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Thor Helgeson: Schoolmaster and Raconteur
    by Einar Haugen (Volume 24: Page 3)

In 1923 Waldemar Ager, editor of the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, newspaper Reform, announced the coming appearance in his paper of a series of yarns about early settlers of Waupaca County, in the northeastern part of the state. The author, Ager wrote, was Thor Helgeson of Iola, who had already published two collections of such accounts and was "an excellent storyteller." Ager, himself a novelist and a connoisseur of humor, described Helgeson as "the P. C. Asbjørnsen of the Norwegians in America." This critical judgment — a little presumptuous, to be sure — put him in a class with the greatest narrative genius of Norwegian folklore, co-author of the classic collection of tales first published in 1842 by Asbjørnsen and his collaborator, Jørgen Moe.

A year and a half later Ager again announced a series of Helgeson’s tales, amplifying his earlier praise: "These are not exactly events calculated to set the world on fire; but, as contributions to the understanding of life as it was lived by the pioneers, they are something virtually unique. For there exists only one single such old and wise schoolteacher in all of Norwegian America as Helgeson. And his incomparable memory has become a veritable treasure trove from which he can ladle out endlessly." In November, 1926, Ager again brought his readers a large collection of Helgeson’s anecdotes. [4]

Apropos of the recent founding of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, Ager commented: "History is now being written. . . . [Scholars] have dusted through archives and libraries both here and in Norway to gather information about the early immigrants. But how these lived their daily lives, the language they employed, the thoughts they thought, the fun they had — to learn about these things, one has to seek out such sources as Thor Helgeson. He is an old man himself and has spent almost his entire life as a Norwegian-American schoolteacher, and he has heard more and remembers better than anyone else. . . . For future Norwegian-American authors Helgeson’s notations will be a gold mine." In 1927 Helgeson was awarded a prize for his literary work by Det Norske Selskab i Amerika, a society in which Ager was very influential. {1}

Ager’s repeated praise of Helgeson has not been matched by any corresponding recognition of his writing in the years since the 1920’s. One good reason was that there were no "future Norwegian-American authors." After World War I the use of Norwegian in school and church declined sharply, and the authors who made their mark were those who had entered the field before 1914, such as Ager himself, O. A. Buslett, Simon Johnson, and O. E. Rølvaag. But even in the works published by the Norwegian-American Historical Association, in which virtually every Norwegian of any note has been given his meed of praise, Helgeson has been ignored; as far as I can discover, his name is not mentioned in any publication of the Association. He neither founded churches nor built empires; he was only a parochial schoolteacher in a frontier Wisconsin community. [5]

In the last decade of his long and fruitful life, however, Helgeson committed to paper a treasury of folklore in the best sense of the word, reflecting the fates and foibles of Norwegian immigrants more faithfully, and often more amusingly, than any other source I know. His production — the part that has been preserved — has suffered the misfortune of not being published or of being buried in books that were circulated only locally and in newspapers that reached only a small readership. Nevertheless, he compares favorably with the best of the later folklore collectors of Norway, men of the class of Johannes Skar and Ivar Kleiven. It is the more surprising that the archivists of Norway have not caught sight of him, as a good many of his stories are authentic bits of folklore from Norway. But the main body of them consists of an endless variety of illustrations of what Theodore C. Blegen has called "grass roots history." Whether true or false, they are told in the spirit of the people; and they reflect the personality of their narrator, a man deeply rooted in the life of the common folk and yet sufficiently educated to stand back and look with some detachment at the antics of his countrymen in the diaspora.

My discovery of this neglected author came as a byproduct of fieldwork done in 1942 on American Norwegian dialects, specifically during my visit to the Norwegian settlements of Waupaca County. When this rocky, hill-strewn country was first entered by Norwegian settlers in 1850, it was still a frontier woodland, largely inhabited by Indians. It was therefore called "Indianland" by the Norwegians (in Norwegian Indilandet, since the Indians in American Norwegian were known as indi"). During the first generation of immigration, this area attracted a large number of Norwegian farmers from Telemark, Setesdal, and Gausdal — inland regions with a rich and flourishing tradition of art and folklore. Timber was their chief cash crop, and the early [6] settlers worked as loggers when they could be spared from their farms. As it turned out, this area came to be segregated rather markedly from other Norwegian settlements in Wisconsin. To the west, around Stevens Point, were Irish and Poles; east of it were Yankees and Germans; to the north lay the woods and to the south a miscellaneous assortment of peoples. When I went there, twenty-eight years ago, the Norwegians were still remarkably retentive of their native dialects; Norwegian was the normal language on the farms and even in the small towns of Scandinavia, Iola, and Rosholt, their chief trading centers. But the days of hardship were long since past. Although by that time the logging had been reduced to virtually nothing, the country was a smiling, attractive region, with dairy farming and potato raising as its major occupations.

By way of preparation, I had pored over some of the accounts of this settlement written by Norwegian-American historians. {2} Nothing in these sources had prepared me for Thor Helgeson. My first inkling of his existence was the account given me by his grandson, Arnold Helgeson, one of the first persons I met in Iola. He put me in touch with one of his grandfather’s friends and neighbors, John Barikmo, who not only was a helpful informant for the dialect, but who also assisted me with oral and written information about Helgeson. Primarily through the assistance of these two, I was able not only to secure copies of the old schoolteacher’s books, but also to borrow from the family unpublished manuscripts and scrapbooks which filled out my picture of a remarkable storyteller. [7]

Barikmo’s description of Helgeson was enough to rouse my expectations. This man who had been a teacher of religion and the Norwegian language for sixty-six years — virtually from the day of his arrival in America to his death — was also affectionately described by Barikmo as "a tremendous boon companion and a tremendous storyteller. He could tell stories all day and all night." The description is similar to that applied by Asbjørnsen to Peer Gynt, in the tale which Ibsen used as a source for his famous drama.

One of the stories Barikmo told about Helgeson was reminiscent of the passage in Chaucer where a similar dispute arises between a friar and a priest. Thor Helgeson was the klokker (precentor and sexton) of Scandinavia Lutheran Church for many years, but in spite of this he enjoyed a glass of beer now and then when he was in good company. Someone had tattled to the pastor, telling him that Helgeson had had a drop too many at a beer party, and one day the clergyman decided to give his parishioner a reprimand. But he went about it in a strange way, saying to Helgeson: "I dreamt that I was in heaven, and there I entered the dwelling that was prepared for klokkere, but they were carrying on something awful. They were behaving improperly, shouting at the tops of their voices, and swigging alcohol."

"Is that so?" said Helgeson. "Well, I had a dream, too," said he. "I was in heaven and went into the dwelling that was prepared for the pastors. But there I didn’t find a single pastor." {3}

This little exchange of pleasantries clearly comes from Helgeson’s own repertory of anecdotes, a number of which were still vivid in Barikmo’s mind fourteen years after his death. An important factor in accounting for Helgeson’s dual role as schoolmaster and raconteur is the nature of the parochial [8] school that he conducted. At no time did the congregations he served erect a building for this purpose; the regular schoolhouses were reserved for the official state schools that taught the children English and other common-school subjects. Helgeson’s teaching was modestly supported, and, although he served several months each year, much of his work was done in the homes of the parishioners, as in the ambulatory schools of his day in rural Norway. This meant that he often boarded with the families while he taught; according to Barikmo, he was a most welcome guest because of his inexhaustible fund of amusing tales. Because in this way he came to visit nearly every household, he naturally picked up the gossip of the community and apparently stored it in his retentive mind.

Not everyone, however, appreciated his talents as a narrator. Some women were offended by the earthy robustness of his tastes, and he was not above teasing the squeamish. Once when Helgeson was visiting the Barikmos, the young "schoolmam" was living there also. At table he told a story about a couple in a neighboring town. The husband had been waked by his wife in the middle of the night and told to hurry off to fetch the midwife for her. The husband was tired and unwilling to interrupt his sleep and said, "Can’t you wait till morning?"

This story so offended the refined sensibilities of the schoolmam that during the next meal she at first refused to sit at table with Helgeson. Mrs. Barikmo persuaded her to come anyway; but the two men found the occasion ripe for a little teasing. So Barikmo stimulated the ever-willing Helgeson to tell a story about a Swede he had known who was inclined to excessive enjoyment of the grape. One day he was working on a farm where the ladies’ society of the congregation had its meeting, and he was invited to partake of their coffee. One of the women had just had a baby and was fondling it on her lap; she chose to give the Swede a broad hint about his weakness, saying: "How can you take in this filthy stuff [9] that makes you deathly ill, and then as soon as it’s past, you start all over again?"

"Yes, it is stupid," said the Swede, "but a drunkard is just like a pregnant woman; she gets deathly ill, but no sooner is it past than she, too, starts all over again." At this point the schoolmam fled the table, while the old man chuckled with delight. {4}

Any notion that Helgeson was either frivolous or irreligious because of his fondness for such secular stories is quickly dispelled by a glance at his considerable body of religious poetry. His verse of this kind was written largely in connection with his teaching, which consisted of fixing in the minds of the children of Norwegian immigrants the rudiments of reading and writing the Dano-Norwegian language — and making them memorize the Catechism and the Bible stories. It is reported by his one-time pupils that he was a stern taskmaster, who did not hesitate to use the rod. But he could frighten them also in another and pleasanter way: when he relaxed, he would tell them tales of ghosts and trolls from Norway until they were afraid to go to bed. In 1920, when he was seventy-eight, he wrote to a friend, Torkel Oftelie, that his oldest pupils were themselves seventy years old. "Some of them are just as white-haired as I and look just as old," he said. "Many of them," he added jestingly, "are well-off, even rich; but I am richer than they, for I have never been sick a day as far as I can remember." {5} It is attested that his pupils liked and respected him, and John Barikmo said that it always seemed like a holiday when Helgeson came to his house.

Teaching was his life. Thor Helgeson was born September 29, 1842, in the township of Tinn, Norway (Atraa Parish), where his father, Helge Thorsen Stølen, was a farmer who also engaged in the logging and lumbering business. The boy went on from the sketchy common school to the normal school (Tinn Lærerskole). When he was twenty years old, [10] he emigrated and landed in Detroit in July, 1862; he went immediately to the Muskego settlement in Racine County, Wisconsin, and there taught school the same year. In 1863 he taught in the Koshkonong settlement in Dane County. The rest of his life was spent in Waupaca and Portage counties, where he met his wife, Syverine Woldengen (now written Wolding), who originally came from Vestre Toten in Norway. He married her on July 27, 1867, at North New Hope Church in Portage County. They moved to a farm north of Iola, where they lived until Helgeson’s death on May 5, 1928.

While he taught most of the time in the congregations in and around Iola and Scandinavia, he also made excursions to other parts of the state, teaching for a time in Trempealeau and Jackson counties, as well as in Oneida. {6} It appears from the daybook he kept for the school terms that each group of pupils came to him for something like three weeks twice a year, that they numbered from a dozen to twenty, and that their ages ranged from five to thirteen. For this he was paid about thirty dollars per term.

Outside recognition could come to Thor Helgeson only through his printed works, all of which appeared within the last decade of his life. (See the appended list of his writings.) Unfortunately, it has not been possible so far to date his major work, the two volumes entitled Fra "Indianernes Lande" (From the Land of the Indians), but it seems probable that they appeared in 1915-1918, when he was nearly seventy-five years old. {7} Being unable to consult either the [11] author or his original manuscripts dated earlier than 1915 makes it impossible to be certain when he began to write. There is a strong indication, however, that he made some very early notations of old-country folklore. In the collection Folkesagn og folketro (Folktales and Folk Beliefs), he dated most of the stories 1879 and 1880, except for one which seems to originate in 1893. Each group of stories is attributed to a specific narrator from a specific community in Norway; most of the storytellers are immigrants who settled in central Wisconsin. The tales are related in a good Dano-Norwegian style, with the dialogue in local dialect (and with the use of an occasional American word). Many deal with supernatural creatures, including the full range of domestic spirits (nisse, tusse), fairy folk (huldre, und erjordiske) , ghosts (spøkeri), giants (troll, jutul) , witches (trollkjerring) , and devils (faen, djævelen), that once peopled the Norwegian landscape.

The stories are the usual migratory legends associated with these spirits, reflecting the constant tension once felt between the present world and the surrounding unknown. {8} The author’s views are reflected in a sentence quoted from one of his informants: "You see, it’s nothing but coalblack lies, my boy." But in a few stories the folklore is exploited for its own purposes by devious persons: an old woman who plays the part of nisse in order to get at the whisky bottle in a cupboard; or a young widow who appears at midnight in a ceremony supposed to show a young farm worker his future wife. These latter are not folklore, but "true stories" involving folklore. There are some other anecdotes in the collection, mostly involving the religious and secular authorities — ministers, sheriffs, and employers. Here they appear as seen by their underlings, virtually figures in another world and apt foci for anecdotal treatment. Like most of the immigrants of [12] Helgeson’s district, seven of the eight narrators cited in his collection are either from Telemark (Porsgrund, Lunde, Gransherad, Heddal) or Gudbrandsdal (Faaberg, Vestre Gausdal, Ringebu).

Also included in Folkesagn og folketro is a section called "Folke-viser," or ballads, which are in fact Helgeson’s own versified retellings of folklore. There are six of them, all in a dialect close to landsmaal, but not identical with it. While it is generally authentic, there are errors, such as the use of dative plurals like jentom or rompom as subject or direct object forms. The number of stanzas varies from three to fourteen, and the verse form is not a ballad stanza at all, but an eight-line iambic trimeter with simple rhymes in alternate lines. This style, which was Helgeson’s favorite verse form, was probably modeled on Jørgen Moe’s "Fanitullen" (1849), one of the classic poems of folklore narration in Norwegian literature. Contrary to Moe’s practice, however, and to his own in the prose narrations, his folklore ballads are moralized.

Four of the six ballads have appended to them a moral, sometimes extending to nine stanzas. For example, there is a poem on the well-known theme of a hunter who spends the night in a deserted seter (chalet), where he is troubled by the attentions of three huldre girls. The verse concludes with a stanza advising young men to find one girl and not to fool around with several. There is no evidence in the tale itself, however, that the hunter is promiscuous: his chief problem is to get rid of the unwelcome attentions of the huldre. Similarly, a story about two trolls from Helgeson’s native valley becomes a text for him to moralize on the presence of trolls everywhere in human life, by which he means the self-seeking and dishonest, the materialistic and irreligious, whether inside or outside the church:

Der sit ein Man i Kjyrka,
han syng aa les aa be,
aa snyter stygt sin Næste,
naar han kan slippe te.
Følg du ham ut af Kjyrka
aa bort paa Kjyrkevoll,
aa høyr, haat der han prækar,
so faar du sjaa eit Troll.

There sits a man in church,
he sings and reads and prays,
and cheats his neighbor foully,
on every chance he sees. [13]
Go with him out of church
and over to the knoll
to hear what there he’s preaching;
then you will see a troll. {9}

A notebook is available in which earlier versions of these poems, dated 1915, are found. If these are indeed his first versions, they constitute his earliest attempts at original writing. In form and moral purpose, though not at all in content, they are closely parallel to his retelling of the Bible stories in Bibelhistoriske fortællinger, which appeared in 1919. This book is dedicated "to my dear disciples" and furnished with elaborate footnotes that are intended to clarify the text for children. In Norwegian literature the idea of presenting religious stories in verse goes back to the work of Petter Dass (1647-1707), whose four collections of verse include the retelling of stories from the Old and New Testament, texts for each Sunday in the church year, and all of Luther’s Catechism. It is not difficult to hear the tones of Dass in Helgeson’s writing, though it falls short of the skill and vigor of his great predecessor. But the purpose is the same — to imprint Lutheran orthodoxy in the heart of his pupils:

Den evige, den sande Gud
i Dage seks har gjort
det alt, opholder, styrer alt,
smaat saavelsom stort.
Si’er en, vor Jord er formet ud
i Millioner Aar,
vi derom bryr os ei et Gran;
vi tror Guds klare Ord.

The true, eternal God
in six days made it all,
maintains it and directs,
the great as well as small.
If anyone says it took
a million years to form the earth,
we do not care a bit,
we trust God’s simple word. {10}

Like Dass, Helgeson varies his form occasionally, substituting for his favorite eight-line stanza one of four lines, or changing from three beats to four or even five. There is no evidence, however, that he composed them to specific hymn [14] tunes, as Dass in part had done. The themes are sufficiently indicated by the titles of his poems: Creation, The Lost Paradise, The Firstborn of Mankind, The Great Flood, Babel and the Tower, The Patriarchs, and the like. He follows the stories included in the Norwegian Bible history quite closely, concentrating on the Old Testament and pointing out at every turn its significance for Christian belief. The last section, entitled "The New Pact," deals with the coming of Christ as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. In orthodox vein the rejection by the Jews of Christ’s divinity is seen as the cause of their dispersion and later sufferings. Their "punishment" is brought down to the reader’s sphere of understanding in graphic depictions of the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent Jewish rebellions of 132-135 A.D.:

Fler tusen fangne Jøder
blev ført til Abrahams Træ
ved Hebron og blev solgte
netop som andet Fæ.
Der drevet blev en Handel,
som nok var mer end styg:
Tænk, fire og fire Jøder
en halv Bushel Byg!

In numbers vast the Jews
were captured in the battle;
at Abraham’s tree by Hebron
they were sold like any cattle.
A trading was conducted
that must be called profane:
the Jews were sold by fours for
for half a bushel of grain! {11}

Helgeson’s poetic vein continued to stress religious as well as secular themes even after he published these Bible stories, as we see from the two manuscript collections (nos. 4 and 5 in the list below). Among the religious poems is A Short History of the Suffering, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus in eighty-nine stanzas, plus about twenty other titles. More interesting is the occasional verse written for certain holidays, such as New Year’s 1923, weddings or birthdays, including a vigorous summing up of his own life in On My 85th Birthday, Michaelmas, September 29, 1927. {12}

While the religious poems do not seem to have reached [15] print, a number of his secular ones did, in addition to those appearing in Folkesagn og folketro. These were mostly pieces in which Helgeson set to verse humorous episodes from Norwegian-American life, virtually in the same style as he used for Bible stories, and usually with a rather obvious moral purpose. They are dated from 1919 to 1925, and a number of them were printed in the issues of Reform for these years. Among the virtues they preach are honesty, hard work, and economy. One, under the title Stay on the Farm!, tells the story of Nils Jensen, who worked hard and faithfully and refused to squander his money on such newfangled items as pianos and automobiles. No sooner was he dead, however, than his wife and daughter left the farm, moved to town, and bought themselves these and many other luxuries, with the result that of course they went to the dogs financially. Some of his verse is reminiscent of old-fashioned broadsides, for example, when he retells the story of a Norwegian girl who was prevented by her parents from marrying the boy she wanted and ran away to a lumber camp, where she lived for many years disguised as a man under the name of "Billy Cook."

The mass of Helgeson’s writings, however, consists of the countless tales he recorded in prose "in the interest of cultural history." These words occur on the title pages of his two volumes entitled Fra "Indianernes Lande" — the work for which he best deserves to be remembered. These books comprise in all 577 duodecimo pages; in addition, Reform printed at least as much more in about forty-seven weekly installments during the years 1924-1928 (no. 9 in the list below). Not all of his output deals with Norwegian-American life; mixed in with the rest are realistic as well as supernatural episodes from Norway. But the bulk of the material either reports on the immigrants, or is cited as told by them, often in settings carefully described.

To the student of folk culture, whether in Norway or in Wisconsin, these materials offer a fascinating and unforgettable picture of a kind of neighborhood life that has virtually [16] disappeared today. Helgeson’s faithfulness in reporting the mixed American Norwegian language without attempts to pretty it up is a particularly refreshing feature. These volumes also give us an insight into Helgeson’s familiarity with Norwegian literature, for he frequently quotes lines from Norwegian — and occasionally other Scandinavian — poets, often using them as captions of his chapters. The most frequently quoted is the previously mentioned Petter Dass from the seventeenth century; and Ludvig Holberg, J. H. Wessel, Klaus Friman, and J. N. Brun from the eighteenth century. From the masters of the early nineteenth century he chooses Henrik Wergeland and J. S. C. Welhaven, accompanied by such lesser figures as H. A. Bjerregaard, Jørgen Moe, and Tormod Knudsen Borgegjorde, the last a dialect poet from Telemark. From the second half of the century Helgeson includes poets such as Ivar Aasen and A. O. Vinje, founders of the landsmaal tradition, plus their successor Per Sivle, and of the great riksmaal writers, only the popular Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. From Sweden, he selects Geijer, from Finland Runeberg, and from Denmark Carit Etlar — and the hymn writer H. A. Brorson. It is an impressive roster, reflecting a wide reading in the secular poets of Norway and a keen eye for the enrichment of his own work, which was thereby related to the best produced in his native country prior to his own emigration. Many of these Scandinavian poems were available in popular song and hymn books, and Helgeson’s familiarity with them suggests that he had a good library. Beside his own, he had access to those of at least two other literary men in his community. One was Peter P. Iverslie, a diligent writer in the Norwegian newspapers, originally from Helvetia, Wisconsin, but living in New Hope; he was a close friend from the time of Helgeson’s first coming to the area in 1864. Helgeson pays tribute to Iverslie in one of his contributions to Reform as well as in an obituary poem to a more important literary figure, O. A. Buslett. {13} Buslett is the only one of his [17] Norwegian-American fellow writers who is honored by being quoted in Helgeson’s books. {14} It is paradoxical that Buslett, who lived not far away from Helgeson and is known to have been his good friend, made one of the earliest debuts as a Norwegian-American author (in 1882); Helgeson — though his junior by only thirteen years — made one of the last. Waldemar Ager called Buslett "the pathfinder of Norwegian-American literature"; he was already well established as the author of novels, dramas, poetry, and journalistic articles when he returned to his native Northland to become postmaster and farmer. {15} His well-stocked library must have fascinated Helgeson and supplemented his own. In the years when Helgeson’s first books appeared, Buslett published a semi-fictional account of the Indianland community of his childhood. {16} It is more than likely that about this time Buslett encouraged Helgeson to begin writing.

When Buslett died in 1924, Helgeson wrote a touching little dialect poem to his memory. Two significant stanzas are:

Naar du mot Fantri aa Fusk
   vart morsk,
du leit inte etter Ore,
aa i dit Virke du va’ heilt norsk

i alt dæ, du sa aa gjore.

Du syner støypte i Allegori,
so Folk inte ret forsto de;

men no, du æ dø — no kjæm
   den Ti,
da mange vi’ hugse paa de.

When you lashed out at trick
   -ery and folly,
You always found the word,
And in your ways true-blue
For everything you boldly
You cast your visions allegorical
So people scarce could grasp
But now you’re dead — now
   comes the day
When to their hearts they’ll
   clasp you. {17} [18]

The first volume of Fra "Indianernes Lande" is more than half filled with historical data of only local interest, chiefly long lists of early settlers in each town and village of the counties included. Helgeson may have had in mind the Icelandic Book of the Landtaking, which similarly lists the first settlers of Iceland, while interspersing occasional comments or anecdotes. One of the highlights in this section is the story of how the town of Scandinavia got its name:

"The Swedish lawyer Dreutzer was called in to help us organize the town in legal fashion, for we few Norwegian settlers had no understanding of such matters. When the question of a name arose, Hans Jakob Eliasson from Eidanger proposed that it be called ‘Oksom’ because that was his farm name from Norway and since he was the first settler, he thought that would be fitting. But most of the electors would have none of this name and claimed it sounded like a nickname. Then another man from Eidanger suggested that it be called ‘Danger,’ a short form of the community from which both he and Hans Jakob came.

"Did you say "Danger"?’ said Dreutzer.

"Yes,’ said the man, for in that part of the country they did not say ‘Eidanger,’ but ‘Danger’ because it was easier.

"Dreutzer wrote the name down and stared at it a long while. When he had stared long enough, he burst out: ‘Danger!’ No, by seven thousand devils, you can’t use that name! In English that would be pronounced ‘deinjer’ and it would be taken as ‘the dangerous township.’

"Since a couple of Danish families had also moved in, we finally agreed to call it Town of Scandinavia." {18}

In the second half of this book Helgeson begins to hit his stride, organizing his stories into chapters with such headings as Claim Jumpers, A Trip to the Land Office, Starvation among the Settlers, From Woods and Rivers, Hunting Stories, The First Dwellings, Travels in Pioneer Days, [19] Miscellaneous Occupations, The First Schools, Preparations for War, Fear of the Indians, Soldiers’ Letters [from the Civil War], and The First Norwegian Ministers and Lay Preachers. Each of these tales is attributed to one or more informants, most of whom are identified by initials only." {19}

The same style is followed in the second volume, in which he has included also some stories from other communities, especially Dane and Trempealeau counties. The titles here are somewhat more suggestive of literary influence, including such short-story themes as When the Wife Is Gone, Some Men Are Like That [an allusion to a tale by Asbjørnsen and Moe], A War That Ended with the Beginning, Whisky and Haying, Was It Dr. Martin Luther Who Caused the Trouble? and the like. Among the social topics treated are grain threshing, elections, hermits, ghosts, funerals, wise women, tramps, and the American custom of the "shivaree," which was quickly adopted by the Norwegians in Wisconsin under the New England name of "horning." In this volume Helgeson frequently uses the device — first launched by Asbjørnsen in his Norske huldreeventyr — of combining several short episodes into a fictitious conversation, usually at a party or other gathering.

The many installments of Helgeson’s work in the newspaper Reform include a great deal of miscellaneous material. Some of it was also worked into descriptions of gatherings where various narrators make their contributions: a Christmas celebration, a ladies’ aid society meeting, a husking bee, or a party of people from Telemark. These also include a number of purely fictional folktales (eventyr) . They are credited to two narrators, one group to Turid Landsverk, a woman from Sauland in Telemark, the other to Jens Aslakson, a man from Holt. {20} [20]

As Moltke Moe once observed, women prefer fantastic tales, men boldly humorous ones. In Helgeson’s version, the woman characteristically relates stories of princes and princesses, of magic flights and magic helpers, and the man tells stories of men who become kings, of boys who master the handicrafts of thief, hunter, and repairman, of servants who seduce their mistresses, and of strong men who cut down whole forests at a time and use a beam from the barn to thresh the rye. While some of these anecdotes may stem from books, they give the impression of oral narration and appear not to correspond exactly to any printed versions — though most of them belong to well-known folktale types. {21} In some installments songs and folk poetry are inserted — including stev or verses of the kind that were composed impromptu on festive occasions — and also some well-known drinking songs from the eighteenth century. {22}

Helgeson’s fund of information about the Norwegian settlers of his community was overwhelming, and the reader’s problem is to pick out items of special interest and to organize them into a coherent picture. He describes the hardships of the pioneers, their encounters with the Indians, their experiences at the hands of the authorities, and their successful establishment of institutions as a framework for their new lives and for those of their children. We learn about the superstitions of the immigrants, but also about their faith. They were respectful but not uncritical of authority; they were devoted to their ministers, but only if the clergy deserved it, as some did not.

Helgeson was particularly fond of stories about courtship and marriage, many of them rich in humor. Although Norwegians were generally content to maintain their marriages, he seized the opportunity to relate various episodes, not only [21] of marital troubles, but of runaway mates and criminal acts. The chief weakness of the unregenerate Norwegian was his taste for hard liquor, whose effects Helgeson describes repeatedly with relish, mixed with disapproval. Many amusing events took place when weddings or funerals became excessively gay, thanks to the influence of whisky. Some people even distilled their own. One of his vivid tales is about a revolt of wives who banded together and attacked the saloon bar, destroying every bottle in sight — to the horror of the male habitues and the saloonkeeper, who were swept aside by the charge of the embattled women. {23}

Helgeson had a keen ear for the quality of dialogue, and in his writings he often reflected the conciseness and understatement of traditional Norwegian utterance. As an example, in one of his stories Mattias asks a girl to marry him. But on the way to the minister, his harness breaks: "Mattias got out, looked at the horse and the harness, and said to the girl, ‘We’re not to get married after all.’ Mattias had heard from his parents and other old folk that when anything went wrong with the vehicle bringing the couple to the church, it was an omen of an unhappy marriage. And so he drove the girl home to her family." {24} This episode is reminiscent of a tale in the Greenland Saga in which Eric the Red refuses to accompany his son Leif to Vinland because his horse stumbles under him: "We shall ride no farther together."

In another story, there is an old man whose back is so crippled that he can hardly get across the floor. One evening during Christmas some of the young folks bring a fiddler and some drinks to the house; they manage to sneak a drink or two to the old man, and before they know it, he is dancing with the rest. "But father," exclaims his daughter, "can you dance, with your bad back?"

"Bad back?" replies the father. "I haven’t had so good a back that I can remember!" {25} [22]

A woman lying on her deathbed says to her neighbor: "I’m sure husband Ole will buy me a fine coffin, for he’s always been such a kind man. I’m only worried about one thing: if the weather should be bad at my funeral, there won’t be much of a crowd." {26} Preste-Jon, an odd fellow working for the Reverend Olaus Duus, makes an agreement with the doctor to cure his faulty eyesight for fifty dollars. After the doctor has treated Jon for about two years, he begins to hint that he wants his payment, for Jon’s eyes are now much better. "Are they half again better than when you began messing with them?" asks Jon.

"Yes, about half," laughs the doctor.

"Well, if I am half again better than I was, I’ll give you half your payment. Here are your twenty-five dollars; I’ll give you the rest when I am completely cured." But he never was. {27}

One comical story reflects the life of pioneer days:

"Ola Vogsland settled on a good piece of land, built a little house, and bought a cow. One day he was cutting prairie grass as winter fodder for the cow, but after working half the day, he had to give up. His scythe would not bite, and he had no grindstone. One day he was going to the town of Scandinavia; he decided that he would take the scythe with him and sharpen it there.

"‘But I don’t dare stay alone here with the little ones,’ said his wife. ‘Indians go by here in long processions every day.’

"Well, come along with me, then,’ said Vogsland.

"But the cow, what about the cow? She would be a good steak for the Indians while we are gone.’

"On the next day Johan Hartvik in Scandinavia saw a strange parade passing by his farm: a huge, portly man with a big oaken whip in his fist driving a pair of oxen drawing a [23] wagon with a woman and a couple of children in it, while a cow trailed behind at the end of a rope.

"That was Ola Vogsland, who was bringing all his movable possessions with him eight or nine miles in order to sharpen a scythe." {28}

The respect that immigrants had for the clergy did not inhibit them from telling tales that involved the ministers in comic situations:

"One day the pastor [Duus] met Jens, the sexton, in town.

"‘You must stop getting drunk, Jens,’ said the pastor.

"I’ll be damned if I’m drunk. I’m just a little high,’ said Jens, and he swore that he was not drunk.

"‘Shame! You mustn’t swear,’ said the pastor.

"‘Well, aren’t you yourself fooling me into doing it?’ said Jens.

"Can you lend me five dollars, Jens?’ asked the pastor; he wanted to borrow Jens’s money to keep him from drinking it up.

"‘Well if it helps you any, you are welcome to a five-dollar bill,’ said Jens.

"Some time later Jens was in the pastor’s orchard working on his fruit trees, for he was a gardener as well as sexton.

"Last time I saw you in town, Jens, you were drunk. You must stop this drinking,’ said the pastor.

"‘So you remember that, do you?’ said Jens.

"‘Of course, I remember it very well,’ said the pastor.

"Then maybe you also remember the five-dollar bill you borrowed from me?’ said Jens.

"‘Yes, that’s right; now you’ll get it.’" {29}

While the immigrants often treasured the Norwegian tales of underground spirits, it was rare that any episodes involving them occurred in America. As one old woman said to the writer, "The spirits didn’t come over with us!" Even so, Helgeson has captured one or two instances, the most charming [24] being the one told about a family from Valdres who settled near Manitowoc:

"When they had lived some years at Manitowoc, a strange woman came to the Valdres woman one day and asked her, ‘May I borrow your spinning wheel?’

"‘But where are you from?’ asked the Valdres woman.

"‘Oh, I’ll tell you that; I live over in this next hill. Don’t you recognize me at all?’ said the hill woman, for that’s what she was.

"No,’ said the Valdres woman.

"‘We were quite well acquainted in Valdres, for we were neighbors there, as we are here,’ said the hill woman.

"Yes, I do think I’ve seen you before; but I can’t think of your name. When did you come here?’ said the Valdres woman.

"We came here to America this spring. When they started to build the new road back home, it got to be so awfully noisy. There was shot after shot, so the mountain shook, and we just couldn’t live there any longer. But now if I could borrow your spinning wheel, it would be so very kind of you,’ said the hill woman.

"Oh yes, you can certainly have that,’ said the Valdres woman.

"The hill woman got the spinning wheel and she returned it, too. But since that day no one has seen anything of the hill people in the Norwegian settlement by Manitowoc. I suppose they are dead." {30}

The whole picture that we gain of life among the immigrants of Norwegian Indianland in Wisconsin is that it was a primitive but vividly interacting society, which quickly succeeded in making life on the frontier not only tolerable, but even gay. There were few dramatic events, but many amusing ones — misadventures, boasts, sprees, the give and take of a well-knit neighborhood. But its integration into the general American society was still far ahead. Americans were [25] outsiders, "jenkis" or "eiris," whose language was a mysterious barrier. Helgeson tells of a woman who had heard "jenkimaal" (Yankee language) for the first time: "Just think," she said, "they have nicknames for women in the Yankee language — they call them ‘bellies’ (vaamma) . Nobody’s ever going to call me that!" {31}

A man who had worked with the Irish on the railroads was so proud of his newly acquired "Yankee" speech that he would address everyone, man or woman, as "Serr": "Gumorning Serr! Neis Vedder today, Serr!" {32} To be overeager to learn English was considered somewhat ridiculous, or even disloyal. Helgeson tells of a group of immigrants on a lake steamer who met a Norwegian woman there. She had "forgotten" her language and was so "elegant" that she felt it was disgraceful to speak it; but during a bad storm she suddenly begins praying in Norwegian, and one of the others ironically says: "No, you’d better pray in English if you’re going to be heard!" {33}

He tells of a girl who changed her name from Guro Jonsdatter to Julia Johnson and tried to wash her Norwegian name off the fine chest she had brought with her. Then she got notice of an inheritance from Norway and had to use the chest to prove her identity. {34} One man said he didn’t like his relatives at Green Lake, for "the oldest son had just married an elegant Yankee lady, and so they all had to gabble English, which I didn’t understand a word of." {35}

Helgeson’s reminiscent musings are often inserted into his narrative, where they reflect the spirit of an old man looking back on a day that is past. His skill in the narration of anecdotes is not matched by a corresponding skill in the arrangement of the larger sections of his material: he tends to jump around from one thing to another. His point of view is that [26] of the community, tolerant of foibles but firmly against all wrongdoing. The little comedies and tragedies of life were all part of a basically friendly and sociable pioneer society. "The whole neighborhood was like one family," he says in one sketch. "All were equally rich or equally poor, as you wish to take it. They stuck together in good weather and bad, through thick and thin, in work and poverty — in short, in everything. Treats were pretty simple in those days. We ate and drank what we had, and what we didn’t have caused us no heartburns. The treats consisted of sandwiches and coffee and, for variety, coffee and sandwiches. If we had fish or game, we lived like princes. If we had a drink, we took that too, and if we had none, we were just as happy and didn’t even think about it." {36}

Thor Helgeson was laid to rest in Iola Zion Lutheran cemetery on May 10, 1928. The best memorial that could be raised in his honor would be a complete edition of his narratives, sifted and rearranged to make good consecutive reading — in the original Norwegian for publication in Norway and in English translation for the benefit of all American lovers of grass roots history. {37}


1. Fra "Indianernes Lande." Nogle minder om Indilandets første beboere og de første rydnings folk. Efter forskjellige forfattere og beretninger af de ældste settlere. Samlet i kulturhistorisk interesse. Første samling. (Minneapolis [1915?]) . 333 pages.
2. Fra "Indianernes Lande" og andre steder i Wisconsin. Nogle minder om de første rydningsfolk-træk fra nybyg [27] gerlivet, fortalte af gamle settlere og gjengivne saa meget som muligt i fortællernes egen fremstillings form og udtryksmaade. Samlede i kulturhistorisk interesse. Anden samling. (Minneapolis [1918?]). 244 pages.
3. Bibelhistoriske fortællinger o.m. med anmærkninger (Minneapolis, 1919) . 282 pages.
4. Record. [A manuscript volume containing 29 religious verses separately titled, dated 1919-1925.]
5. Vers. Fra nybygtiden og fremover. Smaabilleder af det norske folkeliv og norsk folketro i Amerika. Virkelige hændelser. [A notebook of mainly secular verse containing 26 titles, dated 1919-1925.]
6. Smaa poesier. [A manuscript notebook in tablet form, made available by John Barikmo, with the name Ola Kittelson, Northland, Wisconsin, on the cover. Contains six poems all of which are in the preceding volume, dated 1921-1922.]
7. Folkesagn og folketro. Fortalt af de første nybyggere paa Indilandet, Wis. (Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 1923). 80 pages.
8. Telesoga, no. 52, p. 10-23 (March, 1923). [Stories retold by Torkel Oftelie from narration by Helgeson: "Ein takkefest hjaa Eilev Tindøl" and "Daa tussen og huldri gifte seg."]
9. "Gamble minder fra Indielandet [sic] og andre steder," in Reform, November 27, 1924—March 19, 1925; November 18, 1926—April 14, 1927; February 9, 1928—April 5, 1928.
10. "Minder fra Indilandet, Wis.," in Gudbrandsdølernes Julehilsen (1926) , p. 33-40.
11. Anecdotes reported by John Barikmo, Iola, Wisconsin, orally on November 23, 1942, and in writing on November 15 and December 12, 1943. One of the stories about [28] Helgeson is printed in Einar Haugen, The Norwegian Language in America, 496-497 (Philadelphia, 1953).
12. An unpublished manuscript in Norwegian of a history of the United States and Wisconsin, of about 200 pages. [Referred to by Waldemar Ager in his obituary of Thor Helgeson.]




<1> Minutes of Det Norske Selskab for June 2, 1927, preserved in the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota; files of Reform in the Luther College Library, Decorah, Iowa; Helgeson’s scrapbook and unpublished manuscripts put in the author’s hands by Floyd Helgeson, the late Arnold Helgeson, and other members of the family; information supplied by Malcolm Rosholt, a devoted student of the "Indianland" area; additional data from the Reverend Vern H. Holtan, who at one time served as pastor of North New Hope Church in Rosholt; and the co-operation of the late John Barikmo, whose hospitality and ready assistance in the author’s researches led to the present paper.

<2> Hjalmar Rued Holand, De norske settlementers historie, 199—214 (Ephraim, Wisconsin, 1908); Carlton C. Qualey, Norwegian Settlement in the United States, 66—67 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1938); O. A. Buslett, Fra min ungdoms nabolag (Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 1918). Later references include Olaus Duus, Frontier Parsonage, Theodore C. Blegen, ed. (Northfield, Minnesota, 1947); Alfred O. Erickson, "Scandinavia, Wisconsin," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 15: 185—209 (Northfield, Minnesota, 1949); Malcolm Rosholt, Town 25 North (Rosholt, Wisconsin, 1948); Malcolm Rosholt, Our Country Our Story: Portage County, Wisconsin (Stevens Point, Wisconsin, 1959). It should be noted that the region is the scene of the novel by George Victor Martin, For Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (New York, 1940), filmed as Our Vines Have Tender Grapes.

<3> Reproduced and slightly altered from a recording made at Iola, Wisconsin, on November 23, 1942, printed in Einar Haugen, The Norwegian Language in America, 496—497 (Philadelphia, 1953).

<4> John Barikmo to the author, November 15, 1943.

<5> Telesoga, no. 43, p. 13 (March, 1920).

<6> Helgeson’s mother’s name was Sigrid Jonsdatter Maardalen; his wife came to America with her parents, Jens and Maria, in the 1860’s and survived her husband by three years. In his home communities, Helgeson served as secretary to the church congregation, as treasurer and town clerk, as school clerk, and as notary public. Reform (Eau Claire, Wisconsin), May 10, 1928; Decorah-Posten (Decorah, Iowa), May 1, 1931; Telesoga, no. 43, p. 13—14 (March, 1920), no. 52, p. 2—23 (March, 1923); Malcolm Rosholt to the author, March 11, 29, April 18, 1962; interview with John Barikmo, November 23, 1942; John Barikmo to the author, December 12, 1943; scrapbook and unpublished manuscripts of Thor Helgeson lent to the author by members of his family, particularly the late Arnold Helgeson and his brother Floyd.

<7> The earliest reference found by the author is in Reform for July 8, 1919; since these books were printed by the same firm as Bibelhistoriske fortællinger (Minneapolis, 1919), it is not likely that they also appeared in 1919. They probably had been issued one or two years earlier, respectively.

<8> For a full account of these beliefs, see R. T. Christiansen, Folktales of Norway, Pat Shaw Iversen, tr. (Chicago, 1964).

<9> Folkesagn og folketro, 78 (Eau Claire, Wisconsin). Translations are by the author.

<10> Bibelhistoriske fortæilinger o.m. med anmærkninger ved T. Helgeson, 5 (Minneapolis, 1919).

<11> Bibelhistoriske fortællinger, 281

<12> Reform, December 29, 1927; an earlier version on the occasion of his eightieth birthday is found in a notebook entitled Record.

<13> Reform, January 15, 22, 1925.

<14> Fra "Indianernes Lande," 1:178, 195 (Minneapolis [1915?]).

<15> Evelyn Nilsen, "Buslett’s Editorship of Normannen from 1894 to 1896," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 12: 128—143 (1941); Einar Haugen, Norsk i Amerika, 102-105 (Oslo, 1939).

<16> Buslett, Fra min ungdoms nabolag (1918).

<17> From the Helgeson scrapbook, in which the printed source is not given; it appears to be Decorah-Posten, probably in June, 1924.

<18> Fra "Indianernes Lande," 1: 84—35; on Dreutzer, see Einar Haugen, "The Swedish Attorney in Waupaca County," in Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly, 1: 39—43 (Rock Island, Illinois, Spring, 1951).

<19> In a copy of the book in the O. A. Buslett Papers in the archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, Northfield, Minnesota, Helgeson has expanded the initials. According to Malcolm Rosholt, some of the tales included were not oral, but stem from written sources.

<20> Reform, December 11, 1924; December 30 1926, to January 20, 1927; February 17 to March 24, 1927.

<21> Comparison with The Types of the Folktale by Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson (Helsinki, 1961) shows that a great many of the known types are represented in Helgeson’s material.

<22> Reform, November 27, December 4, 1924, January 1, 1925; stev also in Fra "Indianernes Lande," 2:201—203.

<23> Fra "Indianerne, Lande," 2:221—242 (Minneapolis [1918?]).

<24> Reform, February 9, 1928.

<25> Fra "Indianernes Lande," 2: 167.

<26> Reform, March 15, 1928.

<27> Fra "Indianernes Lande," 2: 116.

<28> Reform, December 9, 1926.

<29> Reform, December 9, 1926.

<30> Fra "Indianernes Lande," 2:145—146.

<31> Reform, March 31, 1927.

<32> Fra "Indianernes Lande," 2:68.

<33> Fra "Indianernes Lande," 1: 204—205.

<34> Reform, February 15, 1925.

<35> Reform, December 18, 1924.

<36> Fra "Indianernes, Lande," 2:7.

<37> A manuscript translation of Fra "Indianernes, Lande" has been made by Malcolm Rosholt, to whom I am indebted for checking some of the facts and figures in this article.

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