Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Gem That Sparkles Still

The topic for the 47th Carnival of Genealogy is: A Place Called Home.

It's time for a geography lesson. Pick out a city/town/village where one of your ancestors once lived and tell us all about it. When was it founded? What is it known for? Has is prospered or declined over the years? Have you ever visited it or lived there? To a certain extent, we are all influenced by the environment we live in. How was your ancestor influenced by the area where they lived? Take us on a trip to the place your ancestor called home. The deadline for submissions is May 1, 2008.

Leonard, Minnesota
The area surrounding Leonard, Minnesota in Clearwater County is the kind of place you'd want to raise your children... a place where time stands as still as you want it to. Though the population of the town proper now hovers at less than 30 people and the median age resident is 61.5 years, the area is still as good a family environment now as it was 91 years ago. In 1917, my great grandparents, Ole and Malla Johnson, packed up their children and belongings and moved from their farm near Fosston in Polk County to three miles east of Leonard in northwestern Minnesota. (See the Google map.)

My mother and aunt were officially born in Dudley Township, since the village of Leonard was not incorporated until after their births in June 12, 1922. Leonard was named after the first child of an early settler, George H. French. French’s trading post and post office was a log house on the shore of nearby Four-Legged Lake.

"Many settlers came and some stayed, but many moved on. They were well acquainted with the saw, axe, grub hoe, shovel, grass and brush scythes. Fields came slow in the rocks and stumps. This was a difficult land to make a farm in."[1]

I suspect that my great grandparents moved to the Leonard area from their lush farm near Fosston because they had helped their two eldest sons, Bennett and Ernest (my grandfather) acquire cheap farm land there in about 1914, and then moved to be near them.

Leonard was, and still is, a rather secluded village, and looked a bit like a "one horse" town is the early 20th century photograph shown below. But, it was active hub for farmers who made a living from the surrounding territory. The early village included a Trading Post, a Soo Line Depot (beginning in 1911), Cooperative Creamery Association, Community Hall, a blacksmith shop, two Lutheran Churches, and later, Strand's Store, Monson Oil Co., and the Leonard Cafe, and not a whole lot more. Anybody who is anybody can still be found at the Leonard Cafe at some point during the day.

The area conjures up visions of "rolling farmland, green pastures, verdant forests, and placid blue lakes and streams abounding in wild migratory birds and variety of game fish." The soil runs from very sandy, sandy loam to heavy clay--suitable for hay, pasture, livestock, and farming, but the land will not carry anyone with cash crop farming. Success was derived only from individual farming. [2]

Five years ago, I visited the place where my mother was born and grew up. It was like a homecoming for me, though I'd never set foot on the soil before. Every building seemed familiar, though a bit more worn than what I'd imagined. The first stop was the farmhouse my great grandfather built in 1917. Though the property now lacks a barn and many of the original outbuildings, the house still stands straight and true with a dignity that shines through peeling and graying layers of paint.

The house built by Ole M. Johnson near Leonard, Minnesota.

Ole and Malla Johnson have not lived there for many decades, and it shows. (The photograph here was taken during the 1930s.) Gone now is the garden where Malla grew vegetables and little yellow ground cherries to make sauce with. Gone is the windmill that heedless young grandsons used to try and climb when Grandma Johnson wasn't looking. And, where was Colonel, the farm horse who lived to be as old as Methuselah, and constantly carried children to and fro on his dark, gleaming back? I could picture it all in every detail--standing on the very soil where my mother's paternal grandparents raised a large family, toiling every day and never letting up until the day they died. I could almost hear my great grandmother humming Norway's National Anthem as she made her daily crossing in the yard to the chicken coop in order to scrap the roosts clean.

The entrance to the Johnson farm on Rural Route One used to have maple trees that turned beautiful colors each autumn. Across the road was the Old Mogster Place, which served as the home for several Johnsons in turn, including Bennett and his sons, and Oral and Agnes and their large family. The local church and cemetery were just down the road from the farm, on the way to town, and the little schoolhouse was a hop, skip, and a jump in the opposite direction.

The land for District No. 31 School was donated by the Mogster family, who were early settlers in the area. Ella Stevens was the first teacher, receiving $5o a month as her salary. Among the 15 or 16 students who attended the school's first year were my grandmother's four younger sisters: Cora, Mildred, Clarice, and Stella Berge.

The school was never closed because of weather, since there was no communication and small children walking up to several miles needed an open building and warmth on arrival. However, my mother told me about a day when she and her sister and two cousins bundled up in 50 degree below weather to make the walk to school. The snow was so hard it was like walking on cement. When they finally made it to the school house, they were red, raw, and stiff. But, the teacher had not made it to school that morning and the door was locked, so the children turned right around and backtracked to their grandparents' farm right away.

Johnsons on the back steps of the school house, ca. 1930.  L to R:  Phyllis Johnson (holding a Brownie camera), Wesley Humberstad, Doris Johnson (my mother), Bennie Johnson, Mabel Johnson, Harvey Moen, and Marie Rinde--a neighbor.  Standing in front:  George Johnson and Thea Humberstad.

School District No. 31, outside Leonard, Minnesota, where
 my mother, aunt, and many other relatives attended school.

When I visited East Zion Church, the Lutheran Church my mother attended as a child, I was amazed to find the door unlocked. The minister's podium stood right where is had for years and years. Instead of pews, the floorboards held bunches of flowers, both real and artificial, each carefully laid out. Every time the caretaker prepared for mowing the cemetery lawn, new floral groupings appeared. Walking outside, I visited my great grandparents double headstone, where they were buried together in April 1948, having passed away within a few hours of each other. If they could raise up and take a nostalgic look around, they would be content to still find their farmhouse just about in sight across the road.

When my own mother passes away, it is her wish to be buried in that little East Zion churchyard next to her grandparents. In her heart, she has never left her childhood home. Leonard is the gem that sparkles in the memories of many of my relatives, some of whom still live in the area. It is an icon of days gone by, and a tribute to the dreams and efforts of pioneering settlers who sought an honest living on land they could call their own.

Life was simple and very few felt deprived. They had their card parties, quilting bees, Ladies Aid, church services, school programs and picking blue berries in groups, and picnics. Families worked together sawing wood and threshing, with a few ladies helping with the cooking. A good deal of time was spent getting ready for the Fourth of July and Christmas holidays, easily the big events of the year. [3]

The local historical society for Leonard, Minnesota is the Clearwater County Historical Society in nearby Shevlin, of which I am a proud member and supporter.

[1-3] George and Winifred Boorman. The History of the City of Leonard, Dudley Township (self published), 1982?

(The Boormans were neighbors of the Johnson family and were acquainted with my great grandparents, Ole and Malla Johnson. I obtained a copy of this self-published book directly from Winifred Boorman, who passed away last year.)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Celebrating 100 Posts & An Announcement

When I was first inspired to start genealogy/family history blogging in August 2006 (thanks to footnoteMaven and our hobnobbing across the table at our Nearby History writing seminar), I didn't know quite where it would take me, or how I would ever find enough to write about. Sound like a familiar story? I thought it would be only family members who would find my Norwegian-American family history focus and stories of interest. Now, after 100 posts, I can easily see no end to it, thanks to inspiration and encouragment from other genealogy/family history bloggers, in particular.

I may have gotten myself into hot water by taking on too much, but I'd like to announce that I was recently chosen as a local history columnist for Seattle They saw my blog and this is the result! Can you imagine? Well, pinch me, because I am still waking up, as well as learning how to find my rhythm with it all. As my fellow Seattle Examiners and I publish posts, new entries scroll on the home page. So, depending on how prolific I am (or not!), you may or may not see my link and profile there. However, a direct url for my Seattle & Pacific Northwest History Examiner blog can always be located under the heading: "Examiners."

Wish me luck...

And, a big THANKS to my fellow bloggers for providing me with some stimulating reading over my journey of 100 posts!

What Started the Family History Ball Rolling?

There are as many reasons as stars in the sky for a person to dive into family history research, or for a writer to be compelled to express him or herself. We blog about genealogy and family history not just because of the love of the hunt and a need to imagine and divulge the past, but also out of an urge to share, and also for many, an urge to write.

Was there a pivotal moment when you decided this was something you wanted to do, or were compelled to do? When did it become clear that the web of genealogy, family history, and writing was your calling?

Did someone else instigate it?

Was it something you read?

Was there a certain discovery that piqued your interest?

...Did the Devil make you do it?

About seven or eight years ago, my head suddenly became filled with questions about my mother's Norwegian-American family. Where did they come from in Norway? Who came before my grandfather and his nine great aunts and uncles? Those questions, and a hundred others suddenly reared up, and time was of the essence.

I sent a letter to an older cousin who I thought would have a few answers, and he did. But there was so much more to find out. So, I began what I thought would be a joint project to collect information and photographs. But, early on in my quest, after standing at a photocopier for a solid half-hour, I realized just how quickly I had arranged several interlibrary loans and tracked down multiple books and articles to read. My head was spinning with everything I knew had to be done, and I wondered if anyone else could keep up with the pace I had already set for myself. It hit me with a shudder that I had to accept the responsibility for finding out and collecting what I wanted to know.

Accept, I did, and I haven't looked back (figuratively, of course) ever since.

Lady Bluebeard was Norwegian

Thanks to Thomas MacEntee at Destination: Austin Family for calling this Yahoo News story to my attention: "100-year mystery: did Indiana woman get away with murders?"

Photo: Belle Gunness, date unknown (Laporte County Historical Society). She doesn't look too happy about having her photograph taken, does she?

The Associated Press article begins:

Asle Helgelien didn't believe Belle Gunness' claims that his brother, missing for months after answering the widow's lonely hearts ad, had left her northern Indiana farm for Chicago or maybe their native Norway. Suspicious after a bank said his brother, Andrew, had cashed a $3,000 check — a large sum in 1908 — the South Dakota farmer came to LaPorte and discovered his brother's remains in a pit of household waste. A century later, modern forensic scientists hope to solve once and for all what appears to have been a web of multiple murders, deceit, sex and money orchestrated by a woman dubbed Lady Bluebeard, after the fairy tale character who killed multiple wives and left their bodies in his castle...

Belle Gunness was also thought to have staged her own death 100 years ago to avoid discovery, but for a quarter century afterwards, Gunness sightings were reported all over the country. She is thought to have killed between 25-33 people, mostly for the insurance money gained, and was in the habit of advertising in midwestern Norwegian-language newspapers when she sought a new mate for her diabolical plans. An immigrant who first arrived in Chicago, Gunness apparently had a reputation among Norwegian-American families as a great foster mother. If so, then how can it be explained that the bodies of children were also found on her property? The poor little tykes were probably witness to some things they just shouldn't have seen, and paid the ultimate penalty for it.

She was definitely not your typical Norwegian auntie or foster mother! Gunness will be remembered instead as the sociopathic nordic Lady Bluebeard who advertised for the purpose of murder, and apparently got away with it.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Thanks(?) for the Gene, Dad

In the last Carnival of Genealogy challenge, we were asked to describe what traits we inherited from our ancestors. I tried to be respectful of my kin and mention only positive or innocuous hand-me-downs, but I forgot an important one. I'm only mentioning it now in case it helps enlighten someone who wonders if he/she might have the same problem.

It's been a long haul toward discovery, but someone gave me the gene for gluten intolerance, and I'm not too darned happy about it. Do you know how difficult it is to be a Norwegian-American who shouldn't eat lefse, krumkake, and all those baked goodies? Each time I visit a relative who is trying hard to be welcoming, I worry about offending if I don't accept those wonderful homemade doughnuts, and more.

The website contains a very good article on new research:

Gene From Father May Raise Celiac Risk in Daughters

Do your chances of developing celiac disease vary depending on which parent is passing on the genes? A new study says yes. According to the results of a recent study, depending on whether the gene is inherited from the father or the mother, and depending on the gender of the child, data suggest that there could be some variance in rates at which the gene is inherited, along with some variance in the rates of celiac disease [...] Celiac disease occurs twice as often in women as it does in men [...] A research team evaluated and compared the odds ratio, parental origin of disease-associated haplotypes, and transmission ratio distortion between male and female patients.

To make a long story short, if a father passes down the DQ2 haplotype to his children, then his daughters are more likely to develope celiac disease than his sons.

But, they say turn about is fair play. Isn't it the mother who passes along the gene for baldness to her sons??? At least I don't have to worry about that.

Celiac disease and gluten intolerance (one is clinically diagnosed and the other is not, but they both lead to the same fork in the road) are more prevalent than you think, because the problem often flies under the radar of physicians, even when patients sound like an alien has taken over their body. The problem starts off with a vague feeling of unwellness, and may include digestive problems, and weight loss or weight gain, among other symptoms.

Here's a great article full of information: Maybe It's Something You Ate.

If you think you, too, have inherited this predisposition, you might get lucky and get a confirmation from your doctor. Otherwise, I'm afraid you're in for a lot of reading and experimentation with what you eat. There is support out there, but it is still hard to avoid all the "don'ts" with today's busy lifestyle, and not always so easy to focus on the "dos" with a positive attitude.

I believe I've had gluten intolerance all of my life. But, it has only been within the past ten years or so that my body has finally called a halt to all this nonsense (gluten eating) and has started to get back at me, with ever increasing persistence.

But, it's okay: I forgive you, Dad (except maybe when it comes to pizza). Life is a series of challenges, and this is just one more to keep me grounded in family history.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ancient Viking Women Studied Using DNA

An article in today's Aftenposten reveals discoveries made by DNA samples and x-rays taken from the bodies of two women buried in 834 A.D. on the Oseberg ship--a Viking ship excavated in Vestfold in 1903. The discovery of the first buried ships was exciting proof that Vikings had indeed been capable of traveling great distances: to North America, for example.

The two women, whose identities remain uncertain, were obviously "powerful figures in their day, but still lived a hard life, and they were stronger than today's women." How many Norwegians and Norwegian descendants across the world could claim either woman as an ancestor, I wonder?

Genealogy enthusiasts, as well as interpreters of ancient history, benefit from knowledge gained by DNA studies, though the lack of guidance in the interpretation of raw data is the bane of the average geneaologist. In ancient history, however, there are few lineage charts, documents, or written records to go on. Instead, investigators must sort out fact from legend, if at possible, using whatever scientific tests and archeaological studies can be used to tease out details.

The older woman of the pair was found to have died from cancerous tumors at about age 70 or 80--a pretty advanced age for an ancient peoples, hardy Vikings included. The younger woman sustained a broken collar bone, which healed entirely before her death from natural causes soon after. Although she lived as a "Norwegian," she was found to have had ancestral roots near the Black Sea. First thought to be about 25 years old, her age has since been determined to be about 50, which means she could possibly have been Queen Åsa, the mother of Halvdan Svarte (Halfdan the Black).

What was it like to walk a mile in a Viking woman's boots? The leather boots pictured here were found in the Oseberg ship and probably belonged to the older of the two women buried within.

Studies of their teeth reveal that both women ate high grade food, and the younger woman had a metal toothpick, another sign of their status. But signs of injury to the knee, broken bones in the legs and back and powerful muscle attachments indicate a hard life even for the upper class.

Well. I can understand that. How else would the image of a Valkyrie have been handed down through the ages? If you were a Viking, it was a hard life in a hard land--the unforgiving, icy north, and the squeamish need not have applied. Ancient mothers of Norway, whoever you really were, I tip my bowl of ale to you in recognition of your long lives and exceptional strength of both body and soul.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Malla Johnson's Bible

After Ole Martin Johnson married Malla Larson in 1886, my great grandmother began to diligently record the birth of her children inside the family Bible.

Ole and Malla Johnson with Carl, Ruben, and Frank, their three youngest children, in about 1907, Fosston, Polk County, MN.

Using a numbering system that began with no.1 for her husband and no.2 for herself, over the course of 19 years and the birth of 10 children, Malla wrote:
"1. Husband: Ole M. Johnson, born August 6, 1860; 2. Wife: Malla Johnson, born April 20, 1868; 3. First son: Bennett Johnson, born August 18th, 1887; 4. Another son: Earnest Johnson, born January 23th, 1888; 5. First daughter: Korah Johnson, born July 15th, 1891; 6. Another daughter, Thea Johnson, born April 28th, 1893."

On the second page, Malla did not use a number for her son, Odin, and then repeated the use of no.6 with her actual 6th child, Mabel.

"Odin Johnson, born October 11, 1885; 6. Mabel Johnson, born February 10, 1898; 7. Orel Johnson (born January 15, 1900; 8. Rubin Johnson, born September 19, 1901; 9. Carl Johnson, born February 26, 1904; 10. Frank Johnson, born November 2, 1906."

I delight in noticing that while Malla's handwriting was neat and precise in the beginning, over the years (in direct correlation with the number of children she had), it becomes increasingly less neat and skewed!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Janteloven: Norwegian Modesty

The subtitle could very well be: Pardon my Humility

I've mentioned "humility" and "modesty" in this blog before, in conjunction with my Norwegian ancestors and their/my heritage. The May 2008 issue of Viking (the official Sons of Norway publication), contains an article dealing with just this subject: "A Modest Nation," by Berit Hanson. She writes that "Norway has often been described as a place where equality is prized and individual success is repressed," and then proceeds to tell about the history behind the desire for conformity.

Janteloven is described as a set of social imperatives that promote the Scandinavian belief that one should not assume he/she is better than another. The success of the group is most important: "Self importance is nonexistent, while conformity and social harmony are paramount."

The term was adopted from the fictional Danish town of Jante in the 1933 novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor), by Aksel Sandemose. While it may seem strange that a novel spurred a road map for social interaction, the mutually accepted mores of Janteloven were in place long before the author coined the term. The novel merely articulated and popularized some ancient cultural tendencies.

As long as people have lived in Norway, the concept of Janteloven has thrived because "people lived in small, agrarian communities and fishing villages where everybody knew everybody else. These transparent social conditions also meant that everybody monitored everybody else's behavior." Though the guiding principle is not exclusive to Scandinavia, this geographic area was wide-spread and often secluded, with sparse population--all of which heightened the effect.

Here are the "10 Commandments of Janteloven," from Aksel Sandermose's novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks:

1. Thou shalt not believe that thou art something.
2. Thou shalt not believe that thou art as good as us.
3. Thou shalt not believe that thou art more than us.
4. Thou shalt not fancy thyself better than us.
5. Thou shalt not believe thou knowest more than us.
6. Thou shalt not believe thou art greater than us.
7. Thou shalt not believe that thou art a worthwhile human being.
8. Thou shalt not laugh at us.
9. Thou shalt not believe that anyone is concerned with thee.
10. Thou shalt not believe thou can teach us anything.

Remember that these "commandments" are from a fictional novel and not a code that Norwegian school children have been forced to recite from memory, decade after decade. It's just that the ideas as expressed in the novel articulate the age-old Norwegian tendency to repress the individual. Sandermose's fictional account explores how a murderer places the blame for his criminal behavior on the town of Jante because of its repression.

Karen Patrick Knutsen, assoicate professor at Oestfold University College in Halden, Norway, is quoted as saying that present day Norway's social welfare system embodies the principles of Janteloven, "ensuring that the needs of all citizens are met, that no one is too rich or too poor, and that financial rewards are owed in part to the government (through taxation) and used to maintain equality among the citizens." A social welfare system, therefore, gives rights to all, "but also demands that everybody contribute to the system accroding to their abilities."

But, Norway is a changing nation, and the old social mores are changing along with it. No longer dependent upon fishing and farming, Norway has become wealthy from off-coast oil reserves, and wishes to make a useful impact on the world (see Protecting the Future for Families, this blog). There is growing acceptance of diversity, and especially of what individual creativity can bring.

What about ancestors like mine who emigrated to America? As they acclimated to a new country and a new way of life, why did the concepts of Janteloven hang on? My opinion is that Norwegians in America were anxious to hold on to any part of their identity they could, having left the homeland under duress in search of land and livelihood. They were adamant about offering their loyalty to the new homeland, but wanted to remain as Norwegian as possible while doing so. Is it any wonder they continued to hand down the old tried and true social mores among themselves? It probably did them some good in early pioneer communities, where neighbor depended upon neighbor.

But, in fast-paced modern American life, humility or modesty can be taken as a sign of weakness, a lack of intelligence, apathy, and more. When my cousins and I were children and our Norwegian-American mothers cautioned us not to make a big deal over some success in our little lives, they truly thought they were doing us a favor: "Shhh... someone will hear you; we don't want anyone to think we are bragging." Yet, it was not so much the things our elders said, but often the things that went unsaid that left the deepest impression.

In my Carnival of Genealogy blogpost about genetic traits, Giving Credit to Gene, I mention shyness as one of the personality traits my ancestors handed down to me ("could it have been the herring?"). Add the culturally ingrained Norwegian concept of Janteloven to genetic shyness, and it can all be downright stiffling! It has taken a lifetime to give myself permission to say, do, or even think certain things. This shows how powerful a legacy the cultural ways of our ancestors truly is.

Even so, there are many Norwegian-Americans, like Minnesotan Berit Hanson, the author of the Viking article, who have found that "certain attributes of Janteloven, such as modesty and humility, have made their way across the ocean and into [their] hearts and minds." There is certain comfort and a sense of belonging in doing things just the way our ancestors have always done, and in not being too ready to let go of our heritage--whatever form it has taken over the ages.

Your Earliest, Scariest TV Moment?

I haven't started a meme yet, but I'm going to... right now! Many times I have pondered on some of the scariest things I encountered in the early days of television, and how they changed my perception of my little world and my own place in the universe. The Baby Boomer Generation is unique in the regard that it grew up with television--a new communication medium in the 1950s and 1960s, for better or worse.

My scariest early moment was watching the first epidsode of The Outer Limits, and what a first episode it was! The Galaxy Being, written and directed by Leslie Stevens, was filmed in black and white and aired in 1963. The story highlighted a creature far beyond anything I could have imagined at the age of ten: a nitrogen-based being from the Andromeda Galaxy which glowed and surged like electricity. The background sound even included lots of awe inspiring snapping and crackling from static electricity. Many subsequent episodes of The Outer Limits seemed to have a not-so-believable alien written in just for the sake of it, but the Galaxy Being was compelling, understandable, ominpotent, and well... horrifying, all at the same time.

Admonishing the military who come to the "defense" of the townspeople, the Galaxy Being warns them to rescind their violent ways: “Do not use force... There are powers in the universe beyond anything you know.”

Even though the Galaxy Being had me diving under the covers that night as I lay in bed, I was hopelessly fascinated. It was at that moment I became a science-fiction fan and began to read anything I could get my hands on that foretold the future. The funny thing is, I was never a horror fan; the only acceptable horror had to do with science and the future, and it had to have purpose. None of that bug-eyed, gobbling, drooling alien stuff for me!

The opening narration for The Outer Limits, 1963-1965:

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat, there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to... The Outer Limits.

What was your earliest, scariest TV moment? How did you react? How did it change your perception of yourself, of your family, of the world? Did you develop any new interests as a result... or any revulsions? How do you think early television was different from the television shows being broadcast today, and do the modern shows have as much social impact? Were your family's routines altered by television? If so, how?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Giving Credit to Gene

The topic for the 46th edition of Carnival of Genealogy is: What traits run in your family? Which of them did you inherit? Do you have your mother's blue eyes? Your grandfather's stubbornness? Your aunt's skill with knitting needles? Is there a talent for music in your family? Or do you come from a long line of teachers? Have you ever looked at an old photo and recognized your nose on another family member's face?

I puzzled and puzzled over this Carnival of Genealogy topic, and put off writing about it until nearly the last minute. But, the voices of my usually modest and self-effacing ancestors began to tug at me: "How about giving some credit where credit is due?" I'm sure they didn't say anything about blame, but I promise I'll be kind.

I've often wondered if, given the time machine opportunity to go back into the past, I would hear my own voice in one of my female ancestor's, or while talking to another would suddenly realize that I was looking into my own eyes. One needs to keep in mind that it can be difficult to know where genetics leaves off and cultural/behavioral memory begins. Some tendencies are picked up only through the repetitive behavior of others. For example, the fact that "Geez Louise" sometimes drawls out of my mouth when I'm mildly frustrated has little to do with genetics, and everything to do with being around Dad enough to have his favorite phrases ingrained in my brain's catalog of useful responses.

Funnily enough (as my English friend would say), I can only address my mother's side of the family when it comes to genes, and don't think I haven't been tearing my hair out over that from time to time. But, here's what I know about 50% of me:


Central Norway, the home of my immigrant Norwegian ancestors, is one of the areas with the highest percentage of natural blonds in the world. Folks with light-colored hair have lived there since ancient times and circulated their recessive genes generally among themselves for a good, long while. There is an interesting, but questionable Blond Map of Europe on the internet. Please view it with a healthy dose of skepticism, as all statistics without background facts should be viewed. And the blond(e) joke? SO uncool!


Without the aid of modern science, I too, would probably have been the proud mother of ten children, just like my mother's maternal and paternal grandmothers. I called it quits after three. My maternal grandmother was a fraternal twin, so I knew the roulette wheel was spinning with short odds.


There is something about Norwegian females and shyness. I know that this has been handed down to me through genetics, because I have experienced it and heard about it in connection with just about every female ancestor within my family's extended knowledge. It must have come straight from the soil in Norway, or something. (Or, could it have been the herring?) Although shyness is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, a shy person's self confidence is usually in some stage of teeter-tottering, and this makes things difficult while trying to get stuff done. If my great grandmother was working around the farmhouse and a stranger came to the front door, she could take herself away to hide in the kitchen under the guise of having to cook from scratch. My kitchen is open to the living room, and there is no excuse whenever there's a frozen lasagne in the fridge.

I don't even want to talk about those oral reports in school. Acckkkk!


There were no weaklings among my mother's family, though there were a few unfortunates who suffered the ravages of fatal disease, like my grandmother who died from tuberculosis at a young age. When I don't allow myself to get lazy from all the amenities associated with modern life, or make bad food choices, I am capable of physical labor on the same level as a fjord horse. For that, I thank my "lucky genes."

Sense of Humor:

My grandfather and his nine brothers and sisters could sure play pranks on each other, and they were sometimes more painful than funny. It isn't as though they never showed anger, or even rage, but, I never knew any of them to talk without either a twinkle in the eye or a subtlety of humor. Humor took the edge off the more unpleasant things they had to do, and it was also a way of showing they could cope with whatever life threw at them.

Running the Information Underground:

There are many teachers and librarians among my Norwegian-American family, especially on my grandmother's side, the Berges. Had my mother and aunt been given the chance to attend high school, they, too, would have liked to have been teachers. Farming was a natural and necessary pursuit for 19th century Norwegian immigrants, so it does not come as a surprise that my family has included many farmers. But, there is also a complement of male ancestors who worked for the railroad in America and loved it.

Books, crops, and iron wheels: knowledge, growth, movement. It seems I am always running on a track to learn more and make use of it in some practical fashion. I suppose that is why I am working in a library, and writing about history and genealogy.

Friday, April 11, 2008

To Be, or Not to Be... A Question Mark?

I've never considered myself much of a game player, but when something like this comes up, I get curious and just have to participate. Thanks Lori (-) and footnoteMaven (;) for calling my attention to this.

If I were to come to the Carnival of Genealogy disguised as a punctuation mark, I would be... can you guess?

You Are a Question Mark

You seek knowledge and insight in every form possible. You love learning.

And while you know a lot, you don't act like a know it all. You're open to learning you're wrong.

You ask a lot of questions, collect a lot of data, and always dig deep to find out more.

You're naturally curious and inquisitive. You jump to ask a question when the opportunity arises.

Your friends see you as interesting, insightful, and thought provoking. (But they're not always up for the intense inquisitions that you love!)

You excel in: Higher education

You get along best with: The Comma

Sunday, April 06, 2008

"Another Troll in the Pigpen" & Other Tales of Norwegian Pioneer Women Resolve

It was a daily certainty that early immigrant settlers in the Upper Midwest encountered challenge and hard work. Women were expected to not only raise children and provide shelter and sustenance for their families, but to tend livestock, work in the fields, and sometimes, respond to a crisis.

The Slaaen (Sloan) and Vaterland branches of my mother's Norwegian family first settled in Coon Valley, Wisconsin upon arriving in America in the 1850s. Twenty-five miles long, Coon Valley lies a few miles southeast of La Crosse, Wisconsin. It was originally an area of small, thin woods surrounded by hills and ridges. Settlers from Norway were initially attracted to the area because of its cozy appearance, but also because of the creek which ran through it. Forest fires started a rich growth of grass which turned Coon Valley into a lush feeding ground for many species of wildlife. Norwegian immigrant men were good hunters and adequate protectors of their families, but once in awhile, there was an emergency requiring intervention by their women folk. When the emergency involved protecting precious winter food stores--these pioneer women took it quite personally.

From among the stories about the earliest settlers in Coon Valley, Wisconsin during the mid-19th century are some tales of exceptional female bravery and resolve.


One autumn morning, Gunhild Maurstad started outside to get a piece of pork from the lean-to storage room outside the cabin. As she opened the door to the cabin, she stopped suddenly. She slammed the door shut and turned toward her husband, Johannes, who had just finished lighting his pipe.

"Nei [no], things are going too far now. A big bear is standing in there and rummaging in the pork barrel! Let the dog out!"

Johannes gazed cautiously at the door. Yes, indeed! there stood the brute with his head down in the pork barrel gorging himself with all his might. The dog had also awakened now and ran barking toward the door, but Johannes grasped him by his collar.

"Let the dog out!" shouted Gunhild again.

No, Johannes thought the bear might harm the dog.

"Ja, but think of the pork; we cannot let that troll eat up our winter food." With that, Gunhild took a burning piece of wood, opened the door a little bit, and threw the burning stick at the bear. This was an unexpected attack, and the frightened bear rushed out the door and down the hill. Gunhild stood there quite satisfied and content, looking at her departing enemy; but her happiness did not last long. Just below the house was an enclosure, where a pig had just raised himself on his legs and was smelling around for something to eat for breakfast. The bear tore down the enclosure instantly, grasped the pig with it front paws, and rushed away with it.

"Nei, have you ever seen anything so awful? There goes the bear with the sow, too. Let the dog out, Johannes!"

"Nei!" Johannes feared that the bear would hurt the dog.

"Ja, but get your gun then , and shoot the bear. We cannot lose the sow."

Nei, Johannes was afraid of shooting, for he might kill the sow.

"Ja, ja, but the sow must be saved. Hei, pup, sick 'em! Get the troll!" With that, Gunhild gave the dog an enormous kick in the rear end, so the dog almost pulled Johannes down as he started after the bear.

It took just a moment for the dog to get a good hold of the bear's little tail, and since the bear's tail is a sensitive area, the bear released the pig which ran away howling loudly. The bear jumped and danced wildly while he tried to get a hold of his lively adversary.

"Get your gun now and shoot. Then we will be done with him," shouted Gundhild.

But, nei, Johannes was afraid he might wound the dog.

Finally, the bear became tired of this dancing around and lumbered away up the hillside, pursued by his brave canine adversary.

After Johannes had finished his usual helping of coffee, lefse, and cheese, he went after a neighbor to get help in tracking down the bear. Despite many hours searching, the pair was unsuccessful.

If Gunhild had gone after the bear with her wooden ladle, it is quite possible that she could have returned with a bearskin. These pioneer women were not to be taken lightly when they took charge.

Another example of Norwegian pioneer women pluckiness is the story about Roennoeg Sandbakken's encounter with a bear.


Thor Sandbakken was away from his farm one day, when his wife, Roennoeg, noticed that a strange and big animal has broken into their livestock pen and grabbed their only pig. The pig had to be saved above all else because it represented most of the Sandbakken's winter food stores. Instinctively, Roenneog ran to the woodpile and grabbed a piece of oakroot to hurl at the menacing invader in the pigpen.

Struck in the backbone, the animal was so startled that it dropped the pig. At the same time, Roennoeg hurriedly grabbed a pitchfork and stabbed the attacker in its side. She yelled: "Will you get going, you ugly thing?"

The big animal raised up to a great height on its hind legs, and she saw that it was a bear. It opened its mouth wide enough that it could easily have swallowed a pig whole. Then, the bear gave out a tremendous roar and started for Roennoeg. She let out such a shrill yell that it echoed on all ridges surrounding Coon Valley, and then she took flight. The bear was so frightened by the woman's scream that it took to the woods in the opposite direction.

Everything would have ended happily if the pig had only acted sensibly. Instead of gratefully crawling back into the peace and quiet of the straw pile and sleeping off its fright, the pig became so bewildered that it took off on the heels of the bear and was never seen again...

Finally, there is Helge Gulbrandsen, one of the very first Coon Valley settlers, who saved her livestock from certain death because of her command of folk medicine.


Helge Gulbrandsen was out in the field breaking land when her husband, Ole, came sauntering out to see how the plowing was coming along...

Just then one ox jumped suddenly into the air, and Helge saw a rattlesnake shoot out of the grass and bite the ox on the leg. Helge yelled instantly to Ole, who was watching at a distance, that Ole should run to the barn and get a live hen, an ax, and a sack or a rag. Ole did as Helge said, and Helge grabbed the hen and chopped it into two pieces. Then [she] placed the two parts of the hen on the leg of the ox, and bound it tight with rags made from a sack. Two days later Helge took the binding off. The chicken meat had drawn the poison out of the [ox's leg], and the ox was well again.

Source: Holand, Hjalmer R. Coon Valley: An Historical Account of the Norwegian Congregations in Coon Valley. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1928, pp. 33-35.

Friday, April 04, 2008

A Song for 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.