Olaf Sorenson, the second son of Gunder and Anna Sorenson, was born October 6, 1875 on the family farm, a section of land located in Kandota Township, Todd County, Minnesota. While he had the equivalent of a fourth-grade education, he wrote very poorly. His father, Gunder, was more apt than not to keep the boys home from school in order to work. He was confirmed at the Long Bridge Lutheran Church on June 14, 1891. Norwegian was the spoken language at home, he was similarly confirmed in Norwegian.
The family farmed during the summer. In order to supplement their income, they cut cord wood and cleared land. The stumps were later grubbed in the summer. They would load at least a cord of wood on a bobsled and take it to Sauk Lake, about a mile from the farm, and then travel atop the frozen lake to Sauk Centre. They sold a quarter cord for one dollar. This represented a 20 mile trip, which took the entire day. If the weather got bad, they had to spend the night in Sauk Centre.
Gunder Sorensen owned a thrashing outfit. Gilbert ran either the separator or steam engine, Olaf was in charge of the tank. The Sorensen boys would move their outfit from farm to farm. As a young man, Olaf worked in a logging camp, and later drove a team for the doctor, making house calls during the diphtheria epidemic. Neither he nor the doctor succumbed to the disease.
After his father Gunder died, Olaf and Sam were the only boys who did not receive land as their inheritance. According to Willis Veeder, Annie’s brother, Olaf received $100 instead. Although this may not seem much by today’s standards, this would enable him to purchase machinery and livestock on his own.
On April 12, 1910, Olaf married Annie Veeder. Annie was born on March 15, 1889, in Unity Township, Stearns County, Minnesota. Her parents were Herbert and Elizabeth (Kummer) Veeder. Her father, Herbert, left his family with relatives, and traveled by rail to White Earth, North Dakota. From there, he journey 50 miles to McKensie County, where he squatted on land about seven miles south of the Berg post office in Grail Township. In 1908, he filed a claim on land adjoining that of his brother, Ben. He was soon joined by his family, who broke up to sod, planted crops, and took care of their only milk cow. While it is likely that Olaf courted Annie in North Dakota, the couple married on April 12, 1910 in Unity Township, Stearns County. They each homesteaded 80 acres, together constituting a quarter section. Their land was adjacent to that of Annie’s father, Herbert Veeder, in Johnson Corners. Four children were born to them in North Dakota:
Elsie Anne (4/22/1911)
Geolina Elizabeth (11/30/1912)
Hattie Gladys (7/19/1914)
Gilman Theodore (9/10/1918)
Elsie, Geolina and Gladys were all born on the homestead. Gladys remembers that as a child, she and Geolina slept together. She remembers being yelled at to “be quiet” by Dad, when she and Geolina had the giggles. Gilman slept in the box, which was shoved under the bed of his parents. He was comfortably nestled in soft blankets. Although North Dakota is known for its rich prairies and ample wheat harvest, luck was not with Olaf and Annie. Bad weather caused a series of failed crops, and they were forced to sell the livestock and machinery to Annie’s father, Herbert Veeder. After selling the house, the family moved to a sod shack, where Gilman was born. Weather in North Dakota was often harsh and unpredictable. On February 14, 1914, the temperature hit a low of 33 degrees below 0. With the onset of a western ‘Chinook’ wind, the thermometer topped 50 degrees F that same afternoon!
Shortly thereafter, Olaf left for Little Sauk, Minnesota, and was followed by Annie and the four small children in November of 1919. Olaf moved with the knowledge that a job awaited him at the Lystad sawmill, sawing lumber and making barrel staves. During this relatively prosperous time, Gladys recalls a Fourth of July picnic at nearby Cedar Lake. The family, owning neither horse nor car, walked the mile down to the Lake. Annie made sandwiches for the family. Olaf had mixed up a gallon of lemonade. While the family was doing better financially at this time, they still could not afford the cost of sugar which might have made the sour mixture palatable (Grandma’s face still puckers up at the memory of that drink, nearly 75 years later!)
The market for barrel staves soon folded, however, and the mill was closed. This was Olaf’s last source of steady income, and the family was to endure hardship from that time onward. Prohibition, and the passage of the eighteenth amendment in 1920, were most likely behind the demise of the stave manufacturing concern in Little Sauk. Staves were used to make barrels, used primarily in the brewing business. Here is some background:
The Eighteenth Amendment only prohibited “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors… for beverage purposes.” Although this was the “supreme law of the land,” it still required an Act of Congress to make it enforceable.
Enter the super-dry, ultra-religious congressman from Minnesota, Andrew J. Volstead. Many who supported the Eighteenth Amendment took the term “intoxicating liquors” to mean liquor: whiskey, rum, and other distilled spirits. Most liquors were at least 40% alcohol (“eighty proof”); some, particularly of the “greased lightning” variety, were as much as 90% alcohol. Surely beer, with its three to seven percent alcohol content, and wine, with its less-than-fifteen percent alcohol content, would be permitted—with certain restrictions and regulations, of course. Much to people’s surprise, Volstead, backed by the triumphant evangelicals, defined “intoxicating liquors” as any beverage containing more than one-half of one percent alcohol. Using the momentum of the anti-German, anti-beer bias, Volstead was able to pass his National Prohibition Act over President Wilson’s veto. Understandably, many supporters of the Eighteenth Amendment felt betrayed.
In November of 1921, the children were stricken with scarlet fever. Scarlet fever is a bacterial infection that has largely abated with the introduction of antibiotic therapy. At that time, however, penicillin did not exist. The family was strictly quarantined for three months, during which time friends brought food and other provisions to use. Although they benefited from the visits of a local doctor and nurse, they were basically on their own, without antibiotics, intravenous fluids or any other modern means of support. Geolina was very ill, suffering convulsions, and was not expected to survive. To this day, she attributes her academic struggles in school to these same seizures. Elsie, the oldest, hardly seemed ill at all. However, she unexpectedly succumbed on Nov. 11th, 1921. With the recovery of Gladys and Geolina, their small shack was fumigated. Gilman, however, came down with the disease soon after. This extended their lengthy quarantine, at the end of which all of their possessions were fumigated and all paper, including photos and books, were burned. Grandma remembers searching through the ashes for her meager stash of pennies that had been tossed into the flames with everything else. There was nothing else left the hers. After the tragic loss of her oldest daughter, Annie wrote a letter to younger sister Hattie, and her husband, Paul Odermann in McKensie County, North Dakota. It speaks much of the simple, difficult life they lead, and the tragedy they experienced. Tena (Christina Marie Veeder Thofson) and Violet (Veeder), mentioned in the letter are two of Annie’s younger sisters. Molly (Malla Sorenson Flan) is Olaf’s younger sister. I have purposely not corrected the grammar. The letter is written over one year after the death of their eldest daughter. A mother’s grief is clearly evident in the words below.
January 4th, 1923
Little Sauk, Minnesota
To sister and brother,
I recieved your letter the other day and today recieved your very beautiful presents. You sure done well. And tell about tickled children. They were mine. We all thank you very much for them. My they were so nice and there sure was enough postage on it. Yes we need the money bad enough, but if you can’t get it, I know how it is. You cannot make the money. It is too bad that you can’t sell the wheat. It is hard for you folks to get along. My the girls sure got enough for Christmas this year. I got 4 towels, 2 wiping towels, and to washrags from the nurse and Ola got 2 handkerchiefs and a necktie from her. I got 2 handkerchiefs from Tena and a pair of stockings. Maybe so, I sure did get my share of presents as I did not give anything at all. From Violet I got a nice sewing box and Olaf got 2 handkerchiefs and Gilman got 20 cents and the girls each got a bag from her. We had all we could eat all day long but still it was a lonesome Christmas. I can’t get Elsie off my mind. It seems like I can’t write anything else. We got some beef and lb butter and a lot of apples from Molly. The girls each got a bundle of candy and nuts and handkerchiefs. Gilman got some candy, nuts, and a little hammer. No Hattie, she never realized that she was going to leave us. She always said she was going to help us cleanup. She never complained of it hurting her anyplace. When Geolina was so sick she was unconscious 2 days and 2 nights and she had convulsions. One whole afternoon and all night about every hour or so we had to use hot blankets on her. They were so hot we could not ring them out by hand. We had to put them in the flower sack and ring them out with two sticks and just roll her in. So the nurse said that Elsie should go to bed too. So she did and the next morning she wanted to get up and we said she should stay in bed. She said, “Mama, I am not sick at all.” So it went on. She seemed to feel good all the time so until Nov. 11th or rather in the morning of the Nov 18. About 2 Oclock Olaf woke me up. He gave her the cough medicine that she was supposed to have. She took it all right and went to sleep and all at once he noticed she had a convulsion. Then he woke me up and we got her out of that. All night and after she was resting up after it. They get all tired out when they get them. She talked and laughed so when the girls got up I gave them their breakfast. She said she wanted a toast and before I had toasted it she said she was not hungry. She took a little bite of it. She gave it to me and said she would eat it after awhile. And yes when she got those spells, we called for doctor, but he said he could not come till morning and he never came until she passed away.
Poor little girl. She never ate her cracker at all and the time went on. We done all we could and all at once she kind of fainted like. At first we thought she was going to have another spell. She closed her eyes and never opened them again. She never said “oh” or did not even draw a long breath. Oh, it was so hard to see her lips turn black or kind of bluelike. She passed away just as she layed down. About her last words work, “Papa, let me up.” She wanted to sit on the floor and get on the chamber. Did you get a letter from Ema Schlutes to tell you Gilman got it a the week after. We had cleaned up but how he did vomit at first and he sure was broke out but otherwise he was not very sick at all. We did not have to have the doctor at all. Only the last couple days before he got up I got scared. He did not pass any water for a long time so Olaf was worried and he called the doctor out but he was all right. He said it was natural for some children. We are all cleaned up. I do hope none of you get it but if he does get it I will give you a few orders the doctor gave us but maybe if I had done better I could have save my dear little girl. I tried to do all I can but it seems as people think oh well she was to careless or something like that. You see we thought that it was just a common cold as they never had a headache or never had any fever or was not broke out hardly any. Well here are orders. Keep them in bed give them all the water they want to drink even urge them to drink and keep them on a milk diet. Gladys never had a fever and was terrible sick to start with she was all swollen up on both sides of her ears so we had to put ice on both sides to take down the swelling, and if her ear ached to put hot cloths on them she never had the earache. Thank you for the nice letter you wrote me. I wish I could have kept it but you see when you cleanup you are not allowed to keep anything you cannot wash so we had to burn up all the papers. Well dear sister I guess I will close for this time wishing you had a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and may the new year bring no sorrow but all pleasure. If there is anything more you want to know I will answer.
From Olaf and Annie
We all thank you very much for the presents.
Willis Otelius was born in the little shack in Little Sauk on March 17, 1924. He was delivered without the help of the doctor. Gladys remembers her cries during this difficult delivery. During Annie’s pregnancy, she suffered a small stroke, which permanently paralyzed left hand. Geolina was in the kitchen when it happened. Annie was sweeping, and the broom slipped out of her hand. She picked it up, only to have it slip out again. Jobs were scarce, and times were very hard. The family lived in a series of shacks in and about Little Sauk. Gladys recalls their home on the Lystad farm, with a pole set in the middle of the room. The children entertained themselves chasing one another about the pole. Olaf went to work building roads with a team of four horses and the scraper to move dirt. At harvest time, he rode the rails out to North Dakota and worked in the harvest fields until that was over. He once returned with about $150 in his pockets, which barely enabled the family to last winter. Even at this, he was forced to cut his own wood. Through the generosity of others, downed wood was made available to him. This was used to heat their modest dwelling and stoke the stove.
Gladys, at the age of 9, went to live on the Lystad farm. There, in exchange for help with the children, cooking and cleaning, she received free room and board. She lived there for two years. It was now 1929, the banks had failed, and the family found themselves at the mercy of the great Depression. Times were really bad. Gladys and Geolina remember one Christmas when they awoke to find some peanuts and a piece of candy in their Christmas stockings. That was the only candy they got that year. The family could not afford butter. Instead, they spread syrup or lard on their bread. Gardening was a necessity, not a hobby. When the kids were young, they made themselves useful at all types of odd jobs. Later, they left home and worked for little more than room and board. Gladys left home for good this time, moving in with her uncle Fred at the age of 15. Olaf did odd jobs during this summer and trapped in the winter. Annie took in the wash for more affluent neighbors. She washed these clothes by hand on a scrub board. Not only did the water need to be pumped by hand, but also heated upon the stove. When Olaf’s uncle, Fred Sorensen, had a barn built, she cooked for all the carpenters. As the barn was receiving its final coat of paint, disaster struck. A tornado hit, leveling the structure, and strewing timber into the fields. The same tornado also destroyed Long Bridge Church, and turned the Rasmussen school about on its foundation. Although the barn was later rebuilt, Fred eventually was to lose the family homestead to the bank.
There was little one had to entertain oneself in those days. The family did not own radio, and Olaf was unable to read. The children were often left to fend for themselves. Gilman would toss some twine around his older sisters and pretend to drive the horse. The neighborhood children would play ‘ante ante over,’ tossing a ball over the roof to the opposing team on the other side. Olaf and Annie often played cards, a game called ’66.’ They played other card games, pickup sticks and dominoes. Annie’s hobbies were gardening and reading. Though Annie regularly attended church and was often seen reading her black, worn Bible, Olaf was much less likely to accompany her to Calvary Lutheran Church.
In 1938, Olaf had surgery for goiter at University of Minnesota hospital. He passed away on March 24th, 1945, at the age of 69, of hypertension and heart failure in the Long Prairie hospital. While Olaf was a quiet, reserved individual, with a Norwegian tendency to keep his emotions himself, he was neither harsh nor strict. He did not drink, and was generally pretty easy-going. He cared for his family as best as he was able given very difficult circumstances.
Annie remained in Little Sauk for several years, living in a small home that Gilman built for her. She was an active member of Calvary Lutheran Church. Later, she stayed with the kids for several years. My mom, Janice Sorenson, recalls Annie’s stories of gypsies that would steal children in the dark of night who ventured out of their safe homes. Annie was living with Albert and Gladys Sorensen, and often became ill in the cold, drafty farmhouse on Long Lake. She finally insisted that should be allowed to move to the rest home in Long Prairie. In Long Prairie, she was a welcome resident, often reading the Bible, singing or even picking flowers for others. I remember visiting her with my parents, and my brother David. She was by this time quite deaf, but still helpful and pleasant and happy. She remained there comfortably until her terminal illness. She was transferred to the University of Minnesota hospital, where she died Sept. 11, 1968. The autopsy showed that she died of the heart attack, was suffering from cancer of the stomach, congestive heart failure, renal failure and blood clots in the liver, pancreas and legs.