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Arland O. Fiske: The story of Anna the immigrant girl

Much has been written about the men of Scandinavia who came to toil in the New World. But what about the women? The record leaves no doubt that they were just as heroic and hardworking as the men, and often outlived their husbands. Anna Hedalen was a typical frontier woman. Born in 1841, her parents emigrated the week after she was confirmed at age 15. She had taken care of some neighbor’s children and the neighbor lady wanted to keep her in Norway. Her mother, however, could not bear the thought of such a separation. As a token of appreciation, the neighbor gave her a lace dress for confirmation. The first day out of Bergen, every passenger was sick except Anna and two men. She worked night and day to bring water and to the other passengers. The Hedalens moved to a farm eight miles east of Madison, Wis. In the winter of 1856-1857, Anna worked as a servant in the governor’s mansion. She spoke to the first lady in sign language until she acquired English. Many nights she cried herself to sleep and lit a candle to read from the hymnal to forget her lonesomeness. She was glad she had studied her confirmation lessons faithfully, the memorizing hymns was part of the program. Preferring farm to city life, Anna worked in the fields for five years, doing men’s work. She knew how to hitch up the oxen to the “kuberulle” (a wagon with wooden wheels). Because she was gentle with them, they responded willingly. Anna married Nils Ellestad in 1860. Neither of them had money, yet they always had something to give a neighbor in need, and the Indians who came for soup and “kaape” (coffee). If a baby was born in the neighborhood, Anna would bring a kettle of Rømmegrot (cream porridge). Eleven children joined their home. Anna never had so much as a midwife or doctor, nor had she ever seen a hospital bed. When the children were small, she’d tie the youngest on her back while milking cows in the yard. The only problem was when the flies were bad, the cow’s tail would start to wish. In the winter, when Nils was busy cutting wood, she did the milking as well the cooking. Beside this, Anna sheared sheep, carded the wool and spun the yarn before knitting clothes for the children. They never had store-bought clothing. The Yankees who had settled before the coming of the Scandinavians always felt that they were better than the newcomers, certainly more stylish. That didn’t bother Anna. It wasn’t long before the natives could see that their new neighbors were cultured people and highly literate. They said things like: “Them there Norwegians are almost as white as we are, and they kin red too, they kin.” They didn’t have many books, just the Bible, a catechism and a hymnal. Many homes had an “Andagtsboker” (daily devotional book). The Elestad dining room served as the “parochial school.” This is how faith was kept alive for the immigrant families. As they began farming, cinch bugs took their barley, wheat and corn for the first three years. Yet optimism prevailed, like the title of Bette Smith’s book, “Tomorrow Will Be Better.” A saving feature to Anna’s charm was that even on her 92nd birthday, a visitor reported that she had not lost her sense of humor. Next week: Skansen – Sweden in miniature.

— Arland Fiske, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.