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A reunion of About 400 of Them Held Saturday at the Old Meltvedt Farm Near LeGrand

Soren Oleson and Wife the First Norse Settlers of Marshall County---Their Home

Later Arrivals Were Numerous---Historical Sketch of These Thrifty Citizens

     On September 10, in the spacious and pleasant grove on the Old Meltvedt farm, two and one-half miles south of LeGrand, was celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the first settlement of Norwegians in Marshall county, Iowa.

     In attempting to give an outline of the history of the early settlement of the Norwegians here in the space alloted many items of interest must necessarily be omitted.  I am partially indebted to the history of Marshall county for facts relating thereto prior to 1858.  From that time on down to the present all is from what has been told me by old settlers or from my own recollections.  As it is by comparison we best make progress, we will ____ for a moment into the condition of Iowa in general and Marshall county in particular at the time when the pioneers of our countrymen came upon the scene.  The entire population of the state was less than a half a million.  It had been only about seventy years since the first white man, Julien Dubuque a French Canadian trader, dwelt among the Indians at the lead mines, near the city now bearing his name; and the city itself, the oldest in Iowa, had only been in existence twenty-five years.  Iowa had been a state but twelve years.  Iowa City was the nearest railroad point--seventy miles distant.  The Cedar Rapids & Missouri River (now the C. & N. W.) railway was not completed to Marshalltown until January, 1862.  LeGrand enjoys the distinction of being the oldest town in the county.  It was named in honor of LeGrand Byington, an Iowa City lawyer, who materially assisted Mark Webb and James Allman, two of the founders of the village.  The latter opned the first store in 1850.  The town was platted four years later.  The pasture one Main street in Marshalltown at that time was excellent.  Marietta promised to become the county metropolis, the county seat being located there.  They were the people, and it is said that they had the ambition to finally land the state capital at that place, but when Marshalltown became connected with the outside world by means of the railroad and telegraph, its future was assured.  Marietta died hard, but not getting a railroad it could not be in the push.

     The first white settler in the county, Joseph C. Davidson, came in 1847.  He did not remain long.  When neighbors settled within two miles of him he moved to Oregon, where he could have elbow room.  It is not known definitely now where he is, but I suppose he must be eighty miles west of San Francisco, where there is yet elbow room.

     From this brief outline it will be ____ that things were just beginning to move--not much more, but unloading the trap-wagon preparatory to settling the machine, so to speak.  The tide of emigration was beginning to set in.  Norwegians who had crossed the big pond early in the 50s were pushing west from Wisconsin, Illinois and elsewhere, to where land could be had almost for the asking.  But for what may seem a trivial circumstance this settlement of Norwegians might never have been located here in the second best county (excuse me, but some of us now hail from O'Brien) in the best agricultural state in the union.  Certain it is that the character of its early history very largely determines its future.

     Soren Oleson, a young man whose make-up had been tested before leaving his native country, having the courage of his convictions and conscientious to the core, came to Manitowoc, Wis., in 1854, but soon removed to Henry County, Iowa, where he married Anna C. Ravnos in 1858.  Both were poor, wages had been low friends, they moved to a plank house north of LeGrand on ____ of Willits farm, where they remained a short time; then, in 1859, Soren erected their first cabin on a nineteen acre tract of land he had bought near Quarry station.  This was their first home, and the first cabin built by Norsemen in Marshall county.  Their early experience was much in line with that of pioneers everywhere, the house was cold, wages were low, times hard and sickness made progress slow; but with plenty of push, perseverance, patience and perspiration they came to the turn in the road.

     The first of their countrymen to come and settle near them was Thore Heggem, who came in 1859 and soon after bought forty acres south of Le Grand, on which he resided until his death.  Then came Soren's parents and brother Andrew, and two sisters, Martha and Tamar.  This made quite an addition and each succeeding year brought fresh recruits to the young settlement.  In 1860 Christian Gimre hoofed it over from Wisconsin to spy out the land and returned with the same conveyance.  Being well pleased with the prospects, he yoked up his oxen the following year and moved here, bought a twenty acre farm that he stil owns and began to hustle.  He set the pace for planting and husking corn in the neighborhood.  In 1863 Iver and Martha Mulhedt came. In 1864 was the first importation of "new comers" direct from the place where "green horns" are said to grow.  This company included Ole and Michael Bryngelson, Erick and Ingebor Erickson, Ole T. Sawyer, Mathias Huseboe and family, Rasmus and Ole Tjossem, and Soren was worth several dollars less than nothing when he came to this country, having had to borrow money to pay for his passage. In those days the rule seemed to be, get married and then make your pile, instead of getting your pile and then marry, but by all means get the pile.  Soon after they were married Thomas and Julia Ann McCool, of LeGrand, visited Salem and it appears that Julia Ann "had a concern" to visit North Carolina in the near future, so made the proposition to this young Norwegian couple to come and work for them during her absence, which was agreed to.  So they got ready for the old fashioned wedding trip, which was the prospect of something to do, and going after it. After fulfilling their obligations to their new the amputation of corners that are useless in the new environment.

     In 1867-8 came John and Ole B. Oleson and wives, Helge Larson, Sr., and wife, Iver and Gurent Oleson, Helge and Bertha Medus, Bartel and Anna Thompson, Gabriel Strand, Ole Hil, Johannes Norland, Christian and Jonas Thompson and possibly others.

     In 1869 we had a landslide.  The Thompson, Ingebretson, Rinden, Button, Medhus an Vinje families, Thore Sawyer and sons, Benjamin and Enos and Ole Bryngelson, Jr. came.  In this company was quite a variety of probable possibilities, the best of everything, intellect, grit and good judgement.

     In 1870 came the Enge and Riersen families and the Thorsens came the following year.  This was our first touch of high life.  The former sea captain Enge, and the cultured family of Thorsen, the tanner, were regarded as a very valuable addition and all tended to round out a complete and harmonious whole.  Additions have been made to the settlement each year since, and its growth has been a steady one.

     Nearly all the early settlers were Friends or people who were convinced of Friends principles.  The first church was organized by them in July, 1864, under the trees--"God's first temples"--in Thore Heggen's yard.  Thomas and Julia Ann McCool and Samuel Jay were present as representatives from the Le Grand meeting.  Meetings were held in a school house near the northeast corner of K. Meltvedt's farm until 1871, when a meeting house was built on the site where the present one now stands.  A Boarding school building was erected near the meeting house in 1891 at a cost of $3,500.

     The Lutheran people held meetings for a number of years in the Vinje school house.  About 1893 they built a neat church in Dunbar.  The school houses of this country often serve a Bertha Oleson, Thore Oleson, Sigbjorn Rusdale and many others.  Several came in 1865.  Among these were Inger Larson, Peter Tjossem and wife and son, Jonas, Tonnes Stangeland, Magreta Rusdale and others.  In 1866 we got Andrew Larson, Hellen Sawyer and K. Meltvedt and family.  The oldest boy in this family was conspicuously verdant and I will offer an incident in proof of the assertion.  This boy, seeing red peppers in our garden, thought it would be a good joke to rub them on his face in order to paint it and be "big Injun."  He soon discovered (to his dismay) that it was not intended for toilet use and he forthwith sought his mother and reported that his earthly career was just closing.  He recovered, as have the others who have had experience in two-fold purpose, viz: that of unfolding man to himself and a cradle for the church.

     In summing up at the present time we find the Norwegians who have settled in Marshall county and the portions of other counties immediately joining Le Grand and Greencastle townships number about 1,200 people.  About 500 have moved away.  The largest branch settlement is in O'Brien county, founded by Anna Oleson and family in 1883.  About 400 people have settled there traceable to this nucleus.  The total amount of wealth brought from Norway was very small.  We can not get exact figures but think it would not average over $10 for each person.  By far the larger portion had absolutely nothing.

     Nearly all the old settlers are now well-to-do and a few are quite wealthy.  After diligent inquiry I find no foreclosures of farm mortgages during our whole history, and only one foreclosure on city property.  We have had no suicides, only one patient in the insane hospital, four in the poor house and I am very sorry to say that the state penitentiary has confined a member of our settlement a few months for larceny, but taken altogether, the showing is a very good one and much better than the average.

     Many of the early settlers have joined the "silent majority." Among the first was Anna, wife of Peter Tjossen. She was a woman loved and respected by all who knew her and a special favorite with the children of our family.  Her demise occurred in the winter of 1870-71.  Then there was _annan Johnson, ___ Melvedt, Thore Heggem, Gunda Gimre, Tormod and Inger Thompson, Peter Tjossem, Ole and Anna Sorenson, H___ Huseboe, Thomas Stangeland, T___ Oleson and Soren Oleson, the pioneer, died in 1879, and during the past year are Martha Meltvedt and Osmond Sorenson, who have died.  There have been others, both old and young, that have gone to their long home, and a few years more all that will be left of the old settlers will be their memory and their works.

     There is a ob___ hospitality about the pioneer cabin that can not be found elsewhere.  The cabins were larger than they appeared to be.  They were never full if some one needed shelter.  No one needed to rent houses or rooms, but the latchstring always hung out from every home.  The "newcomer's" pedigree or wardrobe were not closely scrutinized to determine whether they were eligible to admission or not, but they were invariably received with open arms and a warm welcome was extended that came from the heart.

     Forty years having passed since their struggles began here and most of the old settlers could not have long to remain on top of the sod, so a reunion was planned and invitations sent which were responded to by representatives from Wisconsin, Illinois and many parts of Iowa. Over thirty came from the O'Brien county settlment.  The C. & N.W. railway made material concessions to them and extended every possible courtesy to make their trip a very pleasant one.

     The reunion picnic was to have taken place on Sept. 9 but a drizzling rain made a postponement necessary until the next day.  About 400 gathered, bringing with them well-filled baskets containing a variety of American dishes, but that most relished was what the old timers had been used to long ago, such as lepsa, gumme, primost, etc.  After dinner the old settlers of 1870 and prior years were gotten together and their pictures taken.  Then followed a short program.  O.S. West, of Paullina, Iowa, oldest son of Soren and Anna Oleson and the first Norwegian baby in Marshall county, presided (name changed to West in 1883 on account of mail complications).  After a few opening remarks regarding early incidents a paper prepared by C. R. West, giving a general history of the early settlement, its progress, etc., was read, much of which appears in this article.  Next was an original poem in the Norse language by an old women (Ellen Vinji), who has been blind since she was 2 years old.  It was very touching, and every line bristled with gems of thought.  B. L. Wick, of Cedar Rapids, spoke to us awhile in the Norse language, telling jokes and changing to the English gave a very interesting account of Norse history and character.  David Vinji, of Nevada, Iowa, followed with an address on "Economics of the Norwa People." He showed that while this people were economical they were not penurious, but they had th inclination to earn a little more than they would spend and thus put something by for a rainy day.  Ole Lien, of Marshalltown, read a very excellent paper in the Norse language on what had been accomplised in the past, the duties lying before us as a nation and incidentally giving the professional politician a dressing down.  Julia Ann McCool Martin, who was an honored guest, offered a prayer, and afterwards make a few remarks which were to the point.  Anna Oleson gave a short talk expressing her pleasure in meeting so many of her old friends.  Others said they had enjoyed the day so much that they would like to have an annual or semi-annual picnic of the same character.

     Some may wonder at the absence of music.  It was because these people as a whole are a plain, practical people and the picnic was like them, but none the less enjoyed.  Let us then who are reaping the fruits of their toll honor the pioneer.  Honor to the good right arm that turned the furrow!  Honor to our mothers who helped him to toll and build and endure!

                                                C. R. West

          --A clipping from the Evening Times-Republican, Marshalltown, Iowa, dated Monday, Sept. 12, ____, found in the filing cabinet at the Marshalltown Public Library, January 2013. 

(c) Copyright 2013 by Jennie Williams Pahls. Last updated on October 5, 2013.