XXI: Nelson and Agnes
wedding took place December 29, 1926, in the Elvick farmhouse 5½ miles
south of Michigan, North Dakota. They departed on the train that day
for their honeymoon in Minneapolis. Their first daughter, Eunice, was
born on September 29, 1927, nine months to the day after the wedding.
It would be eight years before another child would survive the neonatal
period. There was a stillborn, and then in 1932 a son, Robert, who would
live for only two weeks before succumbing to what was almost certainly
newborn sepsis (blood stream infection). In the early years they shared
the farmhouse with the Ona family, but as Eunice entered first grade
the family again moved to Grand Forks. A rental house was found and for
the next several years they lived there during the school year, but still
spent a lot of time at the farm during the growing season.
Their next son, Roger, was born while they lived in
Grand Forks. His birth date, July 7, 1936, was in the middle of the most severe
heat wave ever to hit this area. It was 109 degrees that day and the hospital
had no air conditioning. The highest temperature ever recorded in North Dakota
(121 degrees at Steele ND) occurred during this heat wave. In 1938 they returned
to Michigan permanently. Their next daughter, Glenna, was born that year. Eunice
still continued to go to school in Grand Forks, living with Rosa during the
school year. The family was completed with the birth of Neil (me) in 1940. Nelson
was now forty-five years old and Agnes was thirty-one.
The years from 1926 to 1940 were very difficult. Besides
being saddled with crushing debt because of the bank failure, they were to
face the double catastrophes of drought and the great depression. The dust bowl
days were terrible, but being a farm family they at least didn’t go hungry.
Farm produce and livestock provided meat, milk, eggs, flour and vegetables.
Money, however, was still chronically short. It would take the better economic
times in the 1940s to turn things around.
In 1939, the Ona family moved on to the West Coast.
The depression hadn’t been kind to this family either. I can recall my
mother telling me they left with $400 and a jitney car. Gudrun had always hated
North Dakota. Almost from the first days she spent there, she wanted to return
to Norway. The monotony of the Great Plains compared poorly to the spectacular
scenery she had left. She greatly missed the mountains and the seashore. They
settled in the Seattle area. When they drove over the last hill and saw Puget
Sound before them, she made Hans stop the car. She ran down to the shore and
washed her face in the water. She finally felt at home again. They were fortunate
in finding immediate employment for both of them, and they flourished from
that time forward. Within a few years they were able to buy their own home
in Kirkland, Washington, and spend the rest of their days in comfort. Gudrun
never again wanted to return to Norway.
They were able to return to Norway once for a visit
in 1952, but she was satisfied to return home to Kirkland. Hans was able to
once again see his mother. She was ninety-one years old at the time of their
visit, and she died just five years later. Hans continued working as a security
guard at the Kirkland shipyards until he died in 1955 at the age of seventy-two.
Gudrun died in 1973 at the age of eighty-four.
At the start of the 1940s then, the Elvicks were living
back on the farm, five and one-half miles south of Michigan. Eunice came back
home after she finished the sixth grade, and Rosa sold her house in Grand Forks
and from that time on divided her time between the Elvick household in Michigan,
North Dakota, and her daughter, Marie’s, household in Burlington, Iowa.
In March of 1941 the Elvick family and those in the surrounding area lived
through a terrible tragedy that struck that part of the state. Nelson and his
sister, Lillie Orvik, narrowly missed being caught in the state’s worst
blizzard ever. She had come for a visit, and had been picked up at the railroad
station by Nelson, and they had just gotten home when the storm struck. The
weather had been unseasonably mild for March, and the forecast was for continued
good weather. The storm was headed south and east from them. Then, suddenly,
in the late afternoon, survivors describe a sudden, single flash of lightning
and deafening thunder, and the storm struck without any other warning. What
had been a clear pleasant day was turned into a blinding blizzard within a
Five people died within a few miles of the Elvick farm
that night. Nelson’s good friends, John and Minnie Kallestad were being
driven home from Michigan by a neighbor, Sever Reep. They were driving on the
little used high line road west of the two Kallestad farms. The day was so
pleasant that they decided to walk from the high line road to the farm instead of
having Sever drop them off. They were about seventy-five yards or so from home
when the storm struck suddenly. Winds of seventy-five to eighty-five miles
per hour170 with
blowing snow almost instantly reduced visibility to near zero, and it was difficult
to maintain one’s balance because of the force of the wind. The wind
speed was the same as for a category I hurricane. Most of the victims in this
storm became totally disoriented as to direction. John, however, was along
a fence line and knew just where they were. They crept along the fence line,
but Minnie eventually collapsed and was unable to continue. Unable to carry
her, John dug a shallow snow cave for her so she could have some protection
from the storm. He then proceeded up the fence line to the farmstead of his
brother Charles, which was a few hundred yards to the north. Charles’ wife
was caring for his two children for that day. He found that Charles was not
home, and was also thought to be lost in the storm. He then came up with the
idea of retracing his steps along the fence line to his own farm, where he
hitched up a horse to the stone boat (a sled like device used for hauling rocks
off the fields). He was able to retrieve Minnie and bring her home, but she
died before they reached the house.
Sever Reep had continued down the high line road, and
when the storm struck, his car careened off the road into the ditch and became
stuck. He struck out on foot, but with no continuous fence line to guide him
he probably also became totally disoriented. He was found the next day clinging
to some broken fence wire, frozen to death. Charles Kallestad fared better.
He was coming from town with a team of horses. When the storm struck he let the
reins go and allowed the horses to find their own way. The horses went directly
to a neighbor’s barn, where they were able to safely spend the night.171
A mile east of the Elvick’s at the Yonny farm,
another drama played out. Mrs. Yonny and the hired man, Pete Schmeel, were
working in the barn when the storm struck. Pete decided to try to get to the
house and like so many others he became lost. He also was found the next day,
one-mile away, frozen to death. Mrs. Yonny stayed in the barn all night and survived.172
To the south another tragedy unfolded. Rosaline Anderson
and Bernice Smaage, both freshmen in high school, had spent the afternoon together
at the Anderson farm about ¼ mile south of the Melrose School.173 They
then set out to walk across some fields to the Smaage farm about a mile away.
The storm struck as they were approaching the farm, and the girls apparently
became totally disoriented. A pail they were carrying was found near the farm.
The girls backtracked all the way to the Melrose school where there was evidence
they had tried to get inside. The school, however, was locked and the windows
were too high to break in. They were found about one hundred yards south of
the school, clinging to each other and to a telephone pole, frozen to death.174
The party line telephone gave evidence of the chaos
all through the night, as families desperately tried to locate their loved
ones. Seventy-nine people died in the surrounding area. The next morning when
the Elvicks looked out at the farmyard, there was a huge snow bank near the house.
On top of the snow bank was a sheep. The sheep had survived the storm without
harm. Where this animal came from is a complete mystery since no sheep were kept
in the surrounding area. A few days later, Bert Swenseth, whose farm is about
three miles southeast of Kallestad’s, was walking along a field near his
farm, and he found Minnie Kallestad’s hat.175
In a part of the country where severe blizzards and
other hardships were commonplace, this storm still stands out. Even now, sixty
years later, people there know what you are talking about if you bring up the
March fifteenth storm. Although severe blizzards were known to sometimes occur
even into the last part of April, the suddenness with which it struck, and
the severity of the winds, caught many off guard. People that were caught out
in the open were doomed. A complicating factor in this storm surely must have
been the deceptively warm and pleasant weather that persisted up until the time
the storm struck. The temperature, mild when the storm started, had dropped to
zero by midnight. Many were probably caught out in the open without even the
necessary warm clothing that would have helped them to survive. The winds were
so strong that people found it difficult to breathe, and some of the victims
were thought to have suffocated. The whirling snow made visibility near zero.
John Kallestad was only able to get to his farm by following a fence line. For
brother, Charles, this storm was the last straw. Their whole family had witnessed
the tragedy. Their house was on the same farmstead as John’s. After years
of battling drought, depression and the uncertainty of farming, he waited just
three more weeks, and then left permanently for Spokane, Washington. [see pedigree chart
In 1943 the Elvicks again moved into the town of Michigan.
Even though I was just a three and one-half year old child I can remember the
moving day vividly. I recall the astonishment I felt as we drove beyond the
Front Street businesses to the residential streets beyond. I had had no idea
there was more to town than that. When we stopped at what was to be our home
for the next three months, I immediately spied the school playground across the
street. At the first opportunity I started running across the street to the playground,
I slipped and fell and skinned up my knees. I recall our new neighbor, Mildred
Etzel, running out to pick me up.
Three months later a much better house became available
in the same neighborhood when the town’s doctor, Dr. Wagar, died. It
was one of those roomy old houses, with secret passages behind the closets
in the upper story and with mature trees that provided access to the flat landings
outside the second story bedrooms. Sometimes as I grew up there, many days
would go by without my brother and me ever using the doors in and out of the
house. It was always up the tree to the roof of the “back shed”,
then a short climb up across asphalt shingles to the landing, and in through
the window. It was a perfect house for children.
Again, I remember very well the day of the move, with
Eunice and my parents carrying boxes and boxes of possessions kitty corner
across the street to the newly acquired house. I recall it as a day filled with
excitement. For my parents, also, it must have been a happy day. For the time
being it freed them from the day to day drudgery of farm life. Even with the
move into town, my father continued to farm. Because this was still a large farming
operation, it had been necessary to continue to work hard to keep it going, even
when it was bringing in very little money. Mother, especially, had it hard during
the periods when it was necessary to have hired help. In addition to taking care
of four children, she had to cook for the family and work crew, take care of
the large vegetable garden, and take care of the poultry. Her workday lasted
from 5:00 AM until 10:00 PM, and was exhausting. She baked bread every day,
using a wood-burning cook stove. She had to kill, pluck and clean chickens and/or
turkeys, when we had them for dinner. The vegetable garden, which was located
in a vacated barnyard, and was therefore exceptionally fertile, provided for
us all year around. What wasn’t eaten fresh was canned.
One convenience our family had on the farm that very
few others had was electricity. Rural electrification didn’t come to
that part of North Dakota until 1948. However, we had a noisy generator in
the basement. I recall a bank of storage batteries against the west basement
wall. I was afraid of the generator because of the noise, and I recall one
occasion when I had gone to the basement by myself, and the generator started.
I became hysterical and mother had to rescue me from the outside cellar door,
because I wouldn’t
go past the generator. Electricity, though, was certainly a big convenience,
even though it was used only for electric lights and radio. We didn’t
have an electric refrigerator until we moved to town. One of the memories I
have of living on the farm is of everyone huddled around the radio listening
to news about the war.
After the move into town, my father began working full
time as a crop insurance agent for the Department of Agriculture in the neighboring
town of Lakota. The farm became a part time operation and some of the land
was rented out.
V-J Day was a memorable time for all of us. On August
9, 1945 the family was eating supper (the evening meal didn’t become
dinner until much later), when a loud explosive type noise was heard. We rushed
outside to see what caused it, and incredibly didn’t see any immediate
cause. We finished supper a few minutes later and went to the front yard to
mow the grass, and were greeted by the site of a massive train wreck, visible
across some vacant lots just one and one-half blocks away. The Empire Builder
was the main passenger train between Chicago and Seattle, and it had been traveling
in two sections, supposedly twenty minutes apart. Going west from Grand Forks
the forward section had trouble with a hot box on the engine tender, and had
made several stops. It had made a stop again in Michigan, and failed to signal
the second section of the train, which then plowed into it at almost full speed.
We all piled into the car to get there as fast as possible.
It was a ghastly sight. The engine of the second section had telescoped through
the rear one and one-half cars of the first section. The last car in the first
section was the dining car and it was dinnertime. I have vague recollections
of some of the injured already laid on the ground near the tracks, and there
seemed to already be vast numbers of people milling about. Dad immediately
ordered us children to go home. At home we could see the wreck until it got dark,
but not the details of what was going on. Later in the evening some of the injured
were brought to our house. One was a 92-year-old lady, with a large “bump” on
At this time, the nearest medical facility was forty
miles away, and the townspeople gave what first aid they could until medical
help could arrive. Ambulances and private vehicles took some of the injured
away. During the night another train was brought in, and when I woke up the next
morning, the injured people in our house were gone, and all but the wrecked sections
of the train had been removed. My cousin, Wayne Orvik, was one of the volunteers
that had worked with acetylene torches in an attempt to free some passengers,
who were caught in the wreckage.
The death toll was thirty-four. The Interstate Commerce
Commission Report listed the injury toll as 309. Many of the dead and injured
were soldiers returning from Europe after surviving WWII. A few weeks later
my cousin, Wayne Orvik, who had worked with an acetylene torch to free some of
the victims died suddenly. A healthy young man, just newly married, and still
unaware that his bride was pregnant, he was found dead of unknown causes. Although
probably unrelated, it was sometimes speculated that the ordeal of working with
this train wreck might have been a contributing factor.
I recall vividly the day after the wreck, when I was
with a group of neighborhood children that went as close as we dared and watched
in fascination as cranes began removing the wreckage. By the following day
it was gone. A coroner’s jury a few days later returned a verdict of negligence
against the conductor, engineer and flagman of the first section.
V-J Day was just five days after the wreck. The town
newspaper describes the celebration as somewhat subdued, because of the recent
tragedy. However, my memory is one of unrestrained celebration with the fire
sirens wailing, the church bells tolling and the neighborhood kids running
around yelling, “the war is over!” The mood quickly turned more somber
again with Wayne Orvik’s death. I wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral,
but I did view the body as it lay in state at their home. It was a strange,
but peaceful scene for me. Wayne’s parents, Kohn and Lillie Orvik, now
lived in Spokane, and Wayne had been living just a few blocks from us, and he
had been closely attached to our family, and especially to my father. It was
a sad occasion, and was devastating to his wife, Sylvia, and to my aunt and uncle,
Kohn and Lillie.
Eunice left home that fall, bound for college, and I
started school in first grade. (We had no kindergarten at that time.) It is
here that my own life’s story begins, and so it is at this point, then,
I will bring this family history story to an end. Hopefully it will be continued
sometime in the future by another family member still to come, who is as fascinated
by family history and history in general as I have been. Before I sign off,
though, there are some loose ends to tie up.
My grandmother, Rosa Elvick, continued to live with
us until her death at the age of ninety-one in 1950. She led a long and colorful
life, and left behind a collection of priceless heirlooms in the many pieced
quilts that she worked on all her life, and which she gave to her children
and grandchildren. After a life of hard work and many personal disappointments
my father died of cancer in 1959 just a week short of his sixty-fourth birthday.
He is remembered with love and gratitude by all his family for his selfless
devotion and dedication to us all. I am thankful that he was able to enjoy a
few years of restful retirement before he died. My mother was widowed at the
age of fifty, and she lived on to be eighty-three. She worked many years as a
nursing assistant, and for a while she was a housemother for a sorority at the
University of North Dakota, and at Glacier National Park in Montana. In later
years she moved nearby her children, first in Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, then in
Denver, Colorado, and finally in Folsom, California. She died in nearby Sacramento
in 1992 at the age of eighty-three. She is fondly remembered by her family for
the life of hard work and sacrifice that she endured as she struggled to raise
Nelson’s sister, Marie, who married Dr. J. H.
(Hal) Murray in 1930, settled with her husband in Burlington, Iowa, where he
practiced medicine until he was eighty-seven years old. They raised four daughters.
Dr. Murray died in 1993 at the age of ninety-four, and Marie died Nov. 7, 2000,
at the age of ninety-six. They are both buried in Burlington, Iowa. She is
fondly remembered for her devotion to her family and church, and for her great
musical talent, which she used in the service of her church and which she passed
on to her children. Nelson’s other sister, Lillie, who married Kohn Orvik
about 1921, moved to Spokane, Washington, with Kohn and their daughter Marjorie
(Marge) in the early 1940s. They suffered the premature death of their only son,
Wayne, in 1945. Lillie is remembered by all who knew her as a true lady, who
was completely devoted to her husband and family. They endured hard times together,
but good times as well. Kohn died in 1965, at the age of sixty-eight and Lillie
in 1985, at the age of eighty-seven, and both are buried in Spokane, Washington.
Agnes’ brother, Henry, married Kirsten Buck, a
Norwegian telephone operator. She was originally from the land of the midnight
sun near Tromsø in the far north of Norway, but she was working in Oslo
when she met Henry. Henry was on his way to visit Ona just after WWII and they
met on the train. They settled in Kirkland, Washington, and raised two daughters.
Kirsten, tragically, died of cancer at the early age of forty-eight. Henry
died in 1984 at the age of seventy-four. I always marveled that Henry, born
and raised in the United States, had a Norwegian brogue all his life, while
Kirsten, born and raised in Norway, spoke English without an accent.
Agnes’ youngest sister, Gladys married Helmer
(Ham) Aasheim in 1940. Ham was an OSI officer in the Air Force. He served in
the Aleutian Islands during WWII. During their marriage they had tours of duty
in Minneapolis, Detroit, Washington DC, Turkey, Anchorage, Alaska and Travis
AFB in California. They suffered through the Good Friday Earthquake when they
lived in Anchorage. They retired to Napa, California. They raised three children.
Glady died in 1989 at the age of seventy, after a prolonged, chronic illness.
Although confined to her home, and often to her bed, she carried on a voluminous
correspondence with her friends and extended family by mail. She is greatly
missed by all. Her husband, Ham, died in 2006.
Agnes’ other sister, Gen, married a naval officer
and pilot, Everly Cox. Everly flew transport planes in the battle of Guadalcanal
in WWII. After the war he became a teacher and school administrator, and served
on the city council of the city of Kirkland, Washington. He was also career
naval reserve. Gen died in 2005 and Everly died in 2008. They made several trips to Norway, and they
maintained contact with family there over the years. They have two children
who live in the Seattle area, and several grandchildren, scattered along the
West Coast. Until her death in 2006, Gen had become the family matriarch. Before Gen it had been Ruth Jegthaug in Bud, Norway who had died in 2001 at the age of 96. Even at the age of 91 when my sister, Glenna and I interviewed Ruth at her home her long term memory seemed good, and she could still tell about the day her sister, Astrid, left for America. The honor of family matriarch now descends upon Marjorie Sims who at age eighty-four is the oldest member of the immediate family. She maintains a home in Spokane, Washington maintains close contact with her children and grandchildren who live nearby.