A Norwegian-American family’s celebration of roots

The story of Magnus and Gina

Magnus holds his son, Angus, for his christening in a photo with Gina and their older son, John.

Leslee Lane Hoyum
Rockford, Minn.

Kim Donaldson is the author of the book Magnus and Gina: Unbeaten by the North Dakota Prairie, in which she explores her family’s Norwegian-American roots.

On the heels of Mindekirken’s centennial anniversary, a church founded by a handful of Norwegian immigrants, parishioners look forward to celebrating the roots of other Norwegian Americans during the 2025 Norwegian Emigration Bicentennial. Kicking off the many programs to be offered throughout 2024 and 2025 will be Kim Donaldson, who will discuss her recent book, Magnus and Gina: Unbeaten by the North Dakota Prairie, at Tuesday Open House on April 2.

Kim Donaldson, Savannah, Ga., has deep roots in the rich farmland of North Dakota. Formerly a retail department store executive, Donaldson has a lifelong passion for genealogy, history, travel, and photography. Upon the death of her father six years ago, she eased her grief by chronicling her family’s Norwegian immigration story.

Through fieldwork in Norway and North Dakota, Donaldson, along with her Norwegian cousin Terje Olsen, Bærum, traced her roots, beginning with her second great-grandfather Johannes Ottersen, Jevnaker on the Randsfjord, and followed her great-grandfather Magnus’ 1905 arrival on the fertile homestead afforded him in western North Dakota, and the generations that followed.

Not unlike other emigrant families, a life-altering event encouraged the Ottersen family to leave Norway: Magnus’ father died tragically at age 40. The Upper Midwest was a logical destination, since other family members already had established themselves there.

On the other hand, Gina, Donaldson’s great-grandmother, was born in the United States to Henry and Anna Kyllo who lived near Galesburg, North Dakota. Henry and his parents emigrated from Nord-Trøndelag in 1866 when Henry was just 6 and homesteaded in eastern Dakota Territory near Harwood. Anna also emigrated from the Trondheim area, but not until 1880; they did not know one another in Norway. Both Galesburg and Harwood are now a part of the Greater Fargo area.

Magnus was an enterprising young man and decided to lay claim to land in western North Dakota along with other Wahus family members, formerly Ottersen. It is here he met Gina. She had married a strapping young man, who met an untimely death just eight months after they wed. She stayed and claimed his land based on a widow’s rights clause from the 1862 Homestead Act.

A family gathering brought the extended Wahus family together at their North Dakota home.

At age 24 Gina was living alone and managing a 320-acre wheat and cattle breeding farm in the area then known as Charlson, which is about 37 miles from Watford and today’s Bakken Oil Field. Guess who her neighbors were? Yes, the Wahus family. Through this connection, she met Magnus and the rest is history, so to speak.

The 1930s not only brought the Great Depression to North Dakota farms but also catastrophic drought resulting in withered crops. Fortunately, Wahus cattle kept their value and could be marketed in Watford City. During a time when heavy farm debt and low commodity prices caused a crisis of farm foreclosures and bank failures, the Wahus family stood strong. The men also supplemented their incomes by building roads in McKenzie County with the Works Progress Administration; they survived.

During the Depression, Wahus cattle kept their value, and the family stood strong.

Even during economic ups and downs, Gina and Magnus stood tall as pillars of the community. They were founders of their local church, Keene First Lutheran, which still is viable today. Magnus was a Sunday school teacher and Gina was active in the Ladies’ Aid that made quilts for Norwegian families after World War II, which was a strong partnership between Norwegian Lutheran congregations and Norwegian Relief, Inc.

Gina and Magnus never forgot their Norwegian roots, and Magnus was well known for his stories about growing up in Norway. However, Magnus’ heart and soul were full of gratitude for having realized his American dream, one in which his whole family believed. Gina and Magnus’ legacies are far from over. They have transferred their dreams to nine children, 20 grandchildren, and all the grandchildren’s offspring, who often gather in North Dakota to celebrate one another, North Dakota values, and their heritage.

church

Magnus and Gina were founders of Keene First Lutheran Church, which still is viable today.

Most Americans have an immigrant story to share and celebrate. It is the fabric of our being. Not all immigrants were superstars, but they were nonetheless influential in a lasting and significant way. Magnus and Gina were among the many who worked hard and sacrificed to build a better life for themselves and the generations to follow.

Notes: Donaldson, who is hearing impaired, as was her father, wrote the book as a nonprofit project for the National Association of the Deaf. Upon her father’s retirement, his coworkers at The Washington Post set up a scholarship in his name. All proceeds from the sale of the book are directed to this fund, specifically children’s education.

For more information about Mindekirken programming, visit mindekirken.org

Photos courtesy of Kim Donaldson

This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Leslee Lane Hoyum

Born and raised in Minnesota, Leslee Lane Hoyum attended the University of Minnesota and University of Oslo. Leslee is or has been involved with almost every Norwegian-American organization, including Sons of Norway, Sons of Norway Foundation, Ski For Light, NAHA, Leif Eriksson International Festival and Mindekirken. Leslee is a co-founder of Lakselaget and a founding member of Norway House, and has been decorated by His Majesty King Harald with the St. Olav Medal.