Since March is Women’s History Month, I thought it was time to write about another woman in my family whose history deserves to be known. She is my paternal grandmother, Anna Moen Orser. The photo shows her seated, surrounded by her adult children. I think it’s from the 1990s; Anna passed in 2006.

Before I start with Anna’s life, I need to provide a little backstory (don’t worry, it’s interesting and I’ll try to keep it short!). Anna’s father was Sivert Sivertsen, following the Norwegian custom of using your father’s name as your last name. However, he changed it to Moen, the place he spent most of his life in Norway. He was born in 1862 in Surnedalen, near Trondhjem. He married his first wife, Mali, in Norway and they had four children: Mikkel, born 1889, Ida, born 1892, Marie and Selma, born around 1893. In 1894, the family emigrated to the US, settling in Minnesota. Mali was extremely unhappy, and she and Sivert divorced. She left the older two children with him, and returned to Norway, telling everyone that she was a widow.

Sivert wasn’t much of a farmer; he was better at talking and at carpentry. He started leaving his two children with friends and traveling around the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin, preaching and singing, and taking whatever people gave him. He apparently had a silver tongue. In his travels, he met Christine Thompson, a young woman who was living with a foster family in Abercrombie, ND. He convinced her to marry him, and they settled for a while in Windom, where their first child, Anna (also called Annie) was born in 1898. But Sivert got itchy feet and started traveling again, hauling his growing family with him from job to job, until he finally settled near Grand Forks, ND, where he worked for a building company. By then they’d had four more children, Sarah (1901), Alfred (1902), Waldimer (born and died in 1904), and Ingeborg (1906).

In 1907, Sivert died of typhoid, leaving Christine with his two older children, and their four living children. Mikkel may have left around then to go out on his own, and Ida seems to have married about that time. Christine took the rest of the children, from 9 year old Annie to baby Ingeborg, and bought a house in Edinburg, ND, which she shared with her brother Albert (“Uncle A.C.” to her children). Albert worked at a store in town, and Christine used the house to board teachers. She and Annie also started working then, cleaning other houses and doing laundry for other families, Annie working after school, as she belatedly started first grade (the delay was not because of her intelligence but because she was needed at home). Summers, Annie worked in a “cook car” with a threshing crew that started in Texas or Arkansas and worked its way north with the harvest. She earned $4 a day, a large amount in 1908!

Annie took some extra classes in 8th grade (while still working) so that she could finish her “high school” in 3 years instead of 4. She went to the Walsh County Agricultural and Teacher Training School in Park River. Since that was far from Edinburg, she had to board; to pay for her room and board, she cleaned the home she was staying in, and did laundry, ironing, and cleaning for other students. She also sent money home to Christine and her siblings whenever she could.

She graduated in the spring of 1917, and went to work in a country school. She boarded with a town family (paid by the school district to house and feed her) and traveled to the school with a horse and buggy. Because of northern weather conditions, and the not exactly weatherproof condition of the school, her school year ran from April through December. Typical for Annie, she worked doing cleaning and laundry from January through March. At some point in her life, she learned to play the piano and the organ; we don’t have a record of it, but once she graduated and started teaching, she played piano or organ in whatever church she was able to attend. I remember listening to her play her piano when I was a child, and I was amazed at the beauty of the music as her fingers were gnarled with arthritis. She told me she kept playing so they could keep moving.

After two years of teaching in rural North Dakota, she took a teaching job in a remote area of northern Minnesota, near International Falls, now part of Koochiching County. She started in 1919. Back then, there were no decent roads in the “big woods” of northern Minnesota, and few people or towns. The road she took to work was a “corduroy” road — stripped logs laid side by side, long sides touching, to keep from sinking into the swamp that was the undergrowth of this very wet forest. She also had to carry a lantern to be able to see in the mornings and evenings, and a gun to fend off wolves, which were much more numerous then than now.

At some point, she met a man named Oscar S. Melson. On the 1920 census, Oscar is reported living with his family in Odin, Watonwan County, Minnesota — over 350 miles from Greaney Town where Anna was working. We have no records for that time, but we believe he was probably working on the railroad that was being built through that part of Minnesota, and that he may have met Anna at church or a country dance. However they met, she fell in love with him. He was offered a job with the Northern and Chicago Railroad in Wyoming, and he told her that he’d go work there, and save up his money, then return and marry her. But apparently their relationship went a little beyond kissing, because in January of 1921, after the school year ended, little Oscar Vernon Melson was born.

Sadly, in March of 1921, Oscar S. Melson was killed in a stupid railroad accident — he and some other men from the railroad camp had been to Lander to see a movie, and went back to the camp in a “speeder,” a car designed to run on railroad tracks. It hit a deer, throwing three men from the car. Oscar was seriously injured (it was a neck and spine injury) and he died the next morning; one other man was also seriously injured and in the newspaper report from Lander, it was reported that he was not expected to survive. Oscar’s brother Alfred, younger than Oscar by a year, had a minor hand injury. He filled in the personal information on Oscar’s death certificate, and listed Oscar as single. He escorted Oscar’s remains to St. James, MN (nearest railroad stop to the Melson home in Odin, MN), and his obituary was published in the Butterfield paper (another small town in Watonwan County, as Odin had no paper). In that same paper, his parents and siblings thanked those people who had come to the funeral. Nothing of Anna was mentioned. Apparently Oscar never told his family about her.

Because of her condition, Anna was not asked to stay in Koochiching County. Her mother came to help her, and the two women, with baby Vernon, moved to Colgate, ND, where she started over. She called herself Mrs. Melson, a widow, and took a job teaching. In Colgate, she met Loyd Orser, then a good-looking veteran of WWI, with plenty of medals to prove his courage, and a large hard-working familyor brothers, sisters, and cousins. They married, and he raised Oscar Vernon Melson (always called Vernon or Vern) as his own.

The rest of her story is perhaps not as exciting as scrubbing floors to get to school, fighting off wolves in the North Woods, and making a life for herself and her illegitimate child (did you know that in 1921, there was a box on birth certificate labeled “Legitimate” that needed to be filled with a “yes” or a “no?” Anna filled in the “yes,” but she listed her son’s father as Oscar S. Melson, who never did get to see his son). However, she never quit trying to improve herself and her children. She went back to school, and eventually became the first woman county superintendant of schools in Steele County, ND — possibly the first woman with that post in any county in the state.

She also made sure that all of her children were educated, and all of them were successful in their chosen fields, largely due to her insistence that they make something out of themselves, doing whatever they were best at. And as far as I’m concerned, that makes her a woman worth remembering.


Seven Random Things

March 11, 2011

I was pushed by a fellow blogger, who manages to post weekly, to get back into blogging. So here is a start: my list of seven random things. If I’m doing it wrong, I’m sure I’ll hear about it!

1. I hate March. It’s nice, then it sleets and snows, and the wind howls, then it’s warmer and sunny, but the wind is still howling and streets and parking lots are filled with slushy ponds and my car’s color is unrecognizable. Spring? I think not.

2. I get catalogs from flower and seed companies every single day, starting in November. Seriously. Some of them I’ve bought from in the past, so I can sorta understand, but some are from places I’ve never heard of. Maybe they think showing me beautiful flowers (that only grow in zones 8-10 and I’m in zone 3…) will make me think of spring and planting my garden. They could not be more wrong.

3. A confession. I’m a process knitter. I LOVE choosing a pattern, finding the perfect yarn, casting it on, doing the first three or four rows — and then I’m ready to start again. This is probably the reason that right now I have 6 “UFOs” (UnFinished Objects, in Knit-Speak) just in my living room. I won’t mention the number in my yarn/stash room. However, I believe I have enough yarn to survive the apocalypse and make scarver — excuse me, START scarves — for the other survivors.

4. I’m really, really afraid of zombies. I know, they aren’t real. And in old movies, they weren’t particularly scary (although how running people could be captured by shuffling zombies did and does baffle me…). Have you seen the AMC series “The Walking Dead?” Even if you weren’t afraid of zombies before, you will be if you watch it. I taped them, and watched the first two episodes during the day (I am prone to nightmares). They terrified me. The story was good, but the special effects were really, really amazing. They didn’t look like effects; they looked real (which is, after all, the point…). And they run (if they still have legs; otherwise they drag themselves by their rotting arms…). OMG. I couldn’t watch anymore, even by daylight. Nightmares? Still having them.

5. My dog, Kimiko, loves to play in the snow. However, she is appalled and offended if snow falls onto her. I can’t understand the difference between getting snowy because you’ve been rubbing your big furry head in it and rolling in it, and getting snowy because it’s falling on you and sticking to your outer coat, but apparently in DogLand it’s a huge difference. I’m baffled.

6. I’m a “what’s that song????” junkie, for TV background music. Whether it’s part of the background in an episode of a favorite show, and I think, just maybe, I sort of recognize it, or I don’t but I think I want to download that song; or if it’s in a car commercial or an insurance commercial — I run to the computer to Google “what’s the song in…. [fill in the blank]” and if I get the answer, I find it and download it. If I don’t get an answer, I’m totally bummed. There was an ad last summer for a TV show that came back in the fall, and it had a line about “I love you enough for the both of us” or words to that effect — but I couldn’t find it. Not nowhere, not nohow. I am STILL haunted by it. I want to listen to it 10 times a day!

7. Apparently I talk about my dog more than most parents talk about their children. What can I say? I don’t have a husband or boyfriend or children, I don’t get out much, so it’s just the two of us. And I love that song I heard on NCIS — The Dog Song. “I’m just a-walkin’ my dog…” — about a poor sad lonely girl who decided to give up on men and get herself a dog, and now she’s happy. (It could be autobiographical had I written it…)

So, that’s my seven things. I dare any blogger reading this to do your OWN Seven Random Things blog — at least seven of you! Please!