Monday, October 18, 2010

In Search of the "Old Country"

Written by John M. (Bing) Grimsrud
In many ways, it seems like a very long time ago and in many ways, it was.
I still have an indelible mental image of Grandpa Christ, “C.C.” Grimsrud, leaning back in his big gray stuffed easy chair after dinner with a far-off look in his eyes as he spoke of the “Old Country”.
The “Old Country”?
My young interest was perked and my curiosity was stirred as my mind searched for answers.
Where was this “Old Country”?
What was this “Old Country”?
Who lived in this “Old Country”?
Though the questions went unanswered, they remained alive and my curiosity haunted my dreams throughout my life.
By and by Grandpa passed away but that seed of curiosity he planted continued to live on in my mind until one day when I was a middle-aged person I just had to find out about the “Old Country”.
How ironic it all is now looking back over those years. As I write these words, I realize that I am now at the age of 70, older than Grandpa Christ was when he perked my curiosity back in the early 1940s with his talk about the “Old Country”.
My first trip to the “Old Country” happened back in 1983. I had the time and money so all I lacked were the contacts.
A second cousin of mine named Dee Braverman had contacted me in her search for Grimsrud family information while researching the family tree. I was surprised how very little I actually knew about the family history. However, in corresponding with Dee, she put me in contact with the Grimsruds in the “Old Country”.
Next I sent off a letter to Kari Hoven, who I had met when she visited in America and spent one year in 1948 with Grimsrud relatives in the Superior, Wisconsin area.
Kari turned out to be the very best person to correspond with because of her incredible aptitude to recall names, people, places and dates, plus she has an incredibly exuberant enthusiasm. (I was amazed at the family resemblance that Kari had to my father…they could have been twins.)
It turned out that Kari remembered me, my parents and every detail of her visit to America, (the “New Country”), in vivid details. She still had a photo of my little brother and me from her 1948 visit.
My wife Jane and I spent six weeks in Norway in 1983 and got to hear countless stories told by my relatives who Kari made sure we had the opportunity to meet. We were with different group’s morning, noon and night, every day and the quantity of coffee and open-faced Norwegian sandwiches we consumed was unfathomable. We took notes, kept a logbook and took photos of nearly everyone we met and their homes.
The ocean and the distance that separated the “Old Country” and the New Country in those days after Grandpa Christ left were more than enormous. Consider this, I was the very first of all of my grandfather’s direct descendants to make a trip back to the “Old Country”. Grandpa Christ left in 1896 and it wasn’t until 1983 that I set foot upon the rock bound coast of Norway, the “Old Country”.

This photo was taken seven years before Henry Ford produced his first automobile in 1903. It was a transitionary time between horse and the industrial age of steam power.
The above photo was taken in 1896 in Superior, Wisconsin, at a studio on Conner’s Point then known as West Superior. Left is Christ “C.C.” Grimsrud b.1879, my grandfather.  Next is Louis the (adopted stepson of Martin Grimsrud b.1862) and Hans Grimsrud b.1877 and the older brother of C.C. Grimsrud. Christ, Hans and Martin were all brothers born in Norway who immigrated to America before 1895.

The era was referred to as “the golden age of bicycles”. My grandfather Christ, on the left, had a Victor bicycle, the first with pneumatic tires that were glued onto lightweight wooden rims. Hundreds of firms were competing in this intense market of high demand where the typical bicycle was selling for $100.00.
The bicycle in the center is equipped with a carbide lamp, the same type used by miners.
Inspirations and motivations that drove my Norwegian ancestors to take that leap into the strange new world leaving behind family, friends, home and inheritance were many and individual.
In the history of humankind this immigration was an unprecedented phenomena and nothing quite like it had ever happened before. Previously the human condition was a victim of their geography. But now the option of escape flung open a new door of opportunity.  
Dazzling stories of limitless fertile lands across the sea in far off America, free for the taking, lit up the imaginations of the young Scandinavians who had never even remotely dared to dream such a dream before. Their Viking spirit had come alive.
These were the first days of the industrial revolution when the might of steam power opened new horizons and lifted the burden from men’s shoulders and sped them across oceans and continents. The world would never be the same again.
The American frontier of those years was anything but a utopian environment. A violent civil war exploded in 1861 and the next year the American government offered every immigrant 160 acres of surveyed land while the native Indians were massacring the new settlers in Minnesota and the Dakota Territory. These were not good times for America and in 1879, the year my grandfather was born in Norway, a great economic depression struck America.
As an added incentive to immigrate, Sweden began in 1860 to enact policies toward Norway restricting their sovereignty that caused enough political strife to ultimately dissolve their union and in 1905 Norway was declared an independent kingdom.  
In spite of the many horrible hardships these new immigrants would face in their new country, they kept coming in larger and larger numbers year after year. At the same time the Dakota Territory embarked on a land boom that would last from 1879 until 1920. The convergence of these extraordinary circumstances captivated an entire generation caught in the crosshairs of time.
Here I can speak for my family because they were part of this monumental and irreversible happening that sent a nation’s eager and daring young people to a far off land saying a permanent goodbye to family, friends and home.  
The stories were many and the reasons for leaving were underscored with powerful motivating forces that in the end would result in a torrent of immigration that would ultimately find more Norwegians in Minnesota than in Norway.
Some of the stories ended in brilliant successes built on hard work and determination others fizzled away on bad land farms but the good stories and the bad all held fascinating human interest of a time in human history like none other and my family was a part of it all.
Here is an observation and quote from George Grimsrud of Janesville, Wisconsin. “Norwegians are tough, they live a long time, and there isn't much land [in Norway].”
In addition to the fact that there isn’t much land in Norway that is productive enough to support a family, the reality is that in a family of thirteen children like my grandfather’s, only one would inherit the farm. The rest would have to do the best they were able and the incentive to depart became a very powerful and motivating force.
Martin Grimsrud, born December 2, 1862 on the Grimsrud farm at Skoger, Norway, was the second child and first son of thirteen so he was, according to the custom of the time, the one to inherit the farm.
We can only guess now what inspired and drove Martin to leave the certainty and security of his home to make a totally new beginning in a strange and far off land that held out only one promise, and that was opportunity. Well, he wasn’t the only one to leave but he gave up more than most. Martin was driven beyond the distant horizon by the spark of his Viking ancestry.
To those that picked up the challenge and executed their dreams their fate was all but sealed. Like leaping from a tall building, at the moment it might have seemed like the right thing to do but once air-borne, no matter how strong the pangs of remorse might have been, the outcome was hopelessly irreversible.  
So it would be with these Viking spirited immigrants chasing their dreams across the oceans to America’s wild and unsettled frontiers.
Martin was not the first Grimsrud of our family to immigrate to America.  An uncle of Martin, Anders Grimsrud, born in 1839 and the fourth child of Peder Christophersen (Grimsrud) and his mother Anne Beathe Andersdatter Skot of Dalen immigrated to America in 1869 along with his wife Karen Antonette Christonsdatter Grytebakke.
Evidently Anders had a powerful influence on his nephew Martin who then came to Atwater, Minnesota, in America and then became established and went on to assist many of his 12 brothers and sisters to immigrate to America. Martin first settled in Minnesota in Dane County and next in Pope County. He later moved on to Superior, Wisconsin where he married Randi Hoff.

 Above, the first grocery store in Superior, Wisconsin, located on Conner’s Point and built by Martin Grimsrud, my grandfather’s oldest brother. The store was featured on page 29 in the publication Eye of the Northwest by Frank A. Flower, printed in 1889.  
My grandfather, Christ C.C. Grimsrud the tenth child of those thirteen, owes his opportunities in America to his older brother Martin who not only helped him to immigrate but taught him the meat market business and even helped him to go into his own private business.
Martin Grimsrud was one of the success stories. He had a dynamic life, was a successful businessman, became active in the local government and had a good family.

©2010 John M. Grimsrud

To read more about the golden age of bicycles, I recommend The Lost Cyclist by David V. Herlihy.

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