Sunday, August 9, 2009
July 5, 2009: Pilgrimage to the Orstad farm and St. Peter’s Church
The day started out inauspiciously: Mom didn’t feel well and spent the morning abed. I was worried that she wouldn’t be able to make the trip to the farm and the church—the original impetus for our trip to North Dakota—but by noon, she was feeling better. I wasn’t really surprised though. I expected her to rally, come hell or high water, to make it to her final destination, her family’s farm.
David, Mom, and I set off for Park River to meet up with Aunt Phyllis, Aunt Shirley, and Susan and Jim, and from there we caravanned in three cars through the green countryside to the old St. Peter’s Lutheran Church which sits on a hill overlooking the farm below and where so many of my mom’s family are buried.
The church and farm are a mere 12.2 miles from Park River: we drove west on Highway 17 for 6.4 miles, then zigzagged north on 128th Avenue NE* for one mile, west on 69th Street NE for 1.9 miles, north again on 126th Avenue NE (County Road 9) for 1.4 miles, and west on County Road 11 for 1.1 miles.
At the church, we got out of our cars and were met by Thom Orstad and his daughters, Sarah and Alana, and his sister Holly Orstad Neff. Cousin Joanne Lindberg Wilder had arrived before us as well and was writing down dates on Thompson and Orstad gravestones, trying, she said, to make sense of her mother Marvel’s family history.
The church is clearly in need of repair or demolition. And, in fact, Gayle called not long after we’d returned to New Mexico to say the church board had met and decided to raze the building but keep the steeple and add a memorial to mark the spot where the church had been erected in 1896. Hearing that news, we were so glad we'd gone when we did to see it one last time.
In the course of writing this entry today, I called Aunt Phyllis to check my facts, and she referred me to Lennart Almen, a man who is on the St. Peter’s Church board. I called him, and he told me that the steeple isn’t going to be saved because it's made of lumber, but the bell—“a rather large bell,” he said—will be kept, and a memorial of fieldstone or granite, engraved with the church’s history, will mark the location. "When will the church be razed?" I asked. “Within the week,” he thought, if all goes according to plan.
As an aside, Mr. Almen mentioned that the church had been supported by two communities: Adams and Park River. That is, he said, the rural people living on the west side of the river—the river that runs through the former Orstad farmstead—had an Adams mailing address while those living on the east side of the river had a Park River address.
Mr. Almen was also able to shine some light on a mystery that we had puzzled over the day we were there: Edward Orstad’s grave with a small stone marking it is located near the edge of the cemetery far from the grave of his wife Marit with its large monument. Why, we wondered, had they been buried so far away from each other?
Edward and his wife Marit (pronounced MAR-it) had immigrated from Oppdal, Norway, to the United States in the 1890s. Their last child was my grandfather, Elmer, who was born in 1899, the only child to have been born in this country. Edward (pronounced ED-vard) was an uncommonly big man for the time, attested by a large pair of boots my Grandpa Orstad kept of his.
I learned while we were in North Dakota that he was a carpenter, and that might explain the longevity of the house he built for his family at some point before 1896.
According to information Mr. Almen had come across, Edward had originally purchased a plot for his wife and himself, but one of their children died young and was buried there, and then his wife died in 1921 before Edward, who died in 1926. Evidently, by that time, there was no room for him to be buried near his wife and child. The engraving on the stone in the picture here isn't very legible, despite my manipulations--and, besides, it's written in Norwegian--but it gives his date of birth as March 12, 1856 (or possibly 1855) and the year of his death as 1926. NOTE: Gayle emailed me to say that Edward and his son Elmer--my grandfather--shared the same birthday: March 12.
But back to the events of the day: We walked through the small cemetery full of names of Mom’s and Aunt Phyllis’ relatives and neighbors from their growing up years on the farm: Orstads, Thompsons, Lindells, Nottestads, Almens, Bergs, and others I can’t remember now. Mom was able to see her parents’ gravestone as well as the nearby stone marking the site of her brother Elroy’s cremated remains.
After wandering a half hour or so of among the gravestones and exchanging scraps of stories and memories about the people buried there, we walked to the other side of the churchyard to look down on the old Orstad farmstead in the dell below.
The house, as you can see from the photo, has fallen to ruin, but it was built by Edward Orstad some years before the church was, so it’s not surprising that it’s dilapidated. The barn--located out of sight in this photo, to the right--has literally fallen down and is marked by a heap of rotten boards. The small building in the foreground is what Mom said they called "the shanty." I'm not sure of its use.
Despite its dilapidation, you can see what a beautiful farm it was: the green pasture and wooded hills rising behind the house. The Park River-although not visible in the photo-meanders through the woods behind the house.
A barbed-wire gate bars the dirt road leading down to the house, but some of us—David, Thomas, Sarah, Alana, Joanne, and I—opened the gate and walked down to have a closer look. A small herd of cows grazing near the house watched us and decided to mosey on as we approached.
The inside of the house is in even worse shape than the outside. I was glad Mom wasn’t able to make the trip down with us so that her clear memories of her home are the ones she will keep. She tells me she can see in her mind the way the house and every room in it looked in her childhood.
After checking out the house, we walked back up the road to the churchyard. The whole group of us then piled into cars and headed for Gayle’s farm, which is located nine miles west of Adams, the town where Mom graduated from high school.
Gayle had invited the whole group of us for a late lunch after our tour. All was pretty much ready when we got there except for the lutefisk she’d bought in Mom’s honor and asked Aunt Shirley to help her fix in the microwave to avoid turning it into “lutefisk soup,” the result of cooking it too long—a sad lesson I myself learned years ago. It turned out great, however, as was everything else.
Gayle herself alternated between hobbling around and sitting with her leg up to nurse a wrenched foot and ankle—due to a misstep and fall a couple weeks earlier. And yet, she still managed to feed and entertain us. -And the night before, she and Joanne, who had come to visit her a week or so before, had gone to the Class of ’63 reunion at the country club.
Our visit with Gayle was much too short, but we thought it best to go back to our motel before Mom got overly tired. We took several pictures on the steps of the house before David, Mom, and I said goodbye to everyone and headed back to the motel in Grafton.