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Old Photos and Documents Tell Stories
Everyone lives in the past to a certain extent, but I probably do so more than the average bear. You might even say that I’m a nostalgic nostalgist.
It’s impossible for me to escape the past. My wife and I live in the house that my Grandpa Nelson built on the farm originally homesteaded by my great-grandfather, Charlie Sveen. The farm where I grew up was homesteaded by my dad’s great-uncles.
While I can’t avoid bumping into the past on a daily basis, there are times when I’ll actively excavate history. I was recently digging through some old photos when I stumbled across a true gem: a receipt for steamship tickets that were purchased on March 10, 1897.
The passengers are listed as Anna Anderson, 16, and Trygve Anderson, 11. For the princely sum of $92, the American Line Steamship Company agreed to transport the two of them from Trondheim, Norway, to Wentworth, South Dakota. The tickets were purchased in Arlington, South Dakota.
Anna Anderson was my great-grandmother and Trygve was her brother.
A couple of facts leaped out. First was that $92 seemed incredibly inexpensive. I wondered if the purchaser (Burt Anderson, who signed with an X) had used Travelocity or Kayak or cheapsteamshiptickets.com. Second was that there once was a steamship ticket office in the little town of Arlington! I wonder when it closed and if there’s anywhere that tickets would still be honored.
I also found a 1920s-era photo of Anna and her family. The studio portrait includes Anna’s husband, John Eggebraaten, and their adult children, Amanda, Carl, Oscar, and Bernice. Amanda was my Grandma Hammer. It felt strange to look into Grandma’s girlish eyes across the chasm of nearly a century.
My mother said that Anna was actually 18 and Trygve 14 when they emigrated. They had fudged their ages in order to get their tickets at a lower price. This might explain our family’s genetic penchant for tightwaddery.
I asked Mom how Anna had hooked up with John, who was 13 years Anna’s senior.
“I don’t think they’d met each other before she came to America,” she said. “I think they knew some people in common, and that’s how they got together.”
So, their situation was essentially a Tinder date that involved transoceanic and transcontinental voyages with the high expectation of matrimony at the end. Things worked out, though; dozens of Anna and John’s descendants currently walk the earth.
Another photo that emerged from the shoe box was a bit more recent.
The snapshot, taken in 1950, is of a group of men assembled in front of a John Morrell & Co. building. It took a few moments to recognize Dad and my uncle Coke kneeling in the front row. They look so young!
I scanned the photo into my computer and embiggened it. Familiar faces peered out from the screen. At the right side of the photo is our neighbor Martin Rud; standing behind Dad and Coke is my uncle Don Jorenby; behind Don is our neighbor, Kenny Liebsch. I posted the photo to Facebook and other faces were quickly identified.
Morrell had arranged for the group of local farmers to tour their slaughterhouse to see what became of their livestock after they (the animals) entered the facility. My guess is that they (the animals) were slaughtered.
What interests me most is how the men were dressed. Many wore baseball caps, but there were also a number of classy fedoras. Some of the guys wore leather bomber jackets (still stylish today!) while others wore suit coats over the top of their striped bib overalls. Everyone was wearing the five-buckle overshoes that were ubiquitous in that era. All of the overshoes are rakishly unbuckled.
Martin really stands out. He’s wearing a plaid pea jacket over a dark suit jacket and white shirt and tie. Below that, one can see the legs of his striped bib overalls and his unbuckled overshoes. I had known Martin during his later years, and he was a typical Norwegian bachelor farmer, that is, a bit on the grungy side. Here is photographic evidence that Martin could clean up pretty well when he put his mind to it.
Dad and my uncles were in their 20s when the photo was taken. Their futures – marriages and mortgages, my cousins and me – were as yet unimagined possibilities on the distant horizon. Posing for that snapshot was probably soon forgotten by the men in the picture. For me, it’s a moment preserved in amber, a priceless artifact, a family heirloom.
Yes, I’m an unrepentant nostalgist. But whenever I unearth an old family photo, I’m also a time traveler.