Thursday, July 10, 2014

Esther Efraimson Holien - A Letter To My Family - Part 1

In last week's post I said that, when I found it, I would post the letter my grandmother wrote (that became more like a mini-book) to give more clarity on her life and the life of her husband, Theodore Holien, who died in 1944. I found the letter -- what I will share of it, anyway. I had typed it up and it was on my old computer. I have added to the text, in brackets, in places where it seemed it would be helpful to add more explanation. The portion listed below is not the entire letter, but it is all that is typed up. I don't know, right now, where the original is, so when I find it I will post the rest of it.

Anyway, here you have my grandmother, Esther Holien's letter to her family.
For a long time I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a brief history of my live. Now as I approach my 83rd birthday, methinks I’d better not procrastinate anymore—besides, it’s too hot to play golf today!

I thought this might be of interest to my family, especially my grand children and great children, of which there are already a goodly number.

My ethnic background is Finnish. My husband was Norwegian. That makes the grandchildren ¼ Finnish and the great grandchildren 1/8th. My Mother was born in Finland and came to the United States on her 20th birthday. She was born on January 19, 1881, and named Emma Severina Savilahti. My Dad was born September 10, 1880 in the town of Lake Norden, South Dakota, and was named Alfred. His family name was Palvalehto, but when his parents [John and Liisa Palvalehto] came to the United States Customs officials did not wish to deal with such a strange name. Since his Father’s first name was Efraim, they gave them the last name of Efraimson (Efraim’s son). [Other documents from other relatives relate that the name change occurred when the family filed for land claims. Also note Brita Palvaleehto also had their name changed. Since Efraim’s father was named John, Efraim and Brita became Johnson (John’s son), as did their youngest child, Efraim, who was still a child in the home at the time of the name changes.]

Mother and Dad [Alfred Efraimson and Emma Savilahti] met on the Mesabi Iron Range in Minesota, where Dad had gone to seek his fortune in the iron mines. Mom was employed in the boarding house where Dad had a room. They were married on November 13, 1904, and I was born on October 16, 1905 [Eina Esther, 10/16/1905 – 4/6/2004]. Jennie arrived a year and a half later, on March 20, 1907 [Jennie Marie, 3/20/1907 – 1/4/2003].

About the time that Jennie was born, the iron miners went on strike. Dad stuck it out for awhile, but when he realized that settlement might take some time, he set out for North Dakota to work in the harvest fields. He had lived on a farm for the early part of his life, so he was knowledgeable about farming.

He found full time employment, working for a bachelor with a two-bedroom house, so he sent for us in the Fall [of 1907].

That farm eventually became ours, and his house is still the family’s summer home, although it has had many revisions, additions, etc.

Ten more children were born about a year and a half apart – Eino [Eino H., 9/27/1908 – 8/10/1988 , Emma [Emma Elizabeth, 4/30/1910 – 10/16/2002], Josephine [Josephine Ruth “Jo”, 9/22/1911 – 2/4/2004], Hilda [Hilda H., 8/14/1913 – 9/8/1997] , Arne [abt. 1915 – abt 1921], Bill [William A., abt. 1917 – 1975] , Viola [Viola A.. “Vi”, 9/21/1919-11/24/2003], Carl [Carl R., 8/25/1920 – 2/15/2008], Rudy [Elmer Rudolph, 9/3/1922-7/8/2008], and Rupert L. [1/23/25 – 6/28/2013]. Rupert [nicknamed "Tubbs" in letters she wrote] is nineteen and a half years younger than I am!

I suppose those early years would make the most interesting reading, but if you just watch a few old reruns of “Little House on the Prairie” or “Waltons’ Mountain”, you’ll have a general idea of what life was like. I will just hit on a few of the highlights that stand out in my memory.

We didn’t have cars – they hadn’t been invented. There was no electricity, so we kept things cool in the cellar under the house. We did have a telephone by 1918, because I remember that we heard that the war [World War I] was over by telephone. Two long rings meant that everyone on the [party] line should listen in. Harvest was just over, so everyone set some of their straw piles on fire to celebrate! Incidentally, those straw piles were also great ski runs for us in the winters when they were covered with snow.

One year, just before school started, we had to go to Cando and get vaccinated for small pox. Just the three oldest of us were going to school at that time. Around Christmastime, Mother and Dad went to a church meeting at a neighbor’s house. They had been told that the lady of the house was sick, but not what she had.

Perhaps they had not consulted a doctor, so they didn’t even know what she had. It turned out to be small pox. Dad and the younger children all became ill with it – Dad had it the worst. He was covered from head to toe and had a raging fever.

We were all quarantined for a long time, and the day the quarantine was lifted, we had to fumigate the house by boiling formaldehyde. We couldn’t stay in the house, of course, so we stayed in the Sauna that day. It was Lincoln’s birthday and a beautiful sunny day, so we did play outdoors…it even thawed a little.

One winter when I was about twelve or so, Dad went to work in some lumber camps in Minnesota because the crops had been poor and we needed some extra money. While he was gone Eino and I were the ones responsible for taking the eggs and cream into town and buying groceries.

One day we went in the springwagon (as there was no snow on the ground) and, as we were turning the corner by the mailbox (it’s on a slant), one of the tugs got loose and slapped the horses on the legs. The horses panicked and took off across the field towards Jacobson’s Grove. We tried our best to stop them but could do nothing…finally they went on opposite sides of a tree and that stopped us! Needless to say, there were no eggs to take to market that day. The lid on the cream can held, though, and we were not injured, other than our pride.

One summer when Bill was the baby, we went on a trip to South Dakota. Dad had gotten his first car that year – an Oakland touring car. Since Bill was the baby, that meant that there were eight of us kids.

I must have been eleven, because I’m that much older than Bill. We stayed overnight in a hotel in Ellendale, near the border. For dessert that evening, Dad had bought a basket of purple grapes.

After supper, Mom and Dad took Jennie, Eino and Emma with them to go shopping, and I stayed home to take care of the younger ones.

I guess Jo ate too many grapes – anyway, she got sick, and the place was a purple mess by the time the folks got back. She recovered and all was well. They bought me a beautiful navy blue dress with a middy collar trimmed with white braid that I adored till it wore out…or else I outgrew it. Our departure in the morning was pretty upsetting to the management, even though we tried to do it as quietly as possible.

I loved school – maybe it was because it was so much easier than staying home and taking care of babies, washing clothes on a washboard, ironing, scrubbing floors, etc. I didn’t start school until I was seven (Jennie and I started together), but we had already learned to read some Finnish. We spoke Finnish at home, and Mother taught us from little books alled the “AAPINEN”. It had a picture of a rooster on the cover, and anytime we learned a new letter or word, the rooster would lay some raisins or prunes inside of our books.

Dad had taught us a few words of English, like the directions (North, South, etc.), salt and pepper, but very few. It didn’t take us long to catch on to English though. The letters of the alphabet are similar to Finnish, and although some of the sounds are different, it wasn’t too hard to learn to read English. In fact, I did both the first and second grade work in the first year. Jennie and I started speaking English all the time, even at home. Mother didn’t mind, but she still talked Finnish, even though we answered in English. Because of thise, most of the younger kids were almost bi-lingual by the time they started school.

I suppose the fact that we did not hear English spoken at home helped us to learn the correct pronunciation of words from our teachers, and we did not acquire the accents like many American born children of immigrants do. For instance, when they tried to pronounce “th”, it almost always came out “da”.

My Uncle John [Efraimson], Dad’s brother, lived with us for many years. Dad had 720 acres of land to farm. To give an idea of the size, a “section” contains a four mile square of 640 acres. This was too much for Dad to do alone without the modern mechanized machinery available today.

Uncle John had a little Ford roadster, and every Sunday afternoon we would try to talk him into taking us for a ride. He was a quiet man and we never knew whether he’d grant our wish or not – until we suddenly saw him put on his hat and start for the granary (a farm building used to store grain) where he kept his car. We hurried along after him and it was a lot of fun. Sometimes we would stop at some neighbor’s farm, but otherwise just drove around for an hour or so. We had just started school and loved to read any signs that we would see. One that was hard to read was “QUAKER OATS”.

It was unfortunate for a farm family to have two girls as the oldest children, because boys would have been able to start helping with the farm work sooner. However, Jennie and I – the big girls, as we were called – did get involved in a lot of farm work. I remember harnessing those big draft horses that were so tall I had to climb up on the manger in the barn to put the collar on, before doing the hames and the rest of the harness.

There was a strap that had to go under their tails, ad that was pretty scary, but they never did kick us like the cows did at ties.

Jennie and I did quite a bit of plowing, and helped make hay by spreading the hay on the stack and tamping it down. I also remember one harvest time as Dad was going to town, he asked us if we needed anything. I said, “Yes, bring us some men!” That was a big laugh for many years. Of course, what I meant was to have some help with the farmwork. One of the chores was “shocking”, which is stacking up the bundles of wheat that had been cut. I think that was the year that a hired man quit because he could not keep up with Jennie and me doing the shocking.

Farming was quite different back then. In those days, we used a threshing machine to harvest the wheat. It had a huge engine --- almost like on a train – with a long wide belt that made the separator work. The separator took up the bundles of wheat that were thrown on a feeder and separated the grain from the straw.

Harvest time was a really exciting time of the year. Dad and two neighbors, Jake and Pete, went together and bought a threshing rig. In addition to the farm machinery, there was a “cook car” and a “bunk car”. They would go up to the Turtle Mountains a few weeks before threshing time and hire some of the Indians living there to come and haul bundles. They assigned two men to each straw wagon to gather up the bundles and bring them to the separator. The farmer whose crop was being harvested would furnish the grain wagons and haulers.

When Jennie and I were about 13 and 14, we started working on the cook car as assistants to the main cook. After awhile, we realized the two of us could handle it together, so they let us try it.

I guess we did all right. I do remember, though, that one morning we overslept and the engineer came knocking on the door to wake us up! That was after my 16th birthday party the night before.

We had to get up very early to get the big pots of coffee made and whatever else we would have for breakfast. One of us would attend to that while the other mixed up and kneaded the huge bowl of bread dough that we made every day. The bowl was as big as a small tub! Sometimes, for the noon meal, we would make “heino leipa”, a round flat loaf just about an inch thick – a big loaf about the size of the oven – and cut it in slices.

We made three main meals and, in addition, sent coffee and some cookies or cake out to the men in the field at about 9:00 in the morning and again at about 4:00 in the afternoon.

Well, enough of farming – but can you see I’m still a farmer at heart?

I finished grade school at 13 and tried very hard to get a job working for room and board so I could go to high school. However, I didn’t look like I was more than ten years old and it took two more years before I grew enough so that anyone would believe I could do housework.

The idea was not that I liked housework. In fact, I hated it – that was the reason I was willing to do it – so I could learn, and be prepared for better jobs later on.

During the time I was home after grade school, a sad thing happened. My little brother, Arne, got sick with terrible stomach aches. By the time we got the doctor for him, his appendix had ruptured, and he was taken to the hospital in Devils Lake, about 70 miles from the farm. It was harvest time, and Mother and Dad could not stay with him. Someone had to, though, and I was elected. Of course, I was happy to do it.

The poison from the ruptured appendix had gone through his body, and penicillin and other wonder drugs had not been discovered yet. The Doctor could not contain the infection;; the incision would not heal, and evidently his bowels were blocked. We stayed there part of August and all of September – came home in early October.

Both of us were very homesick. I tried to keep Arne content by reading to him from magazines and books. Some of his favorites were Bible stories. He also liked to draw, so we did a lot of that. His favorite pictures were of foods because he was on such a bland, almost liquid diet.

Sometime after we returned home, in fact, it was Halloween, he had been too active and the incision opened wider. Dad got the Doctor and he operated on him at home, but they had to take him back to the hospital the next day. He did not survive the next operation.

Lest you think that it was all work and dull, that is certainly not the case, and when it came to games, we were quite innovative. One year Dad decided to go into diversified farming. He fenced off a quarter of the land and bought about eighty sheep. His thinking was that if he had sheep in that pasture for a year or two, they would keep the weeds down, and the next year he would be able to harvest a really good wheat crop from that field. He was right. It really worked.

In the meantime, the sheep pasture was a new place for us to play. Eino had gotten a bike the year before, and we all learned to ride it. The sheep made little paths all through the pasture and we pretended that it was the United States.

We named certain sections for all the big cities of the United States. On the West was San Francisco, Seattle, etc. East of there was Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, and further east New York and Washington. We would take turns being the engineer on the train – the bike – and take passengers from one point to another. It was a lot of fun all that summer, and we were sorry to see it plowed up the next Spring.

I finally did grow up, and when I was almost 16, did get a job in exchange for my room and board in Cando, a little town about 30 miles from the farm.

I stayed with the same family for four years, doing the washing, ironing, cleaning, a lot of the cooking, etc. After the first year, I got a small salary so I could pay for my books and clothing. The lady I worked for was the daughter of a millionaire from Detroit. She was always grateful for the things I could do, but she also taught me a lot. One thing I’ll never forget was that I called the mashed potatoes “smashed” potatoes. That gave her a big laugh, and me too – afterwards.

I had learned to sew at home when Jennie and I complained about the style of dresses that our dressmaker made. Mother said if we didn’t like them we would have to make our own. She showed us how to cut a pattern from newspaper and fit it onto ourselves, and then cut the material. Of course we first practiced on the sewing machine by hemming diapers. Anyway, I could sew things for Mrs. Shanley – mending ripped sheets, etc., and I think I even made some aprons and things like that. She liked to give parties and had me draw pictures on her invitations. She also gave me a few piano lessons, for which I have always been thankful. I’m no great pianist, but can play enough to amuse myself. And since I learned to read music, I was able to get some of my brothers and sisters started.

Speaking of music, the whole family was talented in that area. Mother had a beautiful soprano voice and loved to sing, and so did Dad, who was a tenor. When Jennie and I were hardly in our teens, we joined the Church Choir along with Dad. In fact, we both sang in choirs until the last few years. I sang in the National Lutheran Chorus at Constitutional Hall in Washington, D.c. at a couple Christmas concerts. One of the concerts was the Christmas section of Handel’s Mesiah, and we were accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra.

After high school, I went to Fargo to business college. I had taken one year of typing and shorthand in high school, but the business college experience was good. Jennie came down and spent part of that year in Fargo, too, working as a housemaid. We became good friends with Alice Veronen. Jennie still keeps in touch with her.

The next year I got a job as a secretary to Frank Shanley, who had quit his job at the bank and gone into business for himself – some real estate and also as a clerk at auction sales.

I found a room at Clifford Holien’s, and Emma and Jo came down and started high school in Cando. Jo always remembers that her teachers were apt to call her Esther. We do look quite a bit alike. They only stayed for one term and then continued at Rock Lake, driving back and forth from the farm.

Living at Cliff’s is where I met Ted, his brother. I had known Ted’s family much before I met him and was, in fact, a good friend of Nellie and Mildred, his sisters.

Nellie happened to be in the hospital at the same time that I was staying there with Arne, so when I started school in Cando, we continued the friendship. I guess the reason I never met Ted is that he was mostly at their farm.

Well, anyway, we started playing cards – Whist (something like Bridge) was the game in those days – with Vera and Cliff [husband and wife]. Another girl who had a room at Cliff’s had a banjo, and pretty soon all of us were taking turns playing it and singing together. Then it was movies, and one thing led to another. Love walked in and I forgot about being a career lady.

We were married on September 7, 1927, and moved out to the “little farm” near Leeds. Wayne was born June 10, 1928 and already by that time we were having our problems. The problem was alcohol and that story has been told so many times in all sorts of stories, it is of no use to repeat it here. Suffice it to say that we had to move off that farm, go to work on other farms, or live in town where he could work with Cliff as a painter.

Carole was born at the farm in Rock Lake on December 19, 1930; Ida was born March 31, 1934 at the Simpson farm near Rock Lake, and Larry arrived on May 22, 1937 in Cando. By that time we had already been separated a few times. We had lived in Rock Lake, the kids and I, while he went out West to “make a new start”, but he came back drunk as a skunk, as the saying goes.

The kids and I were living in Cando in the upstairs rooms of the Deardorff house when Pearl Harbor was attacked. We had been at the movies when the news came out. Shortly before that I had taken two tests – one was for the Civil Service, and the other for the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The Civil Service telegram came first, asking me to report at the State Department in Washington, D.C. on March 17, 1942. I answered that I would be there and Jennie, as usual, came to the rescue agreeing to take care of the kids till I could send for them.

I had been working at the Courthouse in the Welfare Office and was making the magnificent sum of $75 a month, and everyone thought I had lost my mind to go traipsing off to Washington with four children.

Jennie took the kids out to the farm and they finished the school year at the Armourdale school about a mile from there. By September I had saved enough money for their train fare to Washington and rented a house in the northeast section of Washington. They arrived before school started.

Jennie got a job almost immediately in the Navy Department. We took in three roomers who had also come to Washington from North Dakota to work for the Government, so that helped pay the rent. Wayne got a job as a Washington Post delivery boy.

The kids got settled in school and, since Larry was still too young to go to school, we had a maid who took care of him. She was black, and one of the things Larry said about her was that he didn’t think she knew it! None of us had hardly seen a black person before we came to Washington and had no idea of bigotry towards them.

After we had been at Newton Street for a year or so, we decided to go out and take a look at Greenbelt, which advertised cheaper rents for people whose income was below a certain amount. I can’t remember what it was, but we qualified for it, and so we decided to move there. So that’s how we happen to be Marylanders now.

At first it seemed like the end of the world, because it took over an hour to get there from downtown by street car, but once we got used to it, it wasn’t so bad.

And it did seem like an ideal place for kids, with “underpasses” – paths cut out under the roads, so children didn’t have to cross streets to walk to school. There were a lot of activities planned for children, and a swimming pool too.

Go to Part 2 of "A Letter to my Family".


  1. This is so great to read this, than you for posting! My grandmother is Josephine, and my Mom is Lois Elaine Larson, Jo's oldest daughter. I remember a Family reunion back in 1970 or 71 in
    North Dakota on the Efraimson family farm when I was 9 or 10 years old. I think my mom has a copy of this letter. Thanks again for posting!

    -Bruce Bjerke

    1. I got to go to the reunion in 1970! I was 11 then.

      I was able to locate the "Letter to my Family" last night, and when I get a chance I will publish "Part 2". I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for commenting. You can also search my site under "Efraimson" (button at the top of page) to read more of my Efraimson stories. I remember Jo, and I have written with your mom. My mom was Ida Mae, and she and Lois were first cousins (my mom passed away). My mom named her first daughter "Lois". She wanted to name me "Wynn", after another cousin, by my dad would not agree to it.