Our 20th Century Norwegian Immigrants

I treasure my Norwegian connections and my Norwegian family. Given how close I was to my mother, a first-generation Norwegian in the U.S., it is perhaps no surprise that I adored my Norwegian grandparents, Harold and Gudrun Nelson, or perhaps more correctly stated, my Norwegian grandmother, given that my Grandpa Nelson died when I was in the ninth grade.

My grandparents were usually tight-lipped about their background. They were puzzled about our interest in things Norwegian. They had left Norway, they were Americans, and the old country just wasn't discussed. My Grandpa Nelson never talked about his family or background; as I began my genealogical work, neither my mother nor her siblings knew where he was born. His fellow workers at Northern States Power never even knew that he had family in Sioux Falls, until the day that one of his children delivered his lunchbox that he had forgotten at home.

The Nelson children (l-r) Harold,
Lillian, Alice, and Mildred
My Grandpa Nelson emigrated to the U.S. in 1904 via Canada. He returned to Norway in 1920 to visit his mother and traveled back to the U.S. in 1921. As luck would have it, he met his future bride, my Grandma Nelson, aboard the S.S. Stavangerfjord, as he was returning to the U.S. and as my Grandma Nelson was emigrating to the U.S. to join her aunt in Brooklyn, N.Y.

My first genealogical queries while in high school to my Grandma Nelson did produce some information. She was able to tell me about her mother, Ingeborg, and her five sisters in Norway along with the names of the married sisters' spouses. She told me that her maternal grandmother's name was Martha Helgesen. Grandma also told me the names of her mother's siblings and that two of these siblings had emigrated to the U.S.: Tante Lina, who lived in Brooklyn, and Tante Lena, who lived in Minneapolis. She knew that my grandfather had two half brothers, Alf and Oskar, and two half sisters, Petra and Hansine. She also stated that my grandfather's mother's name was Christine. She and her children all thought that my grandfather was from Trondheim. I still have the piece of paper on which I recorded these names and relationships, while I was talking with my grandmother.

My grandmother had one niece in the U.S. with whom she had regular contact, Ingrid Weatherhead. Ingrid's mother, Olga, was one of my grandmother's sisters. My grandfather had two sets of relatives in the U.S.: the Eilif Smevik family and the Helga Johnson family. Eilif, his wife, Gertie, and their only child, Sonia, had left for California when Sonia was 10. My grandparents drove out to California to visit them after World War II, but I never met any of Eilif's family. I remember seeing a newspaper clipping from the 1950s showing Sonia as the winner of a beauty pageant sponsored by the California Tip Toppers Club, an organization for women who were over 6 feet in height.

Helga and her husband, Arthur, farmed outside of Sioux Falls; my Norwegian grandparents and family spent great amounts of time with Helga's family out on their farm. Helga's mother, Karen, was alive at the time and also lived with Helga and Arthur. Karen was not liked by my family. My Aunt Mildred used to call her a "witch" because of her mean streaks. When Mildred was expecting her first child, she had thought of possibly naming the child "Karen," if it was a girl. When my Grandma Nelson heard this, she told Aunt Mildred in no uncertain terms that if she named her granddaughter "Karen," she would never talk to her again. Helga, her mother, Karen, her husband, Arthur, and daughters Evelyn and Kelfred, moved to Seattle and lived there when I was a child.

When I started my genealogical work in earnest, my grandfather, Eilif, and Helga were all dead. None of the remaining relatives were able to tell me specifically how my Grandpa Nelson was related to Elif and Helga. Everyone knew they were cousins but they didn't know "how" they were cousins. My Aunt Mildred suggested that I try to contact Sonia, Eilif's daughter. Sonia had married a "Stan Woster" but my aunt hadn't heard from her for a number of years and assumed that she no longer lived in California. In 1993, after moving to San Diego, California, I did a database search and printed out all of the individuals living in California whose last name was "Woster" (luckily for me this family only used one "o" instead of the more common two "o's".) After calling twelve individuals without any luck, my thirteenth and last call was to a man who ended up being Sonia's ex-brother-in-law. He relayed my information to Sonia and Sonia called me the next day. It turned out that she lived less than 30 miles away from me. We became fast friends and relished our time together. Sonia passed away from brain cancer in May 2001; I miss her immensely.

Sonia was able to tell me how the three Norwegian cousins were related, because she had visited relatives in Norway in the late 1970s. My grandfather's mother, Kristine, and Karen (Helga's mother) were full sisters. Sonia's father's mother was a half sister to Kristine and Karen. And finally, the most fantastic discovery was that Sonia knew where the family lived in Norway, which opened vast numbers of genealogical doors for me. I found out that my Grandpa Nelson was born in a small village called Bjørnskinn on the island of Andøya in the Vesterålen island group, located far above the Arctic Circle. The only connection that I can identify that he had with Trondheim, his supposed birthplace, was that he emigrated to Canada from Trondheim, so if someone had asked him where he came from, his response apparently was "Trondheim."

The next magical Norwegian moment occurred in May 1998, when my partner, Mitchell, and I took my mother to Norway and to England. Before our departure, my Aunt Mildred asked if we were going to see Inger. I told her that I'd never heard about Inger. It turns out that Inger, daughter of my mother's first cousin, Olaf, in Norway, had been to the U.S. when she was 21 and had visited Aunt Mildred. I received Inger's telephone number from Mildred and placed a phone call to her from San Diego about three weeks before we were to depart. She was ecstatic about our upcoming visit and we made arrangements to meet in the lobby of our hotel on the day of our arrival in Bergen. She and her husband, Jan Olaf, met us as planned and we immediately knew that we were going to beome close friends. We enjoyed meeting their three children, Andreas, Kjerstine, and Birgitte and tears were shed when we had to leave Norway.

My mother died unexpectedly in November 1999. We had been planning on returning to Norway to visit Inger and Jan Olaf, but I just couldn't muster up the energy to make the trip. So, to honor my mother, Mitchell and I decided to set aside some of our inheritance funds, telephoned Inger and Jan Olaf, and told them that we wanted to fly the family to the U.S. to celebrate my mother. They came in July 2000 and spent three absolutely wonderful weeks with us in San Francisco. Our relationship with Inger, Jan Olaf, and the three children continued to grow and deepen. Andreas, Kjerstine, and Birgitte have all been to visit us in the U.S. Inger and Jan Olaf visited again. Inger also spent more time in the U.S. as part of a teach exchange. We returned to Norway to spend Christmas 2004 with the family. Sadly, Jan Olaf passed away in October 2008 from early-onset Alzheimer's. He was 56 years old. It's difficult to believe that he is no longer with us. We are so thankful that we were able to meet Jan Olaf and spend such wonderful time with him and his family.

Another magical moment for my Norwegian connections occurred in 2002, when I sent an email message to the editor of the newspaper for the Vesterålen Islands. In that message, I asked if the newspaper would publish a query that I had enclosed asking if there were still alive any descendants of my Grandpa Nelson's two half brothers and two half sisters. Imagine my surprise when I heard from descendants of every one of these four individuals! I haven't yet made a visit to Northern Norway but I look forward to the day when that visit becomes a reality so that I can reconnect with this branch of my family tree. I remain in email contact with Vaarin Granli, one of my grandfather's nieces.

Gerald Lowell

18 October 2008