John Johnson

Viknavaeringer: At Home in Norway and America

In previous blog entries we chronicled OUR NORWEGIAN SAGA—a trip taken in September 2018 that began in Bergen, continued to Kirkenes in the far north, and ended in Oslo. The focal point of the journey was a Hurtigruten cruise along Norway’s magnificent western and northern coasts. On this unforgettable cruise we visited many of the same sites that Joan’s immigrant great-grandparents, Casper and Gjertine Cornelius, had visited on their own memorable return to Norway in 1932, a trip they made after forging a full life of 45 years in America. (See Our Norwegian Saga: Arrivals and Departures)

A published account of Casper and Gjertine’s trip by John Rørvik entitled “Smaatræk fra Casper Cornelius’s Norges-Reise’’ (in Viknaværinger hjemme i Norge og i Amerika. Minneapolis, MN: Viknalaget, 1933, pp. 174-177) was written in Norwegian, and, thus hidden from those of us who know little of the language. The book in which this article appeared was published by the Viknalaget, a Norwegian-American bygdelag society formed in Minneapolis on February 8, 1924, comprised of members who had emigrated from Vikna, as well as their descendants. (Vikna was a former municipality in Trøndelag county that encompassed some 6,000 islands off the northwestern coast of Norway.) The Viknalaget’s first meeting, in fact, was held at Casper and Gjertine’s home at 2934 North Colfax Avenue in Minneapolis.

Casper’s childhood friend, John M. Johnson (Johan Michal Johannsen), accompanied them on the journey. (For more on John Johnson see our blog post: The John Johnson Cot)

Below, Greg has translated the Norwegian text of the article, opening the door to a greater understanding of the journey of remembrance that Casper and Gjertine took so many years ago.


See the article in the original Norwegian: Smaatræk fra Casper Cornelius’s Norges-Reise.


VIKNAVAERINGER [1]

At Home in Norway and America

HISTORICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES

PUBLISHED BY VIKNALAGET, MINNEAPOLIS, MINN

EDITED BY JOHN RORVIK AND PAUL WOXENG –1933

The Casper Cornelius home, where the Viknalaget’s first meeting was held.

The Casper Cornelius home, where the Viknalaget’s first meeting was held.

Highlights of Casper Cornelius’s Trip to Norway

At the Viknalaget meeting on October 7, 1932, our former secretary, Casper Cornelius, who, along with his wife and childhood friend, John M. Johnsen, from Waldwin, Wis.,[*] had just returned from a trip to Norway, was greeted with a welcome never before seen in our laget. [2] Never have the Viknavaeringer of the twin cities come out in such strength. Everyone was excited to hear news from Norway and Vikna and from the old friends and loved ones over there. And old Casper was the man who could tell the tale.

On May 28 Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius, along with Mr. Johnsen, left New York on the Norwegian American Line steamship “Stavangerfjord,” and after a pleasant journey they arrived in Norway at the most delightful time of the year. They got to see our old homeland decked out in its most wonderful finery. We shall not take the time and space here to recount all the experiences Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius had on the voyage, but only touch upon the highlights, so to speak. In addition to greeting relatives and friends on Vikna, they visited many other places during the voyage, greeting those people whose relatives and friends they had come in contact with during their forty-six year stay in America. Upon arriving in Oslo, they were met by Professor O. B. Grimley, currently employed at the Norwegian American Line’s Oslo office. They spent a few days with Mr. and Mrs. Grimley in their cozy villa at Stabek on the outskirts of Oslo. During this time, they had the opportunity to visit many of the sights in the capital, accompanied by their hospitable host and his wife. During this time, they also had the opportunity to visit the builder Axel Bjørnstad in his office at the St. Olaf Hotel. Mr. Bjørnstad is a brother of Mrs. John Hendriksen of Minneapolis. He has the honor of having built the world’s northernmost church on Svalbard. They then traveled north to Trondheim. There they met many people well known to us. Among these were head teacher Karl Pettersen (who taught at Vikna more than 50 years ago) and teacher Julius Bolling with his wife and daughter. They also met Kaja Pettersen, a cousin of Miss Laura Eng in Minneapolis, as well as the tailor Ulsund (also a Viknavaeringer). Then they stopped and visited my (the author’s) two sisters, Miss Henny Johansen and Mrs. Marie Risvik; these two are residing in Trondheim, where they have a small sewing business. All of these friends and family, both in Oslo and Trondheim, sent greetings to the Viknalaget, as well as to their relatives and friends in this country.

Then their journey continued on to Vikna, the destination that mattered the most to them. What feelings must have stirred in their breasts when they saw those familiar places again? Mr. Cornelius did not speak much of it, but it must have seemed to him as if he had just woken up from a long slumber and found everything changed. People who were relatively young when he left Norway forty-six years ago were now almost all dead and gone. And of those who were his age, there were just a few remaining. However, the islands, islets, and seaweed-strewn beaches were still the same as they were before. The infinite sea, which encircled them like a wreath, rolled its massive foam-topped waves across the shore and sent foamy spray high as it broke onto the rocky coast of Ytter Vikna. At old Lysøviken the waves were probably not that loud now in the summertime. But he had probably heard enough of that familiar sound to stir his memories. It was at Lysøviken that his father closed his eyes for the last time about sixty or seventy years ago.

Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius used their time well on Vikna. They went from place to place talking to people and brought greetings from relatives and friends here in Minneapolis. We are very grateful to them for that.

“We had a great time on Vikna,” said Casper. “The people were very accommodating to us. The most striking virtues of the people there were hospitality and cleanliness.” (Hence, we can conclude that they had not become more acquainted with the catch that Fru Guru brought in of an evening, as described by the poet Petter Dass in “Nordland’s Trumpet.”)

After this short stay on Vikna, they traveled south again to embark on a trip to the North Cape on the “Stavangerfjord.”

It was during this trip that Mr. Cornelius had an interesting experience. He was able to tell an old story about Hestmunk Kallen, Lekkea Møia, and the Torghatten through the microphone of the ship’s radio station. [3] He had heard this tale when he was just a young boy, but despite the years he remembered it well. It was also during this tour that they had an experience that many of our Norwegian-born men and women have longed for over the years — the sight of the glorious midnight sun casting its golden gleam over land and sea. It seemed as if day was enshrouded in the peace of night. Hundreds of the ship’s passengers, people from all over the world, stood on the deck at the midnight hour, watching this enchanting sight as music echoed across the still sea. Imagine what a moment that was! We understand our friend Casper Cornelius very well when he says the memory of that night will never fade as long as he lives. During the Nordland trip they visited many locations, including Tromsø, where they visited the splendid museum there. They also went to Hammerfest, among other places.

After returning to Oslo on the “Stavangerfjord” they took the train north to Trondheim, where on this occasion they visited Johannes Horsfjord and his family in their home on Ladehammeren mountain. [4] Then they traveled on to Lekka, where they visited relatives and friends of Mrs. Cornelius. They attended a church service in the church where she was a member before she was married. They also visited Lars Beniamensen Kvalø. It was there at his farm that a little girl, Svanhild Hansen from Hortavær, was abducted by an eagle earlier that summer. After visiting everyone they knew on Lekka and in the surrounding area, they made a trip to Hortavær, where Mrs. Cornelius was born. Hortavær is a group of 365 islands, with a population of approximately 100. There is a chapel there built by an Englishman named Arnestad. Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius had a wonderful time among the fisher folk out there on Hortavær.

Finally they made a return trip to Vikna, where this time they visited Pastor A. Fikkan, Lensmann [5] A. Østnes, and Karl Severeide, as well as our old school teacher Jørginus Ofstad. They also gave their regards to Andreas Benjamensen, Hans Farnes, our friend Paul Woxeng, and many more, including my own mother and siblings in Rørvik.

Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius were well pleased with their journey to Norway. Indeed, happy are those who can make such a trip.

Casper Cornelius arrived in New York on September 22 after a pleasant return voyage across the ocean. At the Viknalaget meeting he offered greetings from Mr. and Mrs. Grimley, as well as from the Oslo Viknalaget. We are pleased to hear that they have a chapter there. We are also delighted that they have a Viknaværinger publication like we do. By the way, wonder if that Grimley fellow and his wife have anything to do with that! We know how interested they were in our magazine when they were living here in Minneapolis. (Mr. Grimley was our magazine’s first editor.)

We wish the Viknaværinger in Oslo good luck with their chapter. We hope that in the future Viknaværinger in Minneapolis and Oslo will become better acquainted.


[*] John M. Johnsen died on January 20, 1933, after an operation to treat a stomach condition.

JOHN RØRVIK


VIKNALAGET

The following excerpt provides some context for the publication in which the excerpt above appears. It is taken from Jacob Hodnefield’s Norwegian-American Bygdelags and their Publications, Norwegian-American Historical Association, 18: 163-222.

VIKNALAGET. In the summer of 1913 John W. Johnson of Baldwin, Wisconsin, wrote an article in Decorah-posten, appealing to immigrants from Vikna, Norway, to send a memorial gift to the old country, since May 17 of that year would be the centennial of the Norwegian constitution. A total of 2,834 kroner was collected at that time, but additions continued for a number of years. Out of this co-operation, a bygdelag came into being. The first meeting for organization purposes was held in Minneapolis February 8, 1924, at which 25 were present. A business meeting was held in Minneapolis March 7, 1924, at which a constitution was adopted. Officers elected were H. H. Ockwig, president; Adolf Larsen, vice-president; Casper Cornelius, secretary; John Caspersen, treasurer. Other founders were John M. Johnson, Alfred Berg, Jørgen Berg, Paul Woxeng, Arnold Jakobsen, Paul Sørø, and Edvard Hustad.

It was decided to hold meetings in Minneapolis the first Friday of each month, thus making the organization essentially a Minneapolis concern. There is generally a Christmas party and banquet and a summer picnic. Speeches, music, films, and so forth have featured the programs. The field of interest of the society was to be the immigrants from Vikna, Norway, their welfare in this country, the preservation of the Norwegian heritage through music, song, literature, art, and folklore, co-operation with the land of the fathers, and the growth and promotion of the bygdelag movement.

Three publications have been issued by Viknalaget. The first was Viknaværingens aarbok for 1927-1928 (Minneapolis, 1928). It has a foreword by John Rørvik and miscellaneous contents, including recollections of fishing enterprises, reminiscences of Christmas, items from Norway, and minor sketches. A second publication was Address Book of Viknaværinger in America (Minneapolis, 1929).

The third is Viknaværinger i Amerika, historiske og biografiske skildringer, by John Rørvik and Paul Woxeng (Minneapolis, 1933). There is a foreword by John Rørvik; emigrants from our district, by John Rørvik; the saga of Viknalaget; list of donors of the gift to the home district; nature, history, and community life at Vikna, by Paul Woxeng; the saga of emigration; [210] emigration to America, by John Rørvik; Norwegians in America; activities of the bygdelags; and miscellaneous sketches, verse, and greetings.

NOTES

[1] In Northern Norway the suffix  –vaeringer is added to place names to denote people from that place. Thus, Viknavaeringer = [those from Vikna].

[2] The viknalaget is a regional example of the Norwegian-American bygdelag, a society whose members come from the same community. For more on these quintessential Norwegian-American Associations see Jacob Hodnefield’s Norwegian-American Bygdelags and their Publications, Norwegian-American Historical Association, 18: 163-222.  (https://www.naha.stolaf.edu/pubs/nas/volume18/vol18_7m)

[3] Hestmunk is a reference to Hestmannen [the Horseman]. Kallen refers to the king Vågekallen and Lekkea Møia refers to Lekamøya, the Maiden of Leka, characters in a magical tale about how the granite mountain Torghatten (on the island of Torget in Brønnøy) came to have a hole all the way through it.

[4] The Ladehammeren is a small mountain near Trondheim on the Lade peninsula in Trøndelag County.

[5] In modern Norway a local police officer much like a county sheriff.

The John Johnson Cot

Old_Cot.max_thumbnail2.jpgbdbdf519-f648-4b36-a4a2-19bfa4aac5b8Larg<strong>er

My name is Yohn Yohnson

I come from Visconsin

I vork in the lumber mills there

Every girl that I meet

As I valk down the street

Says “Hello, what’s your name?”

And I say

My name is Yohn Yohnson

I come from Visconsin…

(Continue repeating first verse. This song never ends!)

Back when Joan was growing up, her family often took road trips. She and her two brothers, in the back seat of the family Chevy, would sing this song to pass the time. They would sing as long as they could keep it up—or as long as their dad could tolerate listening!

This wasn’t just any John Johnson that Joan and her brothers were singing about, but a special John Johnson who was a relative through her maternal grandfather’s family. Or so Joan believed growing up, because of what her grandfather had once told her. She only later learned that this particular ditty was just a song about some generic Scandinavian immigrant named John Johnson from Wisconsin! Joan learned the song and heard about the “real” John Johnson from her maternal grandfather, Martin Cornelius, who lived in Gary, Indiana when Joan was a child.

Joan’s grandfather had been born with the name Kornelius Kaspersen in Norway and came to America as an infant with his parents. Norwegians derived their last names by taking their father’s first name and adding sen (son) or datter (daughter). This meant that Norwegian surnames changed with each generation. Joan’s great grandfather’s name was Kasper Korneliussen (his father’s first name had been Kornelius) but Americanized his name to Casper Cornelius when the family emigrated from Norway.  That left Joan’s grandfather, however, with the name Kornelius Cornelius! Since that wouldn’t do, and they were good Lutherans, Joan’s great-grandparents decided to call him Martin Cornelius instead.

The name John Johnson came up whenever Joan’s family would visit her Cornelius grandparents because of a sturdy sleeping cot that bore his name. In order to accommodate Joan’s family of five, the “John Johnson cot” would be brought out for one of the kids to sleep on. It was a large cot with a metal frame made sometime in the early twentieth century. It was purchased about 1926 in La Grange, Illinois, when a relative named John Johnson first came to visit Joan’s grandparents and was thereafter always known to the family as the “John Johnson cot.” Curiosity about this John Johnson led Joan to try to find out more about him over the years.

John Johnson was born Johan Michal Johansen on December 29, 1865, in Lysøya, Vikna, Nord-Trøndelag, Norway. Vikna is an archipelago on the mid-Norwegian coast, the same place Joan’s grandfather was born. He was a second cousin, once removed of Joan’s grandfather. Joan learned from her grandfather that John had a special place in the family’s heart because he had helped arrange the passage of Joan’s grandfather and his parents to America.

John had immigrated in 1884, settling in Wisconsin. He wrote back to the Cornelius family (to quote Joan’s mother) that “life is such easier here”. John had procured a job with the Omaha Railroad in a little village named Roberts, Wisconsin. Today, by car you could drive to Minneapolis from Roberts in about 45 minutes. The Cornelius family, however, didn’t have enough money to make the voyage to America. John wrote them again, saying that he would loan them the money they needed. Each ticket cost $40.00, and John purchased enough steamship tickets to bring not just Joan’s great-grandparents and grandfather but also several other members of the Cornelius family. With John Johnson’s help Joan’s Cornelius family was able to make the long and exhausting trip from Norway in 1887.

John Johnson was unmarried. When Joan’s great-grandparents arrived in Wisconsin, John gave up his position on Nils Nordby’s railway section crew of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha Railway in Roberts for Casper. He said that Casper had a wife and baby to feed, and it was more important for Casper to have the job than him. John went to work on a railway section crew for the Great Northern Railway out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. According to Joan’s grandfather, John lost the sight of one of his eyes in a fist fight while working there.

John had another special bond with Joan’s grandfather as well. On December 14, 1865, just 15 days before John was born, John’s father and Joan’s great-great grandfather drowned together at sea. Her great-great grandfather, Kornelius Hallesen, had arranged to purchase Christmas goods at a small village named Austafjord with John’s father, Johan Fredrik Gunbjørnsen. Johan Fredrik was first cousin to Kornelius Hallesen’s wife, Anna Johanna Paulsdatter, so the men had family ties as well as a business relationship. Both perished at sea in the frigid waters that fateful day in December.

These bonds carried on through the years with the entire Cornelius family, including both Joan’s great-grandfather Casper and grandfather Martin. In 1913 John, while living in Baldwin, Wisconsin, wrote a letter to the Decorah-Posten, a Norwegian language newspaper published in Decorah, Iowa, that was read by Norwegian immigrants throughout the United States. In his letter he exhorted his fellow emigrants from Vikna to contribute to a memorial that led to the purchase of a minnetavle or plaque that still hangs today in the Garstad church in Vikna.

Minnetavla i Garstad Kirke – 100 år

Out of this call to fellow Vikna immigrants grew an organization called the Viknalaget, a society of immigrants from Vikna. John and Casper were founding members, and, in fact, the organization’s first meeting was held in Casper’s home in Minneapolis. In May 1932 John joined Joan’s great-grandparents on a memorable trip back to Norway, a trip that held great importance in Joan’s family and was one she heard about as a child.

John Johnson would also visit the Martin Cornelius household from time to time. Joan’s grandfather was a faithful letter-writer, and there probably was correspondence between them up until John’s death. About four months after John returned from Norway with Joan’s great-grandparents, he underwent gastrointestinal surgery and died on January 20, 1933, in Minneapolis. He was 67. Gone was Casper’s childhood friend, a man whose father had drowned in the cold Norwegian waters with Casper’s own father some 67 years before–a man to whom his life-long friend Casper was indebted and to whom Casper’s descendants remain indebted.

The “John Johnson cot” is long gone, probably discarded or given away when Joan’s grandparents moved from Gary to Minneapolis in their later years. John Johnson, however, is certainly not forgotten. If it hadn’t been for his kindness and generosity, Joan’s great-grandparents may never have made the trip to America. The (not so) simple act of giving up his job to Joan’s great-grandfather may have made the difference between failure and success in building a new life in a strange and foreign land.

As far as Joan is concerned, John Johnson IS the “Yohn Yohnson from Visconsin” in the song she learned from her grandfather and taught her own children to sing.