Front: Christ, Herman, Hansine, & Maren.
Back: Julia, Elna, Walter, Thorvald, Magnus, Gertha, and Inger.
(Identifications of those in the back row are based on birth order given in this history.)
The Christiansen Family Story
By Maren Christiansen Pettit
The following story was written in the 1970s by my great-aunt Maren in response to my request for family history. She was helped with memories by her sister Inger (my maternal grandmother), who was visiting Maren for the summer when it was written
The letter is as she wrote it with only minor corrections made for obvious errors. Since Maren wrote down things as she thought of them, the letter is a trifle disorganized. It reminds me of afternoons spent at kitchen tables listening to Maren, Inger, and Elna talk about "when we were girls" as they drank copious amounts of coffee and ate coffeecake and cinnamon rolls. Only a few comments, directed to me and not part of the history, have been omitted. Comments in [brackets] were added by me while transcribing this. Typographical errors are, of course, mine own.
Gabrielle David,April 2001
I'm going to write this "story" as if I'm writing a letter to you - - - - and it probably will be like my letters, sort of rambling around and not like a good composition should be. As Inger & I think of things we'll make a note of them and maybe the letter will be interesting enough to tell to Paula & Gery by & by. [Paula & Gery are Gabrielle's children.]
Even a true story can begin with "Once Upon a Time" can't it? So -- Once upon a time there were a man and his wife living in Denmark, near Aarhus. Her mother and his father lived with them. In the picture, its is Farmor ("Father's mother" in the Danish language) who is standing to the left of the door. The girl standing by her is Hansine Marie Mortensen. Uncle Jens, her brother, is sitting on the doorstep and her mother & father, Anna Marie & Mads Mortensen are on the other side of the door with Tante Katrine, Hansine's sister beside them.
Anna Marie [Ane Cathrine Marie] was a licensed midwife and had to take care of a certain district. She was required to go to a school for a while every year to learn the latest techniques -- a sort of refresher course. The round object over the door, in the Denmark picture, is her "shingle" to tell the community of her professional status. As we have all been told about the other interesting details in the treasured picture, I won't go into that here. [Unfortunately, those details are now largely lost.]
Hansine Marie married Christ Christiansen when she was nineteen. We don't remember very much about his parents and early childhood but know he was an only child who was reared by a stepmother and his father.
One of the laws in Denmark at that time had every able-bodied male between the ages of 18 and 35 (?) serve a three-month's term in the army. This was a hardship and a grief to be separated from his family; so they decided to emigrate to America. They had two children, Magnus and Thorvald, when they came to Racine, Wisconsin in the early 1880s. Hansine's mother & father & sister came, too, later.
But Uncle Jens got here by a different route: when he was only fourteen years old, he was shanghaied in Copenhagen and forced to work on a whaling vessel. He almost lost his life when a whale upset their boat. A sail trapped a pocket of air in which he came up & survived until he was rescued by some of the crew. He jumped ship in San Francisco and hid in the attic of a friendly baker until his ship left port, the baker bringing him food etc. once a day under cover of darkness, as it was very risky for him to harbor any ship-refugees.
Your great grandfather was known as Chris, hardly anyone sounding the T. He worked in the Studebaker Wagon Works in Racine for some years. Thorvald met a tragic death soon after they got there. [My mother told me that Thorvald drowned in the kitchen cistern while playing with a toy boat. When his mother died nearly sixty years later, the toy boat was found among her effects.] Two more children were born there, Walter and Gertha. In a few years they moved to a farm near Tyler, Minnesota. All the rest of the children, of a family of twelve, were born there, the youngest being four years old when they moved to a farm west of Larimore, North Dakota, in April 1904. The Minnesota period was from 1887 to 1904.
The years in Minnesota were hard, but full of interesting and even amusing incidents. They experienced terrible blizzards, droughts, prairie fires, & crop-destroying hailstorms. It probably was after the Big Hailstorm that they lived mostly on rabbit meat all one winter. a special treat, on Sunday, was oatmeal with sugar & cider. At one time their only fuel for the kitchen stove was "knots" of twisted hay. There was a great deal of long wild prairie grass that made the finest hay. This burned quickly and was what burned in the fires that raced across acres & acres in a short time.
One time Walter & Gertha stuck their dolls down in a badger hole for safekeeping while they ran ahead of a spreading fire to the safety of the house & other buildings. It was customary to plow so wide a band of furrows around the farm buildings that the fires couldn't cross them.
An amusing thing happened to this family of city-bred pioneers: When they were cutting hay, they uncovered four small furry wild "kittens" of some kind or other. They took them back to the house and fed them bread and milk. They'd hide behind a barrel & so weren't in sight when neighbors came. Of course it was the natural thing to show them & wonder what they were. One day they took a stick to poke them from their hiding place -- and found out to their dismay that they smelled terrible, no matter what they were! Skunks were left strictly alone after that.
There was a native tiny-leaved plant that was used for tea in many of the homes. Some wild fruit, choke cherries and plums particularly, were theirs for the picking.
Magnus walked ten miles to the nearest school. He lived with an Indian family whose ways and food were strange to him. At the end of the week, he'd walk home again to get clean clothes and fill up on our mamma's good food.
The first son born in Tyler was named Thorvald too; then came Elna, Inger, Julia, Alma, Herman, Agneta & Maren. Alma & Agneta died while still infants. [Inger named her only doll Agneta after her baby sister. The china-headed doll is now one of my treasured possessions.]
Their parents had good neighbors and made life-long friends -- best remembered being Jacob Jacobsen and "Tante" Mary, his wife. Mamma & Mary helped one another when babies came. Even nine-year-old Gertha was needed -- at least one time going to Tante Mary's to bake bread for the family of seven or eight.
The whole neighborhood would celebrate the holidays, Danish or American. Sometimes they went to a resort-recreation center named Tivoli -- I suppose for the world-famous Tivoli in Copenhagen. At the family gatherings in one anther's homes they'd sing and dance and enjoy the old Danish folk dances and games. Our father taught us to dance. No wonder we've always enjoyed waltzing!
The Russell Farm near Larimore
He was a good farmer, forward looking, & ready to see the advantages of new & better equipment and eager to learn how to increase the yield of the crops. He owned 640 acres of the best farmland in the fertile Red River Valley. He had his own threshing rig, doing custom threshing for neighbors for miles around besides his own crops. With the rig went the cook car -- the bunk car, bundle wagons, grain tanks (a wagon made especially for hauling small grains). If a piece of machinery broke down, Pa could fashion the necessary replacements in the blacksmith shop --
unless it was too complicated. Then he'd send off for the piece & have to wait til it came.
The blacksmith shop was a cheery place with its firey "furnace", the bellows & the sound of the big hammers and the anvil. One winter he spent quite a lot of time making an ice-sled -- used binder canvas for a sail. At the end of a fast & breathtaking first run it took a nose dive when it hit the bank at the far end of the bond. It didn't matter much to Pa; he had proved that it would work. It became a make-believe ship for youngsters for a long time.
The granary would hold 20,000 bushels of grain. The barn could store tons & tons of hay in the mow while below there was plenty of room for the many horses needed to run such a big farm. We've enjoyed remembering the barndances held in the nearly-empty mow. The machine shed held the threshing rig engine and separator in the middle, and on the sides, the binders and drills, and plows, and drags, mowers, and I don't know what all was kept there in the winter & while not in use in the summertime.
We can remember some of the names of the 36 horses. Besides the three ponies, Kate, Beauty & Lona, there were Jim & Dolly, a valuable team, Big Jim, Little Jim, & Whisky Jim, Ned, Big Beauty, Lady, Jers, Dick, Tut's Dick, and Pewaukee. (This is the way we got my (Maren) horse, Peewaukee: Ul Tor [see P.S. #1] had her hitched to a buggy & she was only a bag of bones. Pa felt sorry for her & bought the outfit, horse, harness, & buggy -- & said it was Maren's.) Pewaukee was hitched to the buggy to take lunches, and many times, full meals, to the men working in the fields. In the pasture were six little colts, a jackass, and old retired Topper who was the friskiest one in the bunch! There were a Dandy & Dan, too.
The first year they were in North Dakota, as they met more families and made new friends, our Dad invited them to help celebrate his birthday, Mar. 31. He told them it was a standing invitation as long as he lived. We remember well the preparations, even weeks, before the day. The summer dining room was cleared of the winter's accumulation of stuff and benches, made of nail kegs with horse blanket pads, were set up around the walls. This left the center free for the folk dances and games. One year there were eighty-eight people for the noon sitdown meal! The children had to wait til all the grown-ups were through -- & oh -- how we wished they wouldn't sit so long over their dessert and coffee & talk & talk & talk. Sometimes only the old folks & littlest children came for dinner. They'd go home late in the afternoon and the younger grownups and teenagers came for supper and the partying afterwards. These affairs included afternoon coffee and midnight lunch as well as noon dinner and supper. It staggers the imagination to think of all the baking & roasting and cooking of all that food and other hard work -- no [hard to decipher -- kitchens ??] in those days.
I remember Inger, with Julia's help, and Mamma's (Mamma must have baked tons of white bread in her time -- & many loaves of sour-dough-raised bread) cooking for this crowd -- & in the cook car during the threshing season; -- in fact there were twenty, twenty-five people at every meal all summer long. She was an industrious young lady who could do anything -- & this in spite of handicaps that would have stopped some people. [Because of a congenital nerve disorder Inger had little feeling in her arms. This proved a blessing when she fell off a fence as a youngster, cut her right hand on a can, and gangrene set in. One of her fingers was completely amputated and others, including her thumb, were partially amputated. Muscle & tendon damage left her unable to completely open her hand. The blessing was that she felt very little pain even though the amputation was done without anesthetic.] She was an expert seamstress; sang in the country glee club & church; chorded on an old pump organ for Thorvald when he played the fiddle for dances.
When she and Julia had dates, the transportation was by horse & buggy, or sled, most of the time. She and the other brothers & sisters bought books whenever they could -- all the family liked to read, and these books were read in turn; sometimes a book about be taken "out of turn" & devoured in a secret place. Even the toilet served this purpose -- nobody bothered there.
When Julia had a date, Inger would say "Go ahead and get ready -- Maren & I will wash the dishes." When Inger had a date & Julia didn't, she'd say the same thing. Neither one asked Maren about it & she didn't appreciate the "honor" either. Often groups of young people would sing, with organ accompaniment, for hours and hours -- songs that now are classified as "nostalgia".
When Inger rode horseback, to get the cattle in from the prairie etc; it was usually on Kate. Herman rode Lona and hitched her to a cart sometimes. Beauty was ridden by anyone else who needed her.
In 1916 Inger married John Joseph Hollister. You, and Joe & Hop, are familiar with your own childhood with Ann & Dick & Mom, so I won't say anything about that. [Joe & Hop are my brothers, Ann is my mother (Inger's daughter), Dick is my father, and Mom is what we all (except my father) called Inger.] And Inger can tell you about her & Joe's life in Cleveland. But I want to tell one particular incident that concerns your grandfather.
Joe had been a teamster with the Ringling Brothers' Circus before coming to our place; so he went with Pa & Ma & Walter and me to Grand Forks when the circus came there one summer when I was six or seven. We had gone down, on the train, the day before in order to be at the unloading siding the next morning early. We took it all in, being allowed to go anywhere we wanted to. On all sides came shouts of joy when his old buddies saw Joe. We were privileged to eat breakfast in the teamsters' tent -- courtesy of this well-liked man. After we'd eaten, we went back to the hotel to wait for the big parade. In the afternoon we went to the big top to see this Greatest Show on Earth. When it was over, there was such a hurrying to get out it was dangerous for children & old folks or those not so robust. Walter had been sick for quite a long time and certainly not stout enough to withstand the pressure; but Joe made a protective shield for Walter by putting his arms around him, still letting him walk freely, without getting bumped and hurting his back. That act of compassion was indicative of his true character -- we all really loved Joe.
Writing "indicative of character' made me think of a nice thing in our home: Our parents were Danes, as you know, & spoke the language fluently; of course all the children learned it from them and used it as often as English. But Dane was not spoken when there were hired men, or schoolteachers, present. This was insisted upon & adhered to at all times.
Ma & Pa (as we sometimes said, instead of Mamma & Papa -- never Mom & Dad) really taught themselves to read and write in the English language. Talking in English I suppose was picked up by associating with English-speaking people & from their children's schoolwork.
I've written some about Papa, your great-grandfather on your mother's side. And now I want to say something about our mother -- i.e. besides what is already included in the parts about their family and life together.
She told me of being apprenticed to a dairy farm in Denmark, where she learned the art of making good butter and cheeses. Her parents paid for her education there, but she had to do such very hard work under poor conditions and nearly staved -- the food was so bad. Another time she went to a sort of school and learned to sew and knit and crochet. Gardening came naturally -- I've heard her say she would have been a professional landscape gardener if girls had been allowed even half the freedom then, as they had at the time she told me.
Mamma, or Beda, as grandchildren and many others called her, was a good wife and mother -- kind, gentle, hospitable and hard working. She helped in the field, doing a man's work as a matter of course. She helped put up hay, pitching it to the stack, three days before Thorvald was born (in Tyler) & then was alone home when he did come -- all the rest of the family were in the hayfield.
Her garden, at Russell Farm & in town (Larimore) were a child's idea of paradise -- when they moved to town, the lot surrounding the house was bare of shrubbery & flowers -- rubble from an old house took up a big part of the yard. It didn't take her long to make a Thing of Beauty of the whole place. When folks would go for a little drive after supper, they'd drive by our house as slowly as they could, just to enjoy her flowers & vegetable garden. She really influenced the whole neighborhood to spruce up -- it was neater, cleaner and prettier than that end of town had ever been. Their gardens were nice but none equaled hers in sheer loveliness.
In spite of the hundreds of hours of hard manual labor, Mamma always was a lady in every sense of the word -- not "high society" lady but a thoroughbred gentlewoman. In the wintertime, even if it was 40-degrees below zero outdoors, her windows were full of blooming lowers. To this day, Inger & I enjoy all flowers, a "heritage" we've appreciated. She also instilled in us a sense of thrift that has stood us in good stead all our lives. It was always Mamma who suggested going to church, as I remember Sunday mornings. They did support the Lutheran church in their community wherever they lived. On two occasions they quit because of so much bickering and quarreling by some of the congregation. That didn't belong in their idea of worship of God.
And now, my dear Gabrielle, I'm gong to begin to end this long, long letter. You can get Inger & Ann to elaborate on anything I've written & I promise to answer any questions you care to ask -- if I can, of course.
This has been a real labor of love and I am glad Inger asked me to write about our folks and everything.
While we were still on the farm, our place was the logical stopping-place for every transient, peddler, and sales man on the road from Larimore to Niagara & points west. For one thing, the barn always had room for the horses -- and the men were sure of two good meals and a decent bed. If the "tramps", as they were called, wanted to work to pay for the meals, there always was something they could do. But offers to work, or just asking for food, nobody was ever turned away.
The peddlers were of two kinds: some came walking with huge packs on their backs [others in carts or buggies, I'm sure Maren meant to write]. We looked forward to seeing one who came every summer -- Jor'en Jul. He carried pins & needles & laces & braid & thimbles & scissors -- some yard goods & ribbons. One, Sam Shaum by name, came more than once in the summer -- with baskets of whichever fruit was in season -- & later with warm jackets & men's underwear, mittens, etc. Another was called "Ul-Toi" a Danish word for "woolen goods". [Uld is Danish for wool. I'm not sure about Toi (or Tor, as Maren wrote it in telling about the acquisition of her pony). The Christiansen children learned to speak Dane but they never really learned to write it and their spelling was sometimes phonetic.] Shaum had a spring wagon, & usually two horses. The woolen goods man always came in a top buggy & was a sort of dandy, dude, or whatever you call it. Johnny Miller lived only six, seven miles away so never stayed all night. He butchered his own meat & sold it from door to door in a covered-over wagon.
In talking about our parents & sisters & brothers, we have not unearthed a cattle-rustler, nor a horse thief. So far as were know, all of the family have been decent, honorable people. Of course, we surely have bent the Ten Commandments -- seems like everybody does in some ways. "But not so much as some people have." I believe we can say that without a "holier than thou" attitude, too.
Inger and I used the phrase "just plain good" when we spoke of Herman & Julia & Mamma. Ann knew Herman & can tell you many nice things about him. And Inger can tell about the rest of us, I guess. If we were to name each one and their spouses and offspring, there'd be a page or two of statistics. Maybe there is an apt phrase to describe each one, as the phrase we used for Herman & Julia. I believe it applies to Elna, too.
If you're wondering what became of Russell Farm, I'll tell what we know about it. Pa sold the farm to the three sons, Magus, Thorvald, and Herman on crop payment, then moved to Larimore. He became the distributor (bought the franchise or whatever they call it) for the Bartles Oil company. Was doing fine, too, when he died in 1919.
Thorvald and family lived on the farm, first, and Herman stayed with them. He & Thorvald put in Magnus' crops as well as their own. Later Magnus lived there & Herman stayed with them. Thorvalds had moved to Niagara -- they tended his land. After a few years Magnus left and Herman tended all their shares by himself, i.e. with the help of many hired men and a housekeeper-cook in the busiest seasons.
For many years the crops were so bad, and some a complete failure, that the boys couldn't meet the mortgage payments (mortgages they had to have to buy seed) & finally lost the land.
The Christiansen Children, their Spouses, and their Children:
Magnus married Mary Howe. Their children were named Dagmar, Axel [killed in action in Germany on September 19, 1944, during World War II], Marie, & Doris.
Gertha married Carl Jensen. Their children were Nettie, Esther, Clifford, Camilla, Hoger, Elna, Valdemar, Kenneth, & Edith.
Walter didn't marry. [He died of complications of tuberculosis when he was 28. His name was given in its Danish form, Valdemar, in his obituary.]
Thorvald married Julia Haahr. Their children were Donna, Alice, Donald, Gordon, Betty, & Barbara.
Elna married Henry Tackett. They adopted Bonnie.
Inger married John Joseph Hollister. Their daughter was Ann [my mother].
Julia married George Axelsen. They had no children.
Herman married Viola Rasmussen. They had no children.
Maren married William O. Pettit. Their children were John & Luther
[As Maren wrote in her history letter, the first Thorvald died as a child in a tragic accident, and Alma and Agneta died as infants.]
Chris Christiansen (paraphrased from his obituary)
Christ Christiansen was born March 31, 1854, at Vejinge, Fyen, Denmark, where he lived with his parents until the age of 22 when he was married to Hansine Mortensen. They came to America in 1879 and settled at Racine, Wisconsin, where they lived for seven years before moving to Tyler, Minnesota, where they lived for eighteen years before moving to Larimore, North Dakota. They lived on the Russell Farm there for several years, then moved to town in 1917.
He was a good farmer, an inventive machinist, and a fine businessman.
"Papa" died at his home in Larimore on Thursday evening, December 4, 1919, at 9:30 o'clock, after an illness of a few days. He had contracted a bad cold that later developed into pneumonia. He was survived by his wife and by eight of his children, though his daughter Julia died only days later. He was buried in the Bethel Church graveyard in Larimore after funeral services in the family home.
Hansine Christiansen was called Sine (or Signa) and later was known as Beda, or Betta, because Dagmar, her first grandchild, called her that and it caught on with the rest of the family.
Trained in Denmark to make cheese and butter, she was also an expert with needles and thread and at the many skills needed by a farm wife and mother. It was not unusual for her to work beside the men in the fields when needed.
Sine's love, after her husband and family, was flowers. In a diary covering 1922-24, she notes faithfully the flowers she has planted, along with the weather, work done, and visitors. She also recorded the anniversaries of her husband's birth and death, and the anniversaries of the deaths of her children Julia & Walter and her son-in-law Joe, mentioning each time how much she missed them.
Sine died December 14, 1938. She is buried near her husband in Bethel churchyard.
Send e-mail to
Family Tree Links