Ona Lighthouse
 Surname Origins

Chapter XVII: Hordaland

Ljoset kjem

Sjå på himmelen so raud og blå
Og skyene som strømer på
Sola går kje lenger ned
Von om vår no kjenner me

Innover landet ljoset kjem
For no star døra litt på klem
Snart kan me lauga oss I ljos
Den myrke vett’ren for sin kos

Som ljoset utanfor det er
Kom ljos – kom inni oss og ver
Og lys for oss vår fot, vår ånd
So lei oss Herre med di hand



Bjorg Otterstad (1936-2000)


See the sky so red and blue
With streaming clouds amidst the hue
The sun now shares its warmth and light
The hope of spring is shining bright

Over the land the light is spreading
Into the home its rays are treading
Soon we can bask, with pure delight
Banishing then the dark winter’s night

The light outside will shine by day
Come light. Come into us and stay
And light our feet from where we stand
And lead us Lord, with your hand

        Bjorg Otterstad was born and raised in Modalen. The poem above was taken from a book of poetry Blomar langs ein veg that she published in 1999. Bjorg is my third cousin once removed. She and her brother, Jostein, visited our family in California in 1998. She presented me with the book for Christmas, 1999. The English translation was done by me with assistance from Jostein.
        Spring in Modalen is an event that is hard for us to imagine. In the dead of winter, the daylight, such as it is, stretches only from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. When the sun sets on November 4, it disappears from view until February 8, so the increasing light in spring, must be very welcome indeed. Winters also are very cold. The fjord freezes over sometimes to a depth of twenty inches. Prior to the construction of Modalentunnelen, a 3.2 km tunnel connecting Modalen and North Vaksdal, Modalen was almost completely isolated in the winter. The only connection to the outside world was via the fjord, and because of the thickness of the ice, horse-drawn sleds had to go over the ice to meet the boats. When the Bruvik came into service in 1949, it was no longer necessary to use the sleds because the Bruvik was capable of breaking up ice of that thickness. Nevertheless, the advent of spring must have always been a cause for celebration.
        Modalen and Vaksdal are part of the region in Norway called Hordaland. Hordaland is the area of Norway that includes roughly the land within about a fifty to fifty-five mile radius of Bergen. It is largely mountainous terrain through which long fjords wind inland from the sea. In South Hordaland the mammoth Hardanger Fjord cuts a path over one hundred miles inland. The smaller, but still quite large, Osterfjord winds north and east of Bergen. About thirty miles inland (as the crow flies—much longer if the contours of the land are followed) it divides into the Romarheimsfjord and Eidsfjord. The Romarheimsfjord continues northeast, and the channel becomes narrower, but sheer cliffs begin to tower over it on the right. It narrows further into the Mofjord which winds through the final eight to ten miles to the end at Mo in the county of Modalen. The Eidsfjord continues due east and then due north and ends at the village of Eidslandet in the county of Vaksdal. Modalen and Vaksdal are the counties where the Elvik ancestors lived. [see pedigree chart]
        These are very remote and isolated places. Modalen today has the second smallest population (about 350) of any county in Norway. Until 1979 it could only be reached by boat. A mountain range separated it from Vaksdal to the south and east, and other mountains separated it from the Sognefjord to the north and from Masfjorden and Lindaas, the adjacent counties to the west. To reach Vaksdal from Modalen, one had to go down the Mo and Romarheim Fjords, and up the Eidsfjord. Even today the north Vaksdal region is difficult to get to. On the map the thick red line representing route 569 north from highway E16 from Dale looks impressive, but in reality it is only a one-lane trail, perched precariously on the mountainside above the fjord. It takes you through numerous long one-lane tunnels. If you should meet another vehicle, there are courtesy rules so that everyone knows which vehicle needs to back up to the nearest turnout. Today the 3.2-km Modalentunnelen connects the two counties. It was completed in 1979, and contains a modern two-lane highway throughout. The one lane road leading up to the tunnel remains.
        This is picture postcard country. If parts of it were plunked down in the United States it would certainly have National Park status. Mountains, streams, waterfalls and winding fjords abound. In the summer a tour boat brings tourists from Bergen to Mo, where they are met by a tour bus that continues up the Mo Valley. The bus driver, Jostein Otterstad, is a close friend as well as a distant relative. He loves to chat with people from abroad and he is a great resource for information about the valley. My genealogy software calculates that he is my third cousin once removed. His father, Oddmund Johannesson Otterstad, was killed in the early days of the German invasion in WWII, and his mother, Gudrun, was left to raise the three children, Jostein, Bjorg, and Oddbjorn. Gudrun, passed away in 2005.
        Modalen literally means the flat valley. Although the valley is bounded by high steep cliffs on both sides, the land between the mountains and the stream is relatively flat. This is unusual for Norway, where almost all of the terrain is more vertical, so where the land is flat it is given a name, mo or moen (the flat). Dal is the word for valley. For us it sounds like a misnomer because the valley is bounded by steep mountains. The far north latitude and the height of these mountains combine to produce a midwinter when the sun never rises above the horizon for three straight months. Because Modalen and Vaksdal are inland, and a considerable distance from the moderating influence of the sea, the winters are very cold. Until the 17th century much of the lower part of the valley was under water, covered by an inland lake. Then the natural dam that held the water in place spontaneously broke apart and the water drained, creating the lower valley as it is today. The Otterstad farm was probably at least partly covered by that lake at one time.
        The farms in this part of Norway appear to be very small by our standards. I’m guessing there are about ten to twenty-five acres of arable land per small farm. Today most of it is used for hay. Each farmer seems to own a small tractor drawn machine that gathers the cut hay and chops it into silage. Some cattle are kept on the farms today, but it appears that most of the farmers have other day jobs that they depend on to make a living. Although the farms look very small, ownership of the farm also means ownership of the associated mountain property adjoining it. In the past the cattle were taken up to the highland areas for summer pasture. At least one family member would live up there during the summer months to take care of the milking. The milk would be carried down to the valley in backpacks. The summer cabin that belonged to the Otterstad farm where my great grandfather was born is still standing but is in poor condition.
        Elvik sits on the east bank of the lower Romarheimsfjord. In Norwegian, elv means stream, and vik refers to the land that surrounds small cove like indentations in the coastline. The term, Viking, referred to the inhabitants along these viks. On Elvik there is a small creek that comes off the mountain and bisects the terrain before emptying into the fjord, hence the name Elvik. The Holme family that currently resides on Elvik believes this is how it was named. The Vaksdal bygdebok, however, states it was probably derived from the word ellig which means promontory or point. (I think the Holme’s interpretation is more accurate and is probably right.) This place is very isolated. Even today the only access is by boat. There are no nearby farms, but one can look across the fjord to the village of Romarheim, three km away. Today there is only one family that lives there year around, but when Nels Elvik lived there, there were two. The house where he lived is still there and is used by an absentee owner (Jacob Holme’s brother) as a summer vacation house (hytte).
         The Vaksdal Bygdebok158 traces the name from the 1300s when it was first known to be inhabited and was called Elleuik. By 1610 it was called Eluig, in 1723 Elviig, in 1786 Elvig and in 1886 Elvik. Nels’ name on the steamship register when he came to America in 1879 was written as Elgvik. The bygdeboks kept records of farms and included information on the livestock, crops and inhabitants. The history starts with the mention of settlers there in 1303. The next entry from 1567 states that Elvik was deserted at that time and probably had been deserted since the time of the Black Death, which would have been about 1349. There is no way to tell if the early settlers died during the plague epidemic, or if the decimated population may have opened up other land elsewhere that was more promising. Whether the early people that lived there are our ancestors or not is hard to determine, but our line can definitely be traced back to the early 1600s.
         Being rather isolated from other parts of Norway may explain why some customs would be different here. Historically Norwegians have never taken their surnames seriously. They often casually tacked son or datter on to their father’s first name and let it go at that. But sometimes they take their last name from the name of their house, or the name of their town or farm, or a geographical feature like hill, mountain, waterfall, or meadow (Haug, Fjell, Foss or Moen). It was also common to change the last name several times during a lifetime. Because of the confusion this caused, the government outlawed the practice of the willy nilly name changes in the 1930s. Before that, however, confusion reigned. In the Modalen/Vaksdal area the naming practice appears to have been more rigid. The last name was always the name of the farm or town where you lived. The middle name was always your father’s first name with either son or datter, as appropriate, added on. It appears that the only time people changed their last name was when they moved. If a man would marry a woman who inherited a farm or even if the couple lived and worked on the wife’s family farm, the last name would come from the maternal side instead of the paternal side.
        Another custom that would arise from this area’s isolation and sparse population would be the practice of fairly close relatives marrying each other, meaning that often cousins would marry their cousins. Using Family Tree Maker genealogy software to trace families here shows that most of the people that live here are at least distantly related to each other, and this is not surprising. Choice of partners would have been quite limited. Nels Elvik’s parents were second cousins. [see pedigree charts]The Elvik surname also came down from the maternal side. Both parents traced their ancestry back to the farm, Leiro, in Vaksdal, but one grandfather married into a Modalen family, and one came to live at Elvik, in Vaksdal, so our ancestry extends into both counties. Nels’ parents were not in a good situation. They were married in 1849, and then lived at Elvik. Nels’ father, Hans Jakobson Otterstad, [see pedigree chart] had been born at Otterstad in Modalen in 1829, but his brother, Nils, had been born in 1823 and so Nils inherited the farm. Nels’ mother, Marie Nilsdatter Elvik, had two older brothers. The oldest brother, Nils, married an only child, Inga Nilsdatter Farestveit in Modalen, and he went to live there in 1847, and leased the farm at Elvik to his next younger brother, Eirik Nilsson Elvik. Eirik married Brita Knutsdatter Mellesdal and moved to Mellesdal (just across the mountain back of Elvik) in 1857. This opened some land at Elvik for rental. Hans Otterstad (now Hans Elvik) had most likely been just a hired farm worker until then, but now he was able to lease this land.
        Hans and Marie had three children that survived childhood and reached adulthood, Jakob born 1853, Nels born 1860, and Marie born 1866. Another child, also named Marie, died about 1865 at the age of eleven,159 and a son, Johannes, was born in 1869 and died in 1870.160 The firstborn, Jakob, received a lucky break in 1874, when his uncle, Nils Jakobson Otterstad, who had inherited the farm at Otterstad, died without having sired any children. Jakob’s father, Hans, had died in 1871, at the age of forty-three, but had been the next oldest son and the next in line to inherit. Hans’ oldest son, Jakob, then inherited the Otterstad farm in his stead. Jakob had been eighteen years old when his father died, and had continued to lease the Elvik land until this inheritance came his way. In 1875, Johannes Elvik’s (Farestveit's) second son, Nils, came of age and received ownership of the Elvik farm. Johannes now owned two farms and could distribute one of them to his second born, and so his second son, Nils, took possession in 1875. I don’t know how this left Nels (age fifteen), his sister, Marie (age nine), and his mother. I believe his mother, Marie, and sister, Marie, moved to Otterstad with Jakob, but that Nels most likely continued to work and live at Elvik for his cousin who was the new owner. [see pedigree chart] When Nels emigrated in 1879 his address in the steamship register is listed as Bruvik,161 which was then the political subdivision where Elvik was located, rather than Hosanger, where Otterstad was located. Also he kept the surname, Elvik. If he had moved to Otterstad, I believe he would have been known as Otterstad. His mother, Marie, is listed as a member of Jakob’s household on the 1900 Norwegian census, and true to the naming practices of the region, she had changed her last name to Otterstad. She died in 1905 and is buried in the cemetery at Mo.162 A wooden trunk with the name Nils Elvik and the year 1879 painted in traditional rosemaling still sits in the upstairs hall in the house at Otterstad. 1879 was the year that Nels immigrated to America. The trunk was probably too bulky to bring along. It is easy to see why he left. His prospects in Norway were not good. He was not going to inherit any land.
        There might have been another reason for his emigration. During the period from 1814 until 1905 Norway was sharing a common monarchy with Sweden. Many Norwegians felt that this left control of foreign affairs largely in Swedish hands. Military service in this circumstance was looked upon as service to the Swedish king, and was not popular with Norwegian youths. Since military service was universal many emigrated to avoid it.
        When Nels Elvik left Norway for America in April of 1879, he was accompanied by his cousin, Nils Askjellsson Otterstad, and three other Vaksdal acquaintances, Sjur Anderson Rommereim, Ole Anderson Rommereim, and Niels Jakobson Eikemo. Nels and Sjur were both nineteen years old, while Nils was twenty-three. The five of them were adjacent entries on the ship’s passenger log. Sjur and Ole may possibly have been related to Nils. Nils’ father was from Nottveit, which is in Modalen, but very near to the village of Rommarheim, which is in a neighboring county. In Nil’s case the Otterstad name had come from the maternal side through his mother, Maria, Hans Jakobsen Otterstad’s sister. Nils Otterstad eventually settled on Turtle River Lake near Bemidji, Minnesota. Some photographs of his family are present in our family photograph collection. Three of these five, Nels Elvik, Nils Otterstad and Ole Rommereim are listed on the Worth County, Iowa 1880 census. They were living with different families and their occupation in each case was listed as farm laborer. On this census, Nels Elvik is listed as Nels Hanson. Subsequently in America he went by the name Nels Hansson Elvick. Nels worked on a farm in Worth County for about four years before coming to Nelson County, North Dakota, to homestead.
        Regardless of the dire economic straits faced by people like my grandfather, Nels Elvik, the decision to emigrate still couldn’t have been an easy one. He would be leaving his widowed mother and other family behind, and in those days, anyone leaving for faraway America, was unlikely to ever see them again. It was probably harder on those who stayed behind than it was on the emigrants, who at least were looking to better their status in life. All across Norway, letters received from their loved ones in America were precious, and most were saved as family treasures. In later times an institute for the study of emigration was established at Hamar, and one of their projects has been to get families to give up these letters to the institute for study and display. Whether there are any letters from our family in this collection, I don’t know. Nels, however, was able to make one trip back to Norway in about 1901. The purpose was probably to visit his aged mother, then seventy-eight years old.
        In Norway farms that had place names were called Garden,163 and meant the equivalent of a main farmstead or estate. Often Garden was divided into smaller units called bruks. If there were more than one bruk, they were given numbers. While the Elvik Gard was divided into only two bruks, Otterstad was divided into eight. These tiny farms sit just across the stream from the community of Mo, which actually is a very small hamlet with about 7-8 houses, a store, a church with cemetery, and a boat dock.164 There are also a few other miscellaneous community buildings. This is the only area in Modalen that could be called a village. It sits right at the end of the Mofjord. The house and farm that Jakob Otterstad inherited in 1874 is just across the stream from Mo and about one hundred yards inland from the fjord, between the banks of the stream and the mountain. A picturesque waterfall comes off the mountain almost into the back yard. I believe Jake moved here with his mother and sister in 1874.
        Jakob Hansson Otterstad married Anna Larsdatter Almelid in 1882. They had eight children that survived to adulthood. The oldest daughter, Maria, married Alfred Johan Skulstad, who I believe was a prominent Bergen merchant. One of the famous Hansa houses on the Bergen waterfront has his name displayed prominently on the front. Maria died after having given birth to two sons. Alfred then married the next daughter, Brita, and they had three more children. One of these children was Aasmund Skulstad, who became a neurologist, and who eventually resided in Stavanger. He made at least two trips to America, and visited my parents and other relatives. On both of my trips to Norway in the 1990s, I was able to speak to him on the phone at length, but never was able to meet him in person. He died in 1999. Asmund’s daughter, Siri, is a doctor in Bergen who works in the highly specialized field of gene therapy.
        Jakob’s sons, Olav and Hans, and daughters, Malena and Alida never married and lived their entire lives, into their eighties, in the Otterstad house, and they are all buried near each other in the cemetery at Mo. One son, Johannes, who also never married, immigrated to America. He was killed by a falling tree in the forest, probably while working as a lumberjack. The youngest son, Alfred, became a doctor, and lived at Indre Arna, just outside Bergen. Alfred had just two children, fraternal twins, Alfred and Anna Maria, born in 1946. Young Alfred, also a doctor, is the current owner of the Otterstad farm, but lives in another part of the country. When I was at Otterstad in 1997, I was told that the owner hadn’t visited the house for 8 years. The house sits fully furnished. Even the beds are made.
        In 1905, a bird happened to fly into the house and under a bed in one of the bedrooms. One of the young sons, Hans, tried to catch the bird, but couldn’t see under the bed because it was too dark. He lit a candle to see, and the bed, and ultimately the house caught fire and burned to the ground. So the house, that can be seen pictured elsewhere in the book, was built new again in 1905.
        Jakob once came to visit his brother, Nels, on the farm in North Dakota, but today no one who is still alive can remember any details of the visit. There is a large framed photograph of the Nels Elvick farm in the Otterstad family’s collection. Jakob died in 1954 at the age of one hundred and one. He was said to have been bedridden for the last fifteen years of his life and this is probably how people who knew him in Modalen remember him. When I asked what sort of person he was, I was told he was “an angry man”.
        Jakob and Nels’ sister, Marie, (called Aunt Mary by Nels’ children) married Marthinus Rasmussen Haukon. His occupation on the 1900 Norwegian census is listed as ship’s captain or skipper. A family picture of them and their children is in our family photograph collection. Some of the children immigrated to America, but with only a few exceptions they and their families have been lost track of. One daughter, Rose Haukon, came to Chicago and worked as a caretaker and housekeeper for a wealthy family. I met this lady once, when she came to my father’s funeral in 1959. This is the only time when many of my family members had met her, and I recall many remarks about what a gracious and lovely person she was. Another of Marie’s daughters (Marie Hauken) lived for a short while in Michigan, North Dakota. She worked as a domestic servant before becoming a foreign missionary. I haven’t been able to find out any other details about her life.

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