Ona Lighthouse
 Surname Origins

Chapter XVIII: Nels and Rosa

        Family tradition holds that Nels Elvick165 and Rosa Wise met because they filed homestead applications on adjacent quarters of land near the community of Michigan, North Dakota. When exactly that happened is uncertain. By the time the homestead applications were registered, they had already been married for four to five years. I think it would be safe to speculate that the homesteads were staked out sometime between 1885-1887. The land nearest to the railroad was almost certainly taken up first, and we know the Wises staked a claim in 1884 within one mile of the railroad, so the 1885-87 time frame seems reasonable for land five miles away. Why the marriage took place in Grand Forks is also unknown. That may be where they had to go to find a clergyman, or they might have just gone there for a getaway. [see pedigree chart]
        Because they were a family that had some means, they never had to resort to living in a sod hut. There were actually a few sod huts in this area, but it seems to have been more common for the settlers to throw up a small wooden shack and to weatherize it with tarpaper, and to live in it until a proper house could be built.166
I believe the first house the family built was about a quarter mile west of where the main farmstead was later situated. It was a proper house with a basement, and there was a barn, machine shed and probably other buildings. Mrs. W. S. Fowler, who had settled with her family in 1884 about two miles north of the Elvicks, wrote a short article about her early years on the prairie. She records this event on July 28, 1892:

     "The day had been extremely hot with little or no wind, and the sky a peculiar copper tint. Our men had been working in a hay field some distance from the house, and when after dinner they started out again, they decided not to go so far away as we all feared a storm was coming. About 3 o’clock huge black clouds came up in the west and there were occasional sharp flashes of lightning. The men came in from the field and took care of their teams. Soon a black funnel shaped cloud appeared in the southwest and moved toward us. We hastily closed windows and doors and none too soon for the storm broke in all its fury. My first sight was the toilet which went sailing through the air as though thrown by a giant ball player, rushing to another window we saw a small granary sliding past as though drawn by invisible horses; then the new machine shed collapsed, the barn roof went sailing away and then we went upstairs and what a scene met our eyes, every window on the West and North side had been broken in and the house was filled with broken glass, pieces of board, mud and straw. Outdoors, it was even worse, with the buildings wrecked and the yard strewed with dead chickens and turkeys. This same storm took the house on the farm of Pete Clemo, and left Mr. And Mrs. Clemo in the cellar standing in about a foot of water, unhurt. The barn on the Gordon farm was unroofed and a machine shed on Nels Elvicks farm destroyed."

        Nels and Rosa were married December 11, 1887. This date was supplied by one of the great grandchildren. However, both the 1900 and 1910 census records state that the year of marriage was 1888. Their first son, Bert Maxwell, was born 9 months later in September, 1888 (this also could be a mistake). A daughter, Mary Caroline, was born on February 4, 1891. Both of these children died young and are buried in the main Elvick plot in the Michigan Cemetery. It isn’t known how Mary died, but my father said Bert died of typhoid fever. The subsequent 4 children all lived into their adult years. Cora was born July 3, 1892, (just 3½ weeks before the above described tornado). Next, Nelson Henry was born on June 14, 1895, Lillie was born on October 30, 1897, and Marie Mabel was born on January 11, 1904. Lillie’s full name was Rosa Lilliebelle, named after her mother. However, she was called Lillie all her life, and on her tombstone the name is R. Lillie Orvik. In the Ohio documents her mother went by Rosa L. Wise. After coming to North Dakota, she dropped the Lillie from Lilliebelle and became Rosa Belle Elvick, and signed her name as Rosa B. Elvick.
        The family spent its early years in the first farmstead just west of the subsequent main buildings. I recall a story my father (Nelson) told to us as children about one of his earliest memories. It was about a summer storm. The whole family had taken refuge in the basement. The tornado was so powerful that it momentarily lifted the house from its foundation and then set it down again. He recalled all of the children being extremely frightened and crying for their daddy. There was undoubtedly considerable damage done, but no people were injured. This was not the same storm described by Mrs. Fowler, because that storm occurred before Nelson was born. The current farmstead was probably built about 1900. It may have been damage from the storm that caused them to rebuild. By the time I grew up in the 1940s, there was no trace of this original farmstead.
    By 1899 Nels Elvick had acquired an impressive amount of good farm land. Besides the land that he and Rosa got from their homestead claims, he had purchased land from the government using the Sale of Public Land Act of 1820, and had bought land from Henry Wise for $6000, and land from Telisphore Tavoran for $900. Without the benefit of modern farm machinery, it would have been a real challenge to farm this much land. It was managed to a large extent by long hours and hard work, supplemented by a hired workforce, during the busiest seasons.
        Primarily it was a grain farming operation. Wheat was the primary crop, but oats, rye, barley and flax for seed were also raised. There was always a lot of livestock. It would fall to the women to take care of the chickens and turkeys, and the men would take care of the cattle, horses and for awhile, sheep. The grain farming and haying would take up all of the warmer months, but it would be the animals that would keep everyone busy during the long winter. Most of the fieldwork had to be done by walking behind teams of horses, which would pull the plows, cultivators, and rakes. Planting season would be followed by haying season, which would be followed by harvest. The most critical season was harvest. Like most of the Great Plains area, the late summer and fall could sometimes bring violent wind, rain and hail storms, which could wipe out a whole years work in the matter of a few minutes.
     During harvest, then, it was necessary to hire additional workers. There was usually a supply of transient workers that would come to the area during that season. For that reason when the new farmstead was built about 1900, it included a bunkhouse where the workers slept. Because of the nature of the climate, the grain had to be cut and allowed to dry before it was threshed. During that time it would be very vulnerable. Rain, wind and/or hail could play havoc, and time would be of the essence to bring in the crop. The grain was cut, by a mechanical horse-drawn binder, which would then tie the grain stalks into bundles, and field workers would then gather the bundles and set them upright in “shocks.” At harvest time, fields speckled with these shocks were a common site, until combines came into play in the 1940s. When the grain was dry enough, the shocks would be brought to the threshing machine, which would be set up in a central location. Only when the grain came out of the spout of the threshing machine would it become safe from the elements.
        My father described some instances of labor trouble that would sometimes come up. Once in a while the workforce would be infiltrated by a member of the IWW. This is a radical labor movement, founded in 1905, and still in existence today, and still a disrupting force. IWW stands for Industrial Workers of the World, often misrepresented as International Workers of the World. (The local farmers insisted IWW stood for “I won’t work.”) It was generally Rosa’s job to go into town during harvest season and hire the seasonal workers, and it was impossible to tell which workers were the radicals. They were sometimes responsible for sabotaging the farm machinery, as once happened when a large rock was sent through the threshing machine along with the grain stalks.
        The large operation also proved difficult for the women. They were responsible for doing the usual household chores, as well as taking care of the poultry and the large vegetable garden. It would also be their responsibility to feed not only the family, but also the seasonal workforce, and probably hired men that were more or less permanent. To this end Rosa most certainly also had “hired girls” to help out at peak periods and possibly also more or less year around. It was my understanding that the male hired help used the large bedroom above the kitchen, which had a separate stairs, probably during times of the year when it was too cold to use the uninsulated bunkhouse.
In 1901, with a large and seemingly profitable farming operation now intact, Nels took this opportunity to make a visit back to Norway. I am guessing that the reason for the visit was to see his mother once again before she died. When he returned he was accompanied by Inga Knutsdatter Elvik. She lived at Elvik, bruk 1, in Norway and was a sister of Knute Elvik, who had settled in Williams Township in the late 1880s and also a second cousin once removed of Nels. Inga worked at the Elvik farm for a time. She eventually married Nels Orvik, a brother to Kohn Orvik, who would later marry Nels Elvick’s daughter, Lillie.
        My Aunt Lillie, one of my father’s younger sisters, once told me about a memory she had of harvest season when she was a young child. The children were allowed to glean some of the fields after the binders had finished. They would gather by hand, grain stalks that had been missed, and these were run through the thresher, and they were allowed to keep the money it would bring in. The three oldest children, Cora, Nelson and Lillie, worked to bring in as much grain as they could, and then they decided to spend the money on a train fare so that grandma could come and visit them. I took this to mean that at least at that time, Malinda was not living nearby. On the 1900 census she had been living with Ebenezer’s family in Williams Township, but at the time of this incident, she was probably back with her family in Ohio, with relatives in Nebraska City, or possibly with her son, Charles in Minneapolis.
        It was productive land, but the drift prairie section of North Dakota would never prove to be as fertile as the nearby Red River Valley. In the Valley, crop failures were almost unknown, but in the drift prairies it was a constant cycle of good and bad years. The first known crop failure occurred in 1888, when the area was hit by a killing frost in early August, before much of the grain was fully ripe. Yields were very low, and barely enough to provide seed for next year’s crop and feed for the animals. The two years following this also produced poor crop yields. However, there must have been some very good years as well, because the family by all appearances became quite prosperous. In 1905 they built a house in the town of Michigan. The picture on the opposite page shows the house under construction. Nels Elvick is on the ladder and holding his youngest daughter, Marie, who appears to be a toddler between the age of one and two, and therefore fixing the year as 1905. Ten year old Nelson is also in the picture.
        This probably changed their social life and outlook more than it did their livelihood. Living in town made it much easier for the children to attend school. This was still before the day of the automobile, and during the winter the transportation to town would be by horse and sleigh. Even after the advent of the automobile, they were useless during the winter because there were no passable roads. So living in town made things easier. I believe the family must have lived at the farm during growing season, and during the winter they had renters or possibly employees who took care of things. After he was old enough, I believe Nelson lived and worked on the farm when he wasn’t in school.
    Most of the business section of the town burned in a spectacular fire in 1906. A surviving photograph shows only the fireproof bank vault standing. 1906 was also the year that sidewalks were put in, so 1905-06 were years of heavy construction. Downtown was rebuilt in the form that it maintained until a major renovation project completely replaced it in 1969. It was about this time that I think Malinda came to live with them. While living with the Elvick family, she died from pneumonia on November 8, 1908, after a ten-day illness. Although there was a physician in town, the death certificate was signed by a dentist, Dr. Cheka, who lived close by. She was eighty-seven years old, and had been active until her final illness. She had survived all of her siblings. Robert had died in 1903, Nancy in 1906, and George and Charles had both died in 1907. The others had been gone long before that. She had been a widow for forty-five years.
        A photograph of the rebuilt business section of town in 1907 shows one automobile in the foreground. Automobiles had begun to appear around town, but the speed limit ordinance of eight miles per hour adopted that year mentions only horse drawn vehicles. In 1917 with automobiles much more common, the limit had been increased to ten mph. The Elvick family was one of the early car owners. A surviving photograph shows Nelson, at age eighteen, driving a Buick with women passengers in 1913. It has long been family lore that the Elvicks loved cars, and that Buicks were their favorites.
        When the Wises and Elvicks first came to the Michigan, North Dakota, area, there were probably already established churches. A Methodist church had been built in the town in 1885. There was no Lutheran Church building at that time, but a Lutheran congregation had been established, which most likely met in homes. The Lutheran services were conducted in the Norwegian language, and so Nels and Rosa opted to attend the Methodist church, since Rosa couldn’t understand Norwegian. However, the Methodist church burned on New Years Eve in 1910. The fire started in City Hall next door and spread to the church. When the fire bell was rung there was a delay in response, because people assumed the New Year was being rung in. The church was totally destroyed and was never rebuilt. Most of the Methodist families joined either the Lutheran or Congregational church. By this time the Lutheran church had started conducting services in English, so now they joined the Lutheran Church. A church building had also been built by that time, and the steeple of that church can be seen in the background on the picture of the house they built in 1905. Nelson remained a lifelong Lutheran, but the three daughters again became Methodists when they later moved away from the area.
   Growing up in the community of Michigan, North Dakota, in the early 1900s was probably much like growing up any place else in rural America. Like the rest of America, Michigan was a melting pot that had settlers from Europe, Canada and other parts of the United States. The town was founded by Irish descendants from around the Port Huron area of Michigan, and the town was named after the state where they had previously lived. Soon settlers were arriving from everywhere. Some, like the Wise family, came from back east in the USA and were there to make a new start. Others came from eastern Canada, but many of the new settlers came from Europe. Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, Germans, Irish and Bohemians predominated, but other nationalities were represented as well. By the late 1880s or early 1890s, the initial Dakota land boom had subsided. Crop failures from 1888-1890 caused many bankruptcies, and many of the new settlers, such as some of the Wise brothers, moved on.
        At the beginning of the 20th century, the community was seventeen years old, and had become much more stable. Businesses and farms were both firmly established. Newspapers were being published. Churches and schools had been built and it had become a community like thousands of others in America. Michigan was served by the main rail line that connected Chicago and Minneapolis with Seattle, and access to faraway cities was relatively easy. However, there were some things that made life here somewhat different. One of these factors was the obvious isolation. Despite being connected by rail with the outside world, Michigan, North Dakota, is located in one of the most isolated regions in the country. The nearest large city, Minneapolis, is 400 miles away, and the population density has always been low. The county has never had more than 10,000 people, and for most of its existence it has had fewer than half that many people. The population of the town of Michigan has never been much more than 500.
        The other factor that profoundly affected life here is the weather. The perception that outsiders have that this is where you would leave your car if you’re going to the North Pole, is understandable. Winters are prolonged and severe. The winters described by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House books occurred 275 miles further south, but even there, as she described in her books, winters in the Dakotas could be dangerous. Many a farmer going from town to farm or vice versa, never got there if he was unlucky enough to have been caught in a sudden blizzard. However, because of the brutality of the winters, residents here are able to develop an appreciation of the climate during the rest of the year. Spring, summer and fall can be beautiful here, but it is always interrupted by the annual mosquito festival, held every year between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
        Until the end of WWI there were no decent roads in the county. In 1917 the history that was written for Michigan’s Centennial in 1983, refers to the “trail” between Michigan and it’s nearest neighboring town, Petersburg. If you were leaving town for any reason at this time, you went by train. Trails zigzagged across the prairie, skirting the many sloughs or potholes. The spring thaw and summer rainstorms could make the area virtually impassable. In the winter the only way to get around was to go by horse and sleigh or to walk. It was undoubtedly this situation that caused the family to move into town in 1905. The move into town allowed the children much better access to school, and protected the family from the isolation that was so common in the winter. A new two story brick school had been built in 1902, and was the same school I attended forty-three years later. However, Nelson would still never be able to attend school for more than five months in any year. The never-ending pressure of being the only son in a farm family would tie him down on the farm for all but the mid winter months. Nelson made good use of the time he was able to spend in school, but because of only being able to attend part time he was almost twenty years old when he graduated from high school in 1915.
        The 1900 census has a very puzzling entry. Under the occupation column Nels Elvick is listed as “merchant in store.” No family member that is still living at this time has any recollection that he was a merchant of any kind during his lifetime. We have to assume that it is a mistake. This census also lists Rosa’s mother as being born in Kentucky, and we know she was born in Ohio. Her mother, Malinda, who was counted in Williams Township, is listed there as being born in Ohio, so it demonstrates that there were some mistaken entries. A possible explanation could be that the family immediately preceding the Elvicks in the census is A. Hentges, and he was known to have run a store in Michigan in the early 1900s. Nels Elvick did become a stockholder in the Michigan City Bank, and this is the only non farming enterprise that he is known to have undertaken. This bank was in business from 1893 until 1926. Just when he became involved with it is not clear.
        We have a description of Nelson’s early life, written by Nelson himself when he attended the University of North Dakota for a semester in 1921. He wrote several essays for his English class, and these have been preserved. One of these is entitled “Autobiographical Letter” and is reproduced here:

"Dear Mr. Taylor,

     Since you are now my instructor in English it might be of some interest to you to know a few facts concerning my past life. It has been neither exciting nor very interesting, but may explain why I am at present attending the University.
     I entered high school at the age of sixteen years, but was able to attend only five months of the term. This was due to the fact that circumstances compelled me to assume management of the farm, and as it consisted of two sections of land, I had very little time to attend school. Although slighting my school work by being absent the first and last months of the term, I managed to procure a passing grade in most of my subjects. This fact encouraged me to continue my studies thru high school. In order to do this it was necessary to rent the farm for three years, but nevertheless on account of threshing operations I found it impossible to enter school at the beginning of the term. Although my attendance at school was very irregular, I managed to keep up with my class in all subjects except Latin.
     I determined to enter my senior year on time and to take up the study of some language, but fate decreed otherwise, for on the last day of threshing I injured my arm and had to go to the hospital. It was six weeks before I was able to leave the hospital and nearly two months before I started to school. I graduated in 1915 but am not at all proud of my grades.
     In June of this year I left Michigan to visit the World’s Fair at San Francisco and the Panama Exposition at San Diego. I returned home in the fall and resumed active management of the farm which I have continued to operate up to the present time. In 1920 I was elected secretary and treasurer of the Farmers Elevator and the work incidental to this in addition to the farm work kept me from thinking of school until this fall. I entered the University at the beginning of the term and although I have considerable work that will require my attention outside of school, I expect to be able to continue my school work to the end of the school year."

This was the instructor’s comment at the end. “You write with clearness and precision. I look for a good theme writer in you.”
        The injury he describes was serious. As I understand it, he caught his right arm in some of the threshing machinery and it was severely mangled, although I don’t think any bones were broken. The arm became infected with “blood poisoning” and he was advised to have it amputated to save his life. This was before the days of antibiotics, and this type of infection would indeed have been life threatening. He made the decision to take his chances without amputation, and over the next two months he recovered. He had severe scarring and soft tissue wasting of the forearm, which was present for the rest of his life, but he managed to eventually regain pretty much full usage. The above theme was written with his right hand and with perfect handwriting. Although the forearm was disfigured, I don’t remember that it was at all functionally impaired.
   One aspect of his high school years that was not discussed in the theme was athletics. He played basketball for the Michigan High School team, and this seems to have been one of his greatest pleasures. These were strong teams, and he played against other strong teams in the regional tournaments. He made friends with a player from Hatton, North Dakota, named Carl Ben Eielson. He was proud of and often recalled that friendship for the rest of his life. Carl Ben Eielson became a well-known Arctic explorer, who was later killed when his aircraft went down over the arctic wilderness in Alaska. The USAF base in Fairbanks, Alaska, is named for him. The basketball team became even stronger over the next few years, and two years after he graduated, the Michigan team won the state championship. His friend, John Kallestad, was a player on that team.
        Some time before Nelson entered the University of North Dakota, his parents, Nels and Rosa, had moved again, this time to the much larger town of Grand Forks. This was about 50 miles from Michigan. There were probably several reasons for the move. Certainly culturally and socially they would have considered Grand Forks a considerable improvement over Michigan, but another consideration could have been for the educational and social opportunities for their youngest daughter, Marie. Marie was born in January of 1904, and this move was probably made about or somewhat before the time when she would have entered junior high. Marie was an exceptionally beautiful and talented girl and had shown much promise as a musician and singer. It was most likely felt that her opportunities would be much better in Grand Forks.
        A surviving letter written by Nels to Rosa indicates something of how they worked out their schedule. Travel to and from Grand Forks would have been mostly by train. Nels would spend time at the farm when the farm work schedule required his presence there. It was while he was at the farm that he wrote the letter to Rosa, describing his work there and looking forward to being with her again in Grand Forks. Nelson’s status and schedule might have been somewhat the same as his father’s. However, the 1920 census shows only Nelson and his sister, Lillie, living in Michigan, with the rest of the family in Grand Forks. The oldest sister, Cora, age twenty-seven, and his other sister, Marie, were living with their parents in Grand Forks. Cora had attended teachers college, and would marry William (Bill) Bublitz, another teacher and they would begin teaching careers in rural North Dakota communities within a few years. Lillie would be married at about this time to a local farmer, Kohn Orvik, and it was also about this time (1921) that Nelson entered the University.
        Nelson received a deferment from the draft during WWI. This would become a somewhat touchy subject around our household. His inclination had been to join the armed services. Many of his close friends, including the Kallestads, served during the war, and it was bothersome to him ever after that he didn’t do the same. We children all got the impression that he was pressured by his parents not to do so. A deferment was granted because he was the only son, and he was needed to run the farm. This also might have been one of the reasons for the move to Grand Forks, the thinking being that they would be more likely to have a deferment granted if the rest of the family were living away from the farm. The arm injury had occurred about three years before the war, so it is unlikely to have played a part. In any case, when the draft was re-instituted prior to WWII, he became chairman of the county Selective Service Board. This appears to be his penance for not serving in WWI. He continued in this contentious and thankless job until the draft was discontinued in 1947, and when the draft was re-instituted during the Cold War, he resumed the position and held it until the year he died. Both of his sons served terms in the armed services, and if deferment had been requested, I doubt that it would have been granted.
        When Nelson entered the University it was with high hopes that he could become an architect. Although he didn’t ever seem to dislike farming, it appears that he really aspired to be something else. However, it was not to be. His father, Nels Elvick, died in March of 1921, during what would have been the middle of the second semester. The cause of death was given as quinsy. This is a medical term no longer in use, but which indicated a rapidly developing abscess that would occur around the tonsils. In some cases swelling would occur rapidly over a few hours and obstruct the airway resulting in death. A simple incision and drainage of the abscess could prevent this, but the traditional Elvick family reluctance to get medical assistance apparently delayed treatment until it was too late.
        As the only surviving male in the family, the farm was now pretty much his sole responsibility. I’m not sure if he finished out the year or not, but he never again was able to return. Nels did not have a will, but the heirs were able to agree among themselves on how to divide the assets, and it went pretty much the way the state would have decided it. There were seven quarters of farm land, a house in the town of Michigan and the house in Grand Forks, as well as a surprisingly large amount of cash, bank deposits and bonds. It appears then that the family was left fairly well off. However, this was to be the beginning of harder economic times. Agriculture had boomed during WWI as the government had encouraged production for the war effort and for European relief after the war, but now agricultural surpluses were developing, and these surpluses and falling prices would plague the American farmer from this time forward.
    Nels Elvick had also held stock in a local bank, and these shares were divided up by the children. Within a few years Nelson ended up with the most shares. I’m not sure why this was so. He may very well have bought his sisters out. When the bank failed in 1926, he would end up mortgaging his land to protect the bank’s depositors, most of whom happened to be his friends and neighbors. This debt would plague him for the next twenty years. He would suffer through the depression and another war before he was able to emerge financially sound again.
         Much of the land was rented out at this time, and the renter in the mid 1920s was another Norwegian immigrant named Hans Ona. (I suspect that the sisters’ land was rented out and that Nelson farmed his own land himself). Han’s oldest daughter, Agnes, was only seventeen years old in 1926 when she married Nelson. Nelson was 31. Nelson had had a series of girl friends over the years, but I strongly suspect that there was family pressure applied for him to stay single, because the family’s economic well being depended so much on him. My mother indicated that the atmosphere at the wedding, which took place in the farmhouse, was cool. Apparently Rosa and two of the three daughters disapproved of the match.

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