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.


  1. What a wonderful love story. You are an amazing writer. The way in which you told this love story is an inspiration. You had me mesmerized through to the very last sentence.

    I too have a 'love story' that I've wanted to write. One that began when the boy was five years old and the girl just 4 months old when they first met on the ship that brought them to America. A story that lasted 85 years.

    You have motivated me to put 'fingers to keys'. Thank you!

  2. Thank you, my friend. I look forward to reading about your love story--it sounds like a great one. By all means, let's keep on motivating each other!