Aaby Diary



Family History of the Hans Johnson Grønsten Family

My father, Hans Johnson Grønsten was born on the farm Grønsten in Holla, Telemarken, Norway the 26th of May and baptized the 30th of May 1819 in Holden church. He was married September 8, 1842 to Karen Kjerstine Eich who was born the 19th and baptized the 29th of September 1816, also in Holden church.

They lived at Grønsten and he was successful as a spinning wheel maker. Born to them there were John in 1843 and Anne Marie two years later, with a twin sister who died.

In 1846 they migrated to America. A great deal of preparation was needed for such a long journey, and for getting started in the new country. They took what they could of food and clothing, which was packed in large wooden chests. These were handmade with hand wrought hinges, handles and locks, beautifully painted in scroll and flower designs and bright colors. These contained all their belongings: household linens, bedding, clothing, food, such as dried foods of various kinds and flat-bread, tools, and what was most precious, the Bible and devotional books. They started the 17th of May and had a very stormy passage to Havre, France. When they arrived they were badly disappointed to find that the ship they were to have taken had already departed, so there was nothing to do but stay in Havre for six weeks to wait for the next ship. These ships were sailing vessels and they had to rely on the winds to take them across the ocean, which generally took around six to eight weeks.

They had a long and stormy voyage to New York; from there they were taken in canal boats (horse drawn?) to Buffalo, N. Y. and then another ship to Wisconsin. With the unexpected delay and with helping fellow travelers who were less fortunate, their money and provisions were sadly depleted and they were forced to leave their baggage and proceed on foot, carrying each a child a distance of seventy miles to Stoughton, Wisconsin, where my mother’s uncle, Anders Johnson Shipnes, lived. (Mother’s cousin, Karen, was the wife of John Stuverud who settled near Kasson in 1895, was later machinery dealer there and Dodge County Treasurer for some years.)

There was want and sickness the first year. At one time when the whole family was stricken with some disease, little Anne Marie died, and kind neighbors came and buried her for them. They settled on forty acres near Whitewater. Father built a five-room frame house and dug a 100-foot well and lived there ten years. Here were born a second Anne Marie, 1848; Jens, Dec. 15th, 1850; Hans Andreas, Sept. 30, 1853 and Nils, Jan., 1856. Father was handy with tools, did carpentry, also blacksmithing. He worked for the neighbors, which helped him to get ahead. Mother, too, worked some for neighbors. However, their land contained a small lake and some bluffs and was not well suited for farming, so in the spring of 1856 he sold his place for $500 and along with some neighbors moved with covered wagon (which had wooden wheels–a kubberulle) and oxen to Minnesota and settled on 80 acres of school land In the township of Canisteo, Dodge County, thus going through the hardships of pioneering a second time. (This farm is the one now occupied by Wallace Beaver.) They had to go to Decorah to buy flour and, when they finally had wheat to sell, they had had to take it by wagon and oxen team to Winona to be ground, which would take at least three days.

Most important to the new settlers was good spring water and good timber to build their houses and furnish fuel. Most of this territory was heavily wooded then. They lived in their covered wagon most of the summer as the first thing to do was to clear some land and put in some crop, after which father cut logs and built a small log house. This was covered with a turf roof at first, but during the winter father made oak shingles which made a good roof. The first year’s wheat crop was a failure, and as they had not much money to buy flour they got along with cornmeal, but they had plenty of meat and vegetables. They lived in this small log house for five years and here I (Ingeborg Georgine Grønsten Aaby) was born July 19, 1858

One of the interesting stories mother used to tell was about a neighbor lady, Ingeborg Dahl. Ole and Ingeborg Dahl lived close neighbors (they probably came in their company from Wisconsin) and their cattle ran together with ours. At first the cattle stayed near the wagon but as they became accustomed to the surroundings they began to wander farther away and had to be fetched for evening. One day when Ingeborg Dahl came for her cows they had wandered way past the high hill which is about three-fourths mile away, but she went after them. She had gotten the whole herd together when she was suddenly startled to see a large band of Indians come riding on their ponies over the hill. There were 35 or 40 of them. She let out a frightened yell and started running and in haste grabbed the tail of the bell-cow which started for home with great speed, with Ingeborg hanging on while the others scattered in all directions.

The Indians must have thought it was funny. She could hear them laughing and talking loudly amongst themselves. They good-naturedly gathered the cattle and brought them home. They stopped about 10 or 12 rods from where our log house stood. Here they set up their tents and stayed until the next spring. They were friendly, however, and came quite often to beg for a little bread which mother always gave them. They looked quite formidable as they jumped off their ponies with knives and tomahawks in their belts and carrying guns, but when father had to be away for several days at a time mother even thought it was good to have them near. Father made friends with them, helped them repair their guns and make snowshoes which they needed for that winter which was later called by the Indians the winter of the big snows. They never stole anything from father but some of the neighbors were not so lucky and would catch them stealing most anything. There were two other camps, one large one by Sjur Saettre’s and one near Anders Mohn’s. In the spring of 1858 the Indian camps broke up and left and the deer seemed to disappear with them.

In August, 1862 there was a big scare. The harvesting was done but they had not finished stacking the bundles. Mother woke in the night and heard the clock strike twelve when all of a sudden she heard a horse come galloping up to the house. A man knocked loudly on the window and called out “Hans, Hans! This no time to sleep! The Indians are coming!” It did not take long to rouse the family and get dressed. John was sent out to get the oxen which had been let out to eat grass in the evening. Jens was sent to Dahl’s where they knew only Kingsburg and old Karen were at home alone. My sister, Anne Marie, had to help us smaller children get dressed. I remember Mother had just made me two new calico dresses which I was to put on, one on top of the other, and I wasn’t very happy because I didn’t get the prettiest one on top.

Mother brought out food and bedding into the wagon that she thought we might need and let the pigs out of the pen so they wouldn’t starve. The cattle still roamed where they would. When the oxen were hitched and everything was in readiness they drove away just as the clock struck one. They didn’t know where to go but started out towards Rochester and when they had gone a ways others joined them; then more and more people joined their group so that by morning when they had arrived at the Scott place there were about 300 people. They stopped there, cooked coffee and ate breakfast, and had a consultation. They decided to send some scouts back to see if they really had a reason for leaving. These men rode far over the prairie but could see nothing. They camped there until next morning, then started back home again. It was some time before they felt safe, however, and the first thing father did was to make a frame and mother sewed leather for a cover for the wagon so they would be prepared. Later it was heard that U.S. soldiers had gotten the Indians in hand.

There were other settlers. Many came in 1855, some as early as ’54. Some came directly from Norway, many came from earlier settlements in Koshkonong and Bonnet Prairie and others in Wisconsin. My father came in 1856. Others to come that year were John Tverberg, who built a large log house, and Ole Helicon [Helliksen] Flata, who gave of his land for Flata schoolhouse. [Editor’s note: Tverberg actually came a few years later.] These settlers were from many different parts of Norway and due to the different dialects there were even some neighbors that had difficulty understanding each other. Salem and Rock Dell townships in Olmsted County and the southeast part of Dodge County were predominantly Norwegian Lutheran. Visits from pastors from earlier settlements in Wisconsin and Iowa were welcome. Some of these were Clausen, Preus, Brandt, St. Munch, Jensen, and Muus. St. Olaf’s Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation was organized, also some land purchased and a cemetery dedicated in 1856. As plans went on for building a church the idea of having two churches with one pastorate grew in favor due to the size of territory, so it was divided into two congregations, the East and West St. Olaf, and work on the two churches proceeded simultaneously. In the first years, young people walked as far as from Hayfield to study for confirmation.

The West church was started between 1870 and 1872. A great deal of stone was cut and hauled until they thought there was enough for the church, but when the foundation was laid the supply was used up and they had to cut and haul much more. The two churches were not completely finished until 1875. Dedication was held Nov. 30th at the east church by Rev. B. J. Muus and at the West church Dec. 1st by Rev. V. Koren. Rev. Lauritz Steen was the first resident pastor, serving from 1861 to 1869. After him J. A. Thorsen came and served 47 years. J.C.K. Preus 1916-1926. D. J. Borge, 1926- . My father served on the building committee and helped build the benches at the East church. This burned in 1907 and was rebuilt.

In the many years before the churches were built, services were held outdoors in summer, probably under some wide-spreading oak tree and in winter in people’s houses and later in school houses. Most frequently used were the roomy log house of John Tverberg, the first large frame house built by Aslak Aaby in 1861, and homes of Tollef Golberg (Olmsted Co.) and Hans Grønsten Johnson, my father.

In spring 1858, word came that H. A. Preus would conduct services at the Sjur Saettre place the next day and there would be baptism, confirmation, communion, and marriage ceremonies for those that desired. Before they had a resident pastor, there were three or four such meetings a year. Brother John was then 15 years old and my parents wanted very much for him to be confirmed, but father had gone to Decorah to get flour and my brother did not have suitable clothing. They had bought cloth, as there wasn’t such a thing as ready-to-wear in those days. Mother wasn’t generally at a loss as to what to do. She made all the clothing for father as well as the rest of us, so she got busy making a confirmation suit for John.

Evening came and with it a storm with thunder, lightning and heavy rain. The roof started to leak badly and mother had to put the children in the bed and was lucky to have an umbrella to put over them to help keep them dry. Then she moved the table to a dry spot and worked all night sewing by hand and by candlelight, and when morning came it was all finished. Then she didn’t know what to do about money for the pastor, as there was none in the house. She decided to go to a neighbor, Aslak Aaby, who had just moved into the settlement. He was pleased to loan her a gold piece for John to give to the pastor. She hurried home again to get ready and they walked the three miles or more to the Saettre place. John had no other religious instruction than what he had learned with the help of parents by reading the Bible and memorizing long passages from both Old and New Testaments, but passed easily the catechization and was confirmed that day, with others. There was also preaching, baptisms, communion and marriage ceremonies performed that day. One other such meeting was held in the same place that summer where I was baptized together with John Aaby (son of Aslak) and many others. At age 17 John went to school two months at Salem Corner, at 18 went a winter to Engen school where they had a remarkably good teacher that year. At 19 he received a teacher’s certificate and taught for several years in different districts. At age 23 he became Justice of Peace in Canisteo and was town clerk until he moved away. John Johnson and Anders Aaby (son of Aslak) organized Mutual Fire Insurance Company in Dodge County.

Memories go back to childhood days. Then the commonplace was oxen teams hitched to wagons, log houses, and small fields surrounded by zigzag rail fences. It is wonderful to remember the coziness of these log houses and how close we were to father, mother, sister and brother as we grew up together. Often [our house] was used for church services, having been scrubbed and tidied the day before, the table laid with white linen, and as people sat tightly packed together, it was truly a God’s House Built of Living Stones. The pastor came, probably a two days’ journey.

One occasion that is vivid in my mind was in the winter of 1863-64. It was very cold and there was much snow. Drifts were so high we could see only tips of the rail fence posts in some places along the way and the drifted snow glittered bright in the sunlight. Windows were so heavily coated with frost it was hard to thaw off enough of a spot to see out, but inside it was cozy and warm. It was Saturday. Mother had made lefse and fried cakes, scrubbed and made our cabin tidy for Sunday. We had something special to be happy about (I suppose that is why I remember it so well) because the day before, father had come home with six pretty new chairs which John had bought for us. Nothing as nice as this had we ever had before and now we could all sit at the table. Before this the boys had to stand not because it was written in the catechism the children should stand obediently by the table, but because there were not enough of the homemade stools. We also had a new kerosene lamp that we had gotten for Christmas. Evening came, the boys had done the chores, brought in the wood, and father had come home from the woods where he had been cutting rails. We all sat cozily around the large Prairie Home stove, waiting for father to tell us stories or sing for us, which he generally did on winter evenings. Suddenly we heard sleigh bells and crunching snow outside. Father went out to see who could be coming in such weather, and came back with a man covered with snow and frost and bundled up so that not much could be seen but the tip of his nose. They unwound a long scarf and wiggled him out of a big fuzzy buffalo coat and there stood Pastor Muus! He was a little stiff from the cold but otherwise all right after he got warmed up. Then he said, “Mother, put the skillet on! There is nothing that warms one up like watching pork frying.” So mother fried pork, and sausages also, put white linen on the table and on it what the house had to offer. When they had eaten and the lamp was lit they brought out the last issue of [the newspapers] Faedrelandet og Emigranten [Homeland and the Emigrant] and read again the latest news about the war (these were Civil War days) and discussed the war, President Lincoln, General Grant, Libby Prison (a cousin of ours, O. C. Johnson, was in Libby prison), slavery, and other matters concerning the war until bedtime. There was nothing modern about our guest room, just a little two-by -four room, Father and Mother’s rope bed with straw mattress, clean sheets, and Mother’s best piece quilt. This was not Pastor Muus’ first visit, nor his last. The last was in 1879 when they had Synod meeting at East St. Olaf. Later I always had a good feeling that father remained his friend.

Sunday services were often held at the John Tverberg home as they lived in the west part of the congregation and had a large log house. I remember very well once we were there in winter when my sister Anne Marie was confirmed. We drove with oxen and sleigh and it got quite late getting home again. Another time was summer the house was packed with people, with others crowding open windows and doorways. A flock of us children wore sitting on the lawn and there were some old ladies out there also. A young man came riding up the lane and, as he came close enough for us to hear, shouted “Lincoln is dead! Lincoln has been shot!” and rode on. One of the ladies clapped her hands together and said, “God be praised that Lincoln is dead. Then there will probably be an end to this terrible war.” This seemed to me such an awful thing to say– really sacrilegious, I thought.

Little by little more land was cleared and crops were better and they prospered beyond their expectations. After five years father built a bigger and better log house, and added more government land until he had nine forties. Land was bought at that time for $1.25 an acre. The land office was at Mantorville. However money was not plentiful and some who had to borrow had to pay 25% to 40% interest. Father also acquired three oxen team and John became expert at driving them.

During the first years the wheat was harvested with scythe and cradle. With this they cut the grain and left it in neat rows which then would have to be gathered into bundles and tied, then set up in shocks. This was slow and tedious work and the fields got larger. Then in the early seventies (year?) the reaper was invented, and the country began to be overrun with agents. There was no peace. All winter they came, urging the farmers to buy; they needed no money, just sign a contract, then they could pay after harvest. If they only had a reaper they would get such a big crop that there would be no lack of money. Father bought a Walter A. Woods self-raking, and Aslak Aaby bought a John P. Manny with which a man had to stand on a platform and rake off the grain. They each thought they had the best machine so they were, both men, satisfied. The railroad had come as far as Rochester at this time. Mother and I went along to Rochester and it was the first time Mother had seen a locomotive and train. Everything that belonged to the reaper was packed in a large case except the big wheel. It was not easy to get the horses (which they had now acquired) near enough to get it loaded on the wagon. The horses were young and skittish and things were strange to them here. When we got home, father and John were busy unpacking and assembling together for two, three days. Finally everything was in place except for one piece which father thought could not belong to the machine. But while he had been in for a cup of coffee, John had found where it belonged and put it place. Father opened the field by cutting a nice swath all around the field with the scythe and cradle. Then John brought the horses and it looked quite dangerous, getting them hitched up and under control when the machine started whirring. But nothing went wrong, although it went pretty lively until they became accustomed to it. The reaper worked well except the chain that ran the self-raker kept breaking until father made an entire new chain. Then it worked quite well anyway better than the inferior John P. Manny, father thought, of course!

Father still seeded grain by hand for some years after he had bought the reaper. We children would often walk ahead at the edge of the last row so he could see how he should throw the grain and get It even. One day I walked in the seeding all forenoon and we seeded quite a few acres. When we had eaten our dinner and came out to the field again it was entirely covered with the small blue wild pigeons which were so common in those days. They moved with rolling, turning, tumbling movements and glimmered, twinkled and sparkled in the sunlight–a beautiful, wonderful sight to behold–but as we drew near swish! vips! it was as though an enormous blanket were lifted which, as it rose, shaded the sun and made a noise like the sound of far away thunder. When we came to where they had been, there was hardly a kernel of wheat left, so we had to sow the field all over again and the boys followed up by raking the grain into the soil. These blue pigeons came in large flocks in springtime for several years. Later they were not seen any more, whether civilization drove them away or what, I do not know. I have been told a few are occasionally seen at the inland lakes in the north. These seemed to be harmless except for the seed grain they ate, which that day amounted to several sacks.

It was the winter of 1871 that we had the worst snowstorm that ever was in Minnesota. It had been a cloudy, foggy day, quite mild, when about 4 o’clock in the afternoon there came a dark cloud and all of a sudden the storm was upon us, with a fine powdery snow and so thick that one could see only a few feet and there was a peculiar howl or whine in the air. As the weather had been so mild that day it caught a good many people out on the roads. As the storm came about 4 o’clock, some schools had closed and children were on their way home. Others were held in the school houses by the teachers, so as it grew colder and colder a good many lost their lives and others were miraculously saved, of which we heard later. The storm lasted three days and nights and out where there was no woods for shelter they couldn’t get out to tend to stock and much livestock was lost, too. Where there was scarcity of fuel there was suffering and in many places people froze to death. One instance we heard of was where a woman had burnt every thing, including furniture and partitions, to keep herself and her children warm. Finally everything gave out and she had gone to bed with the children and they were almost stiff with cold when her husband arrived with wood. We at home did not suffer much.

Father happened to have a pile of oak rails which he could get and these he took in one at a time and sawed them up for firewood and although that made a hot fire it did not seem possible to get the house comfortable, the wind was so cold and penetrating. As we lived behind a shelter of eighty acres of wild timber, father managed to get to the barn and give each one of the stock a little water and hay each day. Some people, when they came out on the morning of the third day did not even know where they should start digging for their stock in the snowdrifts. Most people had straw stables in those days. The snow was not like snow but a gray fine powder unlike anything I have ever seen. I don’t know the number of people that died or the velocity of the wind or how low the temperature went, but it was all out of the ordinary. A man could not stand up in the wind where it was not sheltered. And I can never remember our house so cold. Fatalities in Minnesota numbered in the hundreds. In 101 Stories of Minnesota it tells more of this storm.

With large families growing up, many looked about for more land. The wide open prairies of the Dakotas beckoned and many went there to prove up claims. There the land was open to the plow, no stumps to pull. In 1901 father went to South Dakota to take a homestead and a year later he sold his land here and moved out together with sons John, Jens, and Nils, who all took land out there. Jens lived there for some years and then moved to Colorado.

Note: One of my favorite first-person accounts of life in the Norwegian community of Dodge County is this diary written by Ingeborg Grønsten Aaby, who was among the earliest immigrant children to be born there, in 1858. (She married Nels Aslakson Aaby in 1878.) It was translated and “put together” by her daughter Nora Aaby Boyum (born in 1900).

I have done some minor editing of the typescript version I discovered at the Olmsted County Historical Society in Rochester, Minnesota.