Posts Tagged ‘Fossebrekke’

Pioneer Winter

March 1, 2014

I’ve been reading a lot about winter lately. While working on a book project for the Wisconsin Historical Society, I’ve dug out a lot of primary accounts from European and Yankee immigrants settling in the Upper Midwest in the 1800s. Not surprisingly, the most poignant accounts describe the earliest days of white settlement.

When I worked at old World Wisconsin, one of my favorite buildings to interpret was the 1845 Fossebrekke Cabin. The Fossebrekkes, like many immigrants, opened their home to late-fall arrivals who had nowhere else to go. Some visitors couldn’t imagine surviving a winter in such a small building.

That's me in warm weather, heading into Fossebrekke, 1983.

That’s me heading into Fossebrekke, 1983.

But when Knudt arrived in Wisconsin, he had nothing. He worked as a laborer and spent his first winter in some kind of a shelter dug into the side of a hill. So I imagine that he and Gertrude Fossebrekke took enormous pride in their sturdy cabin.

I haven’t found a first-person account describing life in a dugout through long, dark, bitterly cold months. However, here’s a story shared by a descendant of a Norwegian immigrant who joined forces with two other single men. The three spent their first winter in a dugout…and their second winter as well:

A large log house was built on Nils Gilderhus’ land in the summer of 1841, but as they did not get it ‘clinked’ (sic) between the logs before cold weather set in, they continued to live in the dugout that winter.

Here Andres Lee and his wife, Gunvor, a sister of Nils, came from Norway late in 1841 and lived with all the rest in the dugout, as did a man named Andres Fenne. Later in the winter, Tore Kaase was also welcomed to live in the same dugout, there being no other shelter, which made a family of six men, one woman and two children, all in the same small dugout.

(“Mrs. Styrk Reque Tells History of Early Pioneers of Gilderhus Clan,” Capital Times, September 7, 1930.)

Those who barely managed to build some kind of free-standing structure often didn’t fare much better:

The winter was severe, and the house being enclosed by foot wide boards, but neither plastered or sealed the green boards warped and left great cracks, and the water froze in our glasses on the table, and if a little spilled on the floor it would freeze before we could wipe it up.

Renee Fossebrekke

Fossebrekke interior.  (Renee is making flatbread.)

We had no crib for the baby and had to keep him tied in  a chair. Our mother was sick all winter and we hung quilts and blankets around the stove pipe and fixed her bed in the enclosure; our money was nearly gone and we had to plan closely to get provisions but by hook and crook we managed to keep alive.

(Hannah L. Parker, “Pioneer Life in Waushara County,” Wautoma Argus, February 13, 1924.)

And here’s one more:

Only those who have experienced it can imagine the loneliness of the first winter 30 miles from a post-office. One inconvenience was the lack of matches. One wild, windy night Mr. Gardner’s fireplace went out. Soon Mr. Salisbury came. He, too, had lost fire. Together they started for Moses Smith’s to borrow coals. Mr. Salisbury fell into a river when crossing on a fallen tree.

Schulz cooking nook Old World Wisconsin

Cooking nook, Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin.  Without matches, fire could not be taken for granted.

While Mr. Salisbury remained at Smith’s to dry his clothing, Mr. Gardner started homeward. After going some distance he thought the pail seemed light and found that the bottom had melted and the fire was gone. Returning he borrowed an iron kettle, filled it with coals, and succeeded in reaching home with it, and a good, comfortable fire greeted Mr. Salisbury on his arrival.

(Helen Hicks, “Pioneer Settler of Spring Prairie was New York Man,” Racine JournalNews, January 15, 1932.)

Last week, while on a writing retreat, I stayed in a cabin built in 1853. I’ve stayed there before, and it’s a good space for me.

Fern Hollow Cabin

Fern Hollow Cabin in NE Iowa, owned by Liz Rog and Daniel Rotto.

Fern Hollow Cabin

From the family album–Fern Hollow Cabin before restoration in 1989.  Liz’s great-great-great-grandparents raised six children in this home, and Liz and Daniel later raised their own two children here.

It was cold during this stay—often below zero. The cabin’s only source of heat is a small wood-burning stove.

Fern Hollow Cabin

That’s a slab of soapstone on the top right side of the stove. After heating it up, I’d wrap it in a towel and take it up to bed in the loft.

I got a lot of work done, but the status of the fire never really left my awareness. A rhythm developed:  fetch wood, tend the stove, write. Fetch wood, tend the stove, write.

Fern Hollow Cabin

All the essentials—laptop, companion feline, and stove. Not shown: steaming mug of cocoa.

I was also acutely aware of how easy I  had it. I did not cut the wood, or stack it. When I had to leave for several hours, my hosts kindly stoked the stove. And I knew that if I did “lose” my fire, all I’d need to do was crumple newspaper and light a match to get it back.

This has been a long winter for most of the country. I will savor the first warm days of spring as much as anyone. But the accounts of pioneer winters have helped me keep the season’s challenges in perspective. It’s snowing as I write this, and I can’t help thinking that I have a lot to be grateful for.

Fern Hollow Cabin

Fern Hollow Cabin.

We can never truly imagine how our ancestors experienced winter, while struggling to build a better life for generations to come.

Lefse

October 28, 2013

Since a lefse pin spattered with blood is on the cover of my latest Chloe Ellefson mystery, Heritage of Darkness, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the murder weapon is. . . you guessed it, a lefse pin.

Heritage of Darkness 1

Which has led some readers to ask, What the heck is lefse, anyway?

Lefse is a round flatbread usually made with mashed potatoes (which used up old potatoes, and kept the bread soft) and baked on stovetop or griddle. It was a staple in the diet rural Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans in the 19th century.

LEFSE

This old stereocard image shows a Norwegian woman making lefse on an outdoor griddle. A lefse stick is used to turn the paper-thin round of dough.

I was introduced to lefse when I worked at Old World Wisconsin. Lefse was frequently made at the Fossebrekke cabin, home to young Norwegian immigrants.

KAE at Fossebrekke Web

That’s me at the 1845 Fossebrekke cabin in 1982.

potato masher

Hand-cranked potato masher, Fossebrekke cabin, Old World Wisconsin.

The heavy wooden pins used to roll the dough were deeply scored or grooved, which helped reduce air bubbles, pulverize any bits of unmashed potato, and keep the rounds of lefse quite thin and pliable.

lefse pins - Version 2

Two pins on exhibit at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.

lefse pin

This pin’s groove’s are nearly worn away. (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum Exhibit)

In Norwegian-American communities it can still be found in local stores. . .

Schuberts Mount Horeb lefse

Schubert’s Diner and Bakery in Mount Horeb, WI.

. . .often folded into quarters and offered fresh or frozen.

lefse sale

Oneota Co-Op, Decorah, Iowa.

Although fewer and fewer people make lefse at home, it still holds a special place in good Norwegian-American hearts. Many people have memories of mom or grandma boiling Russet potatoes and making lefse on special occasions.

Last year my friend Martha invited me to the local Sons of Norway – Valdres Lodge Norwegian Constitution Day Dinner on May 15, held at the Washington Prairie Lutheran Church outside of town.  (Learn more here.)

On the way, she told me that when the church needed a new roof, several elderly members of the congregation made hundreds of lefse. They announced sales, to be held at a bank in town. Sales were brisk, and the money raised helped buy the new roof.

DSCF5941

A few weeks later at Nordic Fest, a celebration of Scandinavian heritage and pride held in Decorah each summer, another small army of  lefse bakers reported for duty.

lefse Nordic Fest - Version 2

Warm rounds of lefse are delivered from the griddle to eager buyers, who add whatever toppings they prefer.

lefse Nordic Fest

I’ve read that 10,000 lefse are served at Nordic Fest each year.

lefse Nordic Fest

Me, I love lefse spread with butter and brown sugar, then rolled up tight. Maybe a touch of cinnamon. Or lingonberry jam.

Decades ago, I bought a lefse pin at an antique store.  I don’t know how old it is, or who used it, but I liked to wonder. Who once used it to roll out a bit of home or heritage on a flour-dusted table?

lefse pin

My lefse pin is much larger than my regular rolling pin.  Heavier, too.

And one year, while working at Old World Wisconsin, the Norwegian-area interpreters gave me this lovely rosemaled lefse pin at the end of the season. While I treasure the stick, I must admit that I’ve never made lefse at home. After learning how on an antique stove in an 1845 cabin, it just wouldn’t feel the same.

lefse pin

This stick has had a place of honor in my kitchen for 25 years.

At the launch party for Heritage of Darkness held at Mystery To Me (in Madison, WI) I witnessed lefse’s popularity all over again.  My talented baker friend Alisha brought a gorgeous cake.  She also brought a plate of lefse made by Lutheran church ladies, and rolled up with butter and cinnamon and sugar—the combination she’d learned from her Norwegian grandmother.

People who’d never tried lefse were eager for a sample. People who had their own fond memories of lefse munched happily, reminiscing.

Alisha with lefse

This plate of lefse disappeared fast. Really fast.

I think the generations of long-gone lefse makers would be pleased.

Cabin Fever

January 27, 2011

One of the reasons I love history is that it provides context and perspective for any irritation, frustration, or hardship that pops up in my own life. Case in point:  it’s that time of year when lots of people start feeling antzy. Shut-in. Claustrophobic. Bored.

Understandable, but let’s think back. One of my favorite buildings at Old World Wisconsin (Eagle, WI) is Fossebrekke, a cabin restored to its 1845 appearance.

That's me in warm weather, heading into Fossebrekke, 1983.

It’s so small that visitors sometimes mistake it for an outbuilding. On the occasions when I interpreted that building, I loved helping guests see it from the perspective of Knudt Fossebrekke. In 1839 Knudt had—like so many others—arrived America with almost nothing. He spent his first winter in a shelter of some sort dug from the side of the hill. After that, it must have felt wonderful to complete this sturdy little cabin!

Bea and Sandy in Fossebrekke, probably late 1980s.

Oral tradition also suggests that Knudt and his wife Gertrude opened their cabin to other immigrants who arrived as winter was bearing down. Some say seventeen people wintered in the tiny cabin one year, although it’s impossible to know now if that count includes people coming and going, or people there all at once. In any case, sharing the space—one room and a loft—was both  generous and, I imagine, very challenging.

We get a glimpse of the other side of frontier hospitality from Elizabeth Koren, a Norwegian pastor’s bride who accompanied him to Iowa in 1853. They arrived in winter; no handy parsonage was waiting. Erik and Helen Egge invited the Korens to stay with them, and their two young children, in this 14 x 16′ home.

The Egge-Koren home has been restored at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

Elizabeth, who had lived a genteel existence in Norway, found the close quarters noisy, smelly, and often challenging.

Both adult couples slept downstairs, with only a curtain to provide a facade of privacy. The children slept in the loft.

Tight quarters, with no space wasted. Reverend Koren wrote his sermons in this cabin.

Elizabeth dreamed in her diary about having a home of her own:   “That will be glorious!”

I imagine it was.