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The Trip—Part 1

Norway and the Baltic offer spectacular views, visits to historic cities, and access to ancient cultural sites. We just returned from this region after a three-week trip with relatives.

Our group spent the first part of the vacation in Norway. My husband/tech advisor and I both have Norwegian roots. We like to see where our ancestors lived.

His family came from the Ringsaker District of Hedmark, near Norway’s largest lake, Lake Mjøsa. We took the train north from Oslo to get there, and then we rented a car to drive through the area. Because his family had not owned land, they had always migrated from farm to farm around the lake, stopping wherever they could find work. Our surname, Hjelmstad (helmet place), comes from the name of a farm where the family had lived only one year. His great-grandfather was born there.

After we arrived back in Oslo for a short stay, we took the train to Norway’s west coast. We traveled along the lovely rural interior from lowland farming country up through chilly mountains cut by sparkling waterways. Some of our ancestors had settled along this route to Bergen, and the train ride provided an opportunity for us to see the modern-day sites of their farming and logging communities.

Much of my deep Norwegian ancestry comes from the Sognefjord north of Bergen. We boarded a ferry from the city and glided deep into this fjord. I got a wonderful sense of the places my people had known so well. Their settlements date back to Viking times. I could imagine the sight of Viking boats sailing along the fjord.

It must have been heart-wrenching for our families to say good-bye to friends and neighbors and leave this beautiful country for the unknown of America. Yet Norway during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was one of the poorest of countries. Only Ireland during the potato famine sent a larger percentage of its population to America than Norway did.

Our families’ oral histories tell us our great-grandparents had no economic opportunity in Norway and felt they had no choice but to leave. The Hjelmstads relate the story of their ancestor, Thore Walstad, who was an older man when he made the journey with his wife, grown children, and grandchildren. He cried when he had to leave Norway.

My Bentsen family spoke of the incentive of free land for making the journey to America. Both our families took advantage of the homestead laws to secure farmland in North Dakota and Montana. These thrifty, hard-working people built prosperous farms that the families still own today.

We think they made the right decision to leave, but it must have been hard, so hard to do it. Thore Walstad probably was not the only one who sobbed at the thought of leaving the beautiful homeland we just visited. He would be amazed at the prosperous country Norway is today.



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