My brother, Tom and his wife Ilene have a beautiful lake home in South Carolina but really haven’t spent much time there lately. They’re back home in South Dakota to celebrate their 50th high school reunion. (Yep..high school sweethearts) They didn’t have much time to unpack following a three week Viking Ship tour of Europe which included a personal diversion for them to spend a few days visiting our relatives in Norway. It was a visit 18 years later than expected. The three Lund brothers had made plans to travel with our wives to the Old Country during the Summer of 2000. But on Memorial Day weekend that year, Tom was jogging in a park near their New Jersey home when he went down with a brain aneurysm. He was rushed to the hospital and underwent surgery as soon as possible. At first the prognosis was grim..but he rallied and within a few months was back to normal and within a year, had passed all his Continental Airlines exams for a return to the cockpit. On Labor day weekend Linda and I along with sister in law Judy (brother Denny’s widow) enjoyed a leisurely lunch downtown where we got to hear Tom and Ilene’s fun accounts of meeting with our Norwegian cousins on my mom’s side and seeing their pictures. A favorite story they heard while there was of when our Grandfather, John Gruseth, who’d become a successful farmer and family man in Brookings County U.S.A., made a Christmas pilgrimage back to Trondheim from which he left as a boy of 17.
I told them I’d written an account of that homecoming in a blog years ago..but they hadn’t seen it. It’s a timeless tale that’s true with just a few author embellishments. Perhaps it’s one worth revisiting. So here goes.
When John Gruseth first stepped off the ship’s gangway onto solid ground once again he still had his sea legs and felt a bit wobbly. It had been a long rough voyage across the Atlantic in late December and he was mighty glad to be standing here at Trondheim Harbor on Christmas Eve day 1906. As he looked out across the city he’d known so well as a boy, John could see a few rays from the sun, so low in the southern sky this time of year, reflecting off the beautiful spires of Nidaros Cathedral..Mecca to Lutherans everywhere. His mind raced back to the last time he stood on that same spot 24 years earlier, when he was just 17, and about to board another ship; this one bound for America; taking him away from everything and everyone he’d ever known. John had been born with a spirit of adventure. “No grass growing under that Gruseth boy’s feet,” people used to say. But, as the oldest of two sons, it looked as if it was John’s destiny to inherit and stay on the little hillside family farm at Byneset..even though there were already way too many people trying to scratch out an existence from it. By 1882, thousands of Norwegians had already immigrated to the United States to take advantage of free land being offered to anyone with the gumption to farm and develop it. Not only was it free for the taking but mostly free of rocks and best of all it was FLAT. No more aching ankles from long days standing on steep slopes cutting hay with a scythe.
John was convinced that he must go to America too and was determined to find a way. He pleaded with his parents, Jon Sr. and Jonetta, to let his brother, Anders, take over the farm and allow him seek his fortune and independence in America.(“Behage , behage far , utleie meg bror Anders har den jorbruk og utleie meg gå til USA.”)But the answer was always no. It’s too far, you’re too young, you’re needed here. Then, one day, Uncle Nels Christopherson stopped for a visit to announce that he was selling out and taking his whole family to the United States. He’d gotten letters from other relatives, already there, who had found success and happiness in Dakota Territory. “Better make hay while the sun shines,” Nels said. “We can take John along and help him get started over there if you say its alright.”
Well, it wasn’t alright with Jonetta who knew once her son stepped aboard that boat.. she’d never see him again.“We’ve got to let the boy go, mother.” Jon Sr. said to his usually stoic wife who, knowing there was no stopping him, allowed a single tear to roll down her ample cheek.
Well, mother was wrong, John thought to himself as he began the long walk through the snow toward the farm at Byneset to surprise the whole family at Christmas. Traveling along the road he’d known so well as a boy, John reflected on the decision he made to leave so long ago. No regrets, he thought, but it was mighty tough going for awhile. He discovered that America was flat alright but it was also windy all the time, bitter cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer. If drought and bugs didn’t ruin the crops, floods and hailstorms would.In those first years, John ached for the mountains of home and the sight of ships sailing on the fjord below Gruseth farm. He was determined to learn and speak English..but it was difficult and made his jaw tired.Eventually, though, through hard work and tenacity, things got better. He met and married a lovely gentle Norwegian girl, Julia Leite, saved enough to buy his own farm just outside of Volga in the brand new state of South Dakota and had become father to four children, two boys and two girls.
John Gruseth family around 1910. My mom, Gladys, the little girl between grandma and grandpa, was born two years after John returned from his trip to Norway. (standing L-R) Alma, Johnny, Clarence and Clara.
Yes sir, he’d done alright for himself, well enough to afford this journey back to Norway.It was cold as John trudged along through the blanket of soft snow in the forest and hills..but nothing like the winter of 88 he’d gone through in America when a surprise blizzard blasted across the great plains. It became known as the children’s blizzard because so many kids froze to death trying to walk home from school through the blinding storm. No, by golly, never seen anything like that and don’t ever hope to again, John thought. What a contrast it was to this beautiful night walking along under a canopy of stars. It was midnight by the time John arrived at the front door and began to knock. “God Jul, it’s your brother John,” he shouted.” “Stop trying to fool me,” Anders shouted back from the bedroom, “my brother is in America.” “It IS me,” John repeated, “I’ve come home for Christmas.”
Anders slowly opened the door and there stood the brothers face to face for the first time in two dozen years. “Velkommen, velkommen,” Anders said, shaking John’s hand up and down as if he wasn’t ever going to let go. “Karen, come here,” Anders called to his wife. “It’s my big brother from the U.S.A. who walked across a mountain in the dark to get here. Go tell Mother and Father and sister Ingeborg. It’s a Christmas miracle!”
Gruseth farm as it would have appeared to Grandpa John upon his homecoming in 1906.
My cousins Don and Lawrence along with their families were able to make that trip to Norway 18 years ago and enjoy the hospitality of our Nordic cousins. Then, more recently my daughter Patty and Granddaughter, Allison were there followed a couple years later by Daughter Suzan, Husband Joe and Granddaughter, Zoey. Linda and I were in Norway as hosts of a Keloland/Holiday Vacations tour in 1997 but were not able to break schedule to follow in Grandpa John’s footsteps to Byneset. A situation we hope to correct in the near future.