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‘Old country’ provides feeling

As I stood on the lush green farm field of the Vats Valley that lay peacefully between the towering mountains, the uninvited thought came into my mind, “I belong here.”

It was July, and I was on the western coast of Norway, several miles inland from the town of Haugesund in the county of Rogaland. Twenty-two relatives from across the United States were traveling together to visit the land of our forefathers.

In the mid-to-late 1800s Norway was overpopulated. Families tended to have several children, and a farm automatically was passed to the eldest son. The rest of the sons had to find other means of making money, and since all of the land was taken, they had to look elsewhere for jobs. If they did not care to go into fishing or into the few copper mines that were beginning to operate, they often looked to the new country of America. Promoters of the new country wrote glowing reports of “free land as far as the eye could see” — rich land that grew lush grass and, miraculously, (to those who farmed around Norway’s boulders) there were few rocks or trees to clear for planting space. Some promoters even boasted that in America the “streets were paved in gold.” Young men were often quickly convinced that going to America was an answer to their problem and an opportunity not to be missed — even if it meant leaving mother and father and the incredibly beautiful country that they called home.

One such young man was my grandfather’s Uncle Osmund who sailed from Stavanger in 1866. For whatever reason, he decided to settle on a piece of land 1 mile west of the Yellow Medicine River in Sandnes Township, Yellow Medicine County. He opened a post office and general store, naming the site Silliards. Soon the railroad was building a track near the river, so he moved his post office and store to that location which later was named Hanley Falls. He opened a bank and began helping other immigrants get started in business or farming.

My grandfather, eldest son of Osmund’s brother, also found himself without any land to farm in Norway. Correspondence passed between the two countries, and finally it was decided that Osmund would send a ticket to his 18-year-old nephew to come and work for him at Hanley Falls. Gudmund sailed for America in 1885, passed through the immigration center at Castle Garden, New York, and traveled by train as far as Redwood Falls. Here he was stranded. His money had run out, and he could not speak or understand English. Finally, someone who could speak Norwegian was located, and this man lent him money to complete his trip to Hanley Falls. After working for one year to pay off his $35 boat ticket, Gudmund purchased land from the railroad, cut the 6-foot prairie grass, and started farming. In turn, three brothers and one sister were sent tickets to come to America, leaving one married sister and their parents behind.

Two generations later, a small group of first and second cousins gathered in Norway to stand on the very land that our father or grandfather or great-uncle or great-great uncle had been born to, farmed, and left, thus creating our history in America. I cannot explain the strange feeling I experienced as I stood there looking around at this completely foreign scene that was so strongly pulling my heart to this ancestral ground. All I know is that I felt it. When I looked through tearful eyes at my fellow travelers, I saw tears running down their faces also. How does one explain the mystery of this ancestral pull? How can anyone explain the camaraderie of a small group of relatives experiencing the same emotion of “this is home — this is where I belonged for centuries — and now I have returned?”

We hugged. We took pictures. And after our last long look at this incredibly beautiful and peaceful sight, we turned and left — our only comfort that of our private thoughts on how history moves us on and forward, and how very little we determine our existence. Our ancestors determine our lineage, the location where we are born, and sometimes, (like in July of 1997) they visit our thoughts to remind us of their presence and bind us together forever as a family.

Source: Norwegians in Minnesota, Jon Gjerde & Carlton C. Qualey, The People of Minnesota Series, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.

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