Saturday, February 27, 2010

Duty, Fate, and Beauty

Regina Winje Strand

Duty, Fate, and Beauty:
A Norwegian-American Pioneer Legacy Remembered

(a repost from February 2008)

Timeline for Regina Winje Strand:

July 13, 1873
Born in Sparta Township, Chippewa CO., MN

Autumn 1874
Sent to live with paternal grandparents

Oct. 23, 1888
Wrote letter telling of uncle's death

Married Thomas E. Strand in Chippewa CO., MN

Jan. 15, 1899
Bore 6th child, Thomas R. Strand

Jan. 22, 1899
Death from "heart disease"

While studying data and details in genealogical research, we often come across statistics regarding pre-modern era populations and epidemic disease. Most of the time we do not have to think much beyond the statistics. In the days of our immigrant ancestors, epidemics and untreated health conditions were an inevitable part of life, and though much feared, were met with courage and acceptance. The early demise of children and young adults was common, and yet it cuts to the heart when one studies the past and finds personal evidence of just such heartbreak and loss. The story behind the short life of Regina Winje Strand touched me in just such a way.

Berthe Regine (Winje) Strand, 1873-1899.
 Photo ca. 1895, Chippewa County, Minnesota

"Regina" Winje was born during the heat of a plague-filled summer on July 12, 1873, on the prairie in Sparta Township, Chippewa County, Minnesota. The surrounding land had been claimed by the first homesteaders only a few years before, in 1868. She was the firstborn child of my great great grandmother, Thibertine (Johnson) and her second husband, Eric Larsen Winje, both immigrants from Norway. The summer of 1873 brought one of many severe locust infestations in the southwestern plains of Minnesota, and that year, it followed upon the heels of a devastating January blizzard. After catastrophic weather and other natural events, times were hard for local homesteaders and farmers, including Regina's family. Many homesteaders had to take out loans in order to survive, selling any extra cattle or livestock that they owned.

When Regina was about a year old, her brother Louis, was born, and Regina was sent to stay with her paternal grandparents in Sparta Township, Lars and Ragnild Winje. Perhaps the arrangement was never meant to be permanent, but in the end, it was, and the reason can only be surmised. While caring for her lovely little granddaughter, Ragnild Winje may have found a longtime need fulfilled in such a way that she found it difficult to return the child. Ragnild had given birth to two sons, but no daughters. In Norway, children were often placed where it was deemed most practical, so it was likely that Eric and Thibertine saw the gift of their daughter as a way to ensure company and help for her grandparents during their elder years. Fortunately, Sparta Township, where Lars and Ragnild Winje had their homestead, was only a few miles from Granite Falls Township, where Regina's parents lived. All family members saw each other frequently, and even attended the same Lutheran Church for several years, in spite of the alternate living arrangements for Regina.

Regina Winje, ca. 1883.

The earliest known photograph of Regina, taken in about 1883, shows a reserved young girl with a slightly sad, Mona-Lisa style loveliness and mystique. In spite of her youth, she seems to possess an inner acceptance of what life holds in store, a resignation almost. Wearing homespun clothing, there is unusual grace for a child of her age revealed in the hand she poses on the photography studio's velvet chaise.

At the age of 16, Regina revealed maturity of an adult level in a letter she wrote to a longtime friend of her father and her uncle, Ingebrigt Winje (translated from Norwegian). It is young Regina who must write for her grandparents and inform the family friend of her uncle's death:

          Mr. Doran Wessell

Good Friend,

I must now send you some lines as an answer to your letter to Ingebret Winje, since he can not.

Your childhood friend is dead! He died the 26th of May 1888. He was sick for 9 weeks this winter from arthritis but then he got a little better again, so much so that he could work, but then he became again lame in his right foot and had to in the end, be in bed and was so frightfully sick for 2 weeks that he lost his understanding right up until the last hour, his last hour he was however calm.

Here there were many people who followed him to the grave. If you come to Minnesota, then you must come to us. You shall be heartily welcome. We wish to get to talk with you, then you will have gotten to hear more about your friend that you thought you soon should get to see again, but it doesn’t always go as one imagines.

You are now most heartily greeted from Lars and his wife. I should write this letter for my grandfather and you must excuse me if it is bad, but it is so much for you to know that your friend is dead. I am the oldest daughter of Erik but I am living with my grandparents and I have been here since I was 1 year and have been raised together with Ingebret and no wonder that I have sorrow for he was always friendly and good toward me. I have also this summer lost 2 of my youngest sisters so that the sorrow becomes even greater. If you want to come here then you must get a ticket to Myers Station, Chippewa Co., Minnesota.

We live not so far from there. I must now end my poor writing with a greeting to you.

Regina E. [Eriksdatter] Winje [1]

The "youngest sisters" mentioned by Regina were Hattie Christine and Annie Jorgene, who died from diphtheria within days of their uncle, Ingebrigt Winje. Hattie was 5 years old, and Annie was just 2, when their deaths occurred. The young girls were living with Regina's parents in Duluth at the time, where Eric L. Winje worked first as an attorney, and later as a municipal court judge.

Within several months after the letter was written, Regina married Thomas Einersen Strand, who hailed from Soer Troendelag, Norway, like her father and grandparents. As the wedding photograph reveals, Regina was already expecting her first child by the time the marriage took place, which was not an uncommon occurrence in early Norwegian-American culture, as it had been in rural Norway. The only real shame involved was when a birth occurred without marriage beforehand.

Thomas and Regina Strand, 1889/90

Newlyweds Thomas and Regina Strand set up housekeeping on the homestead in Sparta Township where Regina had been living with her grandparents. Lars Winje, who was ill at that time, added his granddaughter to his will. Regina stood to inherit the Winje homestead when her grandmother, Ragnild, no longer needed it. Shortly after Thomas and Regina were married, Lars Winje died, and Thomas Strand began renting the land from his mother-in-law in order to farm and support his family.

Thomas and Regina had six children together, all of them sons, and all but one survived birth. Regina was only 25 years old when she bore their last child, on January 15, 1899. Thomas was most certainly proud of his growing family, and although it is doubtful he ever said it aloud, he must have felt that he had the most beautiful and graceful wife on the Chippewa prairie. Now, he also had five strapping sons to carry on his legacy: Elmer, Arthur, Theodore, Lambert, and the newborn, Thomas Raymond.[2]

But, as Regina so aptly states in her letter to Doran Wessell: ". . . it doesn't always go as one imagines." A week after giving birth, on January 22, Regina slipped into unconsciousness and died. Her husband, sons, and elderly grandmother were left in a state of shock. [3]

Regina's death certificate indicates “heart disease” as the cause of death, but her family understood the direct cause to be either a heart attack or a blood clot. It is likely that, as a child, she contracted a light case of diphtheria when her uncle suffered from it and died. Survivors of diphtheria often developed a weakened heart from the ravages of the disease, and after six pregnancies in rapid succession, Regina's physical reserves were severely depleted. Even after the immediate danger of an epidemic had passed, it was never certain what the lingering effects would be.

Regina was laid to rest at Saron Lutheran Cemetery, near the old Winje farm. Her headstone has an image of two hands clasping, along with the following engraving in Norwegian: [4]

Farvel [Farewell]
Berthine R. Strand
Dode [Died] Jan 22, 1899
Alder 25 Jahr, 6 M, 10 D [Aged 25 years, 6 months, and 10 days]

Saron Lutheran Church, Chippewa County, Minnesota, ca. 1915.  Minnesota Historical Society, Photographs Collection.  Location no. MC4.5 p11.  Negative no. 58207.  Photographer:  Louis Enstrom (1873-1947).

There were more than a few decisions for the family to make after Regina's sudden loss. Like most women, Regina, as wife, mother, and granddaughter, had been the glue holding the family together throughout the daily routines. Ragnild Winje, advancing in age, could not possibly take care of five energetic young boys alone, while her son-in-law, Thomas Strand, kept to the fields each day in order to continue farming and maintain their livelihood. As a strangely prophetic turnabout, the newborn, Thomas Raymond, was sent to live with his maternal grandparents, Eric and Thibertine Winje. It was they who had given the baby's mother, Regina, to her grandparents, Lars and Ragnild Winje, nearly 25 years earlier.

The Strand family on the old Winje farm in Sparta Township, Chippewa County, soon after Regina Strand’s death in 1899. An album lays opened on the table with a photo of a baby displayed (possibly the infant, Thomas Raymond Strand). Left to right: the three eldest Strand boys (Arthur, Elmer, Theodore), Thomas Strand (seated), Matilda (Tilda) Nelson, Ragnild Winje (seated), Lambert Strand, and two unidentified men- the one on the far right holding a Jack Russell terrier (possibly her brother, Edward Winje?).

Thomas Strand's duty to his family necessitated finding a housekeeper as quickly as possible. In local-born Matilda Nelson, he found a healthy young woman with the stamina necessary to chase four young boys about the farm, as well as take on most of the household duties that had previously been relegated to Regina. After several years of building a bond through daily routines together, Thomas and "Tilda" were married in 1902, and promptly began a family of their own, which eventually included eight children: Alvin, Stella, Noel, Gearda, Olaf, Gerhardt, Maude, and Margaret. Strand eventually became one of the best-known farmers in Sparta Township. He purchased the homestead outright from his mother-in-law, Ragnild Winje, and continued to care for her until she passed away. [5]

In looking over the brief details known about Regina's life, she was obviously a dutiful daughter who did her best to live up to her parents and grandparents expectations. She may have found a purpose and direction of her own by marrying young, hopefully finding love in addition, though she continued to serve her family above all else. Regina's beauty could have instead led her toward vanity and unrealistic expectations, but it is doubtful she ever considered taking advantage of her gift.

When fate called Regina in the prime of her young adulthood, she left a legacy of personal sacrifice and acceptance that continued to strengthen her husband and sons, as well as grandchildren, who faced the future without her help and guidance. Regina's story is similar to the lives of many American pioneer women who suffered day to day hardships without complaint, hoping only for increased opportunity and better lives for their children and descendants.

Photographs (except the image of Saron Lutheran Church) are from the Johnson and Winje family collections. All rights reserved.

[1] Letter, Regina Winje, Wegdahl, Chippewa County, Minnesota, to Doran Wessel, Seattle, WA, Oct. 23, 1888; In Regina's signature, the middle initial "E." stands for "Eriksdatter," her patronymic name; note the typically Norwegian self-depreciation in the last line: "I must now end my poor writing with a greeting to you."
[2] A sixth child died in childbirth: obituary for Regina (Mrs. Thos. Strand), Montevideo Leader, ? January 1899 (copy in the possession of the author).
[3] Death certificate for Berthe Regine Strand, January 22, 1899, Sparta Township, Chippewa County, Minnesota.
[4] Information from Regina Winje Strand's headstone acquired by the author's visit to Saron Lutheran Cemetery, Chippewa County, Minnesota, September 2002.
[5] A biography of Thomas E. Strand is included in: L. R. Moyer and O.G. Dale, joint editors. History of Chippewa and Lac qui Parle Counties, Minnesota. Indianapolis, Indiana: B.F. Bown & Company, Inc., 1916. Vol. II, pp.127-128.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Give Me a House on the Prairie

In 1886, at age 25, my great grandfather Ole Martin Johnson married and brought his 17-year-old bride, Malla, to live on the farm his parents had handed down to him. Located in Section 18 of Granite Falls Township 116-N, Chippewa County, Minnesota, the homestead was begun by Ole's parents, Baard and Thibertine Johnson in 1868. It bordered tree-lined Hawk Creek, a tributary of the Minnesota River.

The Johnsons, along with their six-year-old son, Ole, and four-year-old daughter, Ellen Julie (Julia), arrived in America in 1866 from Nord-Troendelag, Norway. They first stayed in Goodhue County, Minnesota for a couple of years before deciding to settle on newly available land along the Minnesota River to the west. In order to "prove up" his homestead, Baard Johnson built a two-room cabin on the property in Norwegian cotter style, with a decorative Scandinavian gable over the small entryway. I believe it is the same cabin that still stands on the property today, though the land has not been owned by family members since about 1901.

After Baard Johnson died in 1872, his widow, Bertina, remarried and began another family. It was soon after this marriage that a new and larger farmhouse was built on the property, but it was located farther from the creek and closer to the road. When Bertina and her second family moved to Duluth in eastern Minnesota so that her husband could pursue a career as an attorney, she offered the homestead to Ole, her eldest son, as his rightful inheritance.

The farmhouse Ole Johnson inherited, and probably helped build, had an L-shaped floor plan commonly used on the Midwestern prairie at that time. Downstairs was a kitchen with an entrance off a back porch, a parlor with tall windows to let in as much light as possible, a front porch, and a bedroom that drew some warmth from the kitchen. The upstairs consisted of two unheated bedrooms that could get quite chilly in winter. Ole Johnson's mother, Bertina, must have brought some of her children into the world in that back bedroom behind the kitchen, as would his wife, Malla (Larson), probably attended by her sister-in-lay, Julia (Johnson) Larson.

House on the Johnson farm in 1941.  Granite Falls Township, Chippewa County,
 Minnesota. (Photographer:  Doris Johnson)

The kitchen of any 19th century farmhouse was the hub from which family members and others constantly came and went between endless rounds of chores. Children and hired help lingered at the farm table as long as they dared, drawn by the comfort of the trusty black stove and compelling aromas of freshly baked bread, warm lefse and butter, or a simmering venison stew. At most hours of the day, Malla Johnson could be found there, busy with cooking and canning, washing, knitting and darning, churning, chatting, and preparing baths, as well as nurturing, while her husband, Ole, took care of the farm and farm buildings.

The photograph above was taken by my mother while she still lived in Minnesota. During the summer of 1941, a group of relatives went to visit the old homestead property. Years later, the old house was torn down because it was in a state of disrepair and had begun to be used as a "party house" by local youth.

I like to dream about owning one of the houses my great grandfather built, either this one, or the one he built some 35 years later, near the village of Leonard in Clearwater County, Minnesota. It is sad that more houses of this character and age have not been preserved for the sake of history.

I doubt that future generations will ever look at a house I've lived in and think quite the same nostalgic thoughts, for there was something very special about the first immigrant generations in America. Their homes were simple and functional, and their way of life, well, there was nothing cushy about it. My farming ancestors sweated for each gain and every meal on the table. Early American pioneers experienced a connection to land and community that we do not often find in modern times. They had an intense appreciation of the acreage they acquired to plow, sew, and reap, and to form as one willed. After the limited availability and nearly impossible prospects of land ownership in Norway, new life and opportunity in America was a dream come true for my great great grandparents.

If I were given a time machine, the first place I would want to visit would be the 1870s homestead on the southwest Minnesota prairie, where this house was built. Hand me an apron, tie back my hair, and sink me up to my elbows in flour on the rough hewn table by the cast iron stove. I'll try not to mind too much when my arms become solidly black and blue from chicken pecks while collecting eggs, just like Malla. In the spirit of my ancestors, I would carry out my days uncomplaining, knowing that my work and sacrifice would bring a universe of opportunities for my children, and their children. And, so it has. How lucky we are that we no longer have to work so hard in order to live, and yet, how we yearn for the straightforward, sincere toil of our ancestors, and their infinite hope.