When misfortune turns into opportunity

From a family’s destroyed walnut tree comes a new purpose, lefse rolling pins

Diane Tott shows off her walnut lefse rolling pins.

Photo: Gary Legwold
Diane Tott shows off her walnut lefse rolling pins.

Ames Tribune

Diane Tott was devastated to lose her family’s beloved walnut tree when the derecho blew through central Iowa on Aug. 10. Faced with the reality of losing the tree forever, Tott had an epiphany: She would have some of the walnut lumber made into lefse rolling pins, and she would give the treasures as gifts for Christmas.

The project of turning that walnut tree into working rolling pins—perfect for making the traditional Norwegian flatbread called lefse—was not an easy task. Perhaps apropos, “it became a story that the rich history of the tree merited,” Tott said. The results are usable works of art.

As a child, Tott spent innumerable hours playing near the tree on the Roland area farm where she grew up. Tott now lives in Ames and is retired after serving as clerk of court for 31 years. The family farm continues to belong to her mother, Esther Frandsen.

“We lived on the farm and so did my uncle and his family, so I got to grow up there with my cousins. … And my grandmother lived there until later in the ’60s when she moved into Roland,” Tott said. “It was quite a place with many good memories.”

Diane Tott tree

Photo: Diane Tott
It was hard to lose a treasured family tree, but misfortune turned into oppotunity.

Over the years, the tree held a tire swing and a bag swing. And it graced the family with walnuts, which the kids would help harvest.

Tott and her family used an antique corn sheller to remove the husks. Then they washed the walnuts and let them dry, she said.

“During cold, winter nights, my dad often sat and shelled the walnuts, which my mom would later use in her baking,” Tott said. “Mom and Dad’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren have helped with harvesting.”

Diane Tott poses next to her family’s beloved walnut tree on her mom’s farm near Roland. The tree sustained extensive damage in the Aug. 10 derecho and had to be removed.

Tott’s family connection to the walnut tree inspired her to have it live on through another beloved family tradition: the rolling of lefse.

In late August, she contacted Legwold, also known as the Lefse King, a Minneapolis man who has become an expert on Norwegian flatbread. A writer, editor and speaker, Legwold also teaches classes on lefse making.

Photo: Gary Legwold
Minnesota woodworker Bob Puetz put his skills to work to create the custom lefse rolling pins.

He had been a speaker at a Sons of Norway Kong Sverre Lodge event in Story City, Iowa, in October 2017, where he presented the program “Lefse, Lutefisk and the Importance of Humor.” Tott attended the event, and she reached out to Legwold.

Could he help her figure out how to turn part of the fallen tree into five beautiful rolling pins?

Part of Legwold’s business is dealing in heirloom lefse rolling pins, which range in price from $125 to $1,200 on his website, lefseking.com. Legwold has an important connection: Bob Puetz, an expert woodturner, who could put the walnut blanks on his lathe and work his magic.

Despite some needed troubleshooting, Minnesota woodworker Puetz used his lathe to turn these five walnut rolling pins for Diane Tott.

“It’s a really cool thing,” Legwold said. “This tree that was so much a part of Diane’s family now is continuing on as five different rolling pins. If you go to the Vesterheim museum in Decorah, you’ll see rolling pins there that came over from Norway and are 150 years old.

“They’re like a recipe card, they just keep on and on, picking up sentimental value.”

Reprinted with permission from the Ames Tribune online edition (www.amestrib.com), Dec. 26, 2020.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 29, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ronna Faaborg

Ronna Faaborg is a writer for the Ames Tribune and Story City Herald. Her heritage is mostly Danish, but she enjoys learning and writing about Scandinavian topics. She lives in Ames, Iowa, and can be reached at ronnafaaborg@gmail.com.