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.


Janice said...

I love these stories! As they contain at least partial truths of probably what really happened, they provide us with a snapshot of the early lives of the pioneers.

Thanks for sharing them!


Chery Kinnick said...


You're welcome! I wish I could track down a few more...