardship to many of us now, and even Doris later became quite fond of a morning cup of Swiss Mocha coffee...

The Johnsons enjoyed eating traditional Norwegian food, like the primost (cheese) they sometimes bought. Ole Johnson especially liked fish, and he often went fishing in Clearwater Lake where he kept a cedar-strip boat. Many years later, the lake became so polluted from sewage that fishing was no longer possible. Doris said it was no wonder that her grandfather moved way from the homestead in Chippewa County, because the area had so few lakes and he loved to fish so much...

All excerpts are from "Clearwater Days," Chapter 7 in "A Long Way Downstream: the Life and Family of Thibertine Johnson Winje, Norwegian-American Pioneer," by Chery Kinnick.