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52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks nos. 11 & 12—Ole Bentsen & Sofie Sivertsdatter

Between the years 1865 and 1930, an astonishing 780,000 Norwegians left Norway for the United States. Rapid population growth coupled with slow industrial growth in Norway left little opportunity for the young. Consequently, only Ireland with its potato famine contributed a greater share of its population to American immigration. Ole and Sofie Bentsen were among those who left in search of free land in America.

They came from the Land of the Midnight Sun where the sun neither sets in the summer nor rises in the winter. The Bentsens both hailed from the scenic Versterålen island group of Norway’s Lofoten archipelago in the Norwegian Sea. The main towns in this municipality, Andoy, Bø, Hadsel, Sortland, and Øksnes, sit on the narrow coast between mountain and fjord. Although far north of the Arctic Circle, the islands enjoy a maritime climate with mild winters. The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, regularly offer a spectacular display to the people of Vesterålen. Perhaps this compensates some for the scarce winter daylight.

In this stark, treeless land, Ole Jorgen Lorentsen was born on September 6, 1880 at Bø to Lorents Nikolai (“Nick”) Anderson and Karen Marie Johansdatter. Norway did not require surnames at this time, but by the time Ole was born, the family had sometimes begun using the Bentsen (or Bentzen) name for everyone. Ole was baptized on December 12, 1880 at Bø parish. He grew up as the youngest child in the household with his parents and two older sisters, Lina and Riborg. Two foster children, Fresenius Pedersen and Riborg Hansdatter, also lived with them.

Vesterålen’s main industry is cod fishing supplemented with a little agriculture. By 1900, twenty-year-old Ole was one who made a living this way, sometimes spending two or three weeks at sea. According to the Norwegian census that year, Ole and Fresenius Pedersen worked as fishermen away from home at Aalesund, Norway.

Ole also served in the Norwegian military, as required by law, where he earned an award in marksmanship. During his service, he completed an assignment on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, home of the fairy-tale Snow Queen. While he was there, he found two petrified leaves that he always regretted leaving behind. Today Spitsbergen houses the Global Seed Bank.

After leaving the service, Ole went to Stokmarknes to work. There he met Sofie Marie Sivertsdatter, daughter of Sivert Knudsen and Martha Karoline Dorthea Hansdatter. Ole and Sofie married on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1904 at Hadsel Church in Stokmarknes. Born July 3, 1878 at Valfjord and baptized on September 1, 1878 at Hadsel in Hadsel parish, Sofie was a bit older than her husband, as were many Norwegian brides. She was the youngest surviving child of her parents. Others included a half-brother Johan Martinessen, a sister Kaspara Helmine Sivertsdatter (Mina), and a brother Hans Sivertsen. As many as eight other siblings pre-deceased Sofie.

Sofie had a typical Norwegian upbringing. As a child, she walked a long way to school every day. Teenaged Sofie served as godmother to her brother Hans’ son Sydolf in 1894 and to her sister Mina’s daughter Helene in 1897. Before moving to Stokmarknes as a young woman, she lived for a time in a nearby village. There she cared for livestock for a man named Elias Knudsen, who was perhaps an uncle.

Most Norwegians during this time belonged to the state-supported Lutheran Church, and Ole and Sofie joined, too. She was confirmed June 18, 1893 at Eidsfjord parish, and he was confirmed on September 13, 1896 at Hadsel parish. The church recorded each confirmand’s knowledge of the catechism, as Very Good, Good, or Not So Good. Both Ole and Sofie had Good ratings.

After marrying Sofie, Ole left for America to make a home for his five-foot, four-inch, auburn-haired bride. He traveled first to the Norwegian port city Trondheim. On April 20, 1904, he started the next leg of his journey aboard the Cunard ship Salmo bound for Liverpool, England. There he boarded the Ivernia, and two weeks later on May 4, 1904 he arrived in Boston, Massachusetts. He took a train to Lake Park, Minnesota and worked there for the Northern Pacific Railroad earning a dollar a day. Sofie remained behind with her family to await the birth of her first child, Riborg Marie Hansene Bentsen (1904). Riborg’s baptism record states that her father lived in “Amerika”.

The following spring, Sofie and Riborg left Trondheim on the Tasso on April 12, 1905. They sailed on the Dominion from Liverpool and arrived in Quebec on May 3, 1905. Sofie remembered the trip well; the ship ran aground on a sandbar in the St. Lawrence and took several days to get moving again. When they finally could disembark, Sofie and her infant daughter traveled by train to Chicago and then on to Lake Park to meet Ole. They lived there for a couple of years and welcomed their first son, Bjarne Kaurin, into the family in 1906.

By 1907, they were ready to claim the free land the government offered on the grassy sea of eastern Montana. The family traveled together by train and landed in Culbertson, Montana on July 30, Sofie’s 29th birthday. Settling on a quarter section of land in a Scandinavian community near Medicine Lake, they built a two-room sod house that was lined with wood boards.

Another daughter, Signe Eline, joined them in 1908. The Bentsens had her baptized in a hayloft during a meeting of area ministers.

In 1909, in nearby Williston, North Dakota, Ole filed a Declaration of Intention to become a citizen of the United States. His application describes him as 5 feet 10 inches tall with black hair and brown eyes.

The new homesteaders tried to be self-sufficient. Sofie made the children’s clothes on a hand-powered sewing machine she had brought from Norway. She also knitted the family’s stockings. She even found time to do beautiful Hardanger embroidery. Still, Ole and Sofie found that making a living on just 160 acres in the arid west was not easy.

The U.S. government finally recognized the problem and began opening areas for larger homesteads of 320 acres. The Bentsens sold their quarter section and filed on a half section of land 13 miles southeast of Redstone, Montana, near the Canadian border.

In later years, they reminisced about that first summer of 1910 on the new place. They had few neighbors, and the family of five lived in a 10×12 foot shack that Ole built. But that summer the bright and beautiful Haley’s Comet appeared, relieving the tedium and loneliness.

The Bentsens had acquired livestock including three horses, some cows, sheep, and chickens. The new area had been surveyed only by township units at that time, so Ole estimated where his section line would be. He plowed a furrow to mark it, using his three horses and a walking plow. When the rest of the surveying was done, most of his fence posts stood in that furrow.

The first winter on the new homestead, Ole took a team and sled on a 35-mile trip back to Medicine Lake for supplies. While stopping over at his parents’ home near Homestead, he became ill with typhoid fever. He remained there for 6 weeks, leaving Sofie home alone with three little children, ages 6, 4, and two.

That winter was very hard for Sofie. Every morning she would go to the nearby creek to chop a hole in the ice so the livestock could water. One bleak day when all seemed hopeless with food and coal nearly gone, a couple of neighbors arrived. They brought her some coal and butchered a calf for her. The family all remembered the happy day when Ole finally returned home.

During the following summer of 1911, Ole built a two-room house which they added on to in later years. Originally, for illumination at night they used kerosene lamps, which they cleaned and filled daily. They dug a 15-foot well by hand. Ole hauled the first crop to the nearest railroad at Medicine Lake. Bjarne later recalled helping his father build a barn.

In the early years on the homestead, wild game was plentiful so Sofie cooked many meals of duck, prairie chicken, and rabbit. She did the cooking on a coal stove, and in summer the children gathered cow chips. They burned these in the stove, and it worked very well to save on coal. The family and their neighbors mined their own coal from a mine about five miles away.

Sofie did the clothes washing on a wash board, and she boiled sheets in a boiler. For wash water, she collected rain water in a barrel in summer and melted snow in the winter. If the rain barrel was empty, she would fill it with well water (which was very hard water), mix in some lye, and let it stand overnight. By morning the lye would settle and leave the water soft. She heated sad irons on the stove for ironing.

A bachelor homesteader arrived in the area and asked Sofie if she would bake bread for him. He said he had tried, but even his dog wouldn’t eat it. She baked for him as long as he was on the farm, into the 1920’s.

Coyotes were numerous and a menace. One morning Sofie was milking a cow when a coyote jumped out of the brush and killed a sheep just a few yards away. The coyote did not get to enjoy his kill because the Bentsens got the mutton.

The free range cattle in the area were very dangerous, too, and would attack anyone on foot. One day Ole’s horses broke loose and strayed, so Ole walked 30 miles to see if they had gone back to the Homestead area. On the way there, he was semi-surrounded by range cattle ready to attack. He waved his jacket at them. They retreated just far enough to allow him to duck below a nearby creek bank. He walked in a crouch along the creek until he was out of their sight. He later found the horses near Homestead and was able to ride back home.

Ole and some neighbors hauled lumber from Culbertson and built the Two Tree schoolhouse for the neighborhood. Riborg was one of the first students, and her parents began to learn to speak, read, and write in English when she started school. The community also used the school building as a community hall, church, site for pie and basket socials, and even an occasional dance. The school closed in the late 1940’s with Riborg’s daughter Shirley Bedwell serving as the last teacher.

One of the first years on the homestead, the family wanted a Christmas tree. Ole cut a poplar pole and drilled holes in it. He inserted juniper branches and they decorated it with little baskets and chains made of tissue paper. They also drained some eggs, wrapped the shells in tin foil, and hung them on the tree. Neighbors thought the tree was real and wondered where he got it.

The year 1918 was a busy one for the Bentsens. On July 8, 1918 Ole, Sofie, and their children became naturalized citizens of the United States at Plentywood, Montana. Bjarne, Signe, and Jennie Wilhelmine (born at home in 1916), were named in the naturalization process although they already were citizens, having been native-born. That summer Ole also registered for the WWI draft. He bought his first car, a 1918 Overland touring car which he did not use much that winter because the roads were poor and not plowed. The last child, Otto Sigurd, was born at home in November that year.

The next year, on July 26, 1919, Ole received a Patent for his 320 acres near Redstone in Sheridan County, Montana. He continued to farm the land for the next 33 years. In January 1952, he and Sofie sold their farm to their younger son, Otto, and his wife Bernice.

Ole and Sofie retired to Plentywood where Ole did Norwegian wood carving and made model boats. He also built a two-room storage area behind their small house. Sofie called it “Ole’s dog house.” Sofie was active in the ladies’ group at the Lutheran Church. She continued cooking and baking, making lefse and fattigmand every year for Christmas until 1965 when she fell ill.

Sofie died from emphysema and chronic bronchitis at age 87 on January 19, 1966 at Sheridan Memorial Hospital in Plentywood. She was buried on January 24 at Redstone Cemetery. At the time of her death, she had very little grey hair. She had always compared herself to one of her grandfathers who had lived to be 80 but also did not turn grey.

After Sofie died, Ole lived alone. He had given up his car and subsequently rode a bicycle around Plentywood until he was 90 years old. After that, he walked the 8 blocks to downtown. In the winter months he went to stay with his youngest daughter Jennie in Havre, Montana. This continued until 1972 when at age 92 he moved into Pioneer Manor in Plentywood.

After 10 years of widowhood, Ole died of uremia on his son Bjarne’s 70th birthday (August 26, 1976). Like Sofie, he passed away at Sheridan Memorial Hospital in Plentywood. He was 95 years old and still had a full head of white hair. He was buried beside Sofie on August 30 at Redstone Cemetery, Redstone, Montana.








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