Friday, May 17, 2013

A Cure For What Ails You: Ole B. Berge

Anne Marie (Slaeen/Sloan) and Ole B. Berge,
 Dec. 1945.
One of my maternal great grandfathers was the ultimate grandpa, so I'm told.  Ole Benhardt Berge was a stately, "beautiful" man, according to another one of his great-grandchildren who knew him personally.  Ole had a full head of hair even when elderly, which had gone totally silver from the dark hair of his youth, and a full moustache that was the envy of many.  He was an honorable man all of his life, right up until the day he died.  But, even the most honorable of men can still encounter little blips and challenges along the pathway of life.

Ole B. Berge left the picturesque Gudbrandsdalen Valley near Lillehammer, Norway in 1869 at the age of four, along with his mother, Karen Bue Berge, and older sister, Othilie. Ole's father, Gulbran Olsen Berge, left Norway a year before his wife and children; he was a passenger aboard the Hannah Parr during the eventful Spring 1868 voyage that ended up being one of the best documented excursions of early immigrant sailing vessels.  Karen could not travel until the next year because she was expecting a baby, a little girl who died shortly after birth.  Four more children were born in America, including two daughters who survived childhood:  Gunda and Sophie.

During the early years of his married life, Ole B. Berge farmed west of Maynard in Chippewa County, Minnesota.  In 1896, he moved his family into town where he built the first hotel. A few years later, he operated the town's first meat market with George Lawrence, and also worked as a postal carrier. The Berges then moved to Leonard, Minnesota in 1910, but they were not able to make enough living from their Leonard area farm, so they returned to Maynard after seven years and Ole again took an interest in civic affairs and was engaged in many activities.

Ole was a gentle, well-respected, and somewhat quiet man, but he did have a couple of vices.  For one thing, he smoked a pipe, which was not uncommon among Norwegian men.  When he was a young boy, his mother arranged for a photograph to be taken of her "little man" in Norway before boarding their ship for America in 1869.  Ole was posed with a miniature pipe in his mouth, meant to look just like Papa Gulbran's, I'm sure.

Ole B. Berge, 1869
In addition to his pipe, Ole was also rather fond of whiskey.  Perhaps it helped him deal with day-to-day stresses, since he did not have the kind of personality that would have allowed him to deal with things head-on.  In October 1897, at age 32, he admitted himself to a rehabilitation clinic in Minneapolis.

Although Ole enjoyed a bit of whiskey on a regular basis, family members have indicated that his drinking was moderated and did not appear to be problematic.  His wife, Anne Marie ("Mary") may have been concerned that he was drinking at all, and he obviously did not want to give her cause to worry.  Mary, as she was called, was known to be a sweet woman and loving companion.  Both she and Ole were active in the Lutheran Church.  In 1897, she and Ole were raising five young children in Maynard, Minnesota:  George, Harry, Chester and Esther (fraternal twins), and Mabel, who was a year old.  They had lost a child, the first Chester Albin Berge, in 1892.  In the following years, Mary would give birth to six more children:  Bennie, Cora, Mildred, Clarice, and Stella, and the last child, who died as an infant in 1911.  Esther, one of the fraternal twins, was my maternal grandmother.

The "Gay Nineties" brought an epidemic of alcoholism that swept across America, and Dr. Leslie E. Keeley's "cure" caught the wave on the rise.  The Keeley Institute utilized a special double chloride of gold remedy for "Liquor, Opium and Tobacco Habits, and Nerve Exhaustion."  Professor H. Wayne Morgan in his book, Drugs in America, concluded that "whatever the precise nature of the compounds, they clearly relied on tranquilization and antagonism for effect. Some relaxed and stupefied the patient while others created a temporary distaste for alcohol ... As for gold, its presence, if any, was hard to detect, and it had no therapeutic value, but had strong symbolic appeal."

Letterhead from the Keeley Institute in Minneapolis, from a letter written by Ole B. Berge to his wife, Anne Marie on October 4, 1897.

I have copies of three letters that Ole wrote to his wife, Anne Marie ("Mari"), during his stay at the clinic in October 1897.  They need to be translated from Norwegian into English before it can be determined whether any of Ole's feelings on the matter are revealed in his writings.  All that is known currently is that, after going through the program for several weeks, Ole returned home and apparently picked up his old habit where he left off.

During the Berges' second round of residence in Maynard, they lived in a house on the eastern edge of town, which Ole built himself. A great-grandson, Curtis Leroy Berge, said that Ole and Mary usually kept barrels of lutefisk in the second story of their home and that they seemed to live on the stuff during the winter. Curtis remembered going to Maynard on the train to visit the Berges when he was a boy. His Great Aunt Clarice would meet him at the train station and walk back with him to the house. In addition to the ever-present lutefisk, Great Grandma Mari and the young aunts were continously "baking up a storm."

At age 68, Ole suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered.  Even so, Ole and his wife, Mari, celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary before her death in 1947.  Despite Ole's moderate dependency on whiskey throughout most of his adult life, he lived to the good age of 84, passing away on January 24, 1949.  Ole and Mari are buried beside one another at Maynard Lutheran Cemetery in Chippewa County, Minnesota, near their home for many years.


--Berge, Ole B., Obituary:  newspaper clipping from Chippewa County, Minnesota, Jan. 1949, copy in the possession of the author.
--Groothuis, Michael J.  Voice From the Past (Chinhinta Productions, 1987).
--"In the 1890s, alcoholics lined up for the Keeley gold cure." (, accessed 5/11/2013.
--Minnesota Death Index, 1908-2002.
--Morgan, H. Wayne.  Drugs in America:  a social history, 1800-1980 (Syracuse:  Syracuse University Press, 1981).

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