Working on Erie Canal Boats

By Ragna Johansen Tetamore

As the daughter of immigrant parents, I have often reflected on the secure values, family priorities and opportunities afforded by my heritage.

Fred Johansen, formerly Fridtjof Johansen Flem, immigrated to the US from the island of Flem near Alesund, Norway. He passed through Ellis Island at the age of 19 and settled in the Norwegian immigrant community of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn , in the late 1920’s. There he met and married Ruth Olsen, who came from Feda near Flekkefjord, Norway. Fred found work in the shipyards of the New York area until the depression. Because he had been raised in a small fishing community, he could handle boats and got a job on the Erie Canal. This necessitated being away months at a time when first married, leaving Ruth to raise the children. Being near other immigrants proved invaluable for help and support.

The older children in the family spoke Norwegian and learned most of the Christmas Carols and other songs in that language. When the oldest child was 4, Mom decided it was time to learn English and that meant playing outside. Imagine her chagrin when the doorbell rang and she heard her children say “Shut up and get out of here”. However, by the time they were ready for school, they had an adequate English vocabulary.

AS young children we were accustomed at Christmas for our parents to receive packages of salted and preserved foods and other goodies from grandparents in Norway. Of course, this, as well as all communication stopped when Norway became an occupied country during World War II. Pearl Harbor brought more insecurities to those who were not citizens. Mom applied for citizenship as soon as she could. Dad had to go down to the draftboard with 5 birth certificates of his children, the youngest being 3 months old, and his credentials for piloting ships in New York harbor. Before the war he had been able to get work on the tugboats and lost no time in getting his licenses. During the war years he worked long hours getting the troops in and out of the harbor. He loved this challenging work which he did until he retired at the age of 66. He was recognized for being instrumental in putting out a fire on one of the ships in the harbor.

Until the war my parents had always considered returning to Norway, hence most of their children had Norwegian names. As the war continued they realized this might never become a reality and that they probably would never see their parents again. Mom got word through the Red Cross that her father had passed away. Dad found out that his parents were gone, when the war was over.

In 1942, a group of Norwegian immigrants from Brooklyn, including my parents, bought property in Succasunna, New Jersey and built summer homes. As soon as school was out my parents traveled with their 5 children by train and then by taxi to the house. One child carried a goldfish bowl, another turtles and the younger ones a toy or a doll. We managed fine without electricity, plumbing and other conveniences. Later some of the families moved there year-round, but we stayed in Brooklyn because of Dad’s work on the harbor.

These immigrants did not have very many luxuries, but they always seemed to have enough to give their children music lessons. My brother and I, at age 6 and 7, took the 8th Ave trolley to piano lessons by ourselves.

My parents had made the Norwegian Evangelical Free Church (59th) their home church. As the children of these bilingual families were growing up , the parents went to the Norwegian service and their children to the English service at church. Most Norwegian families sent their children to Confirmation class. In the late 40’s it was not unusual for Confirmation classes to have 80 students.

Immigrant parents usually wanted their children to do better than they had done and to have the education they lacked. Without realizing it, I took a teaching position in the same town on Long Island where my mother had been a servant girl when she first came to this country.

In the early 60’s, my parents with some of their six children, returned for a visit to Norway. It was a special time of reunion for my parents, but it was also the first time they had met the in-laws and their children. My father’s family rented a bus so that all could be included. That was the first of many trips by our family and their’s , especially for weddings and special occasions.

Ragna Johansen Tetamore
109 Seminole Terrace
Mt. Bethel, Pa.18343-6150
Phone 570-897-7351