So, who is Bestefar? A Father’s Day tribute
Leslee Lane Hoyum
As we approach American Father’s Day, I reflect not only on the fond memories I have of my father, Howard Lane, but of his father, too, Grandpa, or Bestefar, the man to whom this column is dedicated. He wasn’t a famous millionaire but rather a man whose riches were measured by his faith, family, and friends. He was not unlike the majority of immigrants who came to America to build a better life for himself and for us. And, in the process, they helped build America into the great nation it has become.
Bestefar was born in 1887 near Sarpsborg in Østfold to Hans Olsen Lanne and Lena Kristiansdatter. The first son after a string of four girls, Bestefar grew up with few expectations. There was no surplus money and both parents worked. Lena washed bottles with sand and water for the Borg Brewery, which, at the time, was called Landegaard and Bryggeri. Hans worked two jobs, one at the Soli Brug sawmill and one at Landegaard as a farmhand. The sawmill provided a wage, while the farm provided the family with a small wooden cotter’s cottage, enough land for a small garden, and space for a few chickens.
Bestefar was baptized Johannes Olsen in the first Norwegian Methodist Church, which was in Sarpsborg, and where Hans and Lena were founding members. They had been greatly influenced by Ole Petter Petersen, a seaman who brought Methodism to Norway and later became ordained in the faith. Converting from the mainstream State Church in the 1800s was an act of courage, but their faith was a source of joy and comfort throughout their lives.
Although the Norwegian Dissident Act secured freedom of religion, Methodists were subject to religious persecution from clergy and lay members of the State Church. This included spreading anti-Methodist information, threatening to fire people or withhold welfare benefits, discriminating against school children, and socially isolating all converts. Methodists were not allowed to work as senior state officials, teachers, or military officers, or to hold political office. Therefore, few in the middle and upper classes converted to Methodism in its early years in Norway, thus rendering it a religion of the working poor. No matter, that did not shake the faith of Bestefar, his siblings, or his parents.
Although the cotter’s cottage provided shelter for the family, Bestefar’s father wanted more, especially for his wife. Hans assumed the name Hans Olsen Lanne to distinguish himself from the many Hans Olsens in Sarpsborg and took off for America to work in Minnesota sawmills so that Lena could have her own house. Unfortunately, through the eyes and heart of a young boy, Bestefar felt deserted. It’s a feeling that disturbed him his whole life. Little did he know that he, too, would break a heart in the future.
Life was full of fun for a small boy in 1890s Sarpsborg. He fished with his younger brothers, played hide and seek in the woods, swam in the Glomma River, played the French horn, sang in the Methodist church choir, studied as he was able, and started developing a trade by age 12—carpentry and cabinet making. But by the time Bestefar was 19 there were no jobs in Norway’s depressed economy. So in 1907, like thousands of others, he said goodbye to his family but promised his mother he’d be back in five years; he never saw her again. That weighed heavily on his heart for his entire life.
Grandpa was nonetheless a lucky man. He already had two uncles, one aunt, and a sister in Minnesota; so he wasn’t alone. He immediately sought out a Norwegian Methodist Church and found Bethlehem in North Minneapolis. Of course he joined the choir and within weeks was courting the organist, Bertha Swensen, a Norwegian-American with roots in Østre Toten. They married in 1910 and over the next 15 years had seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood.
Determined to become an American, Bestefar learned to speak English, learned about American government and became a citizen, and attended night school to study mechanical drafting. Overall, he was living well. Then the Great Depression hit; he lost everything, including his home. But, again, his faith carried him through. Later, three sons and a son-in-law fought in World War II, and all came home. He was blessed with 16 grandchildren. He was a proud American and just as proud of his Norwegian roots.
Bestefar returned to Norway twice, once in 1948 and once in 1965. The latter was my great opportunity. Grandpa was very depressed after Grandma passed away, and his children suggested he visit his homeland. However, it was a multi-month trip, and none of his children could accompany him. I imagine that since I had always been so inquisitive about my Norwegian heritage, he chose me. It was the beginning of an incredible genetic journey.
There have been many famous Sarpings who have shaped Norway and the world, such as Roald Amundsen, the polar explorer, Oscar Torp, former prime minister of Norway, and Marianne Skarpnord, the professional golfer, to name a few. They have earned a place in Norwegian history books. Bestefar may not be famous like them, but he was influential in a lasting and significant way. He was one of many who worked hard and sacrificed to build a better life for himself and his family and contributed to and solidified America’s society, economy, and culture. Moreover, he was my bestefar and I loved him.
Sarpsborg celebrates 1,000 years July 29-31, 2016. Founded by St. Olav at Sarpsfossen, the largest waterfall in Europe, the city offers the grandeur of the Viking Age. Come and celebrate with modern day Vikings through food, music, tours and theatre. For more information, e-mail Tours@BrekkeTours.com or email@example.com. Be sure to visit www.sarpsborg2016.no.
This article is a part of Bestefars hjørne, a feature column by Leslee Lane Hoyum.
This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.