Saturday, March 21, 2009

Faces from the Past

A beautiful child is timeless...

Laura Basgaard (1884-1982)
The seventh of nine children, Laura was born in Polk County, Minnesota to Norwegian immigrants Ole S. Basgaard and Severine (Larson). Her mother, Severine Theresa, was the eldest sibling of my great grandmother, Malla (Larson) Johnson. As an adult, Laura became the wife of Albert C. Corliss, a street car conductor in Fargo, North Dakota.

Laura Corliss. Social Security Death Index: 502-26-3501; Issue State: North Dakota;Issue Date: Before 1951.

Warren UpHam. Compendium of history and biography of Polk County, Minnesota [Minneapolis: W.H. Bingham & Co.], 1916, p.340.

Image: Emma, Hilda, and Laura Basgaard. Portion of a cabinet card, ca. early 1890s.Photograph is part of a Victorian-era photograph album privately held by the family of Ole M. and Malla Johnson of Leonard, Clearwater County, Minnesota.

Passport Applications: Eyes Into the Past

I paid another visit to recently to "re-search" some individuals, and ended up striking gold. Since the last time I went hunting there, an entry had been made for Eric L. Winje under the "U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925" category. The family history has already been written and has gone to press, but it is never too late to satisfy one's curiosity, plus, the belated information can always be saved for another project... or, just for a rainy day.

Eric Larsen Winje was my great great grandmother's (Thibertine "Bertina" Johnson Winje's) second husband; the couple had eight children together between 1872-1885. It was shortly after this portrait sitting that Winje made a trip back to Norway to visit his home town of Vinjeoera in Hemne.

The Eric L. Winje family in Duluth, Minnesota, 1888. Left to right: Edward (in front), Louis, Eric, Regina, Emma, and Bertina (Eric's wife). This photograph was likely taken just after the deaths of the two youngest children, Hattie and Annie. Lena, another child, is not present in the family portrait and may have been ill at the time.

Eric and Bertina Winje had lost an infant daughter (Emma M.) to diphtheria on the Chippewa prairie in 1878, followed by their two youngest and red-headed daughters, Hattie Christine and Annie Jorgene, who also succumbed to the ravages of the disease during the spring of 1888. In 1893, their eldest son, Louis Peter, was drowned during a shipwreck in Duluth Harbor to which, tragically, his father was a witness. Within a couple of years after his son's death, Eric Winje decided that he needed a vacation far and away from the familiar cityscape of Duluth, Minnesota, where he worked as an attorney. Perhaps a visit to the old country was just what he needed to overcome some of his grief and put a sense of balance back into his life again.

Initially, I did not know exactly when Eric Winje made the trip back to Norway, and if his wife or any of the children accompanied him. There was mention of the trip made by Markus Wessel in an article about Winje, his parents and brother, and their emigration to the United States from Vinjeoera, Soer-Troendelag: "En Utvandrerfamilie fra VinjeØra i 1869." I found the answers to these questions, and more, within the passport application. According to the document, which was submitted on April 10, 1885, Winje declined to include his wife or any of his children in the application (this is the part that is scratched out following his name, near the top of the document).

Early passport applications contain a wealth of information, including birth statistics, date of emigration, name of sailing vessel, length of residence within the U.S., and date of naturalization, as well as the occupation, address, and signature of the individual.

From the document, I am able to surmise that Winje made his visit back to Hemne, Soer Troendelag, Norway during the summer of 1895, but I can also visualize him more clearly as a 44 year-old man of 5'11" in height, with brown hair, an "ordinary" nose, gray eyes, and a retreating forehead--also possessing a smallish mouth he preferred to keep covered by a full beard, and a mostly light complexion that was colored by ruddy or flushed cheeks.

Eric L. Winje: I'm glad to know you better, and it is all because you decided to take that vacation in Norway, to see old friends and recuperate from difficult trials in the new world. I hope it helped...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wordless Wednesday

Hannah Parr
An early Norwegian emigrant ship

Sorry, I just can't do this one completely wordless...

The Hannah Parr is the ship that my Great Great Grandfather, Gulbran Olsen Berge, sailed on from Chrisitiania (Oslo), Norway to Quebec in North America during the spring of 1868. It is perhaps the most documented of these early sailing voyages because of a severe storm encountered at sea, after which the ship and all aboard, some 400 emigrants, were waylaid in Limerick, Ireland for lengthy repairs. It's quite a story!

See a gallery of Hannah Parr 1868 voyage images, have a look at my ancestor's sea voyage diary and others, or read the background essay about the voyage at Norway of the best websites for Norwegian genealogical research.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Dirty Thirties: No Easy Street, Part III

A Hand Up, Not a Hand-Out

Ernest Johnson, my grandfather, was unable to eek out a living in the 1930s solely by raising crops on his small farm in rural Leonard, Minnesota. One of many places he out-sourced his physical labor was at the Hoover Dam construction site on the Arizona/Nevada border, about 35 miles southeast of Las Vegas. My mother does not remember exactly how long her father was away from home while working at the site, but it seemed a long time to a girl in her early teens. In any case, the employment probably extended for a period of six months up to a year, somewhere between 1931-1935.

Grampa was not a large man, perhaps standing about 5'5" or so, but like others of his generation and before, he could work extremely hard. I still have one of the shirts that he was fond of wearing: a sturdy button-down wool flannel in a red and gray plaid. When he outgrew it by a few spare pounds in his elder years, he gave it to my mother. She wore it outside while gardening for quite awhile after that and then passed it down to me. I am only 5'1" but I have never really been able to wear that shirt, in a man's small size. It rests, lovingly folded, among other treasured items in my cedar chest.

I remember sitting on Grampa's lap as a child, but being very young, I had no sense of how he compared to others back then. He was just "Grampa"--my only grandfather--with an interesting accent and a crinkly smile. He sometimes smelled of pipe tobacco or bacon, and I never knew him to go anywhere without a hat or cap. I always understood that underneath that shy smile and spare, straight talk there was an unshakeable fortitude... a fierceness even, that I'll liken to a pioneer spirit. I felt safe whenever he was near. Grampa loved a good laugh, but he had no tolerance for utter foolishness. I was more than okay with that since since I was a rather subdued child to begin with, but I really only wanted to please him, or any of my elders, for that matter.

I wish I knew something specific about the work my grandfather did on Hoover Dam, which was renamed Boulder Dam in May 1933. The family just always knew that Grampa spent a fair amount of time working on "that dam with the two names." To be certain, it was some variety of sweaty, back-breaking labor under the heat of the desert sun: there was no escaping it in one of the hottest and dryest regions of the United States.

A vintage postcard.

Work on Boulder City began in December 1930. The original plan called for completion of the town before work on the dam began, but the construction schedule for the dam was accelerated, and the town was not ready when the first dam workers arrived at the site in early 1931. During the first summer of construction, workers were housed in temporary camps while work on the town progressed... [1]

It is likely that Ernest Johnson arrived in Boulder City by train and lived in a company dormitory. Reporting to work each day, he had to stop at security check point and present an employee card. All those entering the work site were expected to obey the posted regulations, which included not bringing "intoxicating liquors, narcotics, explosives, or firearms..." onto the site. Many employees rode in large groups on the large motor lorry ("Big Bertha"). [2]
The road from Boulder City to the canyon rim, about seven miles, was constructed for the Government by the General Construction Company. Designed to transport men and equipment to and from the dam site, these roads later formed a link in the main highway between Las Vegas and Kingman, Arizona. [3]

The U. S. Bureau of Reclamation posted signs along the trecherous canyon rim:

Men Are Working--

Please Refrain From Rolling or Throwing Rocks [4]

To accommodate the workers and their families at Boulder City, Six Companies constructed housing for both single and married employees, a fully stocked department store, a post-office, laundry, recreation hall, school, and hospital. Single employees at Boulder City were housed in eight 171-man dormitories, and one 53-man dormitory. The bunkhouses contained water coolers, toilets, and one shower for every 13 men. For $1.60 per day, workers received a private room with a bed, mattress, pillow, bedding, a chair, meals, and transportation to and from the construction site. In addition to the dormitories at Boulder City, Six Companies constructed six dormitories and a 400 man mess hall at Cape Horn, a bend in the river downstream from the dam site. [5]

The concrete arch-gravity Hoover/Boulder Dam was the world's largest electric-power generating station and largest concrete structure when it was completed in 1935. For images of the construction, visit the Bureau of Reclamation Hoover Dam website.

When Ernest Johnson ended his stretch of employment at the site, he remembered his daughters before heading back home to Minnesota with his earnings. At a local store, perhaps in Las Vegas, he purchased a purse and a pearl necklace for each of them. These were very special presents for the girls, particularly during the Depression era, although they never received their necklaces. Someone stole the pearls from among Ernest's belongings before he left the dormitory. Strangely enough, the purses were left behind--unlawful greed mixed with a twinge of guilt on the part of the thief? Or, perhaps the purses were simply not as portable as the jewelry. Grampa, being a practical man, had allowed a certain amount of money for presents, and when the necklaces were gone... well, they were gone. The thief was lucky to have gotten away undetected, because Grampa could be hot-tempered if the need arose, and he was not afraid to defend himself. Although my mother and aunt were disappointed over the loss of the necklaces, they did appreciate their father's thoughtfulness, and they treasured their purses all the more. My mother still has hers to this day: a hand-carved leather shoulder bag with a metal clasp.

While back on his farm in Leonard, Minnesota, Ernest Johnson used some of his WPA wages to buy new seed, after which he spent a few years successfully raising alfalfa, flax and clover to sell for feed. He found it increasingly difficult to farm due to a physical incapacity, however. Years before, a horse had stepped on his ankle, and arthritis had slowly set in.

Ernest Johnson with his dog, Pee Wee, near Leonard, Minnesota in 1941.  The photo was taken
 a few years before he sold his farm and moved to Richmond, California.

In preparation for his retirement years, Ernest Johnson sold his farm at age 56 and moved to Richmond, California along the Pacific coast. He went to work as a custodian for the Ford Motor Company in 1945, first living in a boarding house due to a housing shortage, and then renting a room atop a water tower. Other family members, his two daughters included, had already made the move out west from Minnesota, since California was the land of new opportunity to midwesterners after the heavy industrialization experienced during World War II.

As with many others during the Depression era, the WPA wages from the Hoover/Boulder Dam reconstruction project and others gave my grandfather the means to support himself until he was ready to make the transition from farming to a different way of life. It was not a hand-out, but a "hand up." Thus, those who were willing to work hard and carefully use whatever wages could be earned, were able to turn the "Dirty Thirties" to their advantage, in spite of difficult times, as did my grandfather.

[1, 3, 5] The Boulder Canyon Project: Hoover Dam, by Wm. Joe Simonds
[2, 4] The Boulder Canyon Project, AKA Hoover Dam

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Dirty Thirties: No Easy Street, Part II

How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?

My grandfather's family was, almost unamiously, stubborn and proud: not so proud that they would not help one another, but proud enough that they would never have accepted outright charity. When Franklin Roosevelt's legislation resulted in the Social Security Administration and unemployment insurance began in 1935, it would have been a "foreign" idea to my Norwegian-American relations. I'm sure they eventually got used to the idea, but if there was a way to survive, unemployed, and not burden anyone but close family, they would have certainly have preferred that to being "on the dole."[1]

President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939) officially began with the passage of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. It served as a continuation of relief programs similar to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) started in 1932 by Herbert Hoover and the U.S. Congress. Both programs were meant to provide the means for many out-of-work individuals to bring home a wage and put food on the table, though the WPA--part of FDR's New Deal--would be much more succesful.

Even before the RFC or WPA, a large scale project came into being in the midwest that provided over 20,000 with temporary work at the beginning of the Depression era. My grandfather, Ernest Johnson, was one of the lucky hopefuls who were not turned away for the building of the Bagnell Dam in central Missouri. The trip out from Minnesota was neither too far nor too ardous when the promise of months of wages were at stake during the 1930s.

I do not know exactly how long Grampa worked at the site, or even what type of work he did, but the construction of Bagnell Dam was begun during the later half of 1929 and completed in 1931. The following images are from 1931 postcards that my grandfather brought home to Leonard, Minnesota to give to my mother and aunt as keepsakes.

Bagnell Dam, Missouri, in 1931 (Postcard #1)

Bagnell Dam, Missouri, 1931 (Postcard #2)
Records show more than 20,000 people worked on the project at one time or another. Although there were some steam shovels and other powered equipment, most labor was done by hand. Pay rates for construction workers were as low as 35 cents an hour. But during the Depression era, when a person could be hired for farm work for 50 cents a day, workers were glad to make the wage.
The project was truly massive. Nearly 60,000 acres of land had to be acquired, and about 30,000 acres cleared of trees and brush. One million cubic yards of earth and rock had to be moved. Enough concrete was poured to build an 18-foot-wide highway from St. Louis to Topeka, Kansas. Enough carloads of material were used in the dam to fill a freight train stretching from St. Louis to Tulsa, Oklahoma. [2]

For more information and photographs, see also the interactive online book, The History of Bagnell Dam, at the Lake of the Ozarks website.

I wish I had specific stories about the time my grandfather spent at the Bagnell Dam, but these personal memories and observations are lost to history. I am sure he told a few tales to his brothers and nephews, but they did not filter down to my mother and aunt--his own daughters. Perhaps if they had been sons instead, Ernest would have shared a few yarns with them, if only to see their eyes open wide in fear or amazement. But, since the Johnson girls did not live in the same house as their father, and they were not of the same gender, my mother and aunt missed out on a lot of the tales of male bravado. Girls were apparently meant to be protected and be useful in earning their keep. Although Ernest Johnson brought his daughters chocolate, treats, small gifts, and even pets upon occasion, he apparently did not spend a lot of time talking to them about his past. What a pity!
If my grandfather were alive today, I would not let him get away from the table without telling me a story or two. When I knew him, I was too young to be assertive (he died when I was 16), and I did not even know what to ask at the time. You know how they say that youth is wasted on the young? I'm afraid so, especially when it comes to genealogy.
In the late 1930s, Ernest Johnson again left his farm in rural Clearwater County, Minnesota, to work on the construction of the Hoover (Boulder) Dam near Las Vegas, Nevada--a bona fide WPA project.

To be continued in Part III

[1] "On the dole": a giving of food, money, or clothing to the needy; a grant of government funds to the unemployed.
[2] History of Bagnell Dam