By Bernt ( Ben Benson )
My parents were born and raised on small mountain farms in southern Norway, my father, in Lyngdahl (1890) and my mother in Mandal (1895). Both had seven or eight siblings. In the 1910 era it was almost the custom to leave for America as early as age 16 and send money home. The Bay Ridge area in Brooklyn was no doubt where most of the immigrants started. They probably weren’t lonesome because at one time Brooklyn was supposed to have more Norwegians than Oslo. My father had brought skis with him and he proudly recalled that he attracted a very large crowd of non-Norwegians the first time he used them in a Brooklyn Park. They had never seen anyone go down a hill so fast on a couple of “boards”!
My parents met each other in Brooklyn, married and had a daughter, Klara in 1924, and a son, Ben (me), in 1927. My Dad, like most Norwegians worked as a carpenter. In his spare time in 1931, with the help of his brother, he built our home in West Orange, New Jersey. We attended the Norske Evangelical Free Church in Orange, New Jersey with T.B.Oppsal as pastor.
Bad times soon arrived as the Great Depression took hold in 1932, making carpenter’s jobs nearly extinct. Selling everything and returning to the Old Country determined to be the answer for our survival. Relatives in Norway arranged for us to rent a small farm in Lyngdal where we could manage to be self sufficient. I recall that we frequently caught fish in a local pond, caught jackrabbits in snares, had a small garden, and several farm animals. However, after only one year , another move was decided on by my parents and we returned to America. Perhaps Mom and Dad had become somewhat Americanized. I have many fond memories of our one-year stay in Norway.
Our return trip on the S.S. Stavangerfjord (on one of it’s 700 crossings) brought us back to Brooklyn, only to lead west to Luverne, Minnesota. Apparentlymy dad corresponded with his cousin, Tilde Akersmyr Totfteland, a noted writer of Norwegian articles, and we were able to rent a 160 acre farm which had just been vacated. Minnesota was heavily settled by Norwegians. Laverne, which lies in the southwest corner near Iowa and Nebraska, has some of the richest farmland in America. Again, as in New Jersey, we felt very much at home with the Norske Evangelical Free Church in Leverne, and with our new Norwegian friends. Farm life in the 1930’s was a far thought from what it is today. Our farm was on a dirt road two miles outside Luverne on the Rock River. We had no electricity , no running water, no telephone, no indoor plumbing-just a roof with four walls. My Mom cooked on a wood fired stove in the corner of the kitchen, which served to heat the entire house. We had a two-seater outhouse and an outdoor well which was pumped by hand. Only our lighting was provided by a kerosene lamp. The same conditions existed for our one room country schoolhouse which had approximately 13 students and one teacher, who taught from the first through eight grade. Our teacher, Sylvia Salvesen ( Miss Jensen), was only nineteen years old when she started teaching. She presently lives in Monroe, NY and is sharp as a tack per our phone conversation when she called my wife and me on our recent 50th Wedding anniversary.
Our farm with the numerous hogs, beef cattle and chickens provided us with sufficient food for the seven years we were in Minnesota. I will never forget the dust storms of the mid-thirties that nearly wiped us out, or the wind driven hail that shredded our corn field one year, or the grasshopper invasions or the numerous tornadoes and the flooding river. I recall my mother helping outbid doing manual farm labor as the women in Norway did, but having to stop for a season because she was expecting her third child, Nancy, in 1937. Most important – we survived!
A stroke of luck would eventually bring us back to New Jersey. In 1938, my parents reclaimed our former West Orange home because the buyer could no longer make the payments. We then rented out the house, but were forced to remain on the farm, as it would take World War II to again create jobs for carpenters. We would then sell out the farm by auction, leave Minnesota and our original home on Roosevelt Avenue in West Orange.
After completing high school in May of 1945, I joined the US Navy. I was eventually to serve on the light cruiser CL 81 USS Houston for European duty. The war had recently ended and I was somewhat lucky as Bergen, Norway’s to be one of our stopsand I was selected to be interpreter. Unfortunately, my day of playing “big shot” wasn’t needed as the Norwegian officials spoke perfect English. In retrospect, I should’ve been smarter and told the Norwegian officials to speak Norwegian.
After leaving the service, i was able to pursue an engineering education with the aide of the GI bill. I married a first generation Norwegian girl ( Esther Olsen) from West Orange. We have three children and seven grandchildren and look forward the occasional trips to Norway to appreciate Norway’s spectacular beauty and reminisce with our many relatives.