Monday, October 20, 2008

Boink! I've Been Tagged

Gads, Becky at Kinexxions tagged me on this about a week ago, and John of TransylvanianDutch, a couple of days later, not to mention Linda of From Axer to Ziegler shortly after that! And, I've just now noticed, thanks to Randy's "Keeping Up With the Taggers - Part 3" post on Genea-Musings. I'm soooo behind!

10 years ago I...

--completed a history degree
--applied to grad school
--got my car totaled in a rear-ender (not my fault!)
--began planning my 1999 "trip of a lifetime" to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Prague
--was busily earning my "mountain woman" status learning how to navigate all kinds of winter road conditions.

5 things on today's "to-do" list

--create a desk space for a new employee
--reinstall some programs on my new hard drive at home
--copy a photo to CD for someone to use in publication
--mail my voting ballot (uh-uh, it's for me to know and you to find out!)
--go to bed a little early (yeah, right)

5 snacks I enjoy

--ice cream (esp. chocolate & peanut butter)
--Norwegian goat cheese and gluten-free crackers
--almonds or peanuts
--apples, apples, apples
--Peanut M&Ms

5 places I have lived

--Richmond/El Cerrito, California (they're right next to each other)
--Ft. Lawton, Oklahoma (I was an Okie for six months)
--Everett/Lynnwood Washington
--Seattle, Washington
--Snoqualmie Pass, Washington

5 jobs I have had

--hotel switchboard operator, San Francisco
--Library technician for a Seattle law firm
--Circulation/Evening technician for the UW Libraries
--Supervisor I for the UW Libraries
--Supervisor II for the UW Libraries

Donna of What's Past is Prologue and Becky added a couple of categories, and since I don't want to drop the ball, I might as well answer those, too.

5 places I've been that I want to return to

--the old family homesteads in Chippewa County, Minnesota
--Engadine Valley, Switzerland
--the Alps
--Rhine River area, Germany
--Prague, oh... Prague!

5 places I've never been to that I want to explore

--Coon Valley, Wisconsin
--anywhere in Norway
--the Irish coast on the North Sea

I'm supposed to tag five more people. Let's see if I can get to them before someone else does:

Taneya at Taneya's Genealogy Blog
Colleen at Oracle of OMcHody
Lee at I Seek Dead People
Amy at Amy's Genealogy, Etc.
Lisa at Small-Leaved Shamrock

Play to win (friends and influence people!)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Spooked by Swensson

Each autumn after an annual membership drive, the Chippewa County Historical Society of Minnesota holds a special event, the "Enchanted Evening at the Swensson Farm."

"To say that these evenings are truly enchanted is an understatement!" touts the Society in its October 2008 newsletter. "Perhaps the best barometer of success is when your guests, volunteers and staff all equally enjoy the evening." This year, the Minnesota Sesquicentennial was celebrated with the lucky winners of a drawing from among new Society members. The guests were treated to dinner at the historic Swensson farmhouse amidst the atmosphere of original pioneer furnishings, and catered by a local restaurant. The meal included "Settler's Soup," "Root Cellar Salad," and "Pioneer Pot Roast." Of course, everyone anxiously awaited the fourth and final course: "Thresher's Pie" (lemon pie).

The Swensson Farm, Chippewa County, Minnesota. Now a museum, the house is on the National Register of Historic Places. USGenWeb: Chippewa Area Pictures.

The 17-acre Swensson Farm is the jewel in the crown of the Chippewa County Historical Society. Located six miles east of Montevideo, Minnesota on Highway 7, then five miles south on County Road 6, it is open to visitors from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend each year. The farm happens to be located quite close to the homesteads of many of my ancestors. My great grandmother, Malla Larson Johnson, grew up in a house just across the road from the Swensson Farm, and her sister-in-law, Julia Johnson Larson, lived near the farm most of her life.

But, is the farm truly "enchanted"? Or, is it... haunted?

Julia Johnson Larson (1864-1949), used to say that neighborhood children were terrified of walking past the looming Italianate/Georgian structure as soon as it was built, in 1901. Could it have had something to do with the spooky ambience created by its mansion-like architecture when compared to nearby farm houses? Or, perhaps it had to do with the small family cemetery at the edge the property, not to mention the large, public cemetery operated by Saron Lutheran Church just across the road?

For the most part, it probably had to do with the stories that circulated among timid neighborhood children about the severe-faced Olof Swensson (1843- 1923) the owner of the house. Swensson was a builder, writer, and unsuccessful candidate for Minnesota governor. He was also a fervent Lutheran, and conducted weekly religious services in the large room upstairs. His sermons, in Norwegian, have been preserved.

Even with the accomplishments of the elder Swensson, the house had an undeniable eerieness about it, and many would have testified in years past that it was, indeed, haunted. Did Swensson really build a secret tunnel leading from the house to the family burial plot? What about the flickering lights seen in the large windows at night by neighbors when no one was home? And, what is the story behind the cross on the basement wall, allegedly painted in blood, which appeared just after the local historical society took possession of the property in 1967?

According to Julia Johnson Larson, Swensson continued to hold church services in the upper floor of the building long after neighbors ceased to attend. There were open benches, placed along the walls of a large room upstairs, which served as pews for the folks who came to hear Swensson speak in those early years. Later, when no one came anymore, Swensson created his own congregation--out of rocks. He spaced them carefully on all of the benches surrounding the large, stark room. Pacing dramatically up and down the middle of the floor, he preached to his "stone-faced" and silently appreciative audience until he had his oratory fill.

The Chippewa County Historical Society continues to hold regular festivities on the farm property, such as the "Enchanted Dinner," and the annual Horse Power Event, held the second Saturday in September. The 22-room house, the grist mill, and curiosities such as the display of original wood forms for the family cemetery tombstones, continue to attract many visitors to the historic Swensson farm each year.

To judge for yourself whether or not the old Swensson place is truly haunted, see:

"Swenson Museum in Book on State Haunted Sites" (Montevideo-American News), and
Minnesota Road Guide to Haunted Locations, by Chad Lewis

Monday, October 13, 2008

Just Call Me "Anna"

Whenever I look through Norwegian genealogy and census records that are filled with many of the same names (Karen, Maren, Berit, and Kirsten, to name a few), I've had to wonder how one of my great great grandmothers acquired the unusual name of "Thibertine" (pronounced : Tibb-air-TEEN-eh).


According to Greek and ancient world mythology, "Tibertine" was a Sibyl (prophetess)--identified by her habit of wearing animal skins and carrying a bag of rocks. Well, every Sibyl had her own fashion sense, you understand. And, in Rome, attesting to the Roman fondness for all things Greek, there is the Tibertine Way, as well as the River Tiber. But, how did the name come to be used in sub-arctic Norway?

My great great grandmother, Thibertine Olsdatter Lassemo was born in 1841 in northern Norway: Grong Parish, Nord-Troendelag. News traveled more slowly in the nineteenth century than now, to be certain, but it was most likely the mid-century revival of romanticism and interest in classic literature that was responsible.

According to John I Borgos, who maintains the Slekt & historie website, Norwegian first names have seen a lot of change over time.

Many [Norwegian] names are derived from biblical originals, they are of course much changed to suit the Norwegian tongue. Other names have Nordic origins. Since many of the old Nordic names have meanings related to pre-Christian beliefs, the priests tried to avoid the use of the most "heathen" names, at least before 1850. After that these old names gained new popularity as a result of a strong national cultural movement, and they climbed very high in the statistics after 1900.

On his website, Borgos has created a Top 25 table of Norwegian girls and boys names from the 1700s through the 1900s. Heading the girls' list for the 1800s are: Anna/Anne/Ane, Petra, Johanna/e, Ellen/Elen, and Hanna. Topping the lists for both the 1700s and the 1900s is (you guessed it): Anna/Anne/Ane. It isn't so far fetched, then, that I also have great great grandmothers who are named (double bonus points here): "Anna," and also a "Karen," and a "Kjersten" too!

"Thibertine" is not an old Nordic name, and I doubt it would be classified among the heathen types. You do have to give her mother, Maren, an A+ for innovation. She found a lovely, but rarely used name for her third daughter, and that choice influenced at least a couple of local expectant mothers.

I conducted searches in Digitalkarkivet (the Norwegian census online) for 1801, 1865, 1875 and 1900, and verified that Grandma's name was rather unique in nineteenth century Norway. There were only three uses of the name "Tibertine" (this spelling) found in the early censuses, and my ancestor was among them. The other two were: Tibertine Olsdatter (age 6 in 1865), and Tibertine Albrigtsdatter (age 7 in 1865), both born in Grong, Nord-Troendelag like my great great grandmother. The 1900 census records the younger (unrelated) Tibertine Olsdatter all grown up at the age of 41.

And, what happened to my grandmother's ancient and lyrical name once she emigrated to America? Why, it was shortened, of course! From then on, she was commonly known as "Bertina."

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Slang from the Great Depression

An Imaginary Trip to Hobohemia


The bindle stiff looked around cautiously as he exited the alley. He’d been carrying the banner and was long weary of going by hand. Distracted by a high ball in the distance, he nearly jumped out of his skin as a bone polisher hackled on the front porch of a nearby house. “Shut your bazoo!” he hissed at the ragged creature, shifting his turkey in order to raise his roll of California blankets in a threatening gesture.

He was eager to leave this hungry town and go with the birds. Eating snowballs was not his style. Though he was glad for the new front he’d gotten at the sallie, he had no intention of sticking around and turning into a mission stiff. His blistered feet found the uneven walkway just as a group of Lizzie tramps rolled by and slowed down to look him over. “Hey, Bud... where’s the main stem?” one shouted. “Down yonder,” the bindle stiff nodded toward the west and noticed a couple of road sisters coughing behind handkerchiefs in the back. As he made a move to get back on his way, he stopped suddenly and turned. “Mind them yeggs!” he added with a touch of concern in his voice, while mindlessly scratching his crums.

His thoughts turned next to his stomach, and he jingled the thin ones in his ragged pocket. Maybe he would use the last of them on a little punk and gut before flipping a rattler down at the yard. It sure had been a long time since he’d seen a nickel note

Although I wouldn't recommend writing about your ancestors in exactly this fashion, it's fairly easy to add color to your family history by using slang from the appropriate era. In this case, I used an excessive number of "hobo-isms" to tell a story.

I found a great little website explaining and illustrating
Depression era slang, a project created at the University of Virginia. Check it out: "Hit the books, schlepper, there's a lot of slanging to be done!"

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Grampa was a Bootlegger?

In September 2005, Cousin Duane was driving two of my first cousins and me around Leonard, Minnesota to see the old family sites. We stopped at the farm once owned by our great grandparents, Ole M. and Malla Johnson, from 1917-1948. After knocking on the door and getting no answer, we could not resist the urge to peak in windows and walk the grounds a bit before getting back into the car. Ole had built that farmhouse with his own hands, and though time and lack of attention had taken its toll, that house still stood straight and proud, aware of its solid heritage. The voices and Norwegian brogues of our mothers and their own cousins and playmates who sledded, rolled, and scooted in our footsteps at an earlier time, echoed in our minds.

Duane is a generation older, and so, of course, we had been prodding him with many questions about our family history. As Duane pulled the car out of the driveway and proceeded down the road toward Grampa's farm, the place where our mothers were born, he mentioned that our grandfather used to keep a still out in the woods for a short time.

A still? Cousins Cheryl and Craig and I quickly looked back and forth at each other.

"Did Grampa ever tell you about that?" I directed my question at Craig, knowing that Grampa shared far more stories with his grandsons than his granddaughters (it had to do with the male bonding thing).

"Not about that," Craig said, with subdued amazement. A history teacher turned counselor, he was always ready for a good yarn.

During the Prohibition years of the 1920s, it was difficult for new, solitary farmers to make any profit. Clearwater County was not the only area in Minnesota affected, let alone the nation. It was actually a Minnesota congressman, Andrew Volstead from Granite Falls, who came up with the idea of making alcohol sales illegal, and thus promoted the start of Prohibition with a bill he sponsored. Ironically, Granite Falls, Minnesota was also the birthplace of my grandfather.

Grampa became a young widower in 1921. His two little girls (my mother and aunt), were sent to live with their paternal grandparents, Ole and Malla Johnson, so that Grampa could give all of his attention to farming and make a go of it. Proud and stubborn, Grampa would never have given in and sold his farm only to work on someone else's--it would have negated the reason his grandparents emigrated from Norway to America in the first place. But flax, alfalfa, potatoes, and corn yielded little cash then, and many farms continued to struggle for years to come. Some locals saw an opportunity with the arrival of Prohibition and tried their turn at making illicit liquor, whether they drank it themselves, or not.

Grampa kept his still well hidden in the woods behind his farm. Duane said that a bear damaged it once. Grampa fixed the damage, but he gave up on the idea of making liquor altogether after one of his brothers blew up the still.

"Blew it up?" we all chimed in unison.

It was not meant as an act of kindness to keep Grampa on the straight and narrow. As it turned out, Grampa had refused a brother's request to take part in the bootlegging. Feeling vengeful or playfully mean, or both, the brother sneaked back to the still when Grampa was away, along with a cousin or friend, and some dynamite: WHAM! No more still.

"What happened after that?" we asked Duane, our ears straining like tots listening to a ghost story around a campfire.

As kids, my cousins and I never had an inkling of such an event, in spite of all the hours spent with Grampa and our great uncles and aunts. Evidently, some family lore was quickly squelched, especially when repeating it meant a revival of some festering old wound. Cousin Craig said he could always tell there was a certain tension between Grampa and one of his brothers, in particular, but he was never sure what it was all about.

It was a good thing the still was done in, however suddenly, because Duane mentioned that the authorities had already taken steps to control the widespread bootlegging problem within the district. A few bachelor farmers had been arrested and sent to jail for breaking federal law. The U. S. Marshal had not planned to come after Grampa or certain others right away because they had families to feed, so they chose instead to make an example of a few select others. So, Grampa's hidden still was not such a secret, after all, especially to those who mattered.

I will never hear Grampa's side of the story, or his brother's, if either of them ever would have talked about it. My guess is that they would have avoided it, scoffing and laughing off any inquiry, like soldiers coming home from the war who wanted nothing more than to forget certain parts of the past. But, anyone can understand the frustrations of a farmer living in fear of his property being repossessed, or worrying about being deemed a failure in the eyes of his family and neighbors. Grampa never failed to help neighbors in need, and frequently let neighbor kids ride to town with him on the back of his dray whenever he headed to the bank or to get supplies. He also proved tolerant whenever young nephews successfully raided his cookie jar down to the last crumb, or showed up on an almost daily basis to hang out at Uncle Ernest Johnson's because they could ride horses bareback without the disapproving clucks of female relatives.

It is clear that bootlegging of illegal liquor during the 1920s was carried out not just by gangsters sporting machine guns. There were many everyday folks, including normally law abiding Norwegian-American farmers like my grandfather, who out of necessity and a unique brand of assertiveness (pioneering spirit, if you will), took part in creating illegal supplies for an ever-thirsty demand.