My Norwegian Grandfather
The journey to Palmyra
My Norwegian Grandfather
Derived from “We Were Children – Then Volunteers,”
edited by Clarice Dunn and Gen Lewis, 1982.
In the early 1800s my great-grandfather, Christopher Oleson, sold his small farm near Oslo, Norway, and purchased tickets to Palmyra, Wisconsin. Relatives who had preceded him to Wisconsin had written him that here was not only a land of freedom but a country that would provide him and his family a wonderful living. These Norwegians had built not only their homes but a Lutheran church and school.
Christopher had sewn enough money into his woolen underwear to make the down payment on what he hoped would be their future home in the Wisconsin territory. Before they reached the port of sailing, his wife died. After burying his wife in Norway, brokenhearted Christopher and his son, Chris, and daughter, Ann, proceeded on their journey to America.
On the boat a woman made friends with Chris and Ann and convinced Christopher that she would take care of the two children and him. Christopher, who knew little about the care of children, married her. Before they reached the American shore, Christopher died and was buried at sea.
The stepmother took the money that Christopher had sewn in his underwear and continued the journey to Palmyra. When they reached Palmyra, she took them to the town pump, gave them a drink, and told them to wait until she returned. They never saw her again.
Mr. Wilson, the hotel owner, found them. He went home and said to his wife, "There are two children out at the town pump. They are frightened and can't understand English." Mrs. Wilson, a kindhearted woman, went out and brought Chris and Ann into her warm kitchen where she fed them and gave them her love. Soon the children began to love and trust her.
Mrs. Wilson bought new clothes for them, taught them to speak English, and sent them to school. Chris became adept at learning and at making friends.
Mrs. Wilson was not a Lutheran, but she knew the people who lived in the Lutheran settlement, and Chris grew up in that faith. By the time he was eighteen, he had grown from an undersized boy to a six-foot tall, broad-shouldered man.
Though very strong, he was always gentle. The person who said, "Nothing is so strong as gentleness; nothing is so gentle as real strength," must have had people like Chris Oleson in mind.
At twenty-two, he married a Lutheran girl and together they purchased a farm. It had hills and a lovely stream near the house. It reminded them of Norway. Together they raised eight children, all of whom went to high school, and those who wanted it had college training.
Time passed and many grandchildren joined the clan. We were a close-knit family, and at all holidays and in between we gathered at Grandfather's house for a sumptuous dinner where Mrs. Wilson was the guest of honor.
It was a Norwegian custom that all men and boys be served first, but Grandfather insisted that Mrs. Wilson sit at his right and be the first one served. She was the spirit of goodness and his first love.
At one of those early Easter dinners, someone remarked, "Father, you certainly have a tall family," so Chris, my mother, and her three younger brothers stood up, and two other sons stood on chairs and held a board just six feet from the floor. All five heads touched the board.
Chris was a fast-working man and he always wanted a fast-traveling road horse. When his wife or daughters wanted to go into town, he would harness Nora to the buggy and bring her to the door for them. He would give Nora a pat on the hip and say, "Don't let anyone pass you on the road." Nora had been well trained. She went off at a brisk trot. If anyone tried to pass her, she broke into a gallop and the driver had to hold a tight rein.
Chris Oleson enjoyed life, God, his family, and all people. They made his life complete. The kindness of Mrs. Wilson was always in his mind. We, of the third generation, called her Grandma Wilson. She was a much-loved guest at my wedding, and when each of our two sons was born she came to see that all was well.
As Chris grew older, it was his delight, after a family dinner, to gather the children about him and throw pennies to them. If a small child didn't get his share, he would throw a handful directly at his feet.
He never forgot how people had helped him when he was in need. Although his purse was often nearly empty, he never refused a few coins to someone who had less than he had. Often, if a hungry man came to his farm, he would go to the kitchen door and say, "Put on an extra plate, Mother. There is a hungry man here who will eat with us."
Chris Oleson was not only a thrifty man but a devout one. Each day began with Bible readings, and before each meal he gave thanks to God for His continued care and guidance.
Goethe once said, "We are shaped and fashioned by what we love." Chris Oleson loved God and his fellow man.
History of Watertown, Wisconsin