DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — Thoughts After Visiting The Vesterheim

I took the above photo in 2011 of the land that constituted the first of two North Dakota homesteads owned by my Norwegian grandfather, Hans Vorland, 1865-1930.

It’s located in Grand Forks County outside the Red River Valley, east of Aneta. I had been to the courthouse earlier in the day to see the deed and determine the exact location.

The Vesterheim Museum and Heritage Center in Decorah, Iowa.
The Vesterheim Museum and Heritage Center in Decorah, Iowa.

Recently in Decorah, Iowa, Dorette Kerian and I stopped to see the Vesterheim, a wonderful museum and heritage center telling the history of Norwegian immigration to America (Vesterheim translates as “western home”).

Norwegian emigration began earlier and was much greater than we had realized — some 800,000 people between 1825 and 1930, the equivalent of what the entire Norwegian population was in 1825.

Hans, born on the island of Bomlo near Stavanger, departed in the late 1890s. He passed through Decorah, a staging area for immigrants headed west by train to find a quarter-section of the free land still not taken.

His later relocation to Wells County in central North Dakota was prompted by the arrival there of his brother, Peter, and his sister, Johanna, both of whom had filed for homesteads.

Thus, it was that Hans sold his land and moved to Wells County, filing for a homestead adjacent to them. When his sister moved back to Norway, he purchased her quarter section.

With the money from the sale of his Grand Forks County land and through his own hard work, he created one of the most successful and well-known farms in the county. He even sold a few acres of his homestead to the Great Northern Railroad so it could develop the village of Wellsburg.

A few years ago, I ran across a map of the town site at the Wells County Historical Society Museum in Fessenden. Although Wellsburg has mostly disappeared, it still has a “Vorland Street.”

In 1906, Hans, now a U.S. citizen, returned to Norway for the one and only time. His goal: To marry a Norwegian girl, Anna, whom he probably knew from his younger days in the old country. Dorette and I have seen the records at Ellis Island documenting their return to the U.S.

Their first child, who died of appendicitis at the age of 15, was born nine months later. In all, there were five daughters and two sons, including my father, Kermit.

The youngest of them, Ruby Skinner, died recently at the age of 92, the last of the second generation. Ruby has been on my mind — although I loved all my aunts, she was my favorite.

Those of us in the third generation who survive are now, to put it delicately, senior citizens.

In the late 1960s, my father as the eldest son received a cash offer from the Norwegian government that apparently was clearing the titles of propery that had become popular summer rentals for tourists. Trouble was, the money could only be spent in Norway. My dad declined, I think at the request of a Norwegian relative. But a neighbor of ours accepted, took a flight to Norway and spent every dime, he later admitted, on wine, women and song.

The farm remained in the family until after Anna’s death in 1957. Today, all of the buildings and the trees have disappeared. The land is tilled from fence line to fence line.

A final thought about Decorah.

My parents, both of whom died in 1991, once traveled to the town for a Vorland family reunion. Not all of the Vorlands present were related by blood, since in 19th century Norway many family names originated as a reference to where one had been born.

But my gregarious mother did speak to a very elderly woman who was related to our family and who said as a child she had been on the dock when Hans and Anna left Norway for the last time.

“What was it like?” my mother asked.

“Everybody cried,” said the woman.

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