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An Immigrant Boy on the Frontier
    by Simon Johnson (Volume 23: Page 51)

SIMON (formerly Simen) Johnson{1} tells in his memoirs the story of his Americanization, from boyhood to young manhood, on the prairies of Dakota Territory. His account takes us back to the early 1880ís, when the Johannes Bergumshagen family were natives of Gudbrandsdal, Norway, and owned a small farm there. The incentives for their emigration to America are familiar; namely, the difficulty of supporting a family in the homeland, and the lure of more opportunities in the new. {2}

To eke out the lean living afforded by the farm, Johannes, a man of considerable grit and brawn, undertook to work at improving roadways in the parish, a job which few of his [52] fellow parishioners would attempt because of the difficult hill-and-vale terrain. This undertaking earned him some repute among his neighbors.

A severe winter set in, paralyzing the area under snowdrifts and putting an end to road work. After weeks of layoff Johannes took to the mountains, hoping to return with a bagfull of ptarmigan to bolster the family board. Late one night he returned unexpectedly, almost empty-handed, hungry, and worn-out, lie resolved to leave for America as soon as possible. During these years the parish was abuzz with stories of the land of abundance across the Atlantic, given credence by the return of successful adventurers who had been there. The son, Simon, remembers the incredibly stony look on his fatherís face and the pitifully distraught stare of helplessness on his motherís at the announcement. Johannes would go alone; Mother Anne and the children would follow later.

Arrangements for their trip and a heavy burden of responsibility during the period of separation fell to Mother Anne. The uprooting was difficult-this had been the family home for hundreds of years. But the full realization of what it meant came to Simon only long afterward.

The family was reunited after a couple of years. Johannes had rented some acreage and started building a sod house; a neighbor brought Anne and the children from the railway station to his own home, where they awaited the arrival of Jøhannes, who had been there every day to see if they had come. Anne and the children - Simon, Mathias, and Vesla (Little Girl) -had been given a room for themselves. The following scene moves directly into chapter 2 of Simonís memoirs.


Mother was busying herself with the familyís clothing. Suddenly she drew up and stood stock-still, a rapt expression on her face. The garment she held in her hand fell limp.

The door opened and a man stood there. His clothes resembled those of the man of the house, but his beard was [53] darker. It was hard for him to fix his eyes on what was directly in front of him; he stared blankly ahead.

"Johannes!" Mother cried out as she opened her arms to him. He choked out something which sounded like, "Welcome!" Questions began. Had they stood the trip pretty well? Vesla, too? Oh, yes, but Vesla hadnít paid much attention; there had been too many menfolk around. And Mathias? The youngster only looked bewildered; he couldnít figure out who this bearded man was who was making such a to-do about Mother. And what about Big Boy Simon, the family heir?

Questions and answers went on and on between the two grown-ups - the journey, the old valley, Lillehammer, Christiania, the ship, seasickness, arrival in this country, New York, canals, trains. And from the other direction: What about work over here, pay, food, clothing, houses, ways of doing things, knowledge of Christianity in this new land?

Time lengthened. Not even the stalwart housewifeís appearance with a pot of coffee and a tray of goodies could stem this questioning. And Big Boy could scarcely get a hearing for his story about a closed shanty door in Christiania, which had aroused his curiosity when he went exploring near the hotel where they were staying, waiting for the time to board the ship. Nor for his tale of those shining streetcar horses he had seen in New York, and the Garden of Eden he had glimpsed when the train crossed a high bridge over a valley. Finally, between opening and closing his eyes, he fell to wondering whether the man sitting before him was actually the same one he had awakened to see and hear on the night which ended the ptarmigan hunts in Gudbrandsdal and brought on the decision to try life in America.


A few days later the lad from the valley couldnít understand why tears came so readily into Motherís eyes, nor what made her sink down so despairingly on the immigrant chest the first time she entered the house in which they were to live. [54]

It didnít bother Simon in the least that the house had only board outside walls and naked studdings inside. What he noticed was that all the studdings were alike and all exactly the same distance apart. The same was true of the roof supports. It was fun to look at such things and speculate how they had been done and where they were from.

Not only was it fun to guess how these things had happened but also to become a part of what was going on. One day he discovered that a man was plowing right outside the house. Now, that must be some plow! And drawn by beautiful horses! Presently the man took his sights and plowed a furrow straight as a line. At the turn he repeated the process. Finally a wide dark swath was cut into the green prairie vastness.

Before leaving, the man stopped a few moments to talk to Father and tell him that this was the best kind of sod, terribly tough, no danger of its crumbling. There should be no difficulty with the thickness either because there were wheels on the plow. After a last look at the walls, he started for home.

That very afternoon the reason for this phenomenon revealed itself, for Father immediately went to work cutting the turned-up sod into lengths that could be handled and carried to the house or carted off in a wheelbarrow. Yes, the board walls of the entire house were to be covered with peat sod, and for this job everyone except Vesla could lend a hand. Mother was shocked to see how deep-set the windows and doors would be, but Father assured her that now the prairie winter could rage all it liked and that wouldnít faze them in the least. She nodded her satisfaction immediately.

When it came right down to it, the prairie could really exhibit a variety of interesting things. It even proved to have underground beings, not the kind one reads about in fairy tales, to be sure, but underground beings all the same. They lived a good way down under the surface, but every now and then they would pop up into the daylight, rear up on their haunches, turn their heads this way and that, and peer around in every direction with curious eyes. If a person stood [55] stock-still and only looked at them, they would begin to sniff about in the grass for something to gnaw at. When they sat upright and looked about like this the boy often remembered a squirrel he and Grandfather had seen by the roadside the morning the old man had walked with them on the way to Lillehammer, except that the valley squirrel frolicked in the trees, whereas the gopher of the prairie had to content himself with digging in the earth, because he lived underground.

There was, however, one thing about these creatures which few folks had seen. The neighbors called them pocket gophers. As they burrowed deeper into the ground they carried what they dug loose up to the surface in pockets - ingenious devices, located on either side of the face. The boy had never seen this, although he had seen the mounds made from emptying the pockets. A couple of times he had noticed that something had been added to a little mound already there - a sure sign of life down below. And he promised himself that in good time he would see one of these things too.

Thatís how it was with the underground creatures of the prairie. As for water beings, could there possibly be any such? Now and then someone would mention fishing. But in the thing that passed for a river over here - never. Not for one who had been along the River Laagen in Gudbrandsdal, had here seen it placid and glittering with the sky in it, and there running a brisk current, and had even tried its fishing holes. No, what people called a river here was no more than a thin stream in a so-called valley with some leaf trees along its banks and muddy water coursing drearily past wide bends. Let others cast their shining American fishhooks into such slop, and to tell the truth it must be admitted that such extra-nice hooks deserved a better fate.

The prairie had more to offer seeing eyes and listening ears, however, than muddy, spiritless rivers. When there was a far-reaching, quiet light over it, one might hear a whirring sound rising somewhere in the distance. It didnít seem to mean much to some people. "Nothing but prairie chickens," they would [56] say in superior tones. But to the boyís ears the sound carried a peculiarly questioning note, or again it seemed to mutter something no one could understand.

There were unforgettable moments, such as when the big, faintly bluish eye of the sun Ďway out there in the west seemed suddenly to regret that it couldnít stay longer and tried to make up for that by turning to gold, edging the clouds with its glory and radiating through the heavens far upward and outward. If then a meadow lark would glide into the evening and take to singing from some hillock or fence post, the golden luster of the sky would fill with warblings at once delightful and melancholy. Then the fledgling prairie lad had to hold his breath in an awareness of something infinite.

But the prairie could give him moments of another kind, especially when busy menfolk, having finished some job they had been struggling with, took time for a relaxing smoke. Then it would happen that those who were out in the open air wearing long overcoats or fur coats would occasionally glance in the direction of the north wind. The time for speculation came quickly to an end; for if one so much as stuck his nose out the door, the roar of winter would be upon him. Then the sturdy sod hut was absolutely tops as a refuge. Time and again Father was to see it proved that he was right in what he said when the sod walls were being built layer upon layer from the ground up.

Well, enough of this. The boy from the valley was here, and here to all appearances he would remain. Of what had belonged to the old valley he remembered only one thing for long and that was the River Laagen. The "Catechism," the "Bible History," and the "Reader" used here were identical with those they had brought with them. Now there was talk of its being time to study the "Explanation" (Forklaring). Of this he had no fear. As for the English public school - just let it come. They couldnít cut off his fingers on account of that funny language. Word had also begun to go around that they would soon be having a month of Norwegian church school [57] out here on the prairie - during midsummer most likely, when students at the theological seminaries were having vacation and could serve as teachers.

What, aside from such things, was there for a boy from a simple sod hut to occupy himself with?

Fishing was of course out of the question; the dirty gray river had eliminated that. Perhaps his zeal for the sport had fallen off a little, anyway, that day back in Norway when Grandfatherís fishhook had stuck in his finger instead of in the fish. The pain was gone now, of course. Even the scar was scarcely visible, and Mother had assured him that in a few months it would be gone altogether.

But there were disadvantages in being a newcomer with only a sod hut for a home. He knew at least three boys who were more fortunate. Take Paul, for instance - he had a beautiful rifle. One had a nice shotgun, and Albert, the shiniest revolver on the prairie. All three had gunpowder, bullets, and shot. Could anything be more perfect for a prairie boy?

There were many things to be heard when bewhiskered men sat drinking punch or coffee or just smoking pipes. They often talked about a certain war - the Civil War. Some of the men who had eventually come to the prairie had been in it, had worn uniforms, had marched from place to place, had shot with long rifles, which were bought and sold. Now almost every prairie home had at least one hanging on the wall, an object of high esteem.

Things other than slavery and the Civil War brought men to think about guns. The Indians - half-naked, painted, gruesome, yelling wild men - had something to do with it. When they were bent on violence they really couldnít leave decent people alone. In some places in Minnesota they had carried on like possessed, had shot down little children or thrown them against walls, carried off pretty young girls, set fire to houses which settlers had nearly worked themselves to death to build. Among their victims were several Norwegians. The name of Gun Endreson, for instance, lives on the prairies to this day. [58] It was unbelievable how this Norwegian backwoods woman had managed to save herself and help others too, during the period when the redskins raged at their worst. It was said that Gun Endreson would never be forgotten in Minnesota - a distinction which hundreds of fine Minnesota ladies had never attained. And to imagine that anything like that could happen to a person with a name like Guri!

For the boy from a sod hut - one without a Civil War rifle on the wall - such talk was rather depressing. He didnít even have a shining revolver to show anyone, like Albert, who was just his age - not to mention Paulís rifle and Oleís shotgun.

Things began to look better when the promise of Norwegian church school became a reality that summer. The "Explanation" would certainly have to be taken up now. As for the "Bible History," there would never be an end to that so long as much of what was in it continued to be quoted by the minister himself. And the "Reader" had a series of sections in it, each more demanding than the one preceding it. Simon brightened considerably when church school began.

The teacher, Bernt Haugland, had much to do with this. He was tall and well built and had a bright face, a brown mustache, and wavy hair the same color. It was good for any boy to see this kind of person. He could, no doubt, be strict as any grownup, but tile pupils chose to avoid doing anything to make that necessary. A disappointed glance from the teacher was usually sufficient. And his face glowed with warmth when recitations went well and everything else in the schoolroom was pleasant.

He was well dressed, although not in such a way as to make one afraid to go near him. He wore a watch the like of which must have been unknown on the prairie. It was so large that its shape showed on the outside of his vest pocket, and its double case of shining silver clicked so loud when he closed it that everyone, even those at the back of the schoolroom, heard it, especially when it signaled that recess was at hand.

With Haugland as a teacher, mastering the "Explanation" [59] and the "Bible History" was no problem at all. He was good natured in almost everything he undertook, not least when the dayís recitations were over and he asked all to rise and join in singing, "Lord, Bestow on Us Thy Blessing." Every voice in the schoolroom responded:

Lord, bestow on us Thy blessing

Let Thy face upon us shine;

May we all, Thy grace possessing

Walk within Thy light divine.

Come and visit every heart

And Thy peace to us impart.

Father, Son, and Spirit hear us

Be Thou now and ever near us.

Even at the end of the school day, no one, no matter how lively, could start any tomfoolery for a good while after he had joined in this hymn.


The boy often observed that his mother was especially happy about the Norwegian school and Hauglandís teaching. It came out distinctly on one occasion when a neighbor stopped by and had coffee. As the conversation touched on such things as the Norwegian church school and the public school, the man took a deep puff on his pipe and remarked, "That Bernt Haugland is a born teacher if ever there was one." It was Mother who then brightened, nodded a vigorous assent, and hastened to bring the coffee. This visitor was most welcome to that extra drop, even though of late she had been anxiously watching the dwindling supply in the jar.

After Haugland had left and a breath of fall now and then came in the air, a considerable stir arose in the house because of what Mother called the "English" school. "You will need warm clothes," she said, and sat up late at night struggling to finish stockings, mittens, and the like. But she didnít show the eager happiness that she had when Haugland was expected. [60] It was with a sad look that she saw the boy off, that first day of school.

The "English school," the public school of the prairie, was different in many respects from Hauglandís summer classes. The attractive mustache was no more to be seen, for it was a woman who took over. The big, shining silver watch with the case that clicked gave way to a little golden thing that dangled from a chain around her neck. And though the lady was different from most of the prairie women, her geniality seemed somewhat short of that which had radiated so naturally from Haugland. But she was pretty, and she had a pretty name- Mildred Steen on paper, Miss Steen when you had a question to ask. And bearded fellows who were acquainted with such matters did not hesitate to assert that she knew a thing or two.

Almost twice as many children came to this school as to Hauglandís, attendance being drawn from a district, not a congregation. There were no empty seats in the wooden schoolhouse. One got to hear and see a good many things not mentioned when Haugland was in charge. On the back wall hung a large map with state and territorial boundaries distinctly marked, and to one side of the blackboard was something called a "chart." It had pages of letters which were to be combined into words, and then pictures of the things the words stood for. This contraption was in frequent use, especially during the first few days, and Miss Steen was an expert in turning up the shining bright pages.

Among the Hailing folk on the prairie was a boy whose name was Ole, but because he was spindly and a head taller than the other boys his age, he got the nickname "Lanky." His learning ability was not up to the level of his tousle. {3} But Miss Steen applied herself with patience and diligence to Oleís slowness.

Finally a day came when she hoped that Ole could combine letters into words and thus join the class of boys his own age. [61] She deftly turned the pages of the chart until she came to one with more difficult words than Ole had so far encountered.

It didnít work. Through word after word Ole stood silent, Miss Steenís grimaces and suggestive lip movements notwithstanding. The sound of pencils scratching on slates became less audible; the attention of every pupil in the room was being distracted by what was going on at the chart. When nothing helped, the now impatient and disappointed teacher turned back to the simpler words, picked the word "cow" with the matching picture of a sturdy bovine, doing as before her facial best to force recognition and remind Ole that here was something he had seen many times. "Name this one-hurry up now and name it!" she prodded.

A light broke in Lankyís face, and straightening to his full height, he burst out fast and triumphantly in broad Norwegian dialect, "Eit kjyr!"

Like a flash a boy ducked behind his desk and tried in vain to suppress his giggling, whereupon a good many others let go, and shrieking laughter soon drowned out everything else in the schoolroom. Miss Steen, helpless to resist, had to join in, in spite of wanting to control her irritation and maintain discipline.

And Lanky? Well, he seemed not to know what it was all about.


In time much was learned within those rough board walls. The globe on the teacherís desk in the front of the room showed the entire world, but it was a poor competitor to the more diligently used map of the United States on the back wall. It was about America that the schoolbooks had the most to say, and a good part of what was to be learned had to do with that country. Furthermore, this information was about men and women - principally about men who had done, said, or written something glorious in America.

The only trouble was that there were too many such heroes [62] for one to remember them all offhand. Names like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Robert E. Lee were the exceptions, but if one racked his brains ever so little he could add Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. As for writers, such men as Franklin, Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, and Poe might be included, although one who came from a sod hut would hardly know much about these fellows. On the other hand, the wild midnight ride of Paul Revere, and how he felt as he sped across the countryside warning people that British troops were on the march, bent on taking possession of everything and everyone-this was something that one could live oneself. What a man this Paul Revere must have been! And the horse he had! It could well be that that splendid animal sensed that he bore something more than an ordinary rider that night.

In the new schoolbooks on his desk the boy could read about this and a great deal more. There was as much to be heard as read, for the teacher talked about the same things, putting them in her own words. For example, she told how the brave people who came over in the "Mayflower" had to clear patches in the dense forest for places to raise food. This meant not only the never-ending toil of felling trees and digging up roots for spots of tillable ground, but also always carrying a musket to guard against attacks by savage redskins who lurked behind tree trunks and in the bushes round about. The prairie farmer ought to remember this, for he needed only to ride out with a plow and, with no trouble at all, he could turn up the richest soil.

Who should have the credit for making all this possible? Yes, it was these pioneers who in spite of hardships not only persevered but also had the vision to see what the new land could become for oppressed and unfortunate human beings the world over. "We, too, secure within these four walls, should be thankful," said Miss Steen. Every now and then she mentioned George Washingtonís boyhood years and the incident of the cherry tree. This was a fine and useful tree and the [63] father was furious to discover that it had been chopped down. During the investigation which followed among the family and slaves, George confessed that he was the sinner. He stood remorsefully before his father and explained that he had been unable to resist trying his new hatchet on that very tree, and then when he began to think of his misdeed he didnít dare to tell a lie. Thatís the kind of boy George Washington was, said Miss Steen. This inborn honesty later shaped his career and earned him such esteem among his countrymen that they finally honored him with the title "Father of His Country." She added, "Of course none of you boys in this room can become the father of his country, for only one can be that. But that kind of honesty can be just as useful to you as it was to him."

Oh, there was much to be heard in this community. One day the boy Simon listened to a rather inquisitive fellow who seemed bent on finding out about the battlefield exploits of the neighborhoodís only Civil War veteran. No matter what he hit upon to ask, he got nowhere. Perhaps this uncommunicative fellow was no veteran at all? Finally the silent, harried man rose to his feet, straightened to his full height, and said, "I have seen General Grant ride before his ranks, swinging his saber. Then it was easy to follow." And he turned and walked away, leaving the inquisitive one looking dashed. The sod-hut boy sat stock-still for awhile, staring.

General Grant rode before his ranks swinging a saber.


The pupil from the sod hut couldnít help wondering a little naïvely what manner of person this Miss Steen really was. She always spoke English, wouldnít tolerate a Norwegian word, either in or out of the schoolroom, and yet seemed pretty well acquainted with the "Explanation of the Catechism" and the "Bible History." During the Christmas holidays that year something entirely unexpected happened.

On the third day after Christmas a sleigh, nicer than the [64] usual kind seen in the neighborhood, drew up in front of the sod hut. In the back seat, all bundled up and wearing a hat, sat Miss Steen. After a couple of short words to the driver she stepped out holding a package in both hands. In she came, just as if she had been invited, and the sleigh drove on. Once inside, she put down what she was holding and began immediately to remove her wraps and hat. There, where distaff visitors had been farmersí wives in plain attire, she was something! She seemed a phantom. Had she come to show off and put the sod-hut folk to shame? It was possible. It hurt to be made to feel that way - now of all times on the third day of Christmas.

But the unkind thought was short-lived. It quickly became clear that what the phantom held in her hands was a thumping big pie as beautifully wrapped as if it were intended for a wedding. It must have taken half a morning to make it, to say nothing of what it cost. Moreover, it was the kind of pastry that newcomer women never attempted. "It should by rights have been here on Christmas Day, but I didnít manage it," she explained as offhandedly as if such a pie was a normal part of the Christmas festivities in this sod hut. A faint aura of delicate perfume surrounded her as she went from one person to the next with a special greeting for each - all in the Valders dialect, with now and then an English word. The schoolboy went hot to the roots of his hair when his turn came and she said, "And here is my bright pupil." Before long she managed a low-voiced conversation with Mother, behind the bed curtain in the corner - an action that in turn caused anxiety because of the neglected treats. But without more ado she glanced at her watch, which today as always hung on a gold chain around her neck. "No, no, donít even mention it." Any such thing was out of the question. The sleigh would be here any moment. And it was. A shout came almost on the instant, leaving her only enough time to put on her coat and hat and offer a last Christmas greeting from the half-open door.

The real occasion for the visit came to light only later. [65] And it got to be worrying Mother, who finally brought it up. Ever since starting for America she had been plagued with anxiety because the American school system did not permit instruction in religion. The short conversation with the teacher and the visit itself had given her a good deal to think about. Her mind had been relieved of a great worry, she said, half apologetically but in her own forthright way. From now on she would encourage the children to attend both the English school and the Norwegian church school. Miss Steen had showed herself to be a real Christian. And as for son Simon, surely he hadnít forgotten how the fine old schoolmaster in Norway had taken the trouble to pay a visit just before they left and speak an encouraging word.

What Mother said about Miss Steen and the schoolmaster in the old country was greeted with approving nods and brightening faces. Later she confided to Father that there were signs that a little American could be expected - the familyís first native-born child.


The family name was to undergo a typical American change. The place name "Bergumshagen" had seldom been used in the Norwegian valley; "Svensen" was more common because it was a patronymic. Among settlers from that same community in Norway, this, changed to Swenson, was usually adopted in this country. When, however, Father became a farm owner in Dakota Territory he ordered the name "Johannes S. Bergumshagen" registered in the deed of conveyance-a name unpronounceable among Americans. Hence it happened that when the children began going to the public school, Fatherís given name was rewritten "John," a usable name, and the childrenís family name became "Johnson." The eldest, Simen, immediately became Simon. Among the neighbors the names Bergumshagen, Swenson, and Johnson were used interchangeably, but as the immigrants were accustomed to such variations, this caused no difficulty. [66]

The passing years allowed Simon little opportunity to further his education. There were, to be sure, the regular annual terms of public school and as a rule a few weeks of Norwegian church school, but that was all. To learn to handle farm implements, to lead a pair of oxen, to steer a plow, to rein horses properly (after they replaced oxen) - these were more important than going to school. And after a few years, when the machines came, they were the most wonderful of all, except for school and books. Yes, the machines!


During the winter Mother had an almost fatal illness, and recovery was very slow. When therefore it became known that Dr. Eduard Boeckmann of St. Paul was going to hold a clinic for a few days in one of the near-by prairie towns, it went without saying that this was an opportunity not to be passed by.

Throughout the Dakota prairies the opinion prevailed that competent doctors treated the settlers like stepchildren. The best doctors preferred locations where "shillings" were more plentiful and distances shorter. Moreover, among Scandinavian frontier folk it was said that the American doctor was not as well trained as the European. These did not apply to Dr. Boeckmann. He had passed an examination brilliantly in Norway; more than that, he had decided to use his skills for the benefit of his countrymen in the Northwest. In the third place, he was so Norwegian that his origin enveloped him like spring weather wherever he went. During a few years in America he had built up an extensive practice in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and his name was familiar everywhere in the prairie settlements to the west.

Mother must by no means miss the chance to see him, which seemed to be an answer to prayer. Because the drive would be fairly long and horses were still only a dream to Father, he seriously considered hiring a horse and buggy. Mother opposed this vigorously. On the way over and back [67] they could make use of the cool night hours for driving, when oxen were at their best. A little hay in the wagon box and something to wrap up in would be fine.

So far as Mother was concerned Dr. Boeckmann lived up to his reputation. Because she was the simply attired housewife, Anne from a sod hut, she expected a curtly superior manner and a quick disposal of her case on the part of the celebrated physician. But never think it! She could not have been treated more courteously had she appeared in silk. And the examination? Hm, hm, she certainly had had a serious ordeal, according to the doctor. This sort of thing happened again and again when one was torn up by the roots and transplanted. "Your one lung, Mrs. Swenson, has become more than a little troublesome and must be treated accordingly. Much fresh air; fortunately there is an abundance of it on the prairie. And as many regular rest periods as possible every day. And you will not leave without bottles. I will see to it that such bottles are available at the pharmacistís in the town nearest you. And now then, a safe return home!"

That is what it was like to be received by Dr. Boeckmann, even though a tentful of people sat waiting anxiously for the white-clad attendants to record their names, addresses, and other information in a huge book. And the ride home in the rattling wagon box, after the cool of the night had set in, was much less worrisome.

As the years passed Dr. Boeckmannís diagnosis, so far as the lungs were concerned, proved not to have been exaggerated. But the years were also to prove that having less than two lungs did not stand in the way of becoming the mother of more children - American girls with corresponding citizenship privileges.

The years also saw to it that little boys became bigger boys. And what the big boys - and in-between ones too - could think up to do increased with the years.

Whenever, for example, Nils Coffee-Toddy was mentioned the sport would be on. This Nils Coffee-Toddy was, so to [68] speak, an in-between specimen of a human being. He could not read, much less write, but he could speak up at times in a way that stung. He had emigrated to America because, in all likelihood, some poor-relief officer in Norway wanted to get rid of him. It was said that at one time he had just barely kept out of jail. He was married, but that didnít keep him from being acquainted with women of questionable repute in this land of the free. His nickname derived from the fact that nothing could put him in such good spirits as a mixture of coffee and alcohol.

Strange to say, Nils Coffee-Toddy was fond of children, and children understood and were instinctively attracted to him. They unhesitatingly climbed up into his lap, to be bounced up and down on his knee and hear something the like of which they never heard from other lips:

Biam, biam-bipp

biam, biam-bipp!

Which presently went over into:

Biappam bare, bia appam bire

bi appam bipp!

Biappam bare, bi appam bire,

bi appam bipp!

Bi appam bipp.

A singsong jingle like this could be repeated indefinitely. What was needed by way of melody came naturally, with the children bouncing to the rhythm of the syllables as soon as the text was learned. But it wasnít only when he had a child on his lap that Nils Coffee-Toddy would burst out in this way. It was known to happen when he was simply in a good mood.


In these years many things began to change for the sod-hut family. Their status was enhanced by the exchange of the oxen for a pair of horses, and good-looking ones they were. One of the pair, a shapely, gentle animal and a little tricky, was said [69] to have a strain of Morgan blood. When Father had caught on to him he told, smiling in his beard, how the horse, when hitched in a certain way, could find a place of support for his end of the doubletree so as to make his pull easier than that of his less cunning partner. American smartness in a horseís head! But what Simon thought about most of all was how friendly this Morgan crossbreed could be - at times almost amusingly so.

With the years the family got rid of the sod hut and the rented acreage on which it stood and acquired a farm with a white dwelling house on it. The moving took place in stages, with delays and confusion between times. While this was going on, the industrious Simon caught a severe cold and had to crawl into bed for several days among the chattels which had been moved over from the sod hut.

When some order was established in the new place and Simon could get into his clothes again, Mons, the cat, was not to be found. During the turmoil none of the adults had remembered to bring him. Even Mother could not claim having seen the cat when the door to the sod hut was locked. Originally a vagrant, was he to become one again? It might well be. But that did not eliminate the possibility that he was still in the hut and would die of neglect, which was an unthinkable possibility. It certainly wasnít necessary to prod Simon into finding out, even less now that they had something resembling a cart to hitch that likeable Morgan-featured fellow to.

Simon started out the next day. The fall weather was bracing but sunny, with now and then a breeze from the south. But the cart was only soso; it had only a board for a seat. Wheels and shafts, however, were in order and they mattered the most. The Morgan crossbreed was, as usual, pleasant to handle. He made his way as if he knew both the road and the destination. The chills in Simonís body went away. Nothing remained of them but the memory.

It was almost eerie to stand once more in the now empty sod hut and see the naked walls and supports, pasted over in [70] some places with yellowed pages of Decorah-Posten and Skandinaven. But in the light of his errand this didnít bother Simon much. For all his whistling and calling, "Mons! Mons! Mons!" there was no answer to be heard, nor movement seen, only dull silence within the walls. Nor was there anything to indicate that the cat had been there when the sod hut was locked.

There was still the low grain shed and the sod barn. In the grain shed he met with the same dead silence. Only the smell differed. Nothing suggested that the cat had been locked in there either.

In the barn, which had served both cows and horses, the situation must be more promising, for besides hay and straw a lot of stuff had been thrown in there that wasnít worth moving. It still smelled like a cow and horse barn. So the whistling and calling began again, "Mons! Mons! Mons!" with still no answer and no sign of a living thing. Would he have to do something for which he had no stomach, drive to neighbor Engís, the catís original home, to see if Mons had found his way back there? That could of course only be interpreted as showing that the gift hadnít been sufficiently prized.

As Simon hesitantly approached the exit he thought he detected something stirring up on a shelf. He crawled up into a crib to get a closer look, and caught a gleam. It was the cat! It was Mons! And he tried to purr, immediately making it clear that he had no objection to meeting his old friend. Had Mons suffered since the sod-hut folk moved away? That had to be determined first. A single look in the daylight was enough. The cat was as plump and healthy-looking as the last time Simon saw it. It was delightful to sit out in the sunny fall weather, to stroke the soft fur, and to hear that cozy purring. But this was no time for lingering. They must be on their way to that new and grander place which was to be Monsís home from now on.


<1> Simon Johnson, well-known journalist and novelist, was born in Gudbrandsdal, Norway, in 1874. At the age of eight he came to the United States with his parents. He edited Normanden (Grand Forks, North Dakota) for four years, and was a member of the staff of Decorah-Posten for fifteen years. He has published the following books: Et geni (1907), Lonea (1909), 1 et nyt rige (1914), Fire fortellinger (1917), Falliten paa Braastad (1922), Frihetens, hjem (1925).

<2> The selections translated here form parts of chapter 2 of Simon Johnsonís unpublished memoirs entitled "Opplevd: Noen minner, funderinger, og skildringer - og livsoppsjør tilslutt" (Experiences: Some Memories, Reflections, and Sketches - and a Casting of Accounts). The original manuscript is in the possession of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

<3> I.e., tousled head.

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