Another Woman Back into History

March 20, 2011

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.

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13 Responses to “Another Woman Back into History”

  1. Great post, Lori! Sounds like your grandmother was a fascinating woman. Glad you shared her story.

  2. Lori, your post about Anna is intriguing. Maybe because I write fiction, it sounded like a very good basis for a novel, with what you’ve written here serving as the outline. Have you considered doing that? I can almost envision the settings, the romance, the conflicts, her strength against the odds.

  3. Meg Justus said

    It’s amazing to me how much you know about your ancestors. I would love to write about my maternal grandmother, but there’s really not much of a way for me to find out more about her.

    She was a brave woman.

  4. leescott58 said

    Meg, I had the help of my aunt Carol, who has done a great job with family record keeping, and then I turned to Ancestry.com, as well as writing to historical societies in Lander, WY, Watonwan County, MN, and a few other such places. The response was wonderful. And Irene, I am thinking the very same thing — her life would make a great historical fiction novel. Maybe two, if we go into what happened at Colgate and beyond as a separate book, because up to that point, there’s plenty to fill up the pages! Gayle, thank you for your comment!

  5. It’s amazing, as we look back at your family history, how these strong women have shaped our lives!

  6. What a woman! I agree with the idea of making her life into a novel. Which son is your dad?

  7. leescott58 said

    My late father is the tall one standing in the middle. I have his eyes and upper lip (and prematurely graying hair!); otherwise I look like my mom. My aunt Carol, who helped SO much with family records, is to the right of my father (and my seated grandmother). Vern is seated next to my grandmother. Standing from left are John, Shirley, Dad (Loyd Everett — the family always used both names to avoid confusion with my grandfather Loyd Orser — also Everett or Evert is a name that appears throughout the family tree), Carol, and David, the youngest. All Anna’s children are still alive except Vernon and Loyd.

  8. leescott58 said

    I’d like to add one more note about my uncle Vern. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1939, and served in the Pacific Theater under Jimmy Doolittle in the Flying Tigers until the war ended in 1945, earning plenty of medals, and inspiring my father to enter the military as soon as he was old enough. My father wanted to be a pilot, but because of his far-sightedness, he ended up in the army infantry. I know many of us had parents or grandparents in WWII (or later wars), but I’m particularly proud of Vern’s service. And even in the military, he always sent money home to his mother and siblings every chance he got.

  9. Suzanne said

    Very interesting reading. I live a few miles from Odin, Minnesota. Do you know which cemetery Oscar S Melson is buried? I know there are several with the name Melson still in this area. I would find it interesting to visit the cemetery if you know which one it is. Very fascinating story. Thanks for sharing.

  10. leescott58 said

    According to the Butterfield News, Oscar S. Melson was buried in St. Olaf cemetery. I’m not sure if that’s in St. Olaf, or near Odin. Seems to me that when I checked Google’s overview of the area (the aerial photo, not a map) that there were two cemeteries outside of Odin, so one of those may be St. Olaf. You’d probably know more than I. I’d love a photo, if you can find it! Thank you, Suzanne.

  11. Suzanne said

    I am not very far at all from St. Olaf church and have done several photos at that cemetery. There is also another community cemetery just west of Odin, but if his obituary stated St. Olaf, that most likely is the one he is indeed buried in. The cemetery is connected to the St. Olaf Lutheran Church which still holds services to this day. The cemetery continues to be active as well with several burials a year. I will pay a visit as soon as weather and time allows.

  12. leescott58 said

    That would be great! I do understand about the conditions of time and good weather – both are in short supply around here these days! It would be nice to see the sun shine again… especially since we have more water than we need. Wish we could send some to West Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico…

  13. FE said

    I am related to Oscar Melson and would love to communicate with you. I have some records, etc. He started out working as a farmhand for my great grandfather. Maybe that is how he met his sister (my great grandmother). He moved up to Koochiching with his sister, her husband, and their children. He enlisted in the service and I am currently trying to find out more about his service history, etc. That is how I came upon your website.
    best regards,
    Faye

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