Friday, April 04, 2008

A Tribute to Miss Winje

Lena Marie Winje, 1897

Lena Marie Winje was a child of the Minnesota prairie, born on her parents' homestead in Granite Falls Township, Chippewa County on January 22, 1877. She is pictured here in 1897 as a high school graduate.

The 1870s were an exceptionally difficult decade for farmers in the rural Midwest, rife with blizzards, drought, and multiple locust infestations. Welcoming a new mouth to feed into a family was a joyful occasion, but also an uncertain burden. Lena's Norwegian-born father, Eric Larsen Winje, read for the law while serving as the Chippewa County Clerk from 1882-1886. After passing the bar exam, he accepted a position as an attorney in Duluth, and the family moved across the state to the shores of Lake Superior.

Norwegian-American girls growing up in the late 19th century had few expectations. Their immigrant parents worked hard to provide opportunity for their children, but it was the male children who most often benefited. The cards were stacked against females: it was expected that they would be caretakers, not just for their husbands and children, but also for aging parents. If working as single young women, they were expected to leave their jobs once they married. That is why Lena Marie Winje's career, which progressed from teacher's aid in high school, to rural one-room schoolhouse teacher, to Superintendent of Becker County Schools, warrants some attention. Her career was certainly unique within my ancestral family of immigrant farmers.

Lena is remembered as a sweet-faced woman of gentle character, whose kind eyes quickly won over children and adults alike. She was exceptionally close to her next younger sister, Emma Thalette Winje; neither of the sisters ever married. In Lena's case, it could have been that she preferred to continue supporting her aging parents by keeping her career. It is also possible that she never married because she wished to avoid the risk of having children. The Winje family had a serious run-in with diphtheria in 1888 after their move to Duluth, and the two youngest children died. Lena had a weakened heart as an adult--a condition known to be a frequent side-effect for many who survived a case of diphtheria.

Duluth Central High School, from an old postcard.

In Duluth, Lena attended an urban high school, Duluth Central, where she received some training as a teaching assistant and graduated in 1897. She then moved with her family to Sacred Heart in Renville County, where they lived for eight years, followed by another move to Detroit Lakes, Becker County, in 1908.

By 1915, there were 126 rural schools in Becker County, and Lena Winje apparently taught at several of them. Teaching in the early twentieth century was challenging, but quite different from the modern experience. Lena not only had to keep a lesson plan book for each day, but also had to arrive early and build a fire to warm the building, as well as do the janitor work before and after class. In a one-room schoolhouse there were pupils of many different grades and skill levels, and the teacher was required to prepare seat work for each of them. It wasn’t until about 1940 that pre-planned workbooks became available. Also, with the school as a focal point of the community, Lena spent many hours planning and arranging help for the usual number of programs, carnivals, and basket socials that pupils, parents, and neighbors so enjoyed. [1]

Lena appreciated the challenge and rewards of teaching, and continued in the field for close to forty years. A capable and well-respected teacher, by 1920 she had served as Assistant Superintendent of Schools for the Detroit Lakes School District, and in 1926, ran for the position of Superintendent of county schools. [2]

When the filing period for county offices closed on June 1, 1926, five candidates vied for the two nominations allowed for Superintendent of Becker County Schools. Results from the primary election showed that Lena earned the most votes of any of the five candidates, while Anna G. Rogstad, the incumbent, had the second highest votes. The superintendent race on the 2nd of November was between Winje and Rogstad, neither of which claimed any party designation. Rogstad earned 2204 votes, but Lena Winje won the election easily with 3954 votes. She took the oath of office on January 3, 1927, and served as Superintendent from January 1, 1927 to January 1. 1935, earning a salary of about $1,900 annually. That the election could have been won so easily over the incumbent indicates that either Rogstad was not doing an adequate job after years in office, or perhaps it speaks to Lena Winje’s popularity as a teacher and community member. [3]

Lindbergh! Oh what a plucky lad was he,

Lindbergh! His name will live in history.
Over the water, he flew all alone.
Laughing at fear, and at dangers unknown,
Others may take this trip across the sea
Upon some future day,
But take your hats off to plucky, lucky Lindbergh,
The eagle of the U.S.A.

Campaign ad displayed in Detroit News Tribune, October 28, 1926, p.5.

The office of Superintendent was not for anyone who expected to sit and do desk work all day long. Lena had to attend many special events, including those away from home. In March 1927, she spent a couple of days at the State Teachers College at Moorehead, Minnesota in order to observe a rural school demonstration. She was also required to make numerous visits to rural schools in all types of weather, suffering inhospitable driving conditions, especially through the winter season on muddy, ungraded rural roads. She probably carried a few cloths in her car so she could wipe her shoes before making an inconspicuous entrance into each classroom. [4]

With a half-year's experience gained, Lena Winje began the first grueling round of visits to one rural school after another in the autumn of 1927. The local newspaper tracked her visits in monthly school reports drawn up by local rural teachers. Getting a start first thing in September, she visited Districts numbered 40, 52, and 90. The teacher at District No. 90, Gustave H. Backmann, penned a glowing report of his class’s interaction with Miss Winje:


Miss Lena Winje, County Superintendent of Schools, visited our school Monday, September 26th. She expressed herself as being well pleased with the work and conditions. She gave a splendid talk to the pupils on the purpose of their presence at school, and the final rewards for their honest efforts. We responded with two flag salutes and a record on the Victrola, entitled ‘Plucky Lindbergh,’ which she enjoyed. [5]

Sheet music image: Wikipedia

[1] Lake Park Historical Society. People’s History of Becker County, Minnesota. Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1976, p.123.[2] Lena Winje as Assistant Superintendent of Schools: 1920 U.S. Census for Detroit City, Becker County, Minnesota, ED 9.
[3] Dates of Lena Winje’s service as Superintendent of Becker County Schools is from People’s History of Becker County, Minnesota, p.358. Primary election information obtained from the Duluth News Tribune, 3 June 1926, p.1, col.1, and 24 June 1926, p.1, col.7. Final election results published in Detroit Lakes Tribune [change of name], 11 November 1926, p.7. Superintendent salary is from Detroit Lakes Tribune, 6 January 1927, p.1, col.7.

Rural school demonstration at Moorehead: Detroit Lakes Tribune, 17 March 1927, p.5, col.4.
Lena Winje visits with Becker County School Districts No. 40, 52 and 90: Detroit Lakes Tribune, 6 October 1927, p.5 & 7.


Miriam Robbins said...

Chery, I really enjoy reading your posts on your Norwegian-American ancestors. You probably know that I started posting some of the postcards that belonged to my husband's Norwegian-American great-grandmother on my blog. Your stories remind me of what I'm reading on those postcards, and give me a good social history of what life was like in the late 1800s/early 1900s for Norwegian-American women in the Midwest.

Keep up the awesome work! I look forward to reading more!

Chery Kinnick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chery Kinnick said...

Hi Miriam,

I'm fortunate enough to have the research of several years past to draw on for these little biographies. So far, it seems I've been focusing on the ladies, so perhaps I ought to do one of the gentlemen next time around. And, don't you love old postcards?

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

Having limited options it's wonderful that she was able to have a career that she loved.

Lidian said...

I really enjoyed this post a lot - you are a wonderful writer and the postcard, photo and sheet music were just perfect. What an amazing woman Lena Winje was!

Chery Kinnick said...

Apple - yes, she was fortunate, since her father was an attorney and judge, it provided more opportunity than for most 19th century women.

Laura-thank you! And yes, I too think Lena must have been an amazing woman, and so was her younger sister, Emma. They made a formidable "maiden aunt" team, but a kindly one. My mother remembers them, but I was born too late to have the opportunity to meet either one. The best I can do is write about them in the family history I am currently publishing.