Monday, February 18, 2013

"Whiskerinos" and the Golden Jubilee of Richmond, California

Ernest Johnson, age 58, dressed for the Golden
Jubilee in Richmond, California, August 1947.

I was quite surprised when I first saw this photograph of my maternal grandfather, Ernest Johnson, with a beard and moustache adorning his face. To my knowledge, he had never worn any facial hair, aside from an occasional unshaven stubble that he liked to rub against his grandchildrens' faces for their squeamish reactions.  My mother told me that when they both lived in Richmond, California, the city held a Golden Jubilee from August 22-24, 1947, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the city's founding. Among the planned activities was a "Whiskerino" contest, for which "Richmond's male populace [had] been grooming their whiskers for weeks."  Grampa always seemed to be a team player, having been raised with nine siblings, so I'm sure he thoroughly enjoyed the anticipation of the events, and perhaps talked over plans time and time again in the break room with his fellow custodians at the Ford Plant.

In 1945, my grandfather moved to the west coast from Leonard, Minnesota, when he could no longer make an adequate living as a farmer.  By 1947, he had been a widower for over 25 years.  Richmond, California was a boom town during World War II, mostly because of the local shipyards and the tank production going on at the Ford Motor Company plant.  Housing shortages continued right after the war, so Grampa lived for a time in a boarding house and then rented a room above a water tower.  He was a modest man with simple needs, and he knew how to get those basic needs met by taking steaks or salmon from the Richmond Pier to his sister's nearby apartment on Sundays, in exchange for a good home-cooked meal.

Richmond's Golden Jubilee celebration was meant to serve as a reminder of the "good old days" in the history of the west. It seems that not just my grandfather, but many other Richmond residents had a lot of fun getting into the spirit. Here is a link to a privately owned collection of photographs taken during the Golden Jubilee parade in downtown Richmond, in August 1947.

The huge parade was not the only special event planned for the 3-day celebration.  Opening the festival was a mock raid on a downtown pharmacy by "Joaquin Marietta," an early California badman, along with his henchmen.  "Guns from both sides will blaze, but, as in olden times, the bandits will lose and will be carted off the 'jail' and kangaroo court," a local newspaper reported on the day before the commencement of the Jubilee.  Following an exciting start, there were plenty of activities to follow, including a hillbilly music contest, a Mexican festival, and a Saturday night costume ball at nearby Alvarado Park, for which all attendees were expected to wear pioneer dress.  I would like to have been a fly on the wall to see Grampa thoroughly enjoying himself, wearing his crinkly smile, and his sporty new whiskers, of course!

"Raid to Open Richmond Fete."  The Oakland Tribune, August 21, 1947. p. 16, col. 1.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Magic of Mentors: Kenneth W. Landon

Once in awhile, I get around to blogging about my own life.  My experiences are part of a chain begun long ago by my Norwegian and Celtic ancestors, but they are much more culturally diluted as a 4th generation American.  The passage of time has a way of rarifying everything, and my own adventures do not yet have the same elusive sparkle as those of my ancestors.  But, when considering the highlights of my own life, I have to say that being fortunate enough to be guided and inspired by some mentors along the way is near the top of the list.  One of those short-term, but influential mentorships was by an astronomy instructor during the early 1970s at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, California, which is part of the San Francisco Bay Area.
For a long time I have wondered whatever happened to Kenneth W. Landon.  Though he taught astronomy when I met him, he had also taught various science courses in junior and senior high schools, in addition to many years of instructing at Contra Costa Community College (CCC).  His alma mater was the University of California at Berkeley.  In the 1948 UCB Blue and Gold Yearbook, there is a photo of Kenneth Landon sitting with the Speech Arts Club as their spring President.  He is a rather formal looking young fellow with a blond pompadour atop a high forehead, slightly prominent ears, wearing a suit and tie and wire-rimmed spectacles.

Various internet searches on Landon's name usually brought up nothing, until just the other day, when I realized I had been remembering his first name incorrectly.  After applying new search terms, I was rewarded (sadly) with an obituary from last year.  I also found out that though he had lived in the Bay Area for many decades, he moved to the Puget Sound area in Washington State just three years before his death.  When I moved to Washington in 1979, how could I know that Mr. Landon would end up in Poulsbo--just across the Sound from me?  Well, small world.

When I took my first classes at CCC, I was truly "starry-eyed" over astronomy and science, in general.  Ever since my first visit to an observatory and planetarium as part of a Camp Fire outing during the 8th grade (Chabot Space and Science Center), and falling in love with the initial Star Trek TV series and classic science-fiction that same year, I was ravenous for more practical knowledge about the universe and how it worked.  I thought I had died and gone to heaven when an aunt gave me a book on astronomy for my 13th Christmas, and a quirky uncle gave me--still unbelievable--a small, but useful telescope.

Taking my interest in astronomy to a college level was quite exciting.  Mr. Landon had a great sense of humor and his lectures were entertaining, which was a big plus.  I remember one lecture in particular when he mentioned a book as a way to spark some student interest in how others were involved with astronomy:  Starlight Nights:  The Adventures of a Stargazer, by Leslie C. Peltier.  This 20th-Century memoir by a comet hunter was spot-on for neophytes who were curious about personal impressions from within the field of observational astronomy.  When I heard the title spoken, I nearly jumped out of my chair with excitement, wanting so much to call out and say that I'd already read it!  Instead, shy as I was, I made a point of visiting Mr. Landon in his office after classes that day, because I just had to tell him that his recommendation had already found its mark.  He was amazed that I had read Peltier's book and asked how I found out about it (this was years prior to the internet, of course).  I replied that I had actually been looking for something like that at the library, but did not mention how it radiated and scintillated like a globular cluster from among the astronomy books on the Dewey shelves, drawing me in helplessly.

We talked further that afternoon about my interest in astronomy and his teaching career.  Though he obtained an undergraduate degree in zoology, he soon decided that he enjoyed all science, especially the physical sciences, but had no desire to go back and do the whole college thing all over again.  So, he determined that he could teach a variety of science classes, and in doing so, keep his interest in each discipline alive and growing.  From that brief discussion, I learned that one should never dismiss viable options.  If you have a love of something, there is always a way to work it into your life, and if you can work it into your career, even better!

I did not go into astronomy as a career, after all, because I had to face that my greatest aptitude was not with numbers, but with words.  Instead, I took a path toward the library environment, as well as writing, which were equally major interests of mine.  But, after CCC, I continued on to San Francisco State University to take classes in astronomy, planetarium science, physics and higher math, and I think that without Mr. Landon's catchy enthusiasm and encouragement, I might not have had the self-confidence to even try.

Although I do not "practice" astronomy now, I am always interested in the latest discoveries and have a great appreciation of the physical sciences.  Mostly, I am very thankful for the Mr. Landons in this world, and the lasting legacy they offer to those who are willing to listen.  Through their teaching and support, nothing less than the magic of the universe is attainable.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Valentines of 100 Years Ago

One of my favorite things is looking through antique stores.  Lately, I've been foregoing spending time examining Depression Glass and linens in favor of smaller items that tell clearer stories about the owner:  photographs, and especially, postcards.  This last weekend I found a romantic treasure:  a Valentine sent by a lonely and lovesick wife in Penticton, British Columbia, Canada, to a husband away on business in Calgary, Alberta.  Judging by the fact that Willie kept the postcard, since it ended up in an antique store over a hundred years later, I suspect that he loved and honored his wife very much, and that there was no cause for her to worry.  Still, what lovers have not felt the insecurity associated with being out of one another's sight for too long? Ah, young love!

Dear Sweetheart,

I love you... Why are you not writing?  Have you another girl?  Remember your promise.  I am well but I can't live without you, Willie.  Please write soon.

Your wife,


Monday, February 11, 2013

Valentines for Eternity: Eric and Bertina Winje recently published a Valentines Day feature, Discovering True Love
There’s a story behind that marriage date. But unless the tale has been passed down through family lore or you’re the proud owner of a collection of torrid love letters, you’re never going to get it, right?

Don’t give up so easily. Turns out that story of true love could be hiding in a yearbook or a census record. Or it may be waiting in a document or photo that you’ve already found, viewed, and saved … just waiting for you to take a second look.

This article inspired me to write about a love story from among my own ancestors.  Although Eric and Bertina Winje are not the only examples of loving and lasting relationships from among my mother's ancestors, the challenges this particular couple faced never cease to amaze me.  Theirs was a relationship that weathered much of the spectrum of life and was still as strong as ever in its final moments.  But, in many ways, it is just another "everyday" love story from among our courageous immigrant ancestors.

Eric L. and Bertina Winje, 1915.

As anyone who has ever loved knows, love is not all sweetness and light.  Real love includes many bumps along the way:  give and take, up and down, light and shadow, and so on, plus plenty of personal sacrifice.  My great great grandmother, Thibertine (Johnson), or "Bertina" as she was called, with her second husband, Eric L. Winje, encountered great joy, inescapable tragedy, and everything inbetween during their time as a couple.  The point is that they encountered everything together for 56 years, and the bond made them even closer.

Bertina was the petite, good-natured, auburn-haired wife of an immigrant farmer, Baard Johnson.  The Johnsons arrived in the U. S. in 1866 from Nord-Troendelag, Norway, along with their two children, Ole M. and Ellen Julie, and began homesteading on prairie land in Chippewa County, Minnesota.  When Baard died from typhoid fever in 1872, Bertina found herself quite alone with two underage children, an 80-acre farm to manage, and a homestead contract that had not yet met the government requirements of five years working and living on the land.  She could have lost everything if the right man had not come along in time.

Lars and Ragnild Winje, Norwegian immigrants who homesteaded near to the Johnsons, had a grown son named Eric.  In 1872, Eric was 21 years old, which was ten years Bertina Johnson's junior, and at 5 feet 11 inches, he was more than a foot taller.  Eric was a good looking young man with brown hair, gray eyes, a smallish mouth, and an "ordinary" nose, according to his passport application of 1895.  The two began a relationship in the months following Baard Johnson's death.  Being of the same community, the pair had initially met at the local Lutheran Church or other gathering.  Perhaps Bertina had even hired Eric Winje to help out on the farm during the weeks of her husband's illness or after his death.

Eric Winje and Bertina Johnson quickly decided that togetherness was a good thing.  They began living together as common-law spouses and had a baby girl in 1873 (Berthe Regine, or "Regina"), but were not married until March 15, 1874.  The delay in the marriage date was planned in order to protect the legal interests of Bertina's eldest son, Ole M. Johnson, who stood to inherit his father's property.  If Bertina had married Eric Winje before the homestead requirement was completed under her first husband's name, they would have had to begin anew under Eric Winje's application.  The delay of the marriage, as well as protecting his stepson's interest in the land ownership, was definitely a sacrifice for love and honor on Winje's part.

Winje was an intelligent man who was driven to better himself and his family's situation.  While working as the county clerk for Chippewa County in Montevideo, Minnesota, he read for the law in his spare time and passed the bar exam.  He also worked as a Justice of the Peace and even officiated at his stepson's wedding.  The Winjes then gave up the family homestead in Granite Falls Township to Bertina's grown son, Ole M. Johnson, and moved into a house in Montevideo to accomodate their growing young family.  Their children would eventually number eight in all:  Regina, Louis, Lena, Emma M., Emma Thalette, Edward, Hattie, and Annie.

After the first son, Louis, was born to Eric and Bertina in September 1874, the couple gave their one-year-old daughter, Regina, to be raised by Eric's parents.  In Norwegian families, children were often placed where it made the most sense.  Perhaps the grandparents had admired the little girl so much that the couple offered her up as company and a helpmate for Lars and Ragnild Winje's elder years.  It is most certain that Bertina helped come to this decision, but it had to be a loving sacrifice on her part to give up her beautiful little daughter to Eric's parents, even if they were close enough to see her on a regular basis.  In 1878, Eric and Bertina lost their fourth-born (Emma M.), to diphtheria, while she was still a baby.

In 1887, Winje accepted a position as attorney in Duluth, and the family moved across the state.  Duluth was an up and coming port town during those years, and Eric's professional urban career afforded the family a new social stature, as Bertina and the children began to adjust to city life and its amenities.  Eric increased his community involvement and was elected Municipal Court Judge.  Several of the Winje children attended and graduated from Duluth Central High School.  By then, Bertina could probably not believe the difference between her prior life as a poor immigrant homesteader and her new life as the wife of a Duluth judge.  The couple, though still not rich by any means, purchased a steam launch and entertained family and friends on the waterways surrounding the city.  They also attended many local cultural and campaigning events.

Tragedy struck the Winjes a few short years later when a diphtheria epidemic in 1888 took their two little red-haired daughters, Hattie (5), and Annie (2), the youngest members of the family.  Meanwhile, back in Chippewa County, Eric's younger brother had also succumbed to the same disease a few days earlier.  But, even these occurences were not the last of bitter sadness for Eric and Bertina.  In 1893, their eldest son, Louis, drowned during a boating accident on their steam launch, the Ellida.  Louis had been studying law at Minnesota University in Minneapolis, and the promise of the future generation rested upon his shoulders.  Louis, who was said to be the epitome of his father in intelligence and character, was expected to bring to fruition all of Eric and Bertina's immigrant dreams.  But, it would never be.  During an August evening, Eric Winje was piloting the steam launch without running lights during the hours of dusk on Lake Superior, headed home with his son after a long day's excursion.  The weather conditions at the time are unknown, but the steam launch went unseen by a passing ferry and a collision resulted.  Eric somehow remained on the sinking launch and was rescued by ferry personnel, but Louis either jumped or fell off the launch during the collision and drowned.  His body was not recovered for several days.  How Louis's death must have weighed on Eric's conscience throughout the years, whether he could have helped the situation or not.  And, how many times must Bertina have called upon the grace of God to give her understanding and forgiveness, trying all the while not to hold her husband responsible for their son's untimely death.

A few years later, the Winjes' eldest daughter, Regina, died at the age of 25, a week after giving birth to her fifth son.  Following Regina's death, Eric and Bertina had three living children remaining out of the initial eight.  In an example of "what goes around, comes around," they took Regina's newborn child, Thomas Raymond Strand, to raise as their own, just as Eric's own parents had taken Regina to raise as a young girl.  Regina's four older sons continued to be raised by their father with the help of a housekeeper, whom he later married.

By this time, Eric's law career in Duluth seemed stalled by his inability to get re-elected as Municipal Court Judge.  Change called out to the couple and they left Duluth for Renville County, Minnesota, which was closer to their original home in Chippewa County.  Eric Winje summoned up the ideals and aspirations of his youth and ran for the State Senate through the Democratic party, but withdrew before the election in favor of another candidate.  The Winjes' next move was to Detroit Lakes in Becker County, where their lives settled into cautious comfort once more.  Winje again served as a judge for Detroit Lakes.  Their daughters, Lena Marie and Emma Thalette, continued to live with them during their elder years, while their son Edward sought new adventures as a homesteader in Canada.  Lena taught school and eventually became a school superintendant, while Emma Thalette, also a teacher, eventually chose to teach piano from their home while caring for their parents.

The couple's last loving sacrifice came during a period when Eric Winje's health began to fail.  Their daughter, Lena, wrote in a letter to her half-brother, Ole M. Johnson, that "Father has tried everything he could to make [himself] well, but it was of no use."  Bertina, who was by then suffering from dementia, developed pneumonia while bedridden.  In early 1930, when Eric passed away at the closest hospital in Fargo, North Dakota, Lena and Emma were not sure if their mother had even been aware of their father's illness.

Science has determined that even an unconscious mind is somewhat aware of what is going on nearby.  I believe that with everything the Winjes endured together, how could Bertina not miss the sound of her husband's voice or his presence about the house, even if she did not appear to be aware of any change?   When Eric's absence became apparent to Bertina, perhaps communicated through the sadness of a daughter's touch, she may have taken comfort in the promise of their wedding vows of so many years before:  " sickness and in health, 'til death do us part."  On February 15, 1930, the day after Valentines Day, Bertina followed her loyal companion to the grave.  After having given one another a lifetime of growth, fulfillment, and loving support, the Winjes were buried next to each other at Scandia Cemetery overlooking Lake Superior, near several of their children.