Ole Stenoien was born January 29, 1893, in Gordon Township, Todd County, Minnesota, to Ole P. (Bestefar) and Johanna (Bestemor) Stenoien. He was born in the family farmhouse on an 80-acre plot along the south side of Highway 27 near the 97-mile marker, the sixth of twelve children. Visit this link to see a video of the house that Ole raised in outside of Osakis. Also includes a translation of a letter written from Ole’s parents to Ole in 1940, translated from original Norwegian.
Ole grew up in a traditional Norwegian household. Not only was Norwegian the first language of his parents and neighbors, but all church services were conducted in Norwegian. It wasn’t until school started that Ole began learning English.
Little is know of the family’s early years together. Ole’s grandparents, Peder Larssen and Ingeborg Stenoien, lived in a little wood cabin up the road, a quarter of a mile east of the farm. This log cabin was later to serve as a temporary residence for Ole and Bura (their first surviving child, Jerald was born here).
The Gordon Township Norwegian settlers shared a common cultural heritage. During the long, cold and dark Norwegian winters, there was very little to do. Families were often completely isolated by the harsh elements. One needed to amuse oneself merely to stay sane. Reading from the Bible was often a daily tradition (though perhaps not in our immediate forbears). Peder himself was considered a carpenter, and was facile at carving toys for the children. Music was important both at church and at home (we have Norwegian relatives playing for the National Symphony in Oslo and Bergen). Finally, storytelling helped to pass the time.
Peder died in 1908, and Ingeborg died during the winter of 1900 at the ripe old age of 75. Ole was seven years of age at that time. They are both buried in the old Salem cemetery.
The Stenoien family grew to twelve children from 1883 through 1906 (mother, Johanna, was 45 at the time!). The children slept in the cramped quarters upstairs, and this no doubt contributed to the incubation and spread of tuberculosis (consumption) amongst several of the children. Tuberculosis is typically contracted at a young age, after which point it goes into remission. No doubt this was the case with Ole, who was to battle the disease many years later.
The family worshiped at Salem Church until the year 1897. The mid- and late- 1890’s witnessed the undertaking of many stirring spiritual revivals. These services, led by local Norwegian pastor E. M. Broen, brought about the conversion of many local inhabitants. Ole’s parents were both “born-again” Christians. It was decided that continued worship at Salem (and Little Sauk) Church with their unenlightened brethren would be inappropriate. Thus a new congregation was formed at Elim Church on March 11, 1899. Ole’s father, Bestefar, was a founding trustee for this Church, and Christianity was to exert a powerful influence in the Stenoien household from that time forth.
When Ole was fourteen, he purchased a 22-caliber rifle, strictly against the wishes of Bestefar. He kept the gun hidden in the machine shed and would occasionally steal off with friends of his with his gun in hand. Shortly after the purchase of the gun, a friend pointed out a cow standing in the meadow, about a quarter of a mile off. He said something to this effect, “I bet you can’t hit that cow from here.” Well, Ole took aim (as this was not a particularly powerful rifle, a fifteen or twenty degree angle above horizontal was needed) and fired. A second or so later, the cow jumped. Well, Ole’s “friend” took off running. Ole hid the gun and went out to examine the cow. Sure enough, although the cow sat peaceably on the ground, a small hole was present in the cow’s chest, having him a rib. Fortunately, the bullet must not have penetrated deeply and the cow was not seriously injured. From that day forward, Ole took it upon himself to milk that cow twice a day. When Bestefar announced that he was going to sell the cow in Long Prairie, Ole scrambled up and volunteered to walk with him. He made sure that the cow’s scar was never in plain view of his father during that ten-mile walk. The cow was sold without incident and apparently Ole’s sin went unpunished.
In 1908, Ole’s two oldest brothers, Peder and Sven, traveled along with friends and relatives to far northwestern North Dakota (Divide County) to homestead a new farm. Not only were they required to build a house, but also cultivate a crop. Incredible labor was required to break the virgin soil of the prairie, and during the course of this both brothers’ tuberculosis re-activated. Sven died quickly in 1909 at the age of 25. Peder experienced the typical chronic wasting effects of the disease (Muriel spent a great deal of time in the sick man’s lap as a baby, contracting tuberculosis at the age of sixteen months). Peder’s death certificate indicates that the cause of death was cerebral hemorrhage. Whether this reflected a cerebral aneurysm or tuberculous meningitis will never be known.
In order to keep the land that Peder and Sven had claimed, it was necessary to ‘prove’ it by harvesting a crop. Bestefar thus traveled out to North Dakota in 1910 to accomplish this. Ole was eighteen at the time, and though there is no record of this event, it is likely that Ole stayed home to tend the farm. Eldest brother Peder was too ill to travel, Sven had succumbed to the ravages of tuberculosis and older brother Gilbert was beginning his studies at Lutheran Brethren Bible School in Wahpeton, North Dakota. The next oldest boy, Selmer (Sam) was only eight at the time. The homesteads were proved. In the 1915 Plat Map Index of Divide County, Peter O. Stenoien is listed at 160N, 101W, tract 21, and Sven at 160N, 102W, tract 15. Many close friends and relatives occupied adjacent homesteads.
As a young man, Ole spent a great deal of time in North Dakota. He owned for some time a motorcycle that facilitated his travels. Years later, Bura pointed out the final resting place of the motorcycle to Iola. Ole apparently had crashed the cycle while in route. He picked himself up, dusted himself off, and found a safer mode of transportation to his destination.
Ole was known as being quite handy with machines. The tractors of that day were often too complicated for some farmers to operate. Ole hired himself out as both a tractor operator and mechanic. Indeed, when Ole enlisted in the army, his vocation was gas tractor engineer.
Bura Dell Bowen was born on December 30, 1898 in Avon, Doddridge County, West Virginia to Milton Edward Bowen (April 6, 1869 – July 10, 1953) and Laca Dame McClain (Feb 18, 1878 – Dec 31, 1951). Please visit her story and poem pages:
Bura’s father, Milton Bowen, also wrote a nice autobiography for the Bowen Family Book written in 1950. Please read it to learn about more about Bura’s parents, Milton and Lacy Dame McClain Bowen.
When Bura was sixteen, she taught at the nearby Douglas School District number one in McLean, ND during the school year 1916-1917. Fully seven of her pupils were her younger brothers and sisters. Her father, Milton Bowen, was trustee of the school along with Frank Roberts.
It was common for young men to work with the thrashing crews in North Dakota each harvest season, a dependable source of income for these very hard-working but formally unemployed boys and men. While working near present day Garrison Dam, North Dakota, Ole met his future bride-to-be, Bura Dell Bowen. Bura and a girlfriend had stepped into a drugstore in Minot. Bura’s girlfriend initially struck up a conversation with Ole, “How’s the weather up there?” Clearly, Ole preferred Bura to her girlfriend. Ole towered over tiny Bura (four feet eleven inches and perhaps 90 pounds at the time)! Ole was handsome, strong, and self-assured. I’m sure this was something of an adjustment for Bura’s pious family. Regardless, after a short courtship, Ole and Bura were married on September 12, 1917, in Minot, North Dakota. Grandma thought she was seventeen at the time. Only when she returned to West Virginia in the 1970’s did she discover that she was born in December, 1898 rather than 1899.
Ole and Bura were to spend relatively little time together as man and wife. President Woodrow Wilson had declared was upon Germany in April, 1917. This was to be “The war to end all wars,” the “good war,” and was strongly supported by the entire nation. On May 27, 1918, Ole was inducted into the army at Long Prairie, Minnesota.
When Bura received word that Ole was shipping out of New York, she journeyed by train in order to see him before he left. For Bura, it was a gray, cloudy day for more than one reason. Despite her haste to reach New York, Ole was shipped out that very day and it is certain that she had no more than a glimpse of him as he left. She was stranded, with neither friends nor money. She had to work to survive, and soon found employment at a restaurant. Jerald remembers that her supervisor was a particularly suspicious and crabby character. He kept an eye on the waitresses by peering through a pair of swinging doors. When he got his nose caught in the swinging doors as one of the waitresses swished through, it was welcome comic relief for all of the hard-working women! Bura worked there just long enough to make enough money to purchase tickets home.
During World War I, Ole served in the 40th army Division, Battery “C”, 144th field artillery of the American Expeditionary Force. The division trained in Camp Kearney in Linda Vista, California. The division arrived in France on August 24, 1918. The “Sunshine” or California Division was never to see battle as a unit.
Rather, the men of the division served as a depot division replacing depleted divisions of the first army. Ole, an infantry soldier, saw action during the war. He arrived in time to participate in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. During this six week battle, over 26,000 American dough boys lost their lives. He later told his son, Jerold, that he served with the Grizzly Bear Brigade. The 144th field artillery was responsible for the big 155 mm howitzer guns. It is not verifiable which offensives Ole participated in, but according to his eldest son, Jerald, Ole drove a tank, experienced first hand the effects of attenuated Mustard Gas. Ole later recalled that he wished he had kept his rifle, instead of turning it in when he was mustered out. When Ralph Stenoien arrived home from WWII, he and Ole discussed their personal experiences late into the night. Ole was never to share any of these horrible memories with the remainder of the family.
Given the date of Ole’s arrival in France, it is clear that Ole participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which commenced September 26, 1918. It was after the U. S. advanced 32 km that Germany surrendered and Armistice was announced on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918.
Ole was honorably discharged from the army on January 27, 1919, from the Presidio of San Francisco, California. He was given travel pay in order to make his way back to Long Prairie, Minnesota. Ole brought home his uniform and helmet, but time has a way of obliterating the memories of war. Jerold last saw his Dad’s helmet in the barnyard, where it was serving as a chicken feeder!
The 1920 US census lists Ole and Bura Stenoien in Gordon Township, Todd County, Minnesota. At that time they were living with Ole’s parents, Ole and Johanna Stenoien. Ralph Stenoien, 5 years and 5 months, adopted nephew, was in the same house. The census was administered by Jens Skordalsvold and was performed on the 20th on January, 1920. Inge 30 and Judith 15 still lived at home. Judith was not destined to survive the year, dying at age 16.
In late May or early June of 1927, Ole O. Stenoien and wife, Bura Dell, decided to leave their home near Osakis, Minnesota, to find their fortune in the rolling prairies of neighboring state North Dakota. There were three Stenoien children at the time: Jerald, age six; Muriel, age four, and Iola, age seven months. During the first year they, more or less, made the very small house on the Stenoien homestead their home base.
Bonnie tells the story of Bura’s miscarriage (tubal pregnancy) while the family was in Ryder, North Dakota. Bura suffered a severe hemorrhage and was transported urgently by car to Minot, North Dakota, where she was given a life saving transfusion. It was dead winter and the trip took two days because the car kept getting stuck in snowdrifts. According to her father, Milton Bowen, her blood was as thin as water, and the family prayers were felt to influence her miraculous survival.
In the fall of 1928, they settled in the town of Hanks. Here, the two oldest children attended school. Ole worked as a mechanic in a local garage and also helped out on the nearby farm of Dave Hought. During their stay in Hanks, a son, Douglas, was born.
In the spring of 1930, the family moved back into the country, living during the summer months in an abandoned house east of the Lutheran church and a mile and a half east of the Witsoe schoolhouse, then finally moving to a farm one mile north of the school. Where there, Ole tried farming on a larger scale. During this time, Camilla, Bennett, and Noel were born.
Ole was known for his physical strength. As a child, I remember sitting at Grandma Bura’s knee, listening to her recount tales of her late husband. The most memorable story is one in which Ole arrived at the train station with an iron tractor wheel in need of repair. The train had just begun to move out of the station. Ole hefted the wheel upon his shoulders and trotted to the moving flatbed car, casting the wheel onto the bed. Jerald recalls Ole’s time-proven method of getting the Model-T ford started. He would lift the rear end of the vehicle as Jerald slipped a block under the rear axle to free the wheels. He never used the jack. According to Camilla, he went one better, holding the car up with one hand and changing the wheel out with the other! One afternoon, Jerald was running the one-man combine. As he crossed a wash-out sideways, he was late in lifting the platform. A six inch rock was picked up by the machine and crashed through the equipment, bending a heavy cylinder. Ole was in the car, and came running over with a crowbar. He opened up the top panel, surveyed the damage, then beat the cylinder back into shape with the crowbar. The combine started back up without a problem. According to Jerald, he used his head and prodigious strength in equal measures.
Rain was scarce in 1929 and 1930 and the crops were poor. The crops of 1931 and 1932 were a total disaster. By harvest time in 1931, the meager crop of mature wheat was in the minority in a field of foot and a half tall dry Russian thistle (tumble weed!). Ole decided to cut it for hay and to let the cattle separate the wheat from the thorns during the winter months. The government shipped in straw and soybean meal, of which Ole fed the cattle, thus supplying fodder and protein. 1932 promised to be a repeat of 1931, and now, Ole being a little wiser, cut the tumbleweed crop for hay while the Russian thistle was still green; liberally salting the hay stack to prevent spoilage. Again soybean meal supplemented the cattle’s menu. The plagues of grasshoppers one year and of army worms the next, did nothing to add to the joy of farming. In the spring of 1933, Ole again put the seed in the ground and this time was rewarded with a bumper crop; the granary was overflowing and for lack of storage, several hundred bushels of wheat were temporarily dumped in a pyramid pile in the field. A bonanza! Not exactly, wheat suddenly became almost worthless, the price plummeting to twenty-five cents a bushel for #1 hard durum, the highest quality obtainable. Meat also had no market. Ole managed to sell some beef and pork in the community, only because the people knew he was a meticulously clean butcher. He was paid ten cents a pound. The Stenoien family, like other families around them, had some of the wheat ground for flour, and also enjoyed countless breakfasts of grasshopper flavored whole wheat cereal.
To prevent the field soil from drifting and blowing away, Ole pioneered a different approach to farming. Instead of plowing the soil he disced in the seed with last years stubble still standing. For the next two years, in spite of the lack of rain, he managed to harvest some grain, even though many of the neighbor’s crops blew away with the wind.c
According to Camilla, Ole was clearing the field in Hanks, ND. As he reached back to flip the plow shares, he fell off the back of the tractor, grabbing the hitch in order to prevent being run over by the sharp plow blades. The tractor circled, closer and closer, approaching a rock pile, at which point Ole knew there was no escape. As the tractor began to climb the rocks, the engine sputtered and stopped, out of gas. Bura told Camilla that she sensed something was wrong at the time, and went to her knees in prayer.
Grain farming was the main source of income for farmers in northwestern North Dakota. Like most farmers, Ole also raised cattle, hogs, and chickens for food and a supplemental source of income. The cattle herd started with a gentle cow named Silver; a gift given to Bura in 1930 from her mother, Grandma Bowen. The herd soon grew to three or four mild cows, plus young stock. On rare occasions while preparing the noon meal, Bura would discover that she was out of milk. Undaunted, she would grab a pail, head out to the barn yard, and solicit a contribution from good old Silver; the only cow docile enough to stand still for an unscheduled milking without being tied up.
Lignite coal mines were, and still are, one of North Dakota’s sources of revenue. The Stenoien family burned coal, but for a quicker, hotter fire (in the summer), gathered what could be called another of North Dakota’s resources, namely dry cow pies. Harvesting this crop was the children’s chore. A rope tied to a washtub made a good conveyor.
Ole fabricated a wind generator out of a used 6-volt car generator and a wooden propeller, hand carved by a neighbor, which was mounted on the roof of the house. This charged a battery and provided electricity for overhead lighting with one car headlamp bulb. During high winds, it was necessary to tie it down. One day, a storm was building. Ole was gone, and Muriel knew that the winds might damage the prop. She tossed a lasso about the prop…breaking it in the process. When her Dad came home and saw what had happened, he quickly spanked her. He clearly feared for her safety…she could have just as easily been yanked into the swiftly rotating propeller blades.
In more ways than one, Ole was a big man. Physically tall; six foot two inches in his stocking feet (official army height). Very strong; 200 pounds of raw bone and muscle; a strength which was a definite asset to his very strong work ethic. In his prime, he was invariably always busy, eking out a living with good honest labor. He could enjoy a baseball game, but was not a great sports fan, work came first. Politically, he was of a conservative nature, but seldom discussed politics; work came first. As a parent, he was a strict disciplinarian; demonstrating that wrongdoing results in judgment and punishment. Spankings were always followed by assurances to the child that he or she was loved, and that father only wanted the best for his child. On one occasion, Jerald, almost fully grown, jokingly said that Ole wouldn’t be able to spank him anymore—very quickly he found himself firmly planted across father’s knees.
In 1932, the Peter Brakken family, having recently moved back to Fertile Valley from Detroit, took up their abode in a threshing rig cook car which they moved across the road, just north of the Witsoe School. Ole was visiting Peter one cold winter day. After sitting for quite a while, they became chilled and their legs were stiff, so they decided to warm up with a go at Indian wrestling.
This is a fairly mild form of exercise but a very effective way to limber up atrophied leg muscles, and the narrow aisle in the cook car was wide enough for the competition. On the last go round, Peter emerged the victor and as Ole was rolled over in a backwards somersault, a Prince Albert tobacco can in his shirt pocket was crushed against his chest, probably cracking a couple of ribs. Ole’s chest was sore for a couple of months, but outside of a little ribbing (no pun intended), he recovered without any ill effects.
Jerald used to spend as much time with Ole as was possible, “He was my hero.” Ole was a man of few words. The two would ride in comfortable silence, sometimes for hours. “I wish that he had talked more about himself and his past,” but there didn’t seem to be any pressing need to do so at the time.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President in 1933 and drastic efforts were undertaken to bring relief to the suffering nation. Make work projects such as PWA and WPA even came to Fertile Valley, where Ole and his neighbors were given sustenance checks for participating. In the winter of 1934 and 1935, the project consisted of taking core samples of the sodium phosphate crust on the lake located near the Montana state line, to determine the amount of the compound available. Prior to that project, a road was build east of Carl Storseth’s; Jerald worked on the road part of the time in place of his dad (no inspectors showed up to object).
In the fall of 1935, the family was faced with a difficult decision. Jerald had, through no fault of his own, lost years worth of education. Muriel had skipped a grade, and both were now ready to enter High School. Fertile Valley students were sent to Grenora, about 14 miles away, for high school. In those days, there were no buses, few roads, and no snow plowing—a daily commute was out of the question. The prevailing solution was for students to batch it in tow, this being the lowest cost option. Because of lack of supervision, this was not an ideal situation, even if a child’s family could afford it. Bura didn’t want her children exposed to such an environment. The Lutheran Bible School, which had recently moved from Grand Forks to Fergus Falls, had an excellent High School department and Bura wanted the children enrolled there. It was also close to Osakis and family and friends; Ole was agreeable and the decision was made. They packed up their meager possessions and, with travel trailer in tow, moved to their new home, a little house on Adolphus Avenue in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. The family is listed on the 1940 census as living on St Charles Street in Fergus Falls, Ottertail County, Minnesota.
While the house was small and one of the older houses in the area, it did have some conveniences not enjoyed in recent years. There was a spigot in the kitchen, out of which one could obtain water simply by turning a handle. No longer any need to go down to the open well in the hollow and dip water out with a bucket. It also had electricity; trimming the lamp wick became a thing of the past. Besides the kitchen range, the main source of heat was a sheet metal airtight stove in the main room.
One of the Aunt’s, a brother-in-law of Gilbert’s wife Emma, had a pasture littered with the remains of oak stumps which he wanted removed. Ole and his eldest son hauled several trailer loads home for fuel. These were supplemented with Pocahontas coal, a Pennsylvania anthracite, thus keeping the house warm during the cold winter months.
Bonnie recalls a story that was told to her by Bura. It was a dark, rainy night, and Bura was driving the children up the muddy hill road. The road had steep grades on either side, and the car began to slide back in the mud, when suddenly, the steering wheel came off in her hands. Immediately, the passenger door was wrenched open, and there stood Ole, ready to get them out of that fix. He had apparently been in town, perhaps for a game of poker of pool. Steering wheel replaced, Ole took the wheel, and the family was safely on their way. Doug reminisced to Bonnie that there should have been a nut on that steering column to hold it in place!
It was about 1942 that the family moved to a farm near Elizabeth, Minnesota. This farm was written about during the dust bowl years, “Wind Without Rain.” The family stayed there one year, but the topsoil had been blown away. Noel remembers spending time with a neighbor, Albert and Nina, they made the best root beer, and were always willing to share with the Stenoien children. When one of the neighbors knocked on the door to visit, Camila yelled out, “Stay out and count your eggs!” thinking it was one of her brothers.
Ole didn’t have gainful employment, and as money was becoming depleted, he decided to sell the family automobile. It was a nice little car with a good running engine, a 1933 Ford sedan. He took it down to the Ford dealer to find out how much they would give him for it. The salesman, a lanky, older man was doing his best to keep the price low. He stood on the running board, bounced the car up and down, commenting that he heard some rattles and that it would be difficult to get much for a car in that condition. Then he asked Ole to start the engine so he could listen to it run. Ole got in the car to start it, and low-and-behold, probably for the first time ever, the battery was dead. Frustrated, Ole got the long crank out of the trunk, inserted it in the engine, gave it a crank, and the engine came to life. However, when Ole jerked the crank upwards, his arm brushed against a sharp edge on the license plate which laid open a four inch gash on the inside of his forearm. The muscle and tendons were visible. Aghast, the salesman suddenly became humanized and insisted that Ole go immediately to the local clinic for emergency treatment. The young doctor, W. O. B. Nelson, who sutured up the wound noted that Ole had a fever and said he would like to run some tests to find out the cause. The verdict? Tuberculosis! This was the first inkling that Ole had that he was now suffering from the same disease that had killed his older brothers.
Thus, a new era began in the Stenoien family. Ole was confined to the sanatorium in Ottertail Lake until the contagious phase was arrested. He went through alternate periods of recovery, confinement and release until his death some fourteen years later. As soon as Ole was diagnosed with TB, the entire family underwent rigorous testing. Some of the children tested positive to the Mantoux test, notably Muriel and Iola, both of whom spent time in the Ottertail sanatorium until the disease was arrested. Bura and Jerald tested negative. The doctor refused to give up, however, so he gave Jerald a super big dose, which finally resulted in a faint pink spot, and he was declared positive also.
Bura was with Ole the the day he died at home near Battle Lake. They were praying together, and Ole saying he was so bad at it, would she please pray for him? As she prayed, and Ole passed, she told Bonnie that she had the vision of a hand reaching across the river for Ole.
Jerald sent me these correction suggestions in 2000.
Ole O. Stenoien, whose death occurred June 10, 1950, was born at Osakis January 29, 1893. His parents were Mr. and Mrs. Ole P Stenoien, who had immigrated from Norway and settled on a farm near Osakis. He was baptized and confirmed in the Elim Lutheran Church, of which his parents were members.
Mr. Stenoien was a veteran of World War I, having served in the US army. During the last 15 years of his live he fought bravely and courageously to overcome the ravages of tuberculosis, spending a good share of this time in sanitariums and at the Veteran’s Hospital in Minneapolis. He passed away at his home near Battle Lake, June 10, at 4:30 pm.
Surviving him are his wife, Bura, and eight children: Jerald of Chicago, Mrs. Warren Myrbo (Muriel) of Underwood, Mrs. Paul Nelson (Iola) of Underwood; Douglas of Kiron, Ia; Camilla of Minneapolis, Bennett of Ida Grove, LA; and Noel and Margaret, both at home. He is also survived by two brothers, Selmer of Minneapolis and Ralph of Scott Field, Ill; and four sisters: Inga, Fergus Falls; Mrs. Jens Lyng (Gena) of Sauk Centre; Mrs. Olaus Klukken (Petra) of Osakis; and Mrs. Haberman (Thilda), also of Osakis; besides four grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews.
Funeral services were conducted Tuesday, June 13, at 2 pm from the Gearhart Funeral Home at Battle Lake, and at 3 pm at the Tordenskjold Free Mission Church. Rev D. A. Erickson officiated. Interment was made in the Tordenskjold Free mission cemetery. The large flag which draped the casket was presented to Mrs. Stenoien by Technical Sargeant Ralph Stenoien of Scott Field, Ill.
Those attending from a greater distance were: Mr. and Mrs. James Bowen and Mrs. Albert Olson of Ryder, ND, Lillie Bowen, Douglas ND, Mrs. John Ehrmentrout Mrs. L Brunelle, Mrs G Myers of Bismark ND, Mrs. Gust A. Parsons, Mrs. Geo. Cochrane and Richard and Meredith Parsons of Fargo.