Tuesday, May 27, 2008

With a Little Help From My... Norwegian Glossary

Finding genealogical treasures in a foreign language you can not read is one of the most frustrating things a researcher encounters. All that hard-won wealth of information within reach, and, argh! You can't understand any of it!

Arranging translations can be equally as frustrating, unless you are fortunate enough to be near a genealogical society that has interest groups with native speakers who are willing to take the time to help. Never underestimate the amount of time and frustration that translation involves, even for an expert. The older the document, the more likely it will contain some archaic language/script, or elements of a localized dialect that are certain to challenge your translator.

Fortunately, for those involved in Norwegian genealogical research, there are many organizations that have provided tools to help. Take a look at the Norwegian glossary of genealogical terms published online by NAHA (Norwegian-American Historical Association). You can print out the list and carry it with you wherever you go to do research. No longer will you assume that the word "barn" in Norwegian has something to do with farm animals.

å ø æ

When does a foreign language glossary come in handy? I find it especially useful when trying to glean tidbits from Norwegian bygdeboker (local histories) obtained through interlibrary loan. It is amazing how much information you can pick out from a foreign language text when you recognize a few choices words in conjunction with the dates given.

Also, keep in mind that some Norwegian language databases are becoming increasingly English-friendly. Look for a button or term to click on, in order to have the page translated for you (this is akin to that EASY button we've all seen on TV). Want an example? Go to the home page of one of my favorite research databases, the Norwegian census: Digitalarkivet, and look at the very top of the gray side bar on the left. See where it says: "English"? Click on it and see what magic occurs.

Another good move for a serious researcher would be to take a class or two in the foreign language of interest. I'm not necessarily talking about quitting your day job and applying to the local university. There are many areas around the country offering low-pressure, low-cost community classes, and language instruction is sometimes offered to the members of various organizations, like Sons of Norway, which also holds language camps for children and youths (kids have ALL the fun...)

In Seattle, we are fortunate enough to have the Scandinavian Language Institute, which offers classes on a quarterly basis. The classes, which meet at various locations once a week, emphasize pronunciation, conversation, and having a good time. Just taking a beginning class in Norwegian had helped me immensely when it comes to understanding the different alphabet and recognizing useful terms in documents. Not only that, but after a basic class, you will no longer turn away shyly the next time someone asks: "Hvordan har du det?"

Monday, May 26, 2008

Bashful Bathers

It looks like the camera was just a little too quick for these modest bathers, catching them before they had the chance to duck all the way into the water. Left to right: Phyllis Johnson (my aunt), Doris Johnson (my mother), and their friend, Lila Rhen, ca. 1940.

This photograph was snapped with a Brownie camera while the girls went wading in Clearwater Lake, near Leonard, Minnesota. Family and friends often had picnics out at the lake while my mother and aunt were living with their grandparents on a local farm. The ladies' makeup was obviously a carry-over from the 1930s. I've never seen my mother with her eyebrows drawn in so heavily before! Her look during the mid-1940s was much softer.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Elmer Strand, Norwegian-American Bachelor

Summer brings to mind the town's old Norwegian bachelor farmers, stolidly harvesting wheat with their antiquated, clattering six-foot combines. The Norwegian bachelors were not impressed by modern 20-footers. Sure, you got done faster, but that just meant waiting longer till it was time to go to bed...

- Garrison Keillor, Radio Humorist
(Lake Wobbegon Days)

In 1965, during the laziest part of July in the San Francisco Bay Area, my mother suggested that Dad drive us all up to Sonoma County in the '57 Ford Ranch Wagon. She wanted to pay a Sunday visit to Elmer Strand, whom she had not seen in quite awhile. I had no idea who Elmer Strand was, but I was always up for a drive to someplace new.

Mom said that Elmer had been a pretty good friend of my grandfather's ever since their younger farming days in Minnesota, and he continued to stay in touch by sending Christmas cards. Grandpa (Ernest Johnson), a long time widower, and Elmer, a dedicated bachelor, even took a sabbatical together. A few years before, they had lived in a trailer on the Oregon coast and fished for a stretch one summer. It was Grandpa's treat to himself after retiring from the Ford Motor Company--a once-in-a-lifetime vacation tucked in between his move from Campbell, California to Salem, Oregon, where his eldest daughter and a few siblings lived.

Elmer Strand stayed in California and accepted a job as a caretaker on a Sonoma County ranch in the Valley of the Moon. The name of that valley, once the home of author Jack London, conjured up all kinds of romantic visions for a 12-year-old like myself. Unlike the lush, fantasy-inspired fern-filled forest that I envisioned, the valley turned out to be mostly rolling plains of dry, yellow grass, and was quite sparse of trees.  The land was spotted with vineyards instead of unicorns.  But, I'm sure that watching a full golden moon rise and set over that thirsty landscape, accompanied by a cricket symphony, would have been very nice indeed--especially for Jack London.

Elmer Strand, Doris Wheeler, and Becky Wheeler, along the main road to the ranch house, Sonoma County, California, July 1965.

Elmer Strand was aging but slim and spry, and as far as I could tell, he was a well-mannered gent who chose his words carefully. He wore a long-sleeved shirt and overalls and was in the habit of standing with a hand in his pocket, or resting it on an nearly non-existent hip. Elmer's trailer was spartan and devoid of many possessions or character, even when compared to my grandfather's bachelorized home, where documents of eventual interest to genealogists (like a confirmation certificate) shared a shelf in the garage alongside the motor oil.

Men like Elmer Strand and my grandfather spent decades without feminine input or interference: life was work and work was life, and an old Norwegian bachelor did not need "stuff" cluttering up his spare time. For recreation, there was always visiting, fishing, hunting, napping, or simply cooking up a big pan of bacon and eggs with hotcakes.

Our visit turned out to be on a very hot day, so Elmer offered Mom, my younger sister, and I some refreshments in his trailer.  Dad was off somewhere talking with the ranch owner.

"I don't have much around these days, but let me see," Elmer said. He had contracted Type II diabetes and was doing his best to eat properly. Though Elmer lived in the trailer, he took his meals up at the main ranch house and did not keep much in his cupboards. He turned to Mom: "I have this drink I mix up for myself sometimes. Would you like to try some of that?"

Mom was too polite to question what was being offered, so she agreed.

Elmer fixed up a big batch of the pale drink in his mixer, then poured it into a tall glass and handed it to Mom. My sister Becky was as hot and bothered as any fidgety six-year-old could be at this point, so she was offered the first drink of cooling liquid. She placed her small hands over Mom's as they steadied the glass together. As soon as my sister took an exploratory sip, her face quickly contorted into a grimace. "Ugh!" Mom offered Becky another chance at a sip, but my sister would have nothing to do with it.  Instead, she did a few little hops and began to whine.

Mom offered the glass to me instead. "She won't drink it, so you have this one. I'll get her something later."

The liquid inside the glass looked like a vanilla milkshake, and I could not imagine what Becky hadn't liked about that. Having patiently waited my turn, I eagerly took a drink.

The stuff almost didn't go down my throat.  It tasted and felt like liquid chalk!  I waited until Elmer was out of view and then timidly tried to give the glass back to Mom.  I whispered in her ear that I just could not drink it.  "Chery, we're not going to be impolite!" she scolded quietly and frowned, refusing to take back the glass.

Judging by the look on her face, I knew that I somehow had to finish the drink--no argument accepted. I steeled my resolve, held my breath, and gulped the whole thing down quickly, but not without feeling a little queasy afterwards. The worst part was that it did not even quench my thirst. The last thing I wanted to do was irritate my elders, but, this was above and beyond the call!

It was Mom's turn when Elmer handed her a glass of her own. She took a small taste and her eyes flew open wide. "Oh!" She set the glass down and reached for a handkerchief from her purse in order to wipe her mouth. She looked at me in sympathy and said, "Oh, Chery... I'm sorry." Then to Elmer: "I'm sorry, I can't drink this."

Elmer took the news very graciously and had halfway expected it, I'm sure.  "It's soy. That's pretty much all I have between meals these days," he said.  Soy?  Wasn't that some mysterious substance used by hippies? Whatever it was, it tasted like raw cement and went down about as well. I put it on my "don't try this at home" mental list.

I think I earned a little extra respect from my mother that day, and perhaps even surprised myself.

And, Elmer? Well, all that soy must have done him some good because he lived another twenty years, to the ripe old age of ninety-five. It was not until years after his death I discovered that Elmer was more than a family friend. His special connection to our family was not known, even by my mother.

In addition to being the only one to get that horrid drink down, I was also the one who rediscovered the family link between Grandpa and his "good friend," Elmer Strand.  Elmer was actually a half first cousin to my grandfather, and they shared the same grandmother, Thibertine Johnson Winje.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Syttende Mai!

Celebrating Norwegian Constitution Day
(Syttende Mai)
May 17th

Hurrah! Today is Norwegian Constitution Day! A good friend of mine surprised me with a photograph of her new manicure in tribute to the special day. (I spy your Viking scroll work inspired ring, Luci.)

Syttende Mai holds special meaning in the hearts of Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans.

What is the significance of Syttende Mai? Norwegians have a proud and independent past, dating from before the time of the Vikings. The country was weakened soon after by civil wars and plagues and fell under the rule of Denmark, followed by Sweden. In 1905, after nearly 100 years of Swedish rule and wars between Norway and Sweden, an overwhelming majority of voters in Norway voted for independence. The country's constitution was drawn many years before independence was regained, and the struggle is still recent in the ancestral memories of Norwegians and those who emigrated from the homeland.

May 17th also marks the coming of true spring in the experience of many Norwegians. My great grandmother, Malla Johnson, always told her brood that the garden must be planted by Syttende Mai. And, the only song she was ever heard humming or singing under her breath was Norway's National Anthem: Ja, vi elsker dette landet (Yes, we love this land).

First verse:

Ja, vi elsker dette landet

som det stiger frem,

furet, værbitt, over vannet,

med du tusen hjem.

Elsker, elsker det og tenker

på vå far og mor

og den saganatt som senker

drømme på vår jord.

og den saganatt som senker

drømme på vår jord.


Yes, we love with fond devotion

This our land that looms

Rugged, storm-scarred o'er the ocean

With her thousand homes.

Love her, in our love recalling

Those who gave us birth.

And old tales which night, in falling,

Brings as dreams to earth.

And old tales which night, in falling,

Brings as dreams to earth.

Ballard, a Scandinavian community within the city limits of Seattle, holds a parade in celebration each May 17th. This Flickr photograph is a sample of what you will see beginning at about 4 p.m. in the streets of Ballard today.

Happy Syttende Mai!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Norway Stamp Honors Emigrants

The Library of Congress American Memory digital collection contains a Norwegian stamp (circa 1975) commemorating the sesquicentennial of Norwegian emigration to America, 1825-1975 (Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection, NDIRS-NDSU, Fargo).: "Utvandringen til Amerika : Norge." The image is based on the John Bakken sod house (Milton, North Dakota), photographed by John McCarthy in about 1895.

In the original image, Marget Bakken stands at the door of the sod house with a wash basin in her hand. John Bakken is in the foreground holding a spade, and the couple's small children are Tilda and Eddie (wearing a dress). A dog is under the window that holds a plant on the outside window ledge. Note the two stovepipes and vegetation on the roof, which was typical of a sod house.

It's a lovely stamp, and I'm happy to see that Norway has honored its connection with American sons and daughters.

Website List for Norwegian Genealogy

I was flitting about the internet universe recently when I came across Bookmarks for Norwegian Genealogy, a list of useful sources compiled by David and Ruth Christ of ICGS (Iowa City Genealogical Society?). Take a look! I'm sure you'll find something new: I did!

Friday, May 02, 2008

A Long Way Downstream: Update

I have relatives out there who Im sure are wondering what the heck is happening with the Johnson/Winje family history I have promised them. Please don't send the possee just yet! The 350-page book is now at the printers; the printing process takes several weeks, but an end is in sight. And, believe me, I am just as anxious to see it completed as anyone who has been patiently waiting.

The introduction to A Long Way Downstream: The Life and Family of Thibertine Johnson Winje, Norwegian-American Pioneer begins:

There is an old Norwegian emigrant prayer that reads: …The ties that bind me to home fire my courage and strengthen my soul. Should all things perish, fleeting as a shooting star, O God, let not the ties break that bind me to the North. Norwegian emigrants had a strong attachment to the land they left behind, and clung to centuries of beloved folklore that resulted from scratching a living out of the unforgiving Nordic landscape. What caused home loving Norwegians, like Baard and Bertina Johnson, to cross an immense ocean, bid goodbye to family members, often forever, and risk their lives and those of loved ones? How did they summon the courage to leave familiarity and family for uncertain gain? Despite their ties to the homeland, the great migration to America during the 19th century is unrivaled in the history of Norway except for the westward sweeps of conquest and exploration during the Viking Age, a heritage treasured by Norwegians.

I can give any number of excuses for the delay, including the worst winter commute on record, fussing with the sale of two properties, my elderly mother moving in, writing seminars and activities on top of working full time, and now a history column, to boot. I have really tried to keep the delay to a minimum, but have failed. But, as I said, an end is in sight, and your copy or copies should be coming your way soon.

It's time for me to move on with other projects, and I do have a few in mind that deal with either family or Pacific Northwest history: pioneers in Coon Valley, WI, miners/photographers in the Cascade Mountains, Scandinavians and their involvement in Seattle's 1909 Alaska Yukon and Pacific Exposition, and even a fictional novel or two.

Now, I just need to get multiple households and storage units merged into one place so I know where everything is, set up a quiet workspace, cut my commute in half, and find that clone who is off hiding again. She's not very good at cooking or organizing, but at least she lends a fair amount of moral support.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Color My Flag

It's time for a little "flag as art" lesson. Who can color the flag of Norway without first peeking at an example?

While collecting family history information, it can be fun to associate flags as symbols of the places our ancestors came from. The Flagspot.net site is a wonderland of worldwide color for your viewing pleasure.

There are even flags for Norwegian fylke (counties), though many of them were adopted in recent decades. Here are the fylke that my ancestors hailed from:

A yellow cross. the arms bent outwards on a white field. According to Norwegian heraldic rules, yellow and white is a prohibited combination. Exceptions are only made where medieval arms are resurrected. In the case of Nord-Trøndelag the historic design is that of St. Olav, who according to the saga carried a white shield with a golden cross at the battle of Stiklestad (traditionally dated to 1030). St. Olav was killed in the battle.

A white cross on a blue field. The design is based on a stone monument erected in memory of a local notability, Erling Skjalgson, who died in 1028 (the stone cross is kept in Stavanger Museum). Adopted 11 January 1974.

A white mogop (Anemone vernalis) on a green field. The designer was Arvid Sveen. The color green was chosen to symbolize forestry and agriculture. Flag adopted 18 May 1989.

Two crossed axes and cross-staff Gules. The axes in the coats are always conected to the axe of St. Olav. Adopted 9 December 1983. This coat of arms was used by Trondheim's archdiocese in the 15th Century.

But, hold on! As if that weren't enough stimulation, each kommune (municipality) has also adopted a shield. Here are some within the fylke of Nord-Trøndelag and the Indre Namdal region. My immigrant great great grandparents, Baard and Thibertine Johnson (Lassemo), came from the Grong municipality.

Top row (left to right): Grong, HØylandet, Lierne.
Bottom row (left to right): Namsskogan, Royrivik, Snaasa.

What official colors and shapes represent the homeland(s) of your ancestors?