Saturday, September 5, 2009


The Wangens: Ole, Marie (Mary), Julia,
Olaf, Jenny, Margrete

My great grandparents, Ole and Margrete Wangen, lived a hardscrabble life in a mountain valley in Norway. They died young - at age 50 for Margrete, 51 for Ole. In the original of this photo, Ole looks like a kind man, with smile wrinkles around his eyes. In contrast, I always thought Margrete looked rather stern. That is, until I enlarged and cropped the photo for my previous post. Now I see a slight smile where before I saw a frown. But I will always think she looks rather scared to have her photograph taken, by the way she grips her youngest daughter's arm.

I think that girl is Jennie, making the next oldest girl my Grandma Julia. For sure, I know the oldest girl is Aunty Marie (pronounced Anty Mary) and the boy is Uncle Olaf. ('ve always been curious about why Margrete, Julia, Jenny and Marie had such Anglicized names, while Ole and Olaf had Scandinavian names.)

Ole and Margrete would never know their dozen and a half grandchildren, or learn that their children emigrated to Canada. That Olaf would be a confirmed bachelor living in wilds of northern Saskatchewan. That both Julia and Marie would end up in Crosby, ND, and have seven children each. That Jenny - like Julia - would marry a Scotsman, and go to live in Whitefish, MT.

(Click to enlarge)

Aside from the group photo, the only other photo brought from Norway was the picture of
"The Farm". It was located in the Gudbrandsal Valley in Oppland County. (As a newspaper reporter at The Journal in Crosby, ND, I had to learn to spell Gudbrandsdalslag, which is a gathering of people whose ancestors came from that valley.)

This was the primary farm my grandparents lived on, called Sore (South) Plassen. However, they also lived on the Wangen farm for a time. In Norway, one's surname was often the place one was from, so in great confusion my great grandparents and their children were variously known as the Wangens, Vangens, Plassens or Pladsens. I know that Julia and Olaf called themselves Wangen in America, so I assume Jenny and Marie did too.

My grandma used to tell me stories about Norway. Unfortunately, I remember so few. How I wish I had taken a tape recorder and preserved these stories.

I do know that Margrete was a midwife who traveled to her patients on cross country skies. Ole was, of course, a farmer. I remember the story of how he came back from a rare trip to town and brought a special pencil back for the children - one end had red lead, and the other, blue. This was seen as a great, great treasure by the children. I also remember that the children cut the whiskers off the cat, and she could not go through her usual crannies and resume her mouse catching ways until her whiskers grew back.

Unfortunately, those are the only thing I remember, except for a few Norwegian words and phrases (Tusen Tak - thousand thanks, Velkommen - welcome, Gladelig Jul - Merry Christmas, God Dag - Good Day, Vaer Saa God (literally, "there you go", as in "you're welcome" after giving someone something, or "here's the food - come and eat").

And then there was her "Nye, nye, nye"( Yulie, Yonny, Ronnie) when we were naughty. But anything else about how the Wangens lived in Norway was lost in the mists of time, until my Cousin Kevin Olsen visited Norway last summer.

Among his pictures, there it was - Sore Plassen - so similar to what it looked like in the earlier photo. That it looks the way it does today is due to an amateur restorationist who rescued the farm from ruin and uses it as a weekend home. He was happy to show Kevin the farm, and a distant relative took Kevin around to the church, graveyard and other places.

Above: a closeup of the carving of the windows. I had grown up seeing examples of fine Norwegian wood carving, but to see the carvings around the windows of my great grandparents' house sent a thrill through me. At last, I can now can begin to imagine their daily life.

I'm sure that, except for the modern contraption on the left, the living room furnishings look much the way they did back then, especially the clock, the simple wooden furniture and the folk-painted cabinet in the back corner.

The corner fireplace in the main room. Seeing it, now I can truly visualize the Wangens gathered around it for warmth and companionship.

The kitchen, so unlike my modern kitchen, except for the copper pans!

My Cousin Kevin up at the Summer Farm

I remember reading "Heidi" as a child, and a couple of years ago, I read "Kristen Lavransdatter". Both tell of driving the animals up the mountains to graze in the high pastures during the summer. From this photo, I discover that the Wangens had a "summer farm" as well.

As I said, I remember very few stories from Grandma's childhood. However, there was one thing she told not to me, but to Kevin: that from her childhood home, she could see seven waterfalls.

A memorial to all the Norwegians
who immigrated to America.

In the 19th and early 20th century, Norway suffered from terrible famines. The first of the Wangens to catch "America Fever" was my Great-Great-Grandmother Jorgine Wangen, who ended up in Mankato, MN. All the while I was growing up, I never heard her name mentioned, much less the fact that she lived so near North Dakota. Did Grandma Julia not know what happened to her grandmother after she left Norway? (Grandma was very young when Jorgine left.) Why did Margrete and Ole decide to stay in Norway and not go with her mother?
Lesjaskog Church

I'll never know. What I do know is that after their parents died, just 21 months apart, the four siblings, mere teenagers, could not keep up the farm. They gathered a scant few possessions and left Norway for Canada. Their ship departed in April, 1912, either a week before or a week after the Titanic. And like the immigrants on the Titanic, they were steerage passengers.

My Cousin Kevin Olsen at my
Great Grandparents' grave marker

Margrete Vangen, nee Brandlien, 25-6-1858 to 14-2-1909
Ole Olson Vangen, 1-7-1859 to 29-11-1910
Hvil i fred (Rest in Peace)

As I enlarged this photo, I uncover one final, previously unknown fact about my great grandparents. My great grandmother Margrete and I share the same birthday.

Hvil i fred, Margrete and Ole.
Postscripts added Sept. 5: I just realized that Grandmother Julia and my Cousin Anita missed sharing my great-grandfather's birthday by one day (July 2 instead of July 1).
And I would be terribly remiss if I did not thank Kevin for researching the Wangen ancestry.


Anonymous said...

What wonderful photos, i think your gt grandmother does look terrified! I love the photo of the farm.

Janet said...

LOVE this post! When I saw the picture of the farm today it was stunning how much it looks the same.

Jen said...

Thanks so much for sharing. You are lucky to have so much information about your roots!

Pat said...

amazing. loved reading this. and the birthday discovery. wow

Autumn Leaves said...

I love reading about your family history. The photos are icing on the cake! I have often wished I could remember some of the stories my grandfather used to tell. You are so fortunate to have the photos to go along with the history. I have some, but not many, and not from so far back in time, alas.

JoAnn ( Scene Through My Eyes) said...

What wonderful discoveries.

gma said...

Wonderful way honor to
Ole and Margrete. Amazing that you have all the photos.

Leanne said...

this made fascinating reading julie! :-)Leanne x

couragetocreatewriteandlove said...

you are so good with research and then writing down putting it together. i hope my daughter one day puts our whole story together, i am not good or maybe i am lazy and i have trust she will do a better job.
soul hugs dear Julie!

Lila Rostenberg said...

Coming by to day, I love your new banner/header for this blog! The red-haired school girl!
Have a good Labor day!

Patty said...

Great family history here Julie. I love the photos. Photo taking was something almost unheard of in your great grandparents day so I am sure they must have been a bit frightened. Also remember that they couldn't just snap a shot like we do now. They had to be very still for several minutes, so perhaps that is why the photo shows her a bit afraid. She probably was nervous thinking if she moved she might ruin the shot.

Mary said...

Fascinating history Julie - and seeing how the old farm has been restored and saved is so wonderful. Kevin must have enjoyed his visit and being able to bring back photos and stories for you.

Anonymous said...

What a great post. As a Norwegian with an American mom I find it very interesting to read about what happened to the Norwegians who moved "over-there" (the Americas).

Just a quick comment on the names: Margrete, Julia, Jenny and Marie. These are actually quite common old Norwegian names, especially Margrete and Marie.

Joyce said...

OH Julie! I loved this article...I think it is so great how you can trace your people...even back to Norway and what a neat thing to find out your birthday was the same as your great grandmothers!
Wonderful bit of information forsure!

Bossa said...

Hello! We have been looking for what happened with the kids after they immigrated to Canada. My Mother In Laws father did buy the farm from Olaf when they went. Last sunday we were talking about the farm and it´s history and she told us the story about Olaf, Marie, Jenny and Julia. It was so interesting so we have been searching the web for information and then your blog popped up. And those photos were familiar to us. Funny!