Saturday, May 17, 2014

Norwegians Arrive in Cooksville by Larry Reed

By the 1870s, Norwegian immigrants began to settle in large numbers in the Cooksville area. Some had arrived in southern Wisconsin about1838, settling in Rock County on the Jefferson, Rock and Koshkonong prairies and elsewhere on the fertile fields of the American frontier, joining other area settlers from the British Isles, Scandinavia, Germany and eastern America who had already arrived. 

Many of these settlers of the newly-opened land in what once was named “Ouisconsin” came as a result of potato famines and revolutionary wars in 19th-century Europe, And, of course, Americans had moved westward from New England and New York to the new frontier in the 1830s and ‘40s in pursuit of a more adventurous and prosperous  future.

For Norwegians at the time, restrictive land ownership, rigid inheritance laws and stifling social structures left little hope of individual improvement or of success in their home country in the 19th century and led to the increased emigration.  Like many other immigrants, Norwegians were determined to find a country where they could build a better future for themselves and their children. America beckoned.

Norwegian immigration to southern Wisconsin greatly increased after 1850 because of favorable reports sent back to friends and relatives in Norway by the earlier settlers. And new railroads in America made travel quicker, easier and cheaper for the long journey from the east coast to mid- America.

By the 1870s, Wisconsin had the most Norwegian settlers of all the states.

 By the 1880s some of the early Yankee settlers had already moved further West in pursuit of new prospects, leaving prime land available to new immigrants, like Norwegians, Swedes and Danes, and these industrious and thrifty new-comers were able to buy village homes ,educate their children, and eventually buy their own farms.

The Norwegian settlers in the Cooksville area quickly put down roots and became leaders in Cooksville and other area communities, especially in nearby Stoughton. The Norwegian Lutheran Church was built in Cooksville in 1897 (the second such structure after the first was destroyed by lightning and fire), with lutefisk and lefse dinners served there for many years. The immigrants’ heritage is still evident in their names that resonate in area communities.

A brief, succinct account of the immigration pattern from Norway to Cooksville and the Town of Porter was written in 1947 by Arvid M. Romstad, Pastor of the Cooksville-Evansville Lutheran Parish at the time. He titled it, “A Short History of Ole Amundson and of How He Came to Leave his Homeland, Norway, and Come to the United States, Particularly to Rock County, Wisconsin.”

As Romstad wrote:
            “The name is fictitious, but the history here briefly detailed is that of a resident of the Town of Porter, who died some years ago. The economic situation in Norway during the days of the 19th century made it very difficult for the average man to succeed and get anywhere. Landowners remained landowners and tenants remained tenants.
            “Ole Amundson lived on a tenant farm—he saw no future in his own country—there was little money—the living was scant—no chance of ever owning any land. Norway had scarcely begun to be industrialized. There was some work in the forests and fisheries, but there was little opportunity for a tenant.
            “Ole decided to come to America having heard of its vast resources and limitless opportunities. This was in 1880 when he was 33 years of age. His father was living and came with him, also his wife, and three children. Mrs. Amundson had a brother in America who sent them a letter one day—it had tickets and some money.
            “Before leaving they sold all their goods at auction. This was near Kristiania, now Oslo, in the community of Ullensaker.
            “The North Sea showered and shook them with a terrific storm so much so that the children toppled out of their bunks and the trunks slid back and forth. It took them three weeks and they were seasick most of the time. They remained in England for a week, which time was occupied with sight-seeing, one of the marvels being a treadmill that was run by cattle walking and walking and yet standing still.
            “In England the ship took on a lot of Irishmen, most of whom remained in New York. Amundson and family went from New York to Chicago to Milwaukee, and to Stoughton by train.
            “The steamship agent met them at the depot in Stoughton, received them most cordially, and took them to his home. An uncle came from Cooksville to get them and they came to what was the Charley Miller farm (now operated by Roy Kloften).
            “Amundson raised tobacco on shares for three years.
            “Then rented a 60 acre farm where he remained for three years…. Before Ole died he had bought and paid for a 120 acre farm and at last had achieved in a large measure the ambitions he had for his future in the land of promise.”

Romstad’s story about “Mr. Amundson” is typical of the first generation of Norwegian immigrants.  But every Norwegian or Danish or Swedish family that settled in or near Cooksville has its own personal story to tell. The Cooksville Archives has a few of these stories, or parts of them—parts of a greater jig-saw puzzle that is the history of the many immigrant settlers in the Cooksville community with names like Anderson, Berg, Brunsell, Erickson, Furseth, Fursett, Haakenson, Hanson ,Hatlen, Hegge, Julseth, Kloften, Larson, Olson, Severson and more.  

The Cooksville Archives always welcomes more written stories—more pieces of the puzzle. Contact: Larry Reed in Cooksville, (608) 873-5066, by mail: 12035 W. State Road, 59, Evansville, WI 53536.