Monday, February 25, 2019

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks (Week 9): In the Courthouse

Where There's a Will Book, There's a Way:

Ole M. Johnson and an Unexpected Guardianship

Most of my American family history research centers around Minnesota, but I have lived on the west coast all of my life.  During the summer of 2004, I managed to spend a glorious five hours at the Minnesota Historical Society Library in St. Paul.  For those who also find traveling out-of-state for research a challenge, you can appreciate just how special this visit was for me.  How much research can you accomplish with the clock ticking down?  Ready... Set... Go!  Talk about pressure...  Nonetheless, a pleasant surprise awaited me.  In addition to carrying out some planned research at the MHS Library, I happened to find an early will book for Chippewa County--the very county where all four sets of my maternal 2nd great grandparents lived during the 1870s, and where their children formed marital relationships that helped to result in me!

Ole M. Johnson, ca. 1872, Montevideo, MN.
The will book revealed a bit of family history that I did not previously know about, and I doubt any other living relative did either.  It showed that my great-grandfather, who lost his father while still a minor, had his interests protected legally by a courthouse document.  When Ole's widowed mother, Bertina Johnson, decided to remarry, it was to Eric L. Winje.  Eric, who was born to a Norwegian immigrant father, studied law on his own and became one of Chippewa County's first Norwegian-American attorneys.  Bertina agreed that Eric should serve as the administrator for her late husband's (Baard Johnson's) estate.  Eric Winje was intent on doing everything correctly when it came to his ready-made family, so he secured a legal guardian for his stepson, Ole, who stood to inherit his birth father's homestead when he became of legal age.

The guardian chosen for young Ole Johnson was nearby landowner Ole P. Anderson, one of the earliest settlers in the Granite Falls area of Chippewa County.  He was born in Norway and served in the Civil War before settling near Granite Falls in about 1869.  He also served the assessor for Granite Falls Township for five years, and also held offices as supervisor, town clerk, and county commissioner.  Anderson was obviously a well-respected local man whom Eric Winje and his wife Bertina (Johnson) could trust.

In 1882, after Ole M. Johnson became legal age, he acquired ownership of his father's homestead in Granite Falls Township and began farming.  His mother and stepfather moved with their children to the nearby town of Montevideo, where Eric was serving as Clerk of Court, a Chippewa County official.  The discovery of this legal action was unexpected.  How fortunate Ole was to have a stepfather who was looking out for his best interests!


Neill, Rev. Edward D.  History of the Minnesota Valley, Including the Explorers and Pioneers of Minnesota.  Minneapolis:  North Star Publishing Company 1882.

Will Book I, Chippewa County, Minnesota, 117.D.15.7.B, Minnesota State Historical Society.  Court document regardin Ole M. Johnson as a minor (Eric Winje as legal administrator for the estate of Baard Johnson, and Ole M. Johnson's guardianship).

Monday, February 18, 2019

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks (Week 8): Family Photo

The Girl Inside My Mother

My mother, Doris (right), with her Aunt Stella in March 1969.  El Cerrito, CA.

I recently ran across a photo I had not seen in many years.  My mom, Doris, kept it tucked away in a small album that contained mostly photos of garden roses and cacti or succulent plants she had nurtured to astounding size and health (she had a green thumb).  The photo dates back to March 1969, and it is of Mom sitting at our dining room table with one of her maternal aunts.  A special birthday cake made around the torso of a doll is displayed on the table in front of them.  It is a simple image, made with the early color film that ended up fading too easily, shot with a prized possession of the 1960s, a Kokak Instamatic camera.

What is special about this photo is the completely relaxed and happy look on my mother's face.  The cake was in honor of her 49th birthday which occurred that St. Patrick's Day.  Mom was shy and reserved.  She was always a worrier, and never felt totally comfortable being on the receiving end of a camera.  But, this special moment meant so much to her that we can just see her appreciation spilling over in that smile.  It is the same living-in-the-moment happiness she certainly experienced as a child growing up on a farm.  This carefree contentment did not show on her face very often, but it did manage to get captured in a few photos over the course of her lifetime.  At the time this photo was taken, her happiness was about more than just birthday cake.  It had to do with being next to the woman on her right, my grandmother's youngest sister, Stella (Berge) Schuster.

In early 1969, Mom's Aunt Stella traveled from Minnesota to the Bay Area for a rare visit, along with another aunt, Clarice (Berge) Gunzberger, and her husband, Sol Gunzberger.  It was the first time and only time I ever remember meeting any of my grandmother's siblings.  It was a mild March in the Bay Area--the sun was shining and the lovely Saucer Magnolia tree in our front yard was in full bloom, with large whitish-pink petals scattered about the lawn.

My maternal grandmother, Esther (Berge) Johnson, passed away in Minnesota from tuberculosis before my mother turned two years of age.  It was a devastating loss for Mom and her sister, Phyllis.  Although the little sisters were well cared for by family members, they grew up without a mother to nurture and defend them.  The girls were sent to live with their paternal grandparents, and since Esther's family lived in another town, Mom did not get to see the maternal (Berge) side of her family very often.

Esther Johnson with her baby, Doris, in 1920.
When Mom became an adult and left her paternal grandparents' farm, she moved in with her Aunt Stella in St. Paul, Minnesota and found a job.  Shortly after, she followed other relatives to California, although truth be told, she would rather have stayed in Minnesota.  She enjoyed living with her maternal aunt in St. Paul and getting to know her better.  One time, I asked Mom who of her relatives she thought I was most like, and she said it was Stella.  I was flattered, since Stella, who had worked as a nurse, was quiet, kind, and sensitive.  She was the type of aunt that I, too, wished I could have spent more time with.

Is it any wonder that this particular photograph captures Mom's face in a rare moment of unfettered happiness?  Stella and Clarice brought along so many pleasant memories and feelings to the reunion.  They were close blood kin to Mom's own mother, and it was almost as if Esther had come along, too.  Through the eyes, voices, and arms of her younger sisters, Esther returned to Earth once more to reassure her baby girl--my mother, Doris.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks (Week 7): Love

Old-Fashioned Love and Apple Pie

Ole Johnson weds Malla Larson, Feb. 28, 1886.

When I realized I would be writing about love for "52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks," the first thing that entered my mind was the type of relationship experienced by more than one long-married couple in my mother's immigrant farming family.  We're talking about love that runs like an invisible thread connecting everything and every moment together.  According to the stories told me by my relatives, my great grandparents, Ole and Malla Johnson, had more than just a marriage.  They had a foundation of bedrock... of trust and understanding.

I recently had the good (and timely) fortune to hear a sermon on the subject of real love:  In "Love Like This," our pastor asked his congregation to consider what real love looks like.  What are some of the characteristics of real love?  Spoiler Alert:  it is not candy, hearts, or turtle-doves... and it is certainly not lust.  Any type of real love, romantic or otherwise, is messy, irregular, and requires determined commitment to keep it running like clockwork.  Here are six qualities of real love as they were experienced by my maternal great grandparents, Ole and Malla Johnson.

"Real love is hard work"


Malla Larson was 19 years old when she married Ole Johnson, a young and capable Norwegian immigrant farmer who had inherited his father's homestead near Granite Falls, Minnesota.  Aside from the continual physical labor she engaged in to keep her household running, Malla also acquired the work of learning about her new husband.  Raised on a farm herself, she understood most of what was expected of her in the sense of putting food on the table, tending to chores, and being a helpmate.  But, she also knew that learning to love involves anticipating someone's elses unspoken needs and accommodating them without always being asked or thanked.

Ole, too, had to learn to understand the particular challenges faced by his new wife.  An amusing example concerns apple pie.  Ole particularly loved warm apple pie.  Apples were a rarity on the Johnson farm.  The fruit could not be grown properly in northern Minnesota due to extreme temperature changes.  Over the winter holidays, Ole would buy a few of boxes of apples, and Malla or one of their girls willingly made pies from them.  They were not able to keep the pies warm until Ole came in from the fields for dinner, however, because the big cast iron cookstove was needed for a host of other things.  Ole never complained about the pies being cold.  He knew that Malla could only do what she could do.  Instead, he put warm apple pie at the top of his agenda whenever he had the opportunity to eat at a hotel restaurant in a neighboring town.  Part of the real work of building a loving relationship means exercising patience and understanding, in spite of one's own wants... even when it comes to pie.

"Real love will sometimes make you unhappy"


When the actions of someone you love do not live up to your expectations, then it is up to you to change your expectations for the sake of your commitment.  There were probably times when Malla privately questioned actions Ole took to increase the famly's prospects.  She may have been taken aback when he wanted to move away from a community she had grown comfortable with... not once, but twice.  The first time was when Ole sold his father's homestead property and moved the family to Fosston in Polk County so that he could have a chance at dairy farming.  The second time was when he chose to leave Fosston for a different farm near Leonard in Clearwater County.  It is not known if Malla was fully on board with these decisions.  In the end, she was supportive of Ole's dream.  In return, he provided for her specific needs to the best of his ability.

"Real love will cost you"


Love also involves fear, anger, and even pain and loss.  Loving someone is risky; it will cost you time, energy, and worry.  It will claim pieces of yourself as you learn to share openly and be responsible for another person's well being.  Love will cost you effort, and above all, patience.  Ole and Malla Johnson were a team.  The actions of one affected the other, and vice versa.  If one celebrated, so did the other.  If one suffered, the other could certainly not go on unaffected.  Real love tucks coins into the bank on sunny days in anticipation of stormy days that will surely come.  For Ole and Malla, the satisfaction they felt after a day's honest work was often reward enough for their journey together, with Ole reading his paper in front of the fire, Malla knitting a new pair of socks, and both surrounded by their children making popcorn for an after-dinner treat.

"Real love is tough, rugged and strong"


Ole and Malla's relationship flourished only because both cared enough to make it a priority.  For early farming folk, it was exactly this type of teamwork that could determine a family's success or failure in the world.  They were both physically strong indiviuals, also emotionally mature and capable of putting the needs of others before any thoughts for themselves as individuals.  Their love was made stronger by the daily demands of providing for the needs of their children.

"Real love is courageous"


Whatever was to come, Ole and Malla were in it together.  They were fortunate in that they did not lose a single child to disease or accident.  The reality was that most families before the modern era did suffer irretrievable loss.  It was not uncommon for an epidemic to claim several members of the same family.  Ole and Malla continously faced this possibility while raising their ten children to adulthood.

"Real love means dying to self"


There were seemingly insignificant but poignant ways the bond between Ole and Malla was observed by family members.  For example, Ole never referred to his wife by name.  Malla was always "she" or "her," but never "Malla."  This may seem odd, but think of how odd it would have been for Ole to continually refer to himself as "Ole" to others.  He felt it unnecessary to call Malla by her name, since he knew exactly who she was.  She was an intrinsic a part of him, just as if God had come along and removed one of his ribs in order to create her.  Their real love meant that they were an inseparable part of each other's heart, mind, and soul.

A final proof of the strong connection between Ole and Malla Johnson is the unexpected manner in which both of their lives came to an end.  At age 87, Ole took ill while he was out chopping wood--a chore he actually enjoyed.  He was hospitalized and diagnosed with advanced stage prostate cancer and heart disease.  He was not expected to live long, and over the next few weeks, relatives came from near and far to pay their respects.  Malla welcomed all visitors into her home, and while working extra hard to ensure their comfort during the cold spring weather, she contracted pneumonia.  She may have also suffered a stroke.  Malla was taken to the same hospital where her husband had lain ill for an extended period, but she passed away within a few hours of being admitted.  One of their daughters, Thea, had the task of telling her father the sad news.  Ole was hard of hearing, so Thea got close to her father's ear and said, very simply:  "Ma died today."  Within sixteen hours, Ole also succumbed.  Years later, one of their grandsons shared that it was as if Ole had been waiting for Malla to come along.

Ole and Malla Johnson were buried together in a joint service in East Zion Cemetery, a small community Lutheran cemetery in Dudley Township, Clearwater County, just across the road from the farm they spent years building up.  Together in life, they experienced real love in all of its varied and challenging forms.  Together in death, they serve as a reminder of love's continuing possibilities, and above all, its enduring commitment.


Craig Laughlin, Pastor.  "Love Like This," Sermon, Generations Community Church, Marysville, Washington, January 29, 2019.

Monday, February 04, 2019

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks (Week 6): Surprise

The Girl Who "Lived" in a Teacup

Hattie Christine Winje, ca. 1887/88
Some of our ancestors led preciously short lives.  Sadly, this was the case with a few of my great great grandmother's children, including Annie Jorgene Winje, born in 1885, and Hattie Christine Winje, born in 1883.  Although Hattie's name and vital dates were previously known due to official records and my visit to a family cemetery, how her photograph was located came as a bit of a surprise.

Hattie was an adorable five-year-old girl with fine deatures, a cleft chin, and long auburn hair--the same color as her mother's.  Soon after the youngest sibling, Annie, was born to Eric and Thibertine "Bertina" Winje, the family moved from Chippewa County in Minnesota to Duluth, near the Wisconsin border.  The girls' father, Eric Larsen Winje, was a self-educated Norwegian immigrant attorney--one of the first in Chippewa County--where he served as County Clerk and Justice of the Peace.  A career opportunity led him to the shores of Lake Superior.  In Duluth, he began working as an attorney and later became a municipal court judge.  The family exchanged their life on the prairie for new experiences within the urban environment of a growing city.  Different opportunities, including modern amenities and more advanced schooling for the children, were suddenly available.  After leaving the homestead, there was no longer any back-breaking plowing or gathering of fields to be done, and no cold and hungry farm animals to tend each morning.  The individual energies of family members could then turn to other things, and the sky became the limit.

Even with increased possibilities presented, city life offered little protection from some of life's constant dangers.  Before immunizations became available, disease was an inescapable concern in both rural and urban settings.  Wherever there was human contact, deadly diseases were a common occurence.  During the spring of 1888, Eric Winje lost his only brother to diphtheria back in Chippewa County.  Before he could even receive notification of the event, some of his children had also contracted the same disease, even though they were counties removed from their old home.  The bustling growth of Duluth typified the burgeoning social progress of the late nineteenth century, when changes in infrastructure became necessary in order to handle increasing populations.  Of major concern in Duluth was the antiquated water system, to which upgrades did not occur until the 1890s.  Before then, the city drew its water supply directly from Lake Superior, where the unscreened intake pipe was too close to shore and frequently became clogged with a build-up of dead fish, animal skins, and other unsavory things.  In spite of City warnings to residents to boil their drinking water, diseases usually spread quickly.

As her parents and older siblings looked on helplessly, on May 30, 1888, Hattie Christine Winje died from the ravages of diphtheria.  It is a disease caused by a bacterium that causes a thick covering at the back of the throat, sometimes cutting off air supply to the lungs.  Three days later, on June 2, her younger sister, Annie, also succumbed.  In later years, their eldest sister, Julia Johnson Larson, would shake her head sorrowfully when remembering the little girls.  "Stakkars liten" (poor little ones) she would say, recalling the sensless loss.

Many decades later, when I first began doing genealogy research, I held little hope of learning more about the youngest Winje girls, Hattie and Annie.  As I connected with new-found cousins across the United States, I sent them a "wish list" of things I was hoping to locate, including photographs.  One Larson cousin who lived near Lake Tahoe, California (far removed from Minnesota) sent me a packet of things to look over.  Much to my surprise, included in the batch of items was an old, very small and dark tin-type image of a young girl who looked to be about five years old.  On the back was written "Hattie Winje."  The Hattie Winje???  Yes, indeed!  Dare I hope that an image of little Annie Winje also existed?  Perhaps my cousin had overlooked it.

I immediately wrote back asked my cousin where she got the tin type.  The reply came:  "Oh, it's been sitting in a teacup that used to belong to my grandmother (Julia Johnson Larson); it's been tucked away in my china cabinet all these years."  This one-of-a-kind image survived for 117 years until it came to the attention of the family historian (me), and may actually be all that remains of a brief but cherished life.

It seemed doubtful that Annie would also be located, if an image had been taken of her during her two short years on Earth.  In modern days, we are challenged with a dearth of print photographs due to an explosion of quickly available digital options.  In the past, taking the time to have print copies of images made was too expensive and time consuming, so families tended to divide and distribute collections, often in unorganized ways.  I tend to think that Annie may have ended up in another undetermined family member's teacup.  But, thanks to persistent networking, an inherited piece of china, and a concerned cousin, Hattie's sweet face can still be seen, and her family can continue to imagine the laughter of a beloved little red-haired child who was called to her heavenly home much too soon.


--Winje family marker, Scandia Cemetery, Duluth, Minnesota.
--Death register for "Winje, Hatty C.," #102, 1888, St. Louis County, Minnesota Death Records Index (online).
--Chery Kinnick,  A Long Way Downstream:  The Life and Family of Thibertine Johnson Winje, Norwegian-American Pioneer,  Nordic Blue Press, 2008.