Wednesday, January 23, 2019

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks (Week 4): I'd Like to Meet

I'd Like to Meet:  Julia Johnson Larson

Julia Johnson Larson, ca. 1885
I cannot think of an ancestor I've researched who I have not been curious to know more about.  I wish I could bring each one of them "back to life" using stories.  But, since I must choose one now, I'll pick my maternal great grandfather's only full sister, Julia (Johnson) Larson, as someone I'd like to meet.  One reason is that I did not know she existed until I began to dive into genealogy about eighteen years ago.  By networking with newly discovered cousins, I managed to collect little info bits that tempted my curiosity for more.  What really intrigued me is that Julia lived a life similar to Laura Ingalls Wilder, of Little House on the Prairie fame.

Julia's birth name was Elen Julie Baardsdatter Lassemo.  She was born on November 29, 1862, to Thibertine ("Bertina") Olsdatter and Baard Johnson (hence the patronymic surname of "Baardsdatter"), on the farm called Lassemo near Grong, Nord-Trøndelag, Norway.  In Norwegian, the name "Julie" is pronounced more like "Juli-eh," so adopting the American spelling of Julia made sense.  After the family arrived in America, they ceased using patronymic last names and consistently used the surname of "Johnson."

Arriving in America at age three and a half, Julia possibly retained a few early memories of her homeland, and perhaps of the challenging voyage across the Atlantic.  In 1868, after her family began homesteading in Chippewa County, Minnesota, she settled into her new role as a prairie girl.  I picture her as a youngster being a trifle too silly at times, and suffering admonishments from her serious older brother, Ole.  I also envision her taking the time to visit each farm animal on summer days, wearing a straw hat to protect her face from the strong sun.  But, the pioneer way of life was not all sunshine, kittens, and wildflowers.  Although we enjoyed the television series, the Laura Ingalls Wilder character was oblivious to much of what had to be going on in real life.  Let's face it:  pioneer life was many things, but it was usually not light-hearted, and never easy.

I think that Julia must have had a rambunctious side when young, or she may have been a bit too fun-loving or willful for what protocol often allowed.  One day at school, a teacher cuffed her on the ear for some unknown infraction, and the blow affected her hearing for the rest of her life.  Another time, while wading in a nearby creek with some classmates after school, she slipped and fell into a deep spot and nearly drowned.  A neighbor girl saved Julia by pulling her from the water just in time.  When Julia was taught how to knit at a young age, using precious strands of yarn that could hardly be spared, her understanding but practical mother became miffed when Julia announced that she was making socks for the barn cat.

Julia's early years on the tall grass prairie were never boring.  During the 1860s-1870s, Native Americans, probably of the Chippewa Tribe, would often come to the door of her parents' homestead cabin and offer fish in trade for some bread or coffee.  Sometimes they stayed to have a helping of whatever was warming on the cook stove.  Julia's children would later recall hearing local Indian children playing a game on the river ice each winter, yelling something like "Inchee, Kinchee, Kin-ah-nee!" as they slid on the ice in bare feet.

Julia Johnson Larson with two of her grandchildren and a canine friend.  At the Larson farm near Granite Falls, Minnesota, July 1919.

At age 22, Julia married Ole Eriksen Larson (Vigesaa) on December 10, 1884.  Ole was the second eldest son of neighboring farmers, Erik and Kjersten Larson (Vigesaa).  The Larson family emigrated from Bjerkreim, Helleland, Rogaland, Norway, and originally settled in Coon Valley, Wisconsin.  Ole used to say that his parents relocated to Minnesota because their Wisconsin farmhouse turned out to be haunted.  At night, it sounded like chains were being dragged back and forth across the roof.  One has to wonder if this is a story that Ole liked to tell his children in order to watch their eyes grow wide with wonder and fear.  Knowing that Julia also had a fun side, she probably did not object to her husband's tale.  She married a man of unusual talents.  Ole E. Larson was adept at blacksmithing, but was known to have a healing touch with animals (sort of a "horse whisperer").  He was usually boarding an extra animal or two that he was trying to cure of some ailment.  He was also one of those unique individuals who could find water by using the forked stick method, and he could play the fiddle "by ear."

Julia (Johnson) Larson, in 1940.
After the wedding, Julia joined her husband on his parents' 71-acre farm near Granite Falls in Chippewa County, Minnesota.  By 1878, the property was improved to include a stable, a granary, and a well, with 200 forest trees and about a dozen apple trees set out.  In 1866, Julia's older brother, Ole Johnson, married Ole E. Larson's younger sister, Malla Larson.  The children born to both couples were, therefore, "double cousins," with both sets of parents providing similar sets of genes to their respective offspring.  Between 1885-1904, Ole and Julia Larson had seven children:  Christine (who lived to the age of 103); Ben (born two weeks after the disastrous "Schoolhouse" or "Children's" Blizzard that hit the northern Great Plains on January 12, 1888); followed by Emily, Thea, Emma, Josephine, and Oddie.

My mother recalled meeting her great aunt only once.  It happened during a trip she made back to Minnesota in the winter of 1947/48.  Mom's grandfather and Julia's brother, Ole Johnson, was hospitalized and not expected to live.  At the time, Julia had already sold her farm, having been a widow since 1918.  She was living with a daughter, Josephine (Larson) Knutson, and her family in a rental house near Montevideo.  Mom hardly got to visit with her great aunt, because Julia preferred to keep busy in the kitchen.  As a girl on the prairie, Julia had been well-taught how to make do in the kitchen with practically nothing, and she considered cooking her specialty.  Mom would never have another chance to see her great aunt, for Julia passed away at the age of 86, about a year and a half later.

One of Josephine's daughter's remembered that her grandmother tended to spoil her and her siblings, much to their mother's dismay.  Whenever the granddaughter offered to help with the dishes after a meal, Grandma Julia would tell her:  "Go out and play--you will have plenty of time to work when you are older."  Julia was described as a strong-willed woman who was never faint-of-heart.  She had been brought up to always be busy with something, and it was a habit she engaged in throughout her life, whether making lefse (a traditional Norwegian flatbread made from potatoes, flour, butter, and milk or cream), knitting mittens, or making doll accessories.  She passed along a love of gardening to her granddaughters.  Although Julia encountered plenty of challenges during her life, she always managed to keep a twinkle in her gray eyes--a constant reminder of the curious and adventurous prairie girl still hidden within.


--Dorothy Knutson Joseph and Margjorie Knutson Skrukrud, daughters of Josephine Larson Knutson, letters to Chery Kinnick, 2005.
--Norway, Select Baptisms, 1634-1927, "Elen Julia Baarsdatter,"
--Land Entry File, Cert. 4668, "Larson, Erick," "Homestead Application," March 28, 1871, NARA, Washington D.C.

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