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Canada Day reflection: An ‘accidental Canadian’ considers his roots

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With Canada Day in the offing, I often think of how my extended family first arrived in this great land. My mother’s parents from Northern Ireland and Scotland made a conscious decision to immigrate to escape overpopulation and unemployment at home.

My Dad’s paternal grandfather left the Midlands of England hoping for more opportunity in a new land. However, my dad’s maternal grandfather had no intention of coming to Canada when he left Norway in 1894. Only through a series of unplanned and and life altering events did this former whaler not end up settling permanently in the United States, his intended new home, when he left Stokke, Norway at the age of 18.

Kirk Winter, writer-at-large.

When I tell people of my Norwegian ancestry they are very surprised that anyone would want to leave the harshly beautiful land many have seen from the decks of the innumerable cruise ships that ply the fjords of modern-day Norway.

Between 1814 and 1905 one third of the total population of Norway emigrated to the United States and Canada. Few North Americans know that during this period Norway was an occupied nation, having been absorbed at gunpoint by Sweden at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. While the Swedes were relatively benign occupiers, Norwegians did not feel at home in their own land, subject to the vagaries of Swedish landlords, business magnates and a Viceroy who represented the Swedish monarchy to the people of Norway.

Educated Norwegians chafed at the bit over their occupation, and many sought out true liberty in the United States. What began as a trickle became a flood when the infamous Irish Potato famine arrived in Norway mid-century, causing tremendous hardship. Years of poor crops after the initial potato blight convinced many Norwegians it was time to try their luck somewhere else.

I would like to say that my great grandfather was one of those leading intellectuals who fled looking for a place where they were truly free to think, but that was not the case. Mattias Anholt was a poorly educated small town boy who at 16 tried his luck as a member of Norway’s lucrative and ever expanding whaling fleet. The pay was good but not good enough to make up for the six month season that kept men away from home for half a year. The work was incredibly dangerous as the behemoths of the ocean did not go down without a fight, smashing many of the fragile wooden ships into flotsam and jetsam.

Between 1814 and 1905 one third of the total population of Norway emigrated to the United States and Canada.

Mattias decided that this was not the life for a man who dreamed of family and a quiet life somewhere with a bit of land.

1n 1893, Mattias, his brothers Lars, Chris and Oswald, and a group of his young friends attended a presentation put on by the government of the United States who were once again in Norway trawling for new citizens. The land agent promised every man 160 free acres of land in a place called North Dakota.

No Norwegian could imagine owning that much property and here were the Americans offering it for free. Norwegians like to think of themselves as people not easily fooled, and many of Mattias’s friends felt the American official was playing them for fools. Only Swedish aristocrats owned that much land, and why would the Americans be offering a ticket out of destitution to a room full of humble workers and whalers?

After many cups of coffee and much loud discussion, a group of men from Stokke decided to immigrate to America. They had been advised that when interviewed by the American officials they were to state their occupation in Norway as farmers. My great grandfather the whaler overnight became a farmer, despite the fact he likely had never done a modicum of agricultural work any time in his young life.

For the princely sum of $9, Mattias got on a steamer in Trondheim, sailed to England, switched ships and then commenced the crossing of the Atlantic to New York City. Upon arrival he and his friends got on the one of the many different trains that would take them to North Dakota sight unseen where land and a new life awaited.

The end of the line for the railroad at that time was Grafton, North Dakota.  When the men arrived they were surprised to see what a bustling community Grafton was with a population of over 1600 people.

Mattias and his Norwegian friends reported immediately to the Land Office in Grafton, where the local surveyor dropped a bomb on the newly arrived émigrés.

The surveyor who spoke passable Swedish told the men there was no land, and there hadn’t been land for months.  Both North Dakota and Minnesota were fully homesteaded.  He was sorry but there was nothing he could do for them.

I can only imagine what my great grandfather was thinking as he left that office with absolutely nothing.  He was thousands of miles from home, penniless and landless.

I am sure his head was spinning.

Someone in the group had the brilliant idea to look for a Lutheran church, the port of refuge for any Norwegian, Swede or Dane far from home. Fortunately there was one in Grafton and the pastor gave the men food and a place to sleep.

The group spent days debating what to do.  They were all caught in a quandary.  They had come to be farmers but there was no land.  Some, like Mattias, wanted to go back to Norway but they had no money. Their collective vanity wouldn’t allow them to go back to Norway penniless.

A decision was made that regardless of their eventual destination, they all needed employment.

When they asked the pastor about finding employment they were pleased to discover that Americans came into Grafton everyday looking for cash money day labourers to work on the farms and in the grain mills that were springing up at railroad’s end.

Mattias found work at the local flour mill as flour packer.  The work was brutally hard and paid very little but it was better than a life on the streets. Mattias was still determined he was going home after four years of saving his pennies, until one Sunday at church he met Olava Rudd, a petite brunette who arrived from Moelven, Norway in 1898 to teach at one of the fast growing local Norwegian language elementary schools.

I have no idea what my well educated, cultured and literate great grandmother saw in my wildly opinionated, vain and braggadocios great grandfather, but something clicked and suddenly Mattias had little interest in returning home to Norway.

They courted over endless cups of coffee and sweets and married in Grafton in 1902.  Their first son, my Great Uncle Chester, was born in 1903.

As a husband and a father, Mattias saw no future as a flour packer. He had originally come to America to be a farmer, and along with thousands of other landless Scandinavians who had been conned by American immigration officials. Mattias longed to be a landowner.

Dominion of Canada

In 1903, Grafton was full of talk about free land in the Dominion of Canada, directly across the border from North Dakota.

For the cost of a $10 filing fee per quarter section, the landless Norwegians read they could become landowners in Canada. For another $1 an acre they could purchase another quarter section if needed.

Eighteen young men and women from Grafton, largely made up of Mattias, his brothers, his hometown friends and Olava’s family, decided to give Canada a try. Having been sold a bill of goods by the Americans, they decided to send a representative to look at the land and make decisions for them. They nominated Hans Mollerud who spoke the best English of any of the group to be their agent and pooled their money to pay for his trip.

Mollerud made contact with the Saskatchewan Valley Land Company, and the little group was awarded land in the District of Assiniboia in the North West Territories, as Saskatchewan was known at the time.

When Mollerud arrived back in Grafton he handed Mattias a slip of paper that said “NE 10-31-7 W 3- 22 miles west of Handley.” He recognized the notations as the surveyor’s coordinates for his new homestead in Canada.

He left immediately for Canada in the company of his sister-in-law’s husband John Nelson, who drew the homestead directly beside his. The train took them as far as Handley, and from there they walked 22 miles to their new property stopping in at the occasional homesteader’s sod hut to break the journey.

When Mattias and John arrived at their staked out farm sites there was literally nothing for the eye to see, including trees.

The men knew they had the summer to build some kind of home to accommodate their families who were arriving the following November from Grafton.

With no lumber and no bricks, Mattias built a 14 by 16 foot sod hut with three foot thick sod walls and a small sod barn for their livestock. Olava arrived the following November with baby Chester, their furniture, a cow, a calf and Mattias’s treasured bicycle that would soon be plying the dirt paths to distant fields and neighbouring homesteads.

The house was so small they raised their bed high enough to accommodate Chester’s crib under it.

An omnipresent problem on the parched prairies was access to water. Mattias and one of his innumerable Norwegian neighbours dug and re-dug the well on the Anholt homestead.  Without lumber for cribbing it would crumble and collapse, requiring back breaking labour to make it serviceable again.

In 1905 my great grandfather purchased four oxen to help him till his property, but it was here his lack of agricultural acumen came to haunt him as the oxen quite often did what they liked and ignored the protestations of Mattias. Mattias didn’t have a clue how to manage an ox team, and I am sure his antics provided much comedy for anyone passing by.

Money was so tight in those early days that the men returned to Grafton North Dakota to work in the mills once the crops were planted in Saskatchewan, leaving their wives and children to manage the farms until they returned in the fall.

My great grandmother and her fellow farm wives stared down two prairie wildfires early on in their homesteading experience, and lost an entire crop to hail while their men were working second jobs far away from home.

By 1918 Mattius and Olava had eight children, and they had outgrown their original homestead.  In those heady post war days when credit was readily available, farmers like my great grandfather took on crushing debt to buy larger farms to feed their ever growing families and have enough produce left over to sell.

Mattias’s family of 10 moved to a 120 acre farm near Glenside in 1919 that they called New Hope taking on a staggering $24,480 mortgage.  The first three years they were at Glenside the conditions were very dry, and three crops in a row failed.  My great grandfather bitterly labelled that farm No Hope and lost almost everything at a sheriff’s sale in 1922.

Three of his adult children had pooled $600 in savings from jobs worked off the farm that allowed Mattias to buy back his horses and some machinery at the sheriff’s sale.  As a family, they found cheaper land outside Outlook where he continued to farm till Olava’s death in 1961.

According to Norwegian-Canadian family historians, what happened to my great grandfather’s extended family in North Dakota was not unusual, and neither was their solution of moving again in search of land, this time to Canada.

Among landless Scandinavian-Americans, Canada became “the land of the second chance.”

A staggering one in three of all Norwegians who settled in Saskatchewan originally immigrated to the United States. Finding no better life there, they made Canada home, achieving a modicum of happiness and satisfaction not possible in the United States.

Kirk is a retired high school history teacher and coach who has had a lifelong interest in politics at all levels. Since retiring, Kirk has spent the last three years doing freelance writing of all kinds for various platforms. Kirk can often be found sitting in the press gallery at City Hall observing and reporting on the vagaries of local government.

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