A Long Way Downstream: the Life and Family of Thibertine Johnson Winje, Norwegian-American Pioneer combines facts and family lore with hundreds of original photographs and heavily researched historical details. After coming of age and marrying for the first time in rural Nord-Trøndelag, my great-great-grandmother, Thibertine (Bertina) Johnson Winje (1841-1930) became a part of the tide of emigrants who departed Norway for improved circumstances in the United States during the mid-19th century. All in life is a risk, but it was extremely heightened for these America-travelers who chanced everything by crossing the ocean to build an intimate relationship with the plow in a foreign land. Over 140 years after Bertina took that initial step from her homeland, I found myself on a quest to understand the drive and emotions behind the life-altering decisions she and my other ancestors made.
Initially, I planned to focus on my great-grandparents, Ole Martin and Malla Johnson, as the subjects of this book. But, as I started to study various branches of their family, I found there was so much to learn, not only about the Johnsons, but also about the Winjes, the Larsons, the Strands, and more. Though I was tempted in every direction, Ole Johnson’s mother, Bertina, quickly became the focus of my research. She was obviously the keystone, since everyone else of interest happened to be a husband, in-law, or descendant of hers. Bertina Johnson Winje experienced many ways of living in the varied landscapes of her of 89 years, and I became fascinated with her trials from my comparatively pampered 21th century experience. Every family detail I gleaned brought me closer to knowing her personally, even though she died over 20 years before I was born.
In September 2004, I made my first visit to the graves of Bertina Johnson Winje and some of her immediate family at Scandia Cemetery in Duluth , Minnesota. On a breezy and sunny day with the glimmer of Lake Superior at my shoulder, I found myself physically as close as I would ever be to them. I tried to take in the scene through Bertina’s eyes as it appeared in both 1888 and 1893, years when she and her second husband, Eric L. Winje, buried three of their children on that green and lush, storm-slashed bluff above the Big Water. This out-of-self experience left me deeply touched, humbled, and honored to be able to tell Bertina’s story, and that of her family—a story of courage, hope, acceptance, and most of all, perseverance.
My research began in earnest in two ways: first, a letter of questions written to an older cousin who, I was told, knew some details about our family history, and second, the serendipitous discovery of online genealogical sources. My desire to know more was also sparked by attendance at a local Scandinavian Yulefest one November. As a girl, I was always interested in the stories my mother told me about her childhood on a Minnesota farm, but it took the right timing, certain acquired skills, and a catalyst moment or two before I could accept full responsibility for gathering the information I sought.
I had to begin with the search for basic information, such as finding the original Norwegian name of my immigrant great grandfather, Ole M. Johnson, who was Bertina’s eldest child—a detail not even my mother knew. It did not take very long for my searching to gain momentum, and I was soon collecting data, interviewing, requesting biographical information from relatives, and looking for original sources. Additionally, I joined historical and genealogical societies, including the Clearwater County Historical Society, and the Chippewa County Historical Society, both of Minnesota.
It takes the efforts of many for a family history to be truly reflective of its subjects. This book is more than just lists of vital statistics because of the interest and cooperation of numerous family members and friends. I especially want to thank my mother, Doris Johnson Wheeler, for sharing her wealth of memories, her love of history and times past, and for caring enough to treasure and save every photo and memento handed down from her parents, aunts, and uncles. Her collection of photographs provided me with wonderfully unique and irreplaceable material. She must have always known that, someday, her daughter would find something to do with it all.
My great appreciation certainly goes to my husband, John Kinnick. He supported my writing every step of the way, and graciously tolerated my absence while doing research and taking classes. He was also a tremendous help in arranging the repair of the Winje family monument in Scandia at Duluth, Minnesota.
I could not possibly have taken on this project without the help of many cousins who willingly shared and trusted me with family information, photographs, and artifacts, offered monetary assistance, and gave me a warm welcome when I came knocking with questions and requests, whether by letter, e-mail, or in person. I owe much gratitude to: Ardys Bjerke, Gloria P. Conrad, James and Lynette Cook, Dennis and Marge Johnson, Duane and Betty Johnson, Elwood and Ardell Johnson, Dorothy J. Joseph, Deloris Kosbau, Ewen and Zelda McClellan, and Lyle L. Strand, all of Minnesota; Oluf and Celestine Omlid of Alaska; Marjorie Skrukrud of California; Larry Gilmore of New York; and Cheryl Nibler of Oregon. I also want to thank Winje family members who reside in British Columbia, Canada: Roy and Karna Franche, Albert and Bonnie Winje, Ken and Aloria Moore, Eric and Aline Winje, and their families.
Karna Winje Franche was extremely enthusiastic about this project, but she passed away before it came to fruition. Karna was a main contributor of information about the Winje ancestry, and I shall always feel saddened that I could not place a copy of this book into her hands. I know that in spirit, however, she already knew each and every story and description that made its way to the printed page.
Special thanks to Lorraine McConaghy, historian, and Sarah Thorson Little, genealogist, for their ideas and guidance on the rough draft of this project. Both were instrumental to my research as instructors with the Genealogy and Family History Certificate Program through University of Washington Extension in Seattle. I also participated in writing seminars led by Dr. McConaghy through the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle. The seminars proved to be an unparalleled growth experience, which led to the publication of another book, co-authored by my husband: Snoqualmie Pass, through Arcadia Publishing, released in October 2007. All of these experiences have enabled me to make valuable connections with other writers.
I am grateful to Astri Wessel of Norway, whose ancestors hailed from Hemne, Sør Trøndelag, Norway, for granting me permission to publish an English translation of her father’s article, “En Utvandrerfamilie fra Vinjeøra I 1869.” She also provided copies of letters the Winjes sent to members of her family in Norway from 1869 through the 1890s. And, without the dedicated translation assistance of Ed Egerdahl, of the Scandinavian Language Institute in Ballard (Seattle), Washington, I would never have had access to much of the valuable information contained in the letters. The Winje letters, written in an old Sør Trøndelag dialect, were not easy to translate. Tusen takk to both Astri and Ed for providing assistance.
I want to acknowledge the many volunteers, genealogists, and historians based in Minnesota, whose dedication to research and simple kindness benefited me from a distance. I especially want to thank Joyce Sundrum of Golden Valley, Minnesota, who looked through original records of Saron Lutheran Church in Chippewa County for information pertaining to my family. There were still others, including "Twiggy" of Duluth, who did this stranger a good turn—greatly appreciated favors I would return in kind if I could.
Thanks also to my good friends, Linda Rae Palmer, for cleaning up the scratched tintype photograph of Hattie Winje, and Stephanie Wright for producing good quality pdf files using her skill and better software than I could manage on my own.
As a result of my visit to the Winje plot in Duluth, I became motivated to coordinate the repair and maintenance of some family monuments in need. In August 2006, family donations allowed the final engraving of Emma T. Winje’s year of death on her marker at Scandia Cemetery. Emma can rest in peace now that her family has completed this task.
The oldest Winje monument at Scandia Cemetery needed critical repair soon after my visit in 2004. While in Duluth, I took photographs of the five-foot 1888 granite monument that serves as a marker for the Winje family plot. Though crowded by invasive tree roots and leaning precariously, the monument itself was in surprisingly good condition. It marked the graves of Hattie and Annie Winje, who died from diphtheria while very young, and also of their brother, Louis Winje, who drowned in 1893. At some point during the winter or spring of 2006, the monument was either pushed over or tumbled in sections to the ground from the strain of gravity. Gloria Conrad, a descendant of Regina Winje Strand, sent a letter and photograph alerting me to the sad condition of this historic marker.
In September 2006, the Winje monument received a new platform, and the sections, which were all present and accounted for, were resealed. I am extremely grateful for the contributions enabling this repair to take place, and also thank those who eagerly supported the project in thoughts and good wishes. Special recognition goes to: Gloria P. Conrad, James and Lynette Cook, Karna Winje Franche, Duane T. and Betty Johnson, Dennis W. and Marge Johnson, Elwood and Ardell Johnson, James D. Johnson, Dorothy J. Joseph, John Kinnick, Deloris Kosbau, Aloria Winje Moore, Cheryl R. Nibler, and Doris J. Wheeler.
As many of us realize, with the passage of time comes the unexpected. The past year presented quite a few challenges to my immediate family, including major surgery for my husband, the renovation and planned sale of our home, and the death of my only aunt, Phyllis Johnson Rice, on November 7, 2007. Then, just days before the Thanksgiving holiday, my sister’s house burned, and she and our mother, Doris, were displaced. This is an example of how quickly things can turn, and how easily family history can be lost through devastation, like fire. Fortunately, most of the family photographs and memorabilia were shared previously during the research stage of this book, and I am extremely thankful for that, as well as for everyone’s safety.
It is my hope that this family history will be a source of inspiration for generations to come, and that the Norwegian-born traditions (and lefse!) of our ancestors will be celebrated and carried into the future. Personally, I have gained something precious, apart from the satisfying process of research and sleuthing out fact from fiction. Bertina Johnson Winje, and everyone in her immediate family, will forever be a part of me, pointing the way north.
Copyright © 2008 by Chery Kinnick