1880s Farming Changes

The Elias and Kari Borreson family arrived in Fitch Coulee in 1874 and Bertinus Estenson the year after. This was just in time for great farming changes occurring in Wisconsin. For several decades, wheat farming had been the rage, until depleted soils and cinch bugs did it in.

In 1869 the wheat yield in the state was 2,778 bushels per square mile; twenty years later it was down by almost 75 per cent to 764 bushels. Farmers were in the serious position of looking for alternative sources of income. At the same time, dairying was emerging as a serious option.

Wheat was still hanging on in Trempealeau County in the early years of our grandparents’ farming in Fitch Coulee. In 1880 the greatest concentration of wheat in the state was in the counties of St. Croix, Buffalo, Pierce, and Trempealeau – all western counties. The rest of the state was pretty well tapped out. If I recall correctly, wheat farming hung around for more time in Trempealeau County, and in 1917 the county was the state’s leader.

Dairying seemed to catch on quickly in Trempealeau County. The 1890s was referred to as “the creamery decade” because of the expansion of these operations. In fact, the counties of Vernon, La Crosse, Monroe, and Trempealeau (all western Wis.) each produced over a million pounds of creamery butter in 1895. Trempealeau led the pack with over two million pounds, competitive in price and quality with butter from the southeastern part of the state. As an aside, the cheesemaking that emerged in other parts of Wisconsin did not succeed in Trempealeau County. (I think there was an early brief attempt in Arcadia.)

At same time, the number of marketing cooperatives was growing dramatically, a movement that would have been familiar to many immigrants from developments in 19th century Norway. A creamery cooperative was formed in Pigeon Falls, but it was lost in a fire a short time later. Fortunately, the community had the trusted leader Peder Ekern who rebuilt the creamery as a private enterprise, a move acceptable to his fellow Norwegians.

It would have been interesting to know how the Borresons and Estensons adapted to these changes in farming. Did they grow wheat, and if so, for how long? When did they make the change to real dairy farming, rather than just a cow or two for family needs? What did they think about the local cooperatives?

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More About Norwegian Names

As I continued to read A Handbook of Scandinavian Names, it was fun to see the names in our own family, especially a few that I have questions about.

The name “Borre,” for example, is not common as a given name, at least not here in the USA, and I never have been able to learn much about it. This book groups it with Borge, Borje (with / through the o), and Byrge, and then desribes them as “younger forms of Birger.” Birger is described as Swedish, but common in all the Scandinavian countries. Its meaning in Old Norse is “helpful” or “helper, ally.”

The “Esten” as in Estenson is listed as a variant Oystein (/ through the o). This latter was a very popular name in Norway, and in the Old Norse is a compound of two words meaning “luck” and “stone.”

Another name I wondered about was “Gina.” The name appears in America from other traditions with a soft “g.” This book finally verifies Gine as a Norwegian name – the “e” and “a” ending are interchangeable in the language (“e” is usually more Danish, such as Ole vs. Ola). Still, the book does not provide separate information on the name. My guess, however, is that Gina is a shortened form of Jorgine or Jorgina (/ through the o again). Among boys’ names, Jorgen’s English form is George. So maybe that’s it.

When you see Anne in one of its many forms in Norwegian, know that you are looking at the most popular girl’s name in all of Scandinavia since 1500. It derives from the Hebrew name Hannah, and is a reference to the mother of the Virgin Mary.

Ole, the name of Norwegian caricature, was Ola until, under Danish rule, the Danish pastors spelled it Ole. Ola or Ole has a noble heritage: it comes from Olaf, the name of the king or saint of Norway of the same name.

So, there are just a few examples from a book that’s fun to peruse. I haven’t seen a better source for learning about Norwegian names.

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Norwegian Naming Practices in Our Family

My current reading is A Handbook of Scandinavian Names (Coleman and Veka, 2010) published by the University of Wisconsin Press. I thought I’d share with you how traditional naming practices worked out in our family.

Scandinavian Names book cover0001In Norway the first son born in a family was typically named for the paternal grandfather, the first daughter for the paternal grandmother. The second son was named for the maternal grandfather, and the second daughter for the maternal grandmother. Within this pattern there were variations, of course, some necessitated by the number and gender of the children, for example.

1. In Borre Anderson’s family, that pattern worked with a few not unusual variations. Son #1 Andreas was named after his paternal grandfather, Anders Pederson, but daughter #1 Bertha was named after her maternal grandmother, Berte Pedersdatter. Son #2 Elias is one for whom I don’t know the naming reason, but daughter #2 Anne was named after her paternal grandmother, Anne Pedersdatter. Daughter #3 Bertha Marie appears to be named for her maternal grandmother and her mother. Son #6 Bernt may be named after his maternal grandmother too – just my guess.

2. In the next generation in America, the practices already are losing their grip. In Elias and Kari Borreson’s family, daughter #1 Syverine Marie appears to be named after both her grandmothers, Sigri Johnsdatter and Maria Andersdatter. Son #1 Emil likely was named after his father. Continuing the first letter of the name, in this case “E,” was a common practice among immigrants. Son #2 Bernt may be named for Elias’ brother by that name. But Selma, Emma, and Charlie? I don’t know who, if anyone, they were named for. Charlie apparently became an American favorite, as was Ed (Eddie, Edward, etc.) in its variations.

3. In the third generation, the naming practices from Norway are even less apparent. Son #1 Edwin is likely name for his father and grandfather. The continued letter “E” is the clue. Daughter #1 Mabel may be named for her mother and grandmother – the continued first letter “M.” But after that, I have only guesses. Gilbert is an American name, Clara was very popular among immigrants around 1900, and Ben(nie) is an American substitute for Bjarne. But for these and the other names I am guessing. However, if Ed was an American favorite, the Borresons were truly Americanized with their “Ed trifecta” of Edwin, Ednar, and Edgar!

Actually, these three generations match amazingly well the three stages the book describes on pages 98-99, based on a theory by Einar Haugen. Basically, Stage 1 has the practices of the old country, Stage 2 is a transition, and Stage 3 is becoming Americanized. I find it interesting how the Borreson family naming fit Haugen’s theory. As I looked at the Estenson names, the pattern was less obvious and more complex.


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Pigeon Falls Plat 1901

A recent visit to the La Crosse Public Library paid off with a nice find: a plat of Pigeon Falls, Wisconsin, in the year 1901. It was a very basic little place, with one or two streets, depending how you do the counting. Take a look for yourself.

Pigeon Falls plat 1901The size of the map makes reading a bit difficult, but you might notice:

  • Peder Ekern’s land on the left/west and his mill at the left end of the Mill Pond.
  • The warehouse and store across from each other at the left/west end of Main Street.
  • The school further to the right/east on Main Street.
  • The hall just about across the street (south) from the school, and
  • The [Lutheran] church south of the hall.
  • The land of Hans Johnson and S. A. Lokken just east of the town.
  • The town shown in three sections: no. 1 with three lots, no. 2 with nine lots, and no. 3 with 31 lots.

For your reference, the original plat is 300 feet to 1 inch. That means the mapped area is about 2,565 feet across. The school lot plus the two to its right measure just over 600 feet across at the front or south edge, and the church is about 450 feet south of the hall.

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Thorson’s Milking Shorthorns

Our grandmother Gina Borreson had a first cousin who continues to interest me – and elude me at the same time. In Homestead, Clara described Theodore J. Thorson as “a very successful businessman” who raised cattle “of the breed known as Shorthorns.” Apparently he had built up a fine herd by the time of his death in October 1924 at the age of 44. Some day I need to get to Whitehall to review the old news papers for more.

In the meantime, I came across (in the Google Newspaper Archive) a January 6, 1921 issue of The Blair Press with this sale notice on page 4:

Shorthorn Sale - Blair Press 6Jan1921 p4The description of these animals make it obvious that Theodore was serious about the quality of his Milking Shorthorn herd. He apparently had managed to purchase breeding stock with a superb reputation. The purchase price of $5,500 for one animal would have been huge in the early twenties.

I find it interesting, too, that he was seriously into Shorthorns of the milking variety. The Shorthorn breed was, for a long time, a dual purpose animal, meaning it could be raised for both milk production and beef. Raising such animals in 1920 would be defying the growing consensus of dairy leaders that animals had to be raised for dairy OR beef but NOT both. William D. Hoard (of Hoard’s Dairyman magazine) even blatantly called dual purpose cows “no purpose animals!” I wonder what Theodore would have thought of Hoard’s opinion.

As an addendum, I recently learned that Norwegians were partial to the colored dairy breeds – Guernseys, Jerseys, Ayrshires – because of their experience in the old country. That group likely included Shorthorns too. Only later did they get on “the Holstein bandwagon” that led to 90% of dairy cows in Wisconsin being these large black-and-whites.

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Northern Colony Resident

An interesting article appeared in the Wisconsin Magazine of History, Autumn 2013, that led me to recall the situation of grandfather Emil Borreson’s sister, Syverine Marie, who was a resident in Northern Colony from 1909 until her death in 1918.

The article entitled, “Placing the ‘Wayward Woman:’ Eugenics in Wisconsin’s Involuntary Sterilization Program,” deals with a subject of our state’s past that was a surprise to me. Men and women of so-called “defective morals” were institutionalized at the Wisconsin Home for the Feeble Minded (another name for N. Colony) and sometimes were sterilized to prevent reproduction of their kind. Supporters of this practice of eugenics included doctors, scientists, intellectuals and doctors, including members of the Progressive movement. People targeted for sterilization usually were deemed mentally deficient or mentally ill. Most came from the lower classes, some were criminals, other sexually promiscuous. People feared they would strain on the state’s finances and would overpopulate the world.

After Wisconsin passed its first involuntary sterilization law in 1913, Alfred A. Wilmarth, a strong advocate of sterilization, became the first superintendent of the Wisconsin Home for the Feeble Minded. From 1913 to 1933, 489 residents of this Home were sterilized, 451 women and 38 men. In Wilmarth’s years there, 61 of these operations were performed.

According to Clara Cook’s Homestead (33-34), Syverine died in 1918 from acute meningitis after suffering years from organic brain disease. Our cousin Albert and I have had conversations about Syverine, and I think there’s a chance that he is right, that her loss of hearing led to a misdiagnosis. Perhaps her mind was okay, but hearing little or nothing, her development was severely limited. Maybe we’ll never know for sure.

From the WMH article, it appears that some Northern Colony records have been deposited at the State Historical Society in Madison. One day I hope to get there and see if there still exist any records on Syverine. Since she was there when Wilmarth was superintendent, I even wonder if she was affected by the state’s eugenics law. She would have been 39 years old when she was admitted and 48 when she died. It would at least be interesting to learn more about her.

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Merry Christmas 2013

Merry Christmas, cousins and all who read these increasingly rare posts I make on this blog. Enjoy this coat-of-arms from Tynset, the municipality from which some of our ancestors came.

Tynset coat of arms

I thought this particular coat-of-arms would make an appropriate Christmas greeting since, as I recalled, it featured a reindeer. So much for that: when I went to look at it again, I was reminded it was a moose! Not exactly a candidate for a part in “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Nevertheless, it’s the best I can do at the moment.


As I reviewed the description of Tynset, a northernmost municipality in the landlocked county Hedmark, I definitely thought it sounded like a Borreson kind of place: a snowy realm for skiing, hunting and fishing. It’s also the home to a company that makes “kicker” sleds – and a giant sled’s pictured here. Maybe it also has a moose that wants to be one of Santa’s reindeer.

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