Thursday, April 30, 2020

Rediscovering the Personal in Vintage Art: Christine B. Fielding

Art and Artifact as Family History

Over the past years I have collected a few small vertical watercolor or oil paintings made by hobbyists during the early part of the twentieth century.  Most sales descriptions list these paintings as rustic or primitive, with a rural or scenic focus.  Some are purely landscapes adorned with combinations of mountains, trees, water, snow, sunsets, or moonlight.  Others also contain a building as a focal point, such as a cabin, church, or farmhouse.  The overall effect is enchanting, rather like a compelling scene in a children's book.

The first time I really noticed one of these paintings was many years ago, while perusing an antique shop with my mother in Benicia, California.  The imaginative scene that captured my attention (only 6-1/2 ins. by 11-1/2 ins, antique frame included)  depicts a meandering stream flowing between snow covered banks, with bare trees rising to graduated red and yellow tones in an mottled evening sky.  On one side of the painting an old gray farmhouse puffs smoke from a brick chimney, inviting the viewer to step inside the scene and become warmed by its nostalgia.  My mother already had an old print something like it at home, and I knew that she loved similar scenes, especially those depicting old time cabins.  Offering her the right of refusal, I said, "If you don't buy it, I will."  She quickly collected the find to take home.

Fast forward through the years and I have inherited that little painting of the old gray farmhouse adorning a winter scene.  I have acquired other vertical paintings since then, most of which are unsigned or have only initials painted in the lower corner.  There is usually very little to go on when researching any of the artists, especially since they were often hobbyists and not well known.  One of my latest purchases happens to be adorned with the artist's complete signature:  "Christine B. Fielding."  A date penciled on the back of the framed piece indicates it was completed on March 14, 1916.  When presented with a fact or two on which to lay a foundation, I often become excited by the prospect of a "great information chase."  I decided to try and learn what I could about the pair of hands responsible for this recent addition to my little collection.

This 17 x 8 watercolor (original frame) was created by Christine B. Fielding in 1916.  The rural scene is of a stream banked by shrubs and birch trees, with a church steeple visible in the near distance.  I purchased the painting from an antique dealer located in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2018. 

Enthusiasm for the art of watercolor took off in the United States after the founding of the American Watercolor Society in 1866.  Within fifty years, close to the exact year Christine Fielding made the painting now in my possession, the medium was widely practiced and celebrated as a national form of expression.  Most often, it was regarded as a means of personal accomplishment, bringing creative satisfaction to those who could practice the art well enough to create something pleasing.  In an era when it was still difficult for women to find professional work, some with exceptional skills used watercolor art to enter the field of decorative design, which provided employment in fields like exhibition work and illustration, among others. (1)

Many of these paintings were made by women who had the desire to create something beautiful and also possessed the means to add a leisure pursuit to their daily duties.  Christine was not born into wealth, so her motive in learning to paint was not the same as that of a debutante collecting accomplishments for the sake of social climbing.  We can attribute Christine's accomplishment to interest, youthful energy, and exposure to someone who could teach the basic skills.  Her father was a successful businessman, but after his death the nuclear family and in-laws grouped together for greater economy.  Since Christine lived with other adults at the time she was working on her painting, responsibility for any day-to-day household chores was shared.  Finding herself with a little time to spare upon occasion, painting could easily have become a Sunday-after-church pursuit.

Although I do not have a photograph of Christine, I imagine her seated beside a tall wood-framed window awash in bright, indirect light from newly fallen winter snow.  Her fine hair is swept into a loose bun atop her head and held in place with multiple pins.  Wearing a blowsy sailor-collared tunic with the hem of her long, straight underskirt at her ankles, an old linen dishtowel is spread across her lap to protect the skirt from dripping paint.  After dabbing a brush into the earthy coloring on her palette, she lifts it toward the canvas and carefully considers the next stroke...

"Christine B. Fielding":  signature in the lower right  corner of the painting.

Christine B. Fielding:  Small Town American Girl

Who was Christine?  Where and when did she live, and how did this romantic and diminutive landscape come to be preserved for my discovery over a hundred years later?  I began my research with what little I could accept as fact:  a name, and one date.

With the painting having been completed in 1916, I estimated Christine's birth year to be between 1880-1890.  Sometimes you just have to begin with a strong hunch:  wet fingers to the wind!  Thankfully, Christine's full name was rather unique for this time period.  Using 1880 as a birth year, plus or minus 10 years, an initial search on revealed that in 1910, Christine B. Fielding resided in Milbank, Grant County, South Dakota.  That year, other members of the household included her widowed mother, Amelia Peterson, who owned the family home on Milbank Avenue, free and clear.  Also living within the same walls was Christine's husband, Frank C. Fielding, who then delivered groceries for a living, and their son, Herbert, aged two years.  Christine's older sister and only living sibling, Anna Louise (Peterson) Dougherty, was also at the residence along with her husband, Connie Dougherty, an Irish teamster who operated a dray line. (2)

Christina Bergata Peterson (her name as recorded in 1900 census records), was a second generation Dane.  She was born in Minnesota in July 1888, to Jens and Amelia (Bolsen) Peterson.  Her parents immigrated to America from Denmark separately, then met and married in Minnesota in 1887.  By 1894, the Peterson family lived in Milbank, Grant County, South Dakota, where Christine's father began a successful business career as a laundry proprietor.(3)  Milbank, situated 10 miles west of the Minnesota border, was founded in 1880, following the arrival of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad.  The surrounding land was previously inhabited by Dakota/Sioux Indians.  In 1900, a few years after the Petersons' arrival, Milbank's population was about 1,400.

Jens Peterson, Christine's father, was well-known as a Milbank business entrepreneur.  After modernizing and building up a laundry business, he sold it in 1903.  He used the capital to start other ventures that included the sale of general merchandise, and eventually opened an ice cream parlor, restaurant, bowling alley, and shooting gallery.  A billiards hall and lodging house were also planned.(4)  Due to Jens Peterson's prominence, the comings and going of the family were routinely reported in the local newspaper.  While Christine had the good fortune to be part of a solidly middle-class family with regular income, there was nowhere to hide from prying eyes within their small town.  She, her sister, and mother regularly participated in social events, even if they did not always care to.

 Wife, Mother, Citizen, Divorcee

On October 28, 1905, at the age of 17, Christine married Frank C. Fielding, who hailed from Illinois.  Frank operated a store from within the Milbank post-office lobby that was rented by his father-in-law, Jens Peterson.  There, he sold stationery and school supplies, tobacco and cigars, soft drinks, also newspapers and magazines.  On September 10, 1907, Frank and Christine's only child was born.  Herbert Jens Fielding suffered from infantile paralysis (polio) at a young age, but appears to have recovered enough to live a normal life.(5)

In 1916, the same year that Christine made her bucolic watercolor painting, a ballot in South Dakota included both prohibition and women's suffrage amendments.  While the prohibition amendment passed, the suffrage amendment did not.  This must have been a great disappointment to the women of her community.  Polls indicated that only 10 percent of women in 45 counties of South Dakota were opposed to suffrage.  Incorporated into Christine's painting may have been hope for a better world, where women's voices counted on the same level as men's.  It would only be a couple of years until the Citizenship Amendment was passed in November 1918, and Christine, like all women of South Dakota who were U.S. citizens, earned the right to vote under the same terms as men.  South Dakota was one of the original 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment.(6)

As a young married woman and resident in a close-knit community, Christine was expected to do her part toward war efforts like the Red Cross luncheons that began to take place across the nation in 1918.  The slogan for the effort was "Eat to Aid Red Cross."  Ladies participated in putting on luncheons in order to raise funds.  Christine, her mother, and sister opted to donate $1 apiece instead of entertaining at a luncheon.  The reason may have been that Christine was undergoing divorce proceedings and chose to remain in the background.(7)

In an era when it was uncommon for women to seek divorces, Christine did just that.  Her reasons are unknown, but if the marriage was initially successful, it did not last.  The local Milbank paper published no fewer than four summons during April 1918, directing Frank Fielding, Defendant, to appear in court regarding a divorce hearing.  Christine was granted her divorce.  That same year, Frank Fielding enlisted in the U. S. Army, Infantry Division after being faced with the World War I draft. It was a stressful year for the Fieldings, on all accounts.(8)

Spanish Flu Victim

As a divorcee, Christine continued to reside with her mother and sister in Milbank.  Both she and her sister took in sewing work, while their mother served as an in-home nurse.  The census for that location in 1920 was enumerated during the month of January.(9)  Less than a month later, Christine was dead.  On February 13, the local paper announced:  "The grim reaper called Mrs. Christine Fielding beyond after a heroic fight for the past four days."(10)  At age 31, Christine received the sad recognition of being the first person within the community of Milbank to die from the effects of Spanish Flu, the influenza pandemic which claimed victims worldwide starting in 1918.  Her death resulted from double pneumonia after suffering from influenza and a severe cold.  Although larger metropolitan areas felt the effects of the pandemic early on, some outlying locations, like Milbank, South Dakota, were not affected until much later.

Through the Generations

What happened to Christine's possessions after she died?  It is doubtful that the painting she created four years before her death was carried along through the years by her son, Herbert.  Although he still resided with his grandmother and aunt at age 17, his life soon took a different turn.(11)  He became a musician, first moving to Streator, Illinois, where his father resided, and then to Mason City, Iowa, where he performed as a part of the Gordon Leach Band, one of the city's historical musical organizations.(12)  The talented ten-piece band played for the grand opening of the Figueroa Ball Room in September 1938, and was known for its "snappy" swing-style dance music.  "Herb" Fielding played clarinet and saxophone and also performed with various other bands.(13)

Herbert was married in Galena, Illinois on September 26, 1931.  The marriage ended in less than 7 years, when his wife Frances filed for divorce, citing cruel and inhuman treatment as grounds.(14).  It seems that Herb's entertainment industry lifestyle led to excessive alcohol consumption, and perhaps other intolerable tendencies.  After the divorce, he was arrested for driving under the influence.  When pulled over by a deputy sheriff, a partly empty bottle of whiskey was found in the car.  Herbert's blood intoxication level was 350 mg/dL, a potentially fatal level.  He was sentenced to pay a fine of $300, and his driving license was suspended for a year.(15)  In 1942, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.  He served until October 29, 1945, with a year and a half of that in foreign service.(15)  Herbert Jens Fielding, Christine's only child, died in Nobles County, Minnesota at age 50, on October 16, 1957.(16)

Herbert's father, Frank C. Fielding, remarried and started a second family in Streator, Illinois.  Since Frank's divorce from Christine occurred two years before her death, it is highly improbable the watercolor painting went to Streator with him.

Anna Louisa (Peterson) Dougherty, Christine's elder sister by two years, remarried in 1930 and moved to Badus, Lake County, South Dakota.  Anna and Christine's mother, Amelia Peterson Vander Elsen, having been widowed for a second time, was living with Anna and her new husband, Nicolas Volstad in 1940.(17)  After Amelia died, Anna likely inherited her mother's personal belongings, including Christine's 1916 painting.  Or, perhaps Amelia had gifted her youngest daughter's artwork to another relative by that time, possibly even her grandson, Herbert Jens Fielding?  Another possibility is that the painting left Christine's household soon after it was completed--offered as a personal gift to a friend, or destined to be donated or raffled for some church or social cause.

This is where any trail of reasonable certainty goes cold; additional breadcrumbs are nowhere to be found.  After Anna's death, the painting may have been kept by one of her in-laws (the Nicolai/Nicolas Volstad family), until it ended up in a Minneapolis antique store in 2018, by way of an estate sale.  However it came to be there, it had endured a long journey that not even Christine herself could have predicted.


Now that I know something about Christine B. Fielding and the origin of her painting, I value it all the more.  I love antiques in general, not just because they are representative of times gone by, but because of the significance the items once held for individuals.  Although we cannot take treasured items with us when we go to the "great beyond," they can continue to resurface and add to the lives of others.  Each time an item passes from hand to hand it brings new meaning, adding patina to its original finish.  Over a century ago, Christine created her painting with patience and care.  In spite of the real life struggles she encountered:  a father's death, the illness of a child, a failing marriage, concern over women's right to vote, and threats of a world war and pandemic illness, while she was engaged in painting it offered peace and hope for the future.  How can I not treasure the result, knowing how much of her heart went into this piece of art?



Special thanks to Librarian Extraordinaire (and friend), Lisa Oberg!

--(1) "Women and Watercolor," The Magazine Antiques,, March 3, 2017 (accessed April 27, 2020).
--(2), 1910 U.S. Federal Census; Milbank Ward 1, Grant, South Dakota; Roll: T624_1480; Page: 6A; Enumeration District: 0198; FHL microfilm: 1375493.
--(3), 1900 U.S. Federal Census; Milbank, Grant, South Dakota; Page: 10; Enumeration District: 0155; FHL microfilm: 1241549; "Jens Peterson Died," The Herald-Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), March 5, 1909, p.1.
--(4) The Herald-Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), July 24, 1903, p.1; The Herald-Advance (Milbank, South Dakota), September 18, 1903, p.4.
--(5), South Dakota Department of Health; Pierre, South Dakota; South Dakota Marriage Records, 1905-2016 (Marriage of F. C. Fielding to Christine Peterson, November 1, 1905); The Herald-Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), March 16, 1906, p.1, and March 30, 1906, p.1 (Post-Office lobby store);, South Dakota Department of Health; Pierre, South Dakota; South Dakota, Birth Index, 1856-1917 (Herbert Fielding); The Herald-Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), September 23, 1910, p.1 (infantile paralysis).
--(6) National Park Service, "South Dakota and the 19th Amendment," (accessed April 29, 2020); "Suffrage Poll of Women," The Herald-Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), July 28, 1916, p.2.
--(7) "Red Cross Luncheons," The Herald-Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), February 8, 1918.
--(8) "Summons for Relief," The Herald Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), April 5, 12, 19, and 26, 1918 (Christine B. Fielding, Plaintiff, vs. Frank C. Fielding, Defendant);, U.S., Headstone Applications for Military Veterans, 1925-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012 (Frank Carl Fielding).
--(9), 1920 U.S. Federal Census; Milbank, Grant, South Dakota; Roll: T625_1719; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 159.
--(10) "Mrs. Christine Fielding Dies," The Herald Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), February 13, 1920, p.1.
--(11) South Dakota, State Census, 1925 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014 (Herbert J. Fielding).
--(12), 1940 U.S. Federal Census; Mason City, Cerro Gordo, Iowa; Roll: m-t0627-01146; Page: 4A; Enumeration District: 17-23 (Herbert Fielding).
--(13) "Gordon Leach Band," Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa), July 24, 1961, p.7; Kirk Hundertmark, "The Beginning of the Figuerora Ballroom 1938," (accessed April 27, 2020); "Son of Local Couple Dies," The Times (Streator, Illinois), October 18, 1957, p.4.
--(14) "Frances Fielding Gets Divorce Decree From Herbert J. Fielding," Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa), October 29, 1941, p.7.
--(15) "Fined $300 on Driving Charge," Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa), April 18, 1938, p.11.
--(16) Iowa, World War II Bonus Case Files, 1947-1954 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014 (Herb J Fielding); Minnesota, Death Index, 1908-2017 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2001 (Herbert Jens Fielding).
--(17), South Dakota Department of Health; Pierre, South Dakota; South Dakota Marriage Records, 1905-2016 (Anna Daugherty and Nicolay Volstad); South Dakota, State Census, 1945 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014 (Anna Volstad).

Thursday, March 28, 2019

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks (Week 13): In the News

Judge Winje and the Curious Case of Mortification

My great great grandmother Thibertine's second husband, Eric Larson Winje, was a self-taught attorney and served as a Municipal Court judge in Duluth and Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.  Due to his high civic profile, there is more to be found about him in newspapers than many of my ancestors.  One of the most unexpected things I have discovered involves an embarrassing mishap Winje suffered while riding on a train.

Eric L. Winje, ca. 1905.
In April 1904, Judge Eric L. Winje became the focus of an entertaining piece published in several Minnesota newspapers when he sued the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad for $5,000.  The case, concerning alleged mistreatment, was originally handled by the twelfth judicial court but was transferred to federal court.  Earlier in the year, on January 16, he had boarded a train at Granite Falls in Chippewa County.  Intending to catch some rest, he requested a wake-up call from the conductor.  "It was 2:30 a.m. and Winje was soon sleeping the sleep of the man who gets up at that hour of the night to catch a train," a news article reported.  He planned to disembark at Sacred Heart but no wake-up call was issued.  He did not awaken in time and the train continued on.  When it made the next stop at Renville, he tried to leave.  The conductor, however, insisted that Winje owed another 21 cents for fare, even though his wake-up call never occurred.  When Winje refused to pay, on principal, the conductor became verbally abusive and said, in part:  "You are a thief and you are in the habit of stealing rides on trains.  I could have you arrested!"

Winje declared himself humiliated and "damaged" by the strong language of the conductor and brought suit.  The railroad company filed a counter claim for 21 cents.  For some reason, Winje asked to have the case dropped, but the rules of the court were such that it could not be done with the intervening claim having been set up.  Winje did not appear in court, possibly because of a conflict in his duties. When the case was called. the attorneys for the railroad demanded a verdict of 21 cents, which was approved.  The news article indicated that Winje would institute another suit against the corporation.

As one of the first Norwegian attorneys to come out of Chippewa County, Minnesota, Eric L. Winje was widely known as a responsible and credible person.  He held the love and respect of his large family through both good and trying times.  I can imagine how the unfairness of this incident piqued his determination to prove himself innocent and to formally refute the harsh treatment offered him by the conductor.  It did not help that the news media caught wind of the trouble and published the story for his ancestors as well as his contemporaries to read.  On this occasion, at least, Judge Winje had the misfortune to discover what it was like being on the wrong side of the bench.


--"Duluth man would withdraw suit against Milwaukee Road," Duluth Evening Herald, April 6, 1904, p.1.
--"Nap cost him 21 cents," Minneapolis Journal, April 21, 1904, p.13.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Those Who Served in the Great War: Private Odin Johnson

 A Minnesota Doughboy in WWI France

Odin Johnson, the fifth child out of ten born to Ole Martin Johnson and Malla (Larson) Johnson, was the only one among seven brothers who served in the U.S. Army overseas during World War I.  Odin was a farm laborer when he was required to register for the draft.  He was rather tall compared to others in his family, standing at just under six feet and weighing 180 pounds.  The combination of his youth, single status, and lack of his own farm almost assured that he was chosen as a draftee.  He served in the U.S. Army for fourteen months, and before he left home a farewell party was held for him at his old country schoolhouse near the town of Leonard, Minnesota.

Odin's two older brothers, Bennett and Ernest, were not chosen to serve during WWI even though they also had to register for the draft.  Bennett was unmarried but did not own his own property at the time, and the government did not wish to reduce food supplies by shutting down farms.  Ernest, my grandfather, owned a farm and was married.  Of the younger brothers in the family, only Oral Johnson was old enough to register for the WWI draft, but he was not chosen primarily due to timing.  The remaining brothers, Ruben, Carl, and Frank, were underage, but they were required to register for the WWII draft in later years.  The early twentieth century proved to be a rough period for families with men being shipped off to war, many of whom never returned home, or returned home forever changed.

Odin Johnson in uniform (on the right), ca. 1918.
Odin Johnson enlisted on February 23, 1918.  Assigned the rank of Private, he was attached to the 30th Infantry Division, a unit of the Army National Guard, named the "Old Hickory" division in honor of President Andrew Jackson.  Along with three other local men:  John Huff of Shevlin, and Sidney Churness and Selmer Nelson of Clearbrook, Odin took the train from Bagley, Minnesota to Fort Dodge, Iowa, where they were stationed before the division headed to Europe in May 1918. From New York, the 30th Division shipped out to England before departing for the Western Front.  Odin worked as an orderly in charge of equipment. After the war, he talked a lot about the time he had spent in foxholes, and how the French countryside was littered with huge holes where bombs had been dropped.  During the war, the 30th Division participated in the Somme Offensive (1916), in which two American divisions broke the Hindenburg Line in the Battle of St. Quentin Canal, and the Ypres-Lys Offensive (launched in August 1918),   Odin's regiment, the 117th Infantry, was at the top of the order of battle for the division.

Being away from home made Odin and his buddies very lonesome.  While in France, Odin regularly received letters from his mother, Malla Johnson, written in Norwegian.  When Odin was able to write home, he told about how he and two other men stayed with a French family in a civilian home for a while.  One of the soldiers was from Brooks, Minnesota, a community known for its French settlers, and he served as interpreter.  The French people were kind an friendly to the U.S. Army soldiers.  A favorite meal of Odin's that the French served was hot milk with onions, which was made like soup.

When the war ended, Odin and his unit remained in France for a time, for peace keeping purposes.  The second Camp Dodge detachment, 117th U. S. Infantry, 30th Division, departed St. Nazaire, France aboard the SS Pocahontas on March 16, 1919.  The ship, which was built in Stettin, Germany, was seized at the port of New York when that country entered the conflict in 1917.  It was interned by the United States and renamed, then put to use as a troop transport for the Navy. Overall, the ship carried 24,573 servicemen to Brest and St. Nazaire, and returned 23,296 servicemen to the United States, and all of them safely.  It did face dangers, however.  Less than a year before the USS Pocahontas returned Odin Johnson to the Americas, another group of service men returning home received a major fright when an Imperial German Navy submarine surfaced in the ship's path and fired upon her with 150 mm. shells.  The USS Pocahontas was not quite in range, however, so she suffered no direct hits and suffered no casualties.

Shoulder sleeve insignia for the 30th Infantry Division.

USS Pocahontas underway in 1910.

After crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Belize, Odin Johnson and his unit boarded the SS James Timpson, bound for New York. Odin's unit was scheduled to be discharged after the ship arrived in New York.  He was released from service on April 10, 1919.  It was a happy time for Odin, and also for his mother and father and the rest of his large family waiting back home.  The James Timpson was built by the G.M.Standifer Construction Company at Vancouver, Washington in 1919, to aid in the World War I effort.  It was a fairly new ship when it transported Odin Johnson and his fellow soldiers home to American soil.  The ship, based in New York Harbor, later foundered in a 1924 Caribbean storm and sank, but not before the ship's crew was rescued

SS James Timpson, 1919
By the time the 1920 U.S. Federal Census was taken in Dudley Township, Clearwater County, Minnesota, Odin was back home again, helping out on his parents' farm.  When he returned home after the war, Odin's father, Ole M. Johnson, met him at the Leonard train depot driving a team of horses.  It was Odin's wish that America would never have to go to war again.  Though he was wounded in the leg during battle, his injury apparently healed well enough so that he was able to continue farming.  He was one of the lucky ones...

Like so many young men returning home and seeking a new challenge and a sense of normalcy, Odin started a life of his own.  In 1922, he purchased 160 acres of land in Sinclair Township, Clearwater County, within several miles of his parents' farm.  The Red Lake Trail, which was still used by Indians going to and from the nearby reservation, was a short distance east of the farm.  Sometimes, Indians would stop and stay overnight at the farm.  In gratitude, the Indians would always prepare food and share it with Odin.

On October 26, 1923, Odin Johnson married Emma Charlotte Moen, who came from another large family in the neighboring town of Neving, in Sinclair Township.  Emma's father passed away from typhoid fever when she was only four years old.  Her mother worked as the neighborhood midwife, tending new mothers at the time of birth, then staying on to lend a hand where needed.  Odin and Emma Johnson had four children:  Arlie (1924-2004), Ardys (1928-), Duane (1930-), and Kermit (1933-1971), all delivered by Dr. Forest and aided by Odin's mother, Malla Johnson.  The entire family worked together to make a living at farming.  They raised grain, hogs, sheep, and dairy cattle, with the cream sold to the Leonard Co-op Creamery.  Emma kept chickens and sold the egg--sometimes trading them for groceries at Strand's Store in Leonard.  Odin hunted deer in order to provide venison, which was eaten fresh or preserved.  Like most early farmers without the convenience of supermarkets, they kept a large vegetable garden and picked wild berries, then canned most of the produce for winter use.  In 1931, Odin purchased his first car, a Model T Ford Coupe.

Odin and Emma Johnson. with Duane, Ardys, and Arlie, ca. 1932.

In 1933, Odin and Emma's farmhouse burned, and the family lost nearly all of their possessions.  Until a new house could be built the following year, the Johnsons lived in a next door neighbor's granary, and then moved into a new chicken coop they erected on their own farm.  During the fire, the letters that Odin had written and received while in France were unfortunately lost to history.  But, with the help of his loving wife and family, Odin Johnson seemed to be successful in putting the horrors of war behind him as much as was humanly possible.


"30th Infantry Division (United States)."  Wikipedia (accessed March 19, 2019).

Johnson, Duane Truman, son of Odin and Emma Johnson.

New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (for Odin Johnson), (accessed March 18, 2019).

"SS James Timpson, 1919," photograph:  "Welcome to the Post of Vancouver USA Centennial Celebration," Port of Vancouver USA, (accessed March 18, 2019).

"Ship's Crew Rescued Just Before She Sinks; James Timpson of New York Founders in Caribbean--Storm Hits Punta Gorda."  New York Times, October 21, 1924, p.8.

U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1929 (for Odin Johnson),

U.S., Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010 (for Odin Johnson),

"USS Pocahontas (ID-3044).Wikipedia (accessed March 18, 2019).

"World War I Casualties."  Wikipedia (accessed March 20, 2019).

Commemorating Family Members Who Served in the Great War

WWI era newspaper photo from Smithsonian Magazine (public domain)
It has now been more than 100 years since the end of the Great War, also known as the  "war to end all wars."  World War I (1914-1918) was a global conflict that resulted in 9-11 million military personnel deaths, 8 million civilian deaths--some related to famine and disease, and about 40 million casualties in all, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.

Although the United States attempted to maintain a neutral stance in regards to European conflicts at the time, it became necessary to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917.  This was due to the sinking of American merchant ships by German submarines, but also because Germany encouraged Mexico to declare war on the United States.  The American draft then went into action, although trained forces would not being arriving at the European front in significant numbers until mid-1918.  The war and the draft would have a great impact on many young American men and their families.

The Selective Service Act, enacted on May 18, 1917, allowed the U.S. federal government to raise a national army to serve during World War I.  In the beginning, all males between the ages of 21-30 were required to register for potential military service.  In August 1918, the age range expanded to include men from 18-45.  More than half of the nearly 4.8 million Americans who served in the war were drafted.  There were five draft categories.  How these were classified had an obvious impact on which of my ancestors were chosen to serve, while others were deferred or exempted, keeping in mind that some may have volunteered.

Here are the classes, paraphrased in some instances:

Class 1) Eligible and liable for military service:
Unmarried registrants with no dependents; married registrants with independent spouse or one or more dependent children over 16 with sufficient family income if drafted.

Class 2) Temporarily deferred, but available for military service.
Married registrants with dependent spouse or dependent children under 16 with sufficient family income if drafted.

Class 3) Temporarily exempted, but available for military serivce.
Local officials; registrants who provide sole family income for dependent parents or dependent siblings under 16; registrants employed in agricultural labor or industrial enterprises essential to the war effort.

Class 4) Exempted due to extreme hardship.
Married registrants with dependent spouse or dependent children with insufficient family income if drafted; registrants with deceased spouse or deceased parents who provide sole family income for dependent children or dependent siblings under 16.

Class 5) Exempted or ineligible for induction into military service.
State or Federal officials; officers and enlisted men in the military or naval service of the United States; licenses pilots employed in the pursuit of their vocation; members of the clergy or students preparing for the ministry on or before May 18, 1917; registrants who were medically disabled, considered "morally unfit" for military service, or those who had been convicted of a crime involving treason or felony.

Canadian poster, 1918 (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The red poppy became known as the "remembrance poppy" during World War I.  This was in large part due to John McCrae's poem, "In Flanders Fields."  An American professor, Moina Michael, started the tradition of wearing a red poppy to honor the soldiers who died in the war. She distributed silk poppies and campaigned to have the flower adopted as an official symbol of remembrance by the American Legion.

In Flanders Fields

John McCrae, 1872-1918

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.  Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
in Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
in Flanders fields.

A Canadian physician and teacher, John McCrae served in France during the war.  He wrote "In Flanders Fields" after noting how quickly poppies grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres,  The poem, written from the perspective of the war dead, speaks of their sacrifice and a command to the living to press on.  McCrae initially discarded the poem, but it was rescued by fellow soldiers and eventually published, becoming the most popular and most quoted poem of its era.  After several years involved the war effort, McCrae contracted pneumonia and died on January 28, 1918.

Following the widespread scourging of Europe and other areas of the world, the war officially came to an end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when Germany signed an armistice agreement with the combined Allied forces.  This article kicks off a Nordic Blue blog series about the World War I veterans in the main branches of my family:  Basgaard, Berge, Johnson, Larson, and Strand, and honors their individual experiences and sacrifices.


"How the Poppy Came to Symbolize World War I.",, October 20, 2016 (accessed March 20, 2019).

"In Flanders Fields."  Wikipedia (accessed March 20, 2019).

"Selective Service Act of 1917."  Wikipedia (accessed March 21, 2019).

"World War I."  Wikipedia (accessed March 21, 2019).

Thursday, March 21, 2019

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks (Week 12): 12

12 Reasons Why I Love Genealogy and Family History

I am an occasional list maker, and this topic ("12") lends itself to just that.  Oh, genealogy and family history, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways... there are at least twelve!

1.  Perpetual Learning

Family history has opened up various avenues for creativity and study.  There are endless learning possibilities, whether it is keeping abreast of ever-changing software, databases and other resources, or honing computer and research skills, in general.  Wanting to know more caused me to enroll in a year-long Genealogy and Family History certificate program at the University of Washington.  It also led to participation in three years of seminars dealing with history writing and research methods.  I continue to learn from my own investigations, and from conferences, online sources, and also friends involved with genealogy who provide inspiration and comraderie.

2.  Building Expertise

Perpetual learning associated with genealogy naturally leads to increased knowledge.  Through this process I have become more organized in my research, improved my writing skills, gained experience in both publishing and self-publishing, and have even given presentations at a few different venues (who woulda thunk it?)

3.  Thrill of the Hunt

Anyone who is truly passionate about family history is familiar with the "happy dance" that occurs inside (and sometimes manifests itself physically), whenever a tempting tidbit of information is finally located.  The results are even better if you have had to chew on a mystery for some time, and wait patiently for further inspiration or a chance detail to present itself from somewhere in the ether.  Solving problems in genealogy is like the best Easter egg hunt ever!  Or, wait... maybe it is more like finally discovering what Santa has left you on Christmas?

4.  Answering My Own Questions

I began genealogy research at about the time I completed a long-desired college degree.  A first trip back to my mother's childhood home in Minnesota combined with suddenly having "spare time" no longer needed for studying, propelled me into the wonderful world of family history.  There were questions for which the answer was not readily available, such as:  what was Great-Grandpa's Norwegian name, and where in Norway did he come from?  When I purchased my first computer and acquired a few initial answers from a cousin, the gong sounded. The journey to discover my origins had begun.

5.  A Sense of Connection

Little did I realize how profound the sense of connection with my ancestors would turn out to be as I began discovering their personal histories.  Some of the information available was more than I ever would have expected, while some remained frustratingly sparse or out-of-reach.  But, overall, the experience of genealogy research has provided me with a bigger picture that gives not only perspective but added meaning to my life.

6.  Discovering Social History

Have you ever wished you could go back in time and experience an era for yourself?  I mean, taking it a step beyond admiring those vintage photographs or drawings and the curious fashions and hairstyles.  Studying the customs and events that your ancestors lived through, when combined with the details of their personal lives, is as close to entering a Time Tunnel that you will experience.  Researching social history has helped me to understand why my ancestors engaged in certain activities (like relocating or changing jobs), and offers a broader perspective on the actions of those who can no longer speak for themselves.

7.  Satisfying a "Need for People"

As an introvert, genealogy fits right in with my need for a solitary sort of a hobby.  I can go as slowly as I like, or run in wild abandon, and I don't have to worry too much about pleasing anyone but myself.  According to the Myers-Briggs personality assessment (which I have taken three times), I am an INFJ type (Introversion, Intuition, Feeling, and Judging).  Experts say that this is the rarest of sixteen personality types, making up less than one percent of the population.  The short story is that while I am a tried and true introvert, I need people more than other introverted types.  But, that need is specifically for meaningful relationships, as opposed to just social contact.  I value close friendships, family, and a sense of belonging most highly...  I love being married, for example, but I hate the dating scene.  Researching family history provides a similar but equally valuable connection with others that I can access any time I wish.

8.  Appreciating the Past

When I was in the seventh grade, if someone had told me that I would one day major in history in college, I would have laughed.  History???  Only the most boring class ever... full of meaningless dates and details to memorize.  Boy, was I wrong.  It took genealogy to help me see the light, and I did indeed get my degree in history.  Thanks to the personalization that family history has brought to the larger topic, I now have an appreciation of the past in a way I never could have imagined as a school girl.

9.  Understanding Human Nature

Everyone has secrets, and in today's high tech world with DNA tests offering few hiding places, it becomes more likely that certain secrets will no longer stay in the shadows.  When interpreting the actions of those who are no longer alive to defend themselves, we must tread carefully.  By studying the social, cultural, and even family expectations of the times, it is easier to determine possible reasons for behaviors and events.  Human nature is complicated, and extenuating circumstances are almost always involved.  I appreciate how studying family history has encouraged me to think on broader terms and enabled me to avoid putting someone "in a box" as far as expectations go.

10. Preserving Stories

I love biography, and fortunately, I love to write.  As I uncover the bits and pieces of my family's history, I can think of nothing better than to give new life to nearly forgotten stories.  Through compiled data, social history, photograph identification, oral history, and other methods, I try to build an unbiased and mostly accurate impression of someone's experiences.  Each life contains a library of information and inspiration just waiting to be rediscovered!

11. Making Connections

If you blog it, they will come.  It's true!  I have met many cousins thanks to my family history blog, a dedicated Facebook group, and my online trees--many more than through DNA results alone.  If someone is searching for information on a particular family member that I happen to have written about, I inevitably get contacted.  It is always nice to meet family, whether virtually or otherwise.

 12. Sharing With and Helping Others

I have never understood why some people will go to the trouble of creating an extensive family tree on, for example, and then keep the information private.  Knowledge is for sharing--spread the love!  I am more than happy to share or discuss information with interested parties if asked.  All I want is to be given proper acknowledgment and have copyright concerns respected (especially when it comes to photographs) if material I provide is used elsewhere.  If we could search into the past far enough, we would find that we are all cousins.  What a lovely thought.  Why not help each other toward the same goals?

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.