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The Push and The Pull

My mother’s grandparents emigrated from the Nordic countries in the early 20th century. I know a lot about their lives in America but not so much about their lives in the old country. They were young married couples when they arrived in the United States. Immigrants are said to have been pulled here because they wanted a better life. But what, exactly, did they leave behind? What pushed them away from their homeland?

Family members spoke of how my Norwegian ancestors, Ole Bentsen and Sofie Sivertsdatter, had left their home farms in Bø and Eidsfjord when they grew up to find work in Stokmarknes, a larger city in the Vesterålen District of Norway. What did they do there? Both were literate but had no higher education. They must have worked as laborers of some sort. Stokmarknes lies in the cod fishing area of Norway, so perhaps Ole worked on a boat, a trade he could have learned from his fisherman father.

What did Sofie do? Domestic help? Fish processing? I know she had some baking skills. After she settled on a Montana homestead, she made bread not only for her own family but also for a bachelor neighbor. I also know that just before moving to Stokmarknes, she had tended sheep on her uncle’s place. Maybe she put those skills to use on one of the farms surrounding Stokmarknes. Bervik perhaps, where she lived in the months after her marriage and where her daughter Riborg was born.

I know less about the background of my Finnish ancestors, Alexander Mattila and Ada Alina Lampinen. They said only that they were from Viipuri which was the second-largest city in Finland at the time. In looking at their records, I find that neither of them was born there. It appears that they, too, were born elsewhere, Alex in the rural parish southeast of Viipuri, and Ada in Juuka parish north of there. As young adults they, too, went to the closest city, Viipuri, probably to find work.

So what work did they do? Alex was listed as a laborer when he emigrated, but no particular line of work was specified. Later in life, he worked as a carpenter. I do not know whether he acquired that skill in Finland or in the United States.

As for Ada, I do not know what she may have done in Viipuri. Worked in a shop? Domestic help? My mom remembered her baking skills—homemade bread and cakes.

Both of these couples worked hard, but obviously they saw no opportunity in their home countries. They felt the push of wanting something better. The Norwegians wanted their own land, impossible to acquire as part of the laboring class in Norway. The Finns may have wanted to get away from their strife-torn country that suffered from hunger and disease. Under the harsh rule of the Russian czar, worker unrest was brewing, food was scarce, and public health did not seem to be a priority. Alex’s father and one sister had both died of tuberculosis.

So America beckoned. Ole and Sofie followed their dream to live in a country that gave away land to people willing to work had for it. Relatives in America urged Alex and Ada to come and settle in a healthy Finnish community in Minnesota where there was plenty of work, food, and political stability. Both couples saved their money and took steamships to a new land to build a new life. And they never talked much about the old one.

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