What the book is about…

My grandmother’s family story is the story of American history, at least the part of our country’s history that is generally printed in public school textbooks (and, yes, I realize that there is a lot left out in such cases!) Nevertheless, her family lived through many of the hallmark events of the last 150 years, and luckily, my grandmother had a terrific memory and was, as she described herself, “a pretty nosey kid,” observing what others did and said and tucking away those memories for later use.

Her story begins in Norway and Sweden, where the first characters in the book, her great-grandparents and grandparents, were born. I marvel that she could relate stories of life in the “old country” in the mid-nineteenth century! The Norwegian relatives (her mother’s side of the family) immigrated to the US in 1879, with the entire extended family leaving their small village north of the Arctic Circle. This group eventually settled in Beltrami, Minnesota, where they homesteaded and where my grandma’s mother, Emma, was born. My grandma’s Swedish relatives immigrated to America in 1880, but that was a smaller group: my grandma’s father, Oscar (6 years old), his sister Gerda, and their parents, John and Charlotta. They settled in Alexandria, Minnesota, about 150 miles from Beltrami.

It wasn’t until 1897 that the stories of these two families became intertwined. Oscar’s aunt, who lived in Beltrami, asked Oscar to come help her farm after the sudden death of her husband. While in the neighborhood, Oscar met Emma, but it was many years before they married. In the intervening time, he was called into military service to fight in the Spanish-American war. Before seeing action, he caught Typhoid in the training camp in Georgia and almost died. Once home and after a long recovery, he and Emma married in June of 1903 and within a couple of months headed west to Mullan, Idaho, to try mining. While pay for silver and lead miners was good, the work was very dangerous, and the town was a seedbed of lawlessness and immorality – no place to raise children (their first child was born while they were living there). After a devastating house fire in which they lost everything, they decided to return to Minnesota to farm.

In spring of 1907, Oscar filed a claim on some land in Pennington County in northern Minnesota. By the time the family moved into the house that Oscar built, they had three children. Eight more were to come. My grandma was the middle child, born in 1914, baptized on the 4th of July, wrapped in an American flag. Through hard work and persistence, Oscar and Emma created a beautiful little farm. Though money was always tight, they enjoyed the nicest farmhouse in the area, and Oscar achieved a good standing in the community, serving as County Commissioner (even though his formal education had ended at grade eight) and as the local School Board Chairman. Unfortunately, Oscar had taken out loans to improve his land, and with the agricultural slump of 1928 and the crash in ’29, he and his family lost everything.

Friends sent a good report of farming in northern Montana, and Oscar decided to move the family west in 1930 to give it a go there. But as with the calamity that cost them their farm, timing was bad, and they moved into the area just as the Dust Bowl began. After two years of struggle, they gave up and headed further west to Rio Linda, California, where Emma’s sister lived. With the promise that although there was little chance of making heaps of money in the “golden land,” at least there was food, Oscar and Emma made the journey west, following the newly opened route 2 skirting the southern edge of Glacier National Park. The Depression certainly did hit California, but there was, as they had been told, food there and better opportunities to make a living. In Montana, my grandmother had literally been starving to death because she kept giving her allotted morsels to her younger siblings. Her parents had sent her away to a family in North Dakota to work for her board, in fear that she would succumb to tuberculosis and die as her friend had in 1931. When Grandma heard the following year that her family was heading west, she rejoined them.

In California, she finished high school and worked at many jobs, including a pencil factory and a peach processing plant. She met and married my grandfather in 1934, and they had one child, my mother, in 1936. Her father died in 1947 of heart complications caused by his earlier bout of typhoid, and her mother died in 1966. The morning she died she was putting up peaches, working industriously. She had a peaceful, painless end. And so ends Grandma’s book, with Emma’s death.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the story! But I thought that if anyone wanted to know what grandma’s book is about, this would at least give you an overview. I do not plan to post any of the book. I do, however, plan to discuss the writing and research process. I’ve been working on this project for quite some time and have hit a few snags before as well as had some success. But I’m out of practice. I have not written a word since Grandma died over a year ago. However, this summer I retraced her family’s migration, visiting all of the family sites and going to historical societies and archives. What a whirlwind trip: 10,000 miles, twenty-two states, and over 2,000 photos and hours of recordings! I will post about this trip soon.


2 Responses

  1. Sounds like a fascinating project! Good luck


  2. Thanks, Sarah! I hope others think so. It’s hard when it’s your own project. Of course it sounds interesting to me 🙂

    Anyway, thanks for the encouragement.

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