Saturday, January 29, 2011

Little Church in Upper Coon Valley--A Family Icon

In 1841, Gulbrand Gunderson Skaret and his family from Sigdal, in eastern Norway, became the first white settlers in Coon Valley, Wisconsin. Sadly, this first immigrant family did not fare very well, suffering the hardships of wilderness and isolation, and death from Asiatic cholera after ten years of working the land. It would not be until the end of the decade that other Norwegians began to find some success in Coon Valley, and immigration to the area began in earnest. After a heavy period of settlement from 1852-54, almost all the well-situated and valuable land was spoken for.

It is no surprise why early Norwegian immigrants clustered around the welcoming scenery in Coon Valley, Wisconsin. According to many who lived in the valley, which lies a few miles south east of La Crosse, Wisconsin, there is scarcely found a more quiet, pleasant and secluded place. The surrounding wooded ridges, about 500 feet high, act as a protective wall around the entire valley, providing a sense of peace, security, and even coziness. The valley is about 25 miles in length, with numerous branch valleys, but it feels like everyone belongs to the same neighborhood with similar conditions and interests.[1]

The vast majority of early settlers in Coon Valley were poor. My immigrant ancestors were no exception. Women were expected to work exceptionally hard at all sorts of different tasks, so it is no wonder that Norwegian immigrant women often looked older than their years. They were expected to do all of the housekeeping and food preparation. They also had to spin, knit, weave, and sew inbetween heavier tasks, maintain the barn(s), bind wheat together during harvests, and engage in child rearing and holiday preparation.

Several branches of my mother's Norwegian family settled in Upper Coon Valley after coming to America. The first of my ancestors to arrive was the Slaaen family. Soon after, they adopted an Americanized version of their name: "Sloan." A pioneer biography for Hans Thorsen Slaaen, my great great grandfather, is included among others for the Upper Coon Valley during this early period of settlement (when the biographer writes that Hans T. Slaaen "moved west" from Coon Valley, Wisconsin, he meant only as far as Chippewa County, Minnesota):

Hans Thorsen Slaaen was born in Nordre Fron, Gudbrandsdalen, Norway, the son of Thor and Kari Slaaen. He emigrated to America in 1853, and settled in Coon Valley on Section 36, Town of Washington, La Cross County, in 1858, where he owned 160 acres. In 1851 [Norway] he was married to Anne Thorsdatter Vaterland, with whom he had the following children: Thor, Mathia, Karen, Thorwald, John, and Maria. Hans T Slaaen moved west, and died there.[2]

The Hans Thorsen Slaaen family. (Left to right), back row:  Karen, Thorwald (?), John (?), and Anne Marie (my great grandmother); front row:  Thor, Hans, Anne, and Mathia.  Photo ca. 1890, probably Chippewa County, Minnesota.

The Slaaens, like most of their fellow Norwegian immigrants, were devoted Lutherans. Originally, there was only one congregation in the whole of Coon Valley. In 1859, some members withdrew and built their own church in Lower Coon Valley, while a third was built in the Upper Valley at about the same time. The first Upper Coon Valley church that the Slaaens attended, pictured below, was in the cemetery opposite the later (1928 era) church, which was situated on an acre of land purchased from Christopher Hansen for the sum of $6.00.[3]

Although the old church was not large or costly, it took twelve years before it was ready. During the Civil War years times were particularly difficult, although the minister's wages were relatively high for the number of worship services the congregation received.[4]

"The Old Church in Upper Coon Valley"--the original Coon Valley Church was a log cabin.  This photo of an early painting was taken in the 1980s by Kristie Formolo, when she spotted it hanging on a basement wall during a tour of the current Coon Valley Church.

Norwegian immigrants depended upon the Lutheran church, not only for matters of faith, but also for security, community, and socialization outside of their day to day labors. Churches such as this one were the core of the early Norwegian-American experience, creating stability and offering support, promoting neighborliness, and making it possible for neighboring families to come to know one another well. With the help of the church, the Norwegian immigrant cluster in the familiar yet foreign landscape of Coon Valley resulted in the mingling and marriages between families from many parts of Norway. The rest is, well... family history!

[1] Holand, Hjalmar R.. Coon Valley: An Historical Account of the Norwegian Congregations in Coon Valley (Written for the 75th Anniversary of the Congregation in 1928). Augsburg Publishing House: La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1928, p.10.
[2] Holand, p.193.
[3] Holand, p.93.
[4] Holand, p.98.

1 comment:

Tessa Keough said...

I nominated you for the Ancestor Approved Award - please take a look at my post (sorry I am late but forgot to "pass it on via email or comment." As the post mentions if you have already received this award just note it on your blog! I am not sure if nominated is the right word (everyone else uses it) but I am actually passing the award on - "you have already won!"

You have an excellent blog and interesting topics. Thanks for sharing your family history. I especially enjoy the Nordic perspective (I have another blog and your posts have been quite helpful to me.