Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In Search of Great Grandma's Girlhood

Tin type photograph, ca. 1884/1885. Malla Vikesaa Larson (left), with possibly her sister,
Karin (Vikesaa) (Larson) Pedersen.  Probably taken in Chippewa CO., Minnesota.
Toward the end of last year, I anxiously awaited the arrival of a genealogical treasure from Minnesota.  Having to wait for something containing such down-to-earth evidence as "newly discovered" vintage photographs can cause a genealogist/family historian to nearly jump out of her own skin in anticipation.  The album was brought by car from Minnesota to Idaho in July, and in October, it was transported from Idaho to the Seattle area by the sister of a cousin's wife.  When the box containing the precious cargo was finally in my hands in November, I could hardly bear to open it.  I have since scanned all of the photos inside and placed a link to the Picasa web album on the side bar of this blog (Ole Martin and Malla Johnson Photo Album B).

Years ago on a trip visiting cousins in Minnesota, I borrowed a faded crimson velvet-backed cabinet card photograph album that once belonged to my maternal great-grandparents, Ole Martin and Malla (Larson) Johnson, of Leonard, Minnesota.  Some of my cousins seemed to remember that there had been a second album--one with a greenish-yellow cover.  Until last year, its whereabouts were unknown.  It was assumed that the album had been destroyed during a basement flood years earlier, or was simply lost.  But, the album with the greenish-yellow backing finally surfaced in the possession of another Minnesota cousin, who had held it since her own mother's belongings were distributed among family members some years ago.

My mother remembers seeing the two photograph albums as a child, but since she was not allowed to pull them from the cabinet where they were kept to look at them as she pleased, she was not intimately familiar with the photographs they held.  As a young adult, she left her grandparents' farm and never laid eyes on the two photograph albums again until I was able to place them in her hands recently.  Over 65 years had passed.  What a feeling it was to be able to do that!

The second cabinet card album that I awaited last year was the last known place to search for an early photograph of Malla (Vikesaa)(Larson) Johnson--my mother's paternal grandmother.  The earliest known image we had of Malla was her wedding photograph, taken in 1886, when she was nineteen years old.  In addition, none of the family had ever been able to obtain her birth records.  We were certain of her birth date:  April 20, 1868, but the location was always generically mentioned as "somewhere near LaCrosse, Wisconsin."  I have deduced that her birthplace was likely in Coon Valley, where her parents lived briefly among other Norwegian immigrants before relocating to homestead in Chippewa County, Minnesota.  I longed to find further proof of her early life, or a photograph of a date earlier than her wedding.

Sitting loose in the second cabinet card album was an old tintype photograph, badly scratched, but still fairly clear.  When I picked it up and held it to the light, I immediately recognized the girl in the plaid dress as my great grandmother, Malla (Larson) Johnson--the woman who raised my own mother.  Though she is no longer a child in the photo, perhaps a youth of 14-16 years of age, I felt a sense of accomplishment at identifying one more piece of Malla's earlier life for posterity.

Malla Larson as a youth, ca. 1884/85 (cropped
 and zoomed from photo above)

Malla Larson Johnson in her wedding photograph, February 1886
 (cropped and zoomed).  Chippewa County, Minnesota

The found-again tin type photograph also potentially gives our family the likeness of one of Malla's illusive older sisters, both of whom were much older than she.  Karin (Vikesaa)(Larson) Pedersen was the one sister no one could find a likeness of.  If it is indeed Karin (Larson) Pedersen to the right of Malla in the photograph, she would have been a married woman in her mid-thirties at the time, with three out of four children already birthed, and only seven or eight years left to live.  Karin was born on 7 October 1847 in Bjerkreim, Rogaland, Norway. She married Erick Stallen Pedersen, a Minnesota native of Swedish descent, on 26 September 1876, in Chippewa County, Minnesota.  The couple eventually settled in Northland, Polk County, where Karin died on 9 January 1892.

In the earliest photograph of my great grandmother, Malla, I see a Norwegian-American farm girl who is probably newly confirmed as an adult in the eyes of the Lutheran pioneer church.  The calm girl in the plaid dress soon after became the no-nonsense farm wife--shy and retiring when it came to strangers, but forthright and confident within her own realm.  Malla (Larson) Johnson would give birth to ten children, all of whom survived into old age, and she experienced prairie homesteading, coping with blizzards, rampant disease, and locust plagues on top of day-to-day hardships. She was known not only for her hospitality, but for her ferocity at protecting and caring for the family's chickens, as well as for the large lefse she could bake atop the cast iron stove, and her never-idle hands, which continually knitted socks as she rested beside the fireplace each evening.  She hummed only one tune--Norway's National Anthem, and instructed her granddaughters to make their sewing stitches as nice on the back as on the front, and also to be sure to clean in all the corners, because "God will see it if you don't."  When Malla died on April 20, 1946, on her 80th birthday, she had lived about as full a life as one could expect.  I am grateful that she raised my mother, who has helped me to know my great grandmother vicariously by supplying me with endless tales of growing up on Grandma Malla's farm.


  1. Your grandmother was beautiful! I think it's wonderful that you found a photograph of her when she was younger. Even better, or maybe just as good, is having first-hand memories from your mother handed down to you. Congratulations on your finds!

  2. Thanks, Nancy! I think we all find that writing about our ancestors helps us to feel that we know them personally, at least a little.

  3. Hi Cheryl---I know this is a long shot, but my GG Grandmother by birth was Thora Strand, born in Norway in 1880, who married a Conrad Pareli Johnson, b. in Norway in 1876, in Polk County, Minnesota in 1910. They had two daughters, Helen who was born in 1911 and Cora, born in 1913.
    Are they, by any chance, related to your Strand/Johnson families in Polk Co MN?

    Ellen Jennings

  4. Hi Ellen,

    The names of your relatives are not familiar to me, so I tend to think they are not related to mine. There were so many Johnsons and Strands in Minnesota, unfortunately. Good luck with your hunt!