Friday, March 22, 2013

A Tribute to Great Aunties: The Johnson Sisters

Mabel Johnson, Thea (Johnson) Humberstad, and Cora (Johnson) Moen.  Richmond, California, November 6, 1946.

At times, I have a longing to hear the Norwegian-American brogues of my great aunties again. These women, who have been gone for many years now, were especially important to me as a child, since I did not experience the love and indulgences of a grandmother while growing up.  My maternal grandmother died of tuberculosis when Mom was not yet two years of age, and my adoptive father was orphaned while still young.

My great aunts were among ten children born to Ole and Malla Johnson, who were both of Norwegian-American immigrant families.  The Johnsons began their married life in Chippewa County, Minnesota, and then moved to in Fosston in Polk County, and spent the last decades of their lives farming near Leonard in Clearwater County, where my mother was raised.  The ten children were:  Bennett, Ernest (my grandfather), Cora, Thea, Odin, Mabel, Oral, Ruben, Carl, and Frank.  All lived to a ripe old age;  I'd say that was quite an accomplishment for young parents starting a family in the late 19th century.

One of my cousins jokingly refers to the photograph of the middle-aged Johnson sisters in their winter coats as "The Three Stooges."  I had to laugh the first time I heard that, because there does seem to be something reminiscent of the mock severity of a Moe, Larry, and Curly portrait in their demeanor.  But, perhaps the joke is on us, because both my cousin and I are now older than our great aunts at the time their photograph was taken. How time changes one's perspective!  But, no one can deny that they were once the sweetest little babies, as cute as a mother could ever hope for...

Cora and Thea Johnson, ca. 1893.

Cropped image of Mabel Johnson, ca. 1899.  Granite Falls, MN.

Thea was the first to leave her home state of Minnesota for Oregon, where her husband, Carl Humberstad, a lumberjack, saw job prospects with the prolific west coast lumber business. Cora and her husband, Emil Moen, followed to Oregon soon after. Mabel, who never married, left her job at a hotel laundry in St. Paul, Minnesota, to ride west on the train with my mother, Doris Johnson, in 1945. The pair were following my grandfather, Ernest Johnson, and my aunt, Phyllis Johnson, to Richmond in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Mabel rented an apartment in a Richmond four-plex until she retired in the early 1960s and then moved to Salem, Oregon, to be near her sisters again. After that, it was necessary for my family to go on vacation in order to see nearly everyone in my mother's family, especially after Grampa Ernest moved to Salem, as well.

Cora Johnson Moen:  born July 15, 1891 in Montevideo, Minnesota; died May 28, 1975 in Salem, Oregon.

Cora, the eldest Johnson sister, lived with her son and daughter-in-law in a house that backed up to my Aunt Phyllis's house in Salem.  Cora was my mother's favorite aunt, because she was the most maternal to my mother when she was a girl.  To some, Cora seemed a little too serious, and too much of a disciplinarian.  But, her "no-nonsense" attitude was formed by necessity as the eldest daughter on her parents' farm.  Expectations on her were high, and she was required to take on a heady round of day-to-day responsibilities up until the time she left home as a married woman.  Cora and her husband, Emil, had only one child, Harvey, and she was devoted to both of the men in her life.  Cora had the great misfortune of suffering the loss of both her parents and her husband in the same year, 1948.  In about 1960, she bought a new ranch-style house in Salem, and apparently gave her previous home to her sister, Mabel.  The new home had a large brick fireplace with built-in shelves on either side, all filled with good-sized animal ceramics that she collected.

Cora with her husband, Emil Moen, and their son, Harvey.  Clearwater County, Minnesota, ca. 1930.

Thea Johnson Humberstad; born April 28, 1893 in Montevideo, Minnesota; died February 6, 1967 in Salem, Oregon.

Thea, the next eldest sister, caught people's attention not only because of her short, round stature, but also because of her jolly nature and light-hearted, tittering laugh.  Thea possessed plenty of farm girl sensibility, but it was coated by an overall good sense of humor.  She and her husband, Carl Humberstad, were well-loved by many.  Thea gave birth to two sons:  Curtis, born in 1925, who died four days after birth, and Wesley, born in 1927.  The Humberstads owned a small white house with pink trim in West Salem, and they filled the yard with flowers and whimsical wooden yard ornaments made by Carl--everything from sunbonnet girls and painted tulips, to bird and duck whirly-gigs, and a windmill, of course.  Inside the house, nearly one wall of their tiny living room was filled with a salt and pepper shaker collection that would have been the envy of any antique dealer.  An old spinning wheel, brought from Norway by Carl's mother, took up another prominent corner of the room.  Not one to enjoy anything without a bit of whimsy added for spice, Carl painted his mother's old constant friend a bright shade of peppermint pink.  Thea was the first of her siblings to pass away, in 1967.

Thea (Johnson) Humberstad standing on the porch of her
 West Salem house, early 1960s.

Mabel Johnson:  born February 10. 1898 in Montevideo, Minnesota; died July 23, 1983 in Salem, Oregon.

Mabel, the youngest sister, was never married.  My grandfather thought this sister of his was a little too silly at times, even though she did work hard as a youngster in addition to seeking out friends and fun.  Mabel had to do all of the baking on the farm after her older sisters married, and became responsible for sewing all the clothes needed for her young nieces, Phyllis and Doris.  In late summers, she often traveled to South Dakota to serve as cook for threshing crews.  I felt particularly close to Mabel, because we lived with her when I was a baby, and she occasionally babysat for me in the years to follow.  I liked nothing better than to revisit her old apartment overlooking the railroad tracks in Richmond, and then later, her little bungalow in Salem, which had probably been given to her by her sister, Cora.  She was the only adult I knew who would play endless rounds of "Go Fish" or "Old Maid," and she preferred to distract kids from arguing by using a metal clicker, like in dog training.  After Mable moved to Salem, her only income was Social Security and a little babysitting money.  She was very frugal--buying only at second-hand stores, going without a telephone or garbage service (her brothers carted it away), and retiring for the evening whenever it got dark, in order to avoid using electricity as much as possible.  At her house in Salem, she usually had a dog to keep her company.

Mabel Johnson out riding.  Fosston, Minnesota, ca. 1912.
The long drive from the Bay Area to Salem, Oregon only made our visits with the relatives even more special for me.  We made sure to stop and see each relative from the home base of my aunt Phyllis's house.  This included my grandfather and all of his Oregon-residing siblings, plus some cousins.  My parents, sister and I were so stuffed from doughnuts, cookies, sandwiches, pasta or jello salads (and endless cups of coffee for the elders), we thought we'd never make through the day.  From those summer vacations of decades ago, I have lasting memories of my great aunts and the way they lived, laughed, and coped.  They turned the other cheek at any sign of trouble, and never let on if they felt nervous or afraid.  As capable as their pioneering parents and the Norwegian farmers before them, my great aunts lived each day as if tomorrow could not phase them... whatever the weather. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Happy Birthday to Mom!

Bill and Doris Wheeler as newlyweds in 1954

This photo was taken shortly after my parents were married, on the steps of the duplex they shared in Berkeley, California for a few months before purchasing their own house.  Today, Mom is celebrating her 93rd birthday, and I would like to share this poem in her honor.

A Prayer for a Mother's Birthday

by Henry Van Dyke

Lord Jesus, Thou hast known
A mother's love and tender care:
And Thou wilt hear, while for my own
Mother most dear I make this birthday prayer.

Protect her life, I pray,
Who gave the gift of life to me;
And may she know, from day to day,
The deepening glow of Life that comes from Thee.

As once upon her breast
Fearless and well content I lay,
So let her heart, on Thee at rest,
Feel fears depart and troubles fade away.

Her every wish fulfill;
And even if Thou must refuse
In anything, let Thy wise will
A comfort bring such as kind mothers use.

Ah, hold her by the hand,
As once her hand held mine;
And though she may not understand
Life's winding way, lead her in peace divine.
I cannot pay my debt
For all the love that she has given;
But Thou, love's Lord, wilt not forget
Her due reward,--bless her in earth and heaven.      

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Peek-A-Boo, Malla, We Found You

Malla Larson, at about age 16,
 ca. 1884 (this is the earliest
known photo of my great
Every family historian knows how maddening it can be when a source cannot be found to prove data that is well known by the family.  Some people call that a "brick wall," but you could also call it just plain frustrating.  Several family historians approached the problem of finding a birth or baptism date for my maternal great grandmother at different times, with no "proof" found other than what was written in the family Bible.

Malla (Vigesaa) (Larson) Johnson always told her family that she was born in LaCrosse, Wisconsin on April 20, 1868.  One thing I soon realized about my Norwegians ancestors is that they assumed major landmarks would stick in people's heads better than too much detail.  So, rather than specifically identifying where she had been born, Malla simply referred to nearby LaCrosse.  The trouble is, no birth or baptism record was forthcoming using the standard searches.

It was apparent that we had to go right to early church records, if any existed. Through collaboration with a cousin-in-law who is writing a Larson family history, it was determined that Malla must have grown up in Coon Valley, Wisconsin, a stopping-off place for many early Norwegian immigrants.   We had found proof of other family members living there, but nothing about Malla relating to Coon Valley.  She was still a child when the Erik and Kjersten Larson family relocated to Chippewa County, Minnesota and began homesteading.  We also knew that the family would not have attended any church other than Lutheran, which narrowed down the possible records.

It turns out that records for the Upper Coon Valley Lutheran Church in Wisconsin are only available in one place:  the LaCrosse Public Library.  I knew that if we were going to find anything on Malla's birth data, it would probably be on microfilm from that library.  Unhappily, I could not access the microfilm via interlibrary loan, so I began calculating how many years it might take before I could personally visit LaCrosse.  Too many, it seemed.

If we are patient enough, sometimes good things have a way of just happening (continual networking doesn't hurt, either).  I was just now contacted by a cousin-in-law, Nancy Larson, who has been working on a family history of our branch of the Larsons.  She made a new internet contact about whom she said, "It turns out she lives in Wisconsin. Turns out she works at a genealogy library, specializing in Norwegian research."  My cousin's new contact, after accessing the church records of interest on microfilm owned by the ELCA Archives (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America), came up with the following information:

#19 - Molla (Malla) b. 20 April, 1868, bap. 22 May, daughter of Erick Larsen and Christine Olsdatter, witnesses Sven Pederson, Engebret Sinbakken, Anne Jensdatter, Johanne Bredesdatter

Source:  ELCA Film #29 Upper Coon Valley 1868 Baptisms 1868

Ah!  Our search for Malla Vigesaa Larson's proof of birth has ended, with special thanks to a sympathetic professional and fellow researcher somewhere in Wisconsin.  I guess my trip to LaCrosse can wait a little bit longer...

If you are having a difficult time finding data for any Lutheran-American ancestors, try the research information and services available at the ECLA Archives, as specified on their webpage regarding Genealogy and Microfilm.  When doing family history research, ECLA Archives staff recommend first checking census records, naturalization papers, city directories, or related sources, before considering congregational records, especially if you are not certain your relatives were Lutheran.

Friday, March 08, 2013

My Childhood Home: Then & Now

Oh, the places the internet can take you now.  It has been 12 years since I last visited the San Francisco Bay Area and drove by the house where I spent most of my childhood on Carlson Boulevard, in the Panhandle Annex of Richmond, California. I discovered that I need not drive all the way to California to see what's up in the old 'hood, however.  We can fly nearly anywhere via Google Maps and look down upon fields, yards, and rooftops, and engage in innocent voyeurism from afar much like a pedestrian taking an early morning stroll.  If these techniques do not offer enough input, then online real estate listings will provide the rest, including photographs of exteriors, and even interiors whenever properties go up for sale.  But, in these photos our old stomping grounds can often be unrecognizable due to removed walls, added windows and structures, completely updated kitchens, and the like.  One thing I did recognize in a current photograph of the exterior of my childhood home was a black lava boulder that became a fixture at the bottom of our walkway.  It is still there today... but, more about that in a bit.

View Larger Map

The Richmond Panhandle Annex is the neighborhood shaded in blue.

My mother was raised on a Minnesota farm, and as a young adult, she worked seasonally at Richmond canneries.  She knew how to save money on a low income, so she was able to provide the down payment on our bungalow after she married Dad.  Our first house could not have been more than 1,000 square feet, with a living room, two small bedrooms, one bath, a kitchen that looked out onto the backyard, and a dining room.  Off the dining room there was a laundry room that connected to the one-car garage, and hiding underneath the laundry room was a small concrete cellar, intended as a air-raid shelter.  The house was built along the west coast during the threat of U. S. involvement in World War II (1940), and the architect seems to have taken family security quite seriously.  The cellar was accessed by lifting up an angled double-door, which sat against the back of the house much like an old-fashioned tornado shelter.  When Mom later had a family room built along that exterior back wall, a trap door in the laundry room floor became the only access.  A sump pump was installed in the cellar floor to deal with the constant moisture problem, courtesy of San Francisco Bay.  We always did battle mildew in that house.

Our lot was 7,500 square feet, bordered to the north by another single-family bungalow, and to the south by a two-story tri-plex apartment building.  Like most homes, the garage served us well for storage, and Dad's Ford fit nicely in the driveway.  The house was white with red shutters and a painted red porch and walkway, and it remained that way for many years.

Dad (Bill Wheeler) and me, with my favorite doll, Jane,  in front of the original shed at the back of the Carlson Blvd. house in April 1955.  We moved to the house that spring from a duplex apartment shared with Dad's cousin.

Growing up in the house on Carlson Boulevard meant a series of small things to me as a child.  Before my sister was born, and just after, I was regularly encouraged to play by myself in the backyard.  This meant regular visits with our beagle, who lived near the chicken coop and rabbit cage beside the shed.  The original shed that came with the house was later torn down and rebuilt by Dad and my maternal grandfather, Ernest Johnson.  The new shed was painted barn red to match the shutters on the house.  In addition to watching our animals, I spent my leisure time "popping" snapdragon flowers whenever Mom was not looking, climbing the wood fence to study the passion flowers growing over the neighbor's arbor, making cities out of baby powder cans and bottles on the lawn for my toy cars, or just laying on my back studying cloud formations.  When I was a little older and Mom was willing to trust me with the shed key, I sometimes took solitary sojourns to look at Dad's tools, even though I did not get to learn how to use many of them.  Still, I managed to pound more than a few nails into blocks of wood during those years, and came away with greasy enough hands that my shed adventures seemed satisfying enough.

The Wheeler home on Carlson Boulevard in Richmond, California, ca. 1956.

The essence of any family life, of course, is what goes on within four walls during the many hours of togetherness.  On Carlson Boulevard, my routine pretty much centered around a strict bedtime, and usually a breakfast of toast, jam and milk, the standard peanut butter or bologna sandwich for lunch with fruit and cookies, and whatever we had on hand for dinner: meatloaf, lamb or pork chops with potatoes, and (yuck) canned vegetables.  Whenever we had ham, it was the pre-cooked breakfast type that Mom would then fry to smithereens in a cast iron skillet.  Food was just sustenance, and she did what she could with the bargain groceries Dad sought out at the local Safeway.
My K-6 school days involved piano lessons from Mrs. Alva Anderson once a week before school, and walking the long blocks to Alvarado Elementary along a busy four-lane boulevard and under the busy I-80 overpass. More concrete awaited me at school, which was built atop a slope with a small play yard on the same level as the single story school building, and two large play yards cascading below.  Each level was separated by mountainous concrete embankments, with not a tree or a patch of dirt on the grounds, except for the small lawn at the office entrance. 

There are also sensual memories that linger from Carlson Boulevard, like listening to the mournful Alcatraz Island fog horn blaring from the middle of the Bay during periods of dense fog, and the tingling scent of eucalyptus trees in nearby Alvarado Park, part of the East Bay Wildcat Canyon Regional Park system.

As a new homeowner, Mom had visions of self-sufficiency like she experienced back on the farm.  There was at least one occasion when a batch of chicks was kept warm under a heat lamp on the laundry room floor, awaiting placement in the backyard chicken coop... ducklings, too, although they fared much less well than the chickens.  The poultry venture only lasted a few short years, however, until complaints from a neighbor put an end to our attempts at urban farming.  We have not been the only ones who were ever ignorant of zoning rules, however.  I had to laugh out loud in many places when I first read Farm City:  The Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter, which details an adventure in backyard self-sufficiency in nearby Oakland, in the midst of a more extreme urban environment than I ever experienced.

After my sister, Becky, was born,  she soon developed into a playmate with distinct preferences.  I do not remember how many hundreds of times I had to play "Mousetrap" on the living room floor or listen to the dreaded recording of "The Rooster With The Purple Head."  All for the love of family!  It was also at the house on Carlson where I watched the Beatles perform their famous stint on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, and hid under the blankets at night after watching the terrifying "Creature From the Black Lagoon" on our black and white television set.  It was not my first sleepless night, however.  I never did understand why Mom made me sleep in her twin bed just after my sister was born, while she stayed with the baby in my bedroon.  Didn't she know that there were alligators living in her and Dad's closet, just waiting to slither across a darkened room and snap at stray little arms and legs?

The dark, sparkling lava boulder I mentioned earlier became a permanent part of our front yard in about 1960, though it was never intended to be. The "boulder incident" occurred during one of our annual vacations in Oregon. Each August, Dad would take his two weeks vacation from the Bell Packing plant in Emeryville and drive our 1957 Ford Ranch Wagon northward, to Salem. My mother had a fair number of relatives in the Salem area: my aunt, grandfather, great aunts and uncles, not to mention cousins. During one visit when I was about 8-10 years old, Dad took a couple of the men in the family to do some rock hounding, probably in eastern Oregon. While he was away from the others (bathroom break, perhaps), my great uncle, Frank Johnson, and a cousin, Harvey Moen, managed to displace a large volcanic rock from a nearby outcropping.  Dad returned to find a big object perched atop the station wagon, looking rather like a lighthouse optic section had sprouted on the roof.  He must have been angry, but Mom does not recall his showing more than a mild annoyance. He probably did not want to admit that he had been taken.  At 5'3" in height, Dad could not even begin to move the boulder on his own without damaging the wagon, and he never would have demanded help from the pranksters themselves.  I do not have any memory of what occurred after that, but Mom says we drove the 800 miles + back to the Bay Area with that lava rock perched atop the car. She was amazed that the Highway Patrol did not pull us over and ask about it. At home, a friend or neighbor helped lift the dense rock off the car.  Where the rock first came off the car is where it stayed, at the edge of the driveway. The boulder was so heavy that it left a crease on the roof of the Ford.

The Wheeler home on Carlson Blvd. in 1965.  Note the lava boulder at the bottom of the walkway steps, left-hand side, in front of the trailer.

Like most urban neighborhoods, Richmond, including the Annex, has had its ups and downs.  The City of Richmond, which borders San Francisco Bay, experienced a population explosion in the 1940s due to the shipyards and other wartime manufacturing.  But, decreasing industrial jobs after the war and the relocation of many businesses to newer areas created an economic depression, and property began losing value.  By the 1970s, the area was decaying rapidly.  As per example, other owners of the house on Carlson Boulevard had bars installed on the front door and windows at some point.  Richmond, sad to say, developed an infamous reputation based increased crime rates and gang activity over the past few decades.

The same house in 2001, some 36 years after my family moved to El Cerrito.  Bars had been installed on the front door and windows--a sign of significant change in the neighborhood. The lava boulder remains, barely visible below the door of the white pickup.

A comment was posted on Yelp:  City of Richmond by a former resident, and I could not have put it more eloquently:

This is not a review of Richmond, but a lament, really... Richmond is the best little city that could have been but never was. It has everything going for it, all the ingredients that could have made a nice town: great old architecture (what hasn't been torn down yet), cheap housing and some beautiful old houses, great location and weather. It used to be a real working man's town... Then they tore down downtown. Richmond has been the victim of poor urban planning, endemic racism (from all sides), and an inert and inept city government. Add crime, drugs and a huge population that has lost its ability to function without public assistance and it is a recipe for dysfunction...  don't get me wrong, I still like Richmond because I'm from there... Overall however, when I am there I just can't wait to get out again... One thing I have to say about growing up in Richmond is that I can definitely tell the difference between backfire and gunshot.

The good news is that the old neighborhood may be on the verge of re-surging values, both socially and economically.  Young business professionals, who are finding a shortage of affordable housing elsewhere in the Bay Area, are snapping up real estate "deals," and buying older, less expensive homes and refurbishing them to the max. The latest owners of my childhood home have not only taken off the iron bars, but the interior has been completely modernized in recent years, with a covered deck added to the backyard.  Things are now looking up again for the Panhandle Annex.  No matter what changes lie ahead for my childhood community, I will always have my memories of growing up as part of a Richmond blue collar family with strong, traditional values--a beginning as rock-solid as that lava boulder that still keeps guard along my old walkway.