Thursday, July 05, 2012

The 95% Baard Johnson

In an earlier post, "In Defense of Character:  Writing With Caution," I wrote about the difficulties of trying to find more information on one of my great great grandfathers, Baard Johnson.  Baard emigrated from Nord-Trondelag, Norway in 1866, with his wife, Thibertine (Bertina), and their two children, Ole Martin and Ellen Julie (Julia).  On July 28, 1872, Baard died from typhoid fever at age 37, a couple of years before fulfilling his homesteading requirements in Granite Falls Township, Chippewa County, Minnesota.  For as long as I've been researching this family, and throughout the process of writing the Johnson family history, I have lamented the empty spot on the family tree where Baard's image should have been.  Perhaps I need lament no more, because I believe I have found, at last, an image of my g g grandfather, or, the "95% Baard Johnson," as I like to call him. Any reasonable doubt can be relegated to about 5%.


 
Likely photograph of Baard Johnson (carte-de-visite size), ca. 1870.
Verso below.





To my early Norwegian-American family, having a likeness of each family member was important due to the uncertainty of life, in general.  During the mid-19th century, photography--the new art--was taken quite seriously.  As surely as family members had their birth and death dates religiously recorded in the family Bible, new photographs were commissioned whenever changes in family size or other milestones dictated the need.  Newly married couples, small groupings of the latest-born children, or entire families would dress in their Sunday finest and sit for the local photographer.  In addition, many Norwegian emigrants had their likenesses taken at their point of departure in Norway, in order to send mementos to anxious family members and neighbors.  Others waited until they had chosen the spot where they wished to establish residency in the U.S., and then proudly commemorated the occasion with a photograph.  So, where was Baard?  Why did no one in my extended family have any photographic evidence of his existence, when even his young wife had a photograph taken of herself in the early 1870s?

The verso of my suspected g g grandfather's likeness shows that "A. Brandmo" was the photographer.  Andreas Brandmo worked out of Montevideo, Minnesota beginning in the 1870s, and he was part owner of the Brandmo and Lodgaard Studio from 1886-1896.  Montevideo was next door to many of my ancestors' homesteads in early Chippewa County, and the photographer's distinctive name shows on the verso of many family images passed down through the decades.  Though A. Brandmo's decorative stamp changed slightly over the years of doing business, this particular verso appears to contain one of the oldest stamps, by virtue of its simplicity, when compared to Brandmo's other stamps.  The paper copy of the verso has a faded pink tint, which barely shows on this online copy.

One dismal, wet afternoon several months ago, while sitting at my desk engrossed in genealogy, I was perusing a stack of small carte-de-visite (2-1/2 x 4-inch) photographs and suddenly felt a figurative light bulb switch on over my head.  I had obtained the photos through a cousin, after having seen them for the first time several years before.  When I began sorting through the stack, I was intrigued that many of the card-like photos were taken by the same early photography studio (Brandmo) in Montevideo, Minnesota, very near to where Baard and Bertina Johnson had set up their homestead.  None of the photographs had identifying markings other than the photographer's stamp.  Yes, my ancestors were guilty of the same lack of foresight as yours:  they knew the people in the photos, so why did they need to label them?  The first time I sorted through the stack, several years earlier, I had quickly picked out the earliest known photograph of my great great grandmother, Bertina Johnson.  It was easy to recognize her distinctive face from other photos of her as an older woman.  Due to her apparent age in the photograph and her residence at that time (near Montevideo, MN), I estimated the photo to be dated between 1870-1875.  None other among the mostly male sea of faces made any impression on me at all, and I assumed most to be neighbors and friends of my Johnson relatives at that time.

However, this particular winter day brought a revelation.  Perhaps it was because I had been studying other Johnson family photographs at the time, and certain facial features were burned into my short-term memory.  Perhaps I was "in the zone," while indulging in one of my favorite hobbies.  Perhaps it was something about the soft light of a gray day filtering the images on the cards in a way that opened my mind to new possibilities.  Whatever the cause, as I held up a photo of one young, blond gentleman, I sensed something very familiar.  (I've learned to not ignore intuition until facts prove otherwise.)  It was also interesting, and unusual, that there were two copies of the same photo:  one in very poor condition, and the other in quite good condition.  I knew for certain that the stack of small photographs had once been in the possession of Ole M. Johnson (my great grandfather, and the son of Baard).  It made sense that if the photo in question was truly Ole's father, then one photo likely would have been displayed or kept in a frame, and thus, became faded over time, while one copy had been put away for safe keeping.  This was probably the missing Baard Johnson!

The first thing I did was to line up the candidate photograph of Baard Johnson with his two children, Ole Johnson, and Julia (Johnson) Larson, along with his wife, Bertina Johnson, in order to compare facial features.  I found that as a young man, Ole had the same fine, lank hair as did the suspected photo of his father, Baard.  The clinker, however, was comparing it to the photo of Julia Johnson (the daughter):  both Julia and the "95% Baard Johnson" had the same bold, squared jawline, combined with a strong chin.  Even their ears were shaped the same!  Convinced, I shared the photographs with some Minnesota cousins who had actually known Ole M. Johnson (Baard's son) personally, and asked them to give me feedback on family likenesses between photos of Ole, his sister, Julia, and the newly discovered photograph of "95% Baard Johnson."  I'm pleased to say that I received several thumbs up.

Although there is no way that I know of to completely prove the identity of the man in the photograph in question, my usually-reliable intuition tells me that the search for my missing great great grandfather has ended.  I'm posting photographs of the entire family here, so that others may judge for themselves.

No matter what the brick wall, there is always hope that it will crumble!


[Photographer information source: Minnesota Historical Society, Directory of Minnesota Photographers, http://www.mnhs.org/people/photographers/B.htm]


Baard Johnson? (father, ca. 1870)







Julia Johnson (daughter, ca. 1888)
 


Ole M. Johnson (son, 1886)



Bertina Johnson (mother, ca. 1870)


Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Fourth of July, Norwegian-American Style



This photograph of a large neighborhood gathering was taken on Independence Day, 1916, at the Nels and Ellen Langseth farm in Sinclair Township, Clearwater County, Minnesota, about four years before my mother was born in nearby Dudley Township.  The Langseth family left Norway for the United States in 1902 [1].  To rural Norwegian-Americans, July 4th was the most important day of the year, next to Christmas.  Everyone strived to complete farm chores early in the day so they could attend huge community gatherings and have plenty of time to visit with one another.  I hope they all brought enough food!  On second thought, there is no chance they would have run out of vittles.  Pass the lefse, please... and save me a dish of that hand-cranked ice cream!

[1] 1920 U.S. Federal Census for Sinclair Township, Minnesota.