with my Great-Great-Grandmother Andreanna
Last spring (March 1995) I found in my mother's possessions a letter written in 1971 from Sigvardt Susag (son of Edward) to Nina Johnson Trostad (daughter of Helmer and Alfrida) with a wealth of information from the turn of the century. One tidbit was that Anton (brother of David Susag, Edward, and Johan) moved to Alberta and brought his mother Andreanna along. She was buried in New Norway, Alberta. Wow! That is my great-great-grandmother. I had an immediate urge to see that tombstone. I knew that I would probably be driving the Alaska highway and resolved that if time, money, and equipment made it possible, I would try to find that New Norway Cemetery.
As the month of August dwindled away, I became more and more excited and motivated to leave Alaska and drive the highway. I became fascinated with old cemeteries and visited several, wondering what the cemetery in rural Alberta would look like. Would it be overgrown with weeds and would I even be able to find some old rotten, wooden marker? Finally, the last day of work came, I was packed and down the road with an energetic road trip plan. I would need to cover nearly a thousand miles a day to make that detour and get home to Seattle in time for the start of school.
I stayed on schedule. Thursday, Johnson City. Friday, Laird Hot Springs. Saturday, Grand Prairie. The Sunday morning I targeted for my meeting with “Grandma Andreanna” dawned clear and beautiful. I worked my way through traffic in Edmonton, past the biggest shopping mall in the world, to the particular highway that would take me to New Norway. Not a cloud in the sky, it was the hottest day I had experienced all summer. It was beautiful! The excitement built as I drew nearer. How would I find this old, overgrown cemetery? How many cemeteries did this area have?
As I passed the “entering New Norway” sign I saw a cemetery. Could this be it? I was not yet convinced it would be this easy. It had a nice paved, pull out area in front, with an iron gate and arched over the gate it said “New Norway Cemetery”. The one-acre enclosure is framed by a fence and surrounded by open, waving prairie. This cemetery is immaculate. Freshly mowed and there were seemingly flowers on every grave. Row after row of upright tombstones. I hoped this was the place. What a picture. This was the perfect setting for my meeting.
Now, in a scene like the one in the movie, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, I was running back and forth across the rows of graves. With flowers, camera, and notebook in hand I was looking for the name Anton Johnson (or Sievertson, or Susag, or something familiar). Row after row of Hagstroms, Swansons, Rassmussons, Andersons, etc. Just after Hrabek, two-thirds of the way back, there it was: Anton Julius Johnson.
There was something about what his tombstone said that bothered what I thought I knew about the family but at his feet; an older, pure white in the sunlight, upright monolith, caught my immediate attention. Looking at it from the back, I let out a whoop that could be heard across the surrounding acres. I knew it was what I was looking for. Slowly I walked around to face it. It was an old, white-washed white, repaired sandstone slab and the epitaph was barely legible. The relief of the lettering could hardly be felt, let alone read. But it did say “ANDREANNA” “WIFE OF SIVERT”. Talk about pay dirt. I, in my wildest dreams, could not have possibly expected more success. A beautiful day, an incredible setting, a well kept, well-named community cemetery, a family together in death as in life and tombstones with information. Here she was; my mother's, mother's father's mother. This is my dear grandmother Marie's grandmother. She “Died April 26th, (no year) at age 98 years 6 months”. I took numerous pictures with two different cameras, just in case. I took a rubbing from the roses etched at the top. I sketched as best I could and copied what it said exactly. I placed flowers on the top and at the base of the stone. I didn't cry but I was very choked up. I prayed. I was very thankful for this incredible find after a safe and event-filled summer and long drive. This was what I had come for….. but it was so much better than anything I had imagined.
Now for Anton. What did it say? The letter from 1971 said he had no children but the ornate tombstone said, “beloved father”! There is family here or was at one time. Surely they are long gone, he died in 1941. I sketched it, too, to have the information exactly and planned to write the records office in the capital to get death certificates that might contain more useful family information. It was getting late and I still had more stops planned on my 1000 miles yet before I was in the classroom Tuesday morning. I lingered. I didn’t want to leave. The sun was getting lower, the shadows of the tombstones were growing longer. I thought about all the stories, all the family histories contained here in this field. I was finished with what I set out to do but I wasn’t ready to leave, yet. When I got back out to the entrance, on the highway, I stopped the first car going by and had them take my picture in front of the iron gate with the “New Norway Cemetery” arch.
I drove into New Norway and took pictures of the churches and the grain elevator (there seems to be at least one in every Alberta community). It was a quiet, hot summer Sunday evening. The main street was especially quiet but the “Country Village KitchenCafe” had an “open” sign out. The door was open. I parked my truck and approached the screen door.
“Are you open?” I asked.
“Yes,” came the answer.
As I entered I wondered what I would eat or say. I saw a sign on the wall suggesting milkshakes. Ahhh! That sounded perfect and I sure was warm. That would give me time to think.
The chocolate milkshake was nearly gone when I got up the nerve to say, “I think I am related to someone here in town.”
(I later learned her name was) Myrtle said, “Oh yeah, who?”
What was I to say? I explained I stopped here to find my great-great grandmother’s grave and that she was at the feet of Anton Johnson. Myrtle asked who were Anton’s kids, “Clarence or Roy?”. I didn’t know, in fact, it could have been a girl and their name might not even be Johnson anymore or they might not still be around.
She said, “I have an idea, I will call Eileen.”
Eileen Johnson is an 84-year-old Norwegian woman who has lived here in the area her whole life. I heard Myrtle ask, “Did you know an AntonJohnson who lived here until about 1941?” The next thing I heard was, “You did? Well, I have one of his relatives here, from Seattle.”
She then motioned me to the phone. I was shocked! This was happening so fast. I was talking with Eileen before I knew it and she was saying, “I knew Anton but my dad and brothers knew him better. I think the girls still live on the place”.
I asked if she could direct me there. She tried but then said she needed to ask someone and call me back. I hung up and seconds later the phone rang. She said drive out east on the dirt road the elementary school is on and turn south on the Edburg road and go about four or five miles. There is a trailer on the east side of the road and the old place is still on the west side of the road.
“Their name is Haw. You won’t get much help out there from the neighbors, you know,” she said. “It is Sunday evening and all the Mennonites out there are in Church. Not the girls, but all the neighbors.”
I chuckled at that implication and thanked her profusely.
I thanked Myrtle. I explained what Eileen had told me. I smiled when I explained that the “girls” still lived on the place. I wondered who these girls might be and how old these “girls” were but I couldn’t wait to see what I might find next. I had no idea what was around the next corner. I thought I might at least get a look at the old farmhouse and outbuilding. I really thought I might just find what I thought was the place Eileen described and take pictures. A picturesque old farmhouse and barn. That would be more than I had come all this way for. Imagine having pictures of the house Andreanna once lived in. I followed the directions and sure enough, the tractors were parked in the field on this beautiful Sunday evening. It was still light but the clock was ticking. At about the 4.5-mile mark there was a man in the ditch seemingly working on an irrigation pump. I passed him and thought, I should ask him. A little further on were several others enjoying a rest and a drink near their haying equipment. I passed by, thinking I should ask for directions, but that male aversion to such asking would not let me stop, yet. I could always come back. I did after I went a little further.
I turned back and asked, “Do you know where the Haw place is?”
Five of them looked at each other and said, “Haw, there is no one around here by that name.” One of them said, after a thoughtful pause, “Do you mean Howe?”
I said, “That will work!”
“Oh, that is the place after this next one, Carol and Barb live there. One lives in the trailer and the other lives in the place across the road.”
BINGO. Those must be the “girls” Eileen mentioned. I was getting warmer. But what would I say?....if they were home.
I drove by the guy in the irrigation ditch again and three women drove out of the driveway I was heading for and passed me. I pulled into the driveway, turned around, and followed them. They stopped where the man was “working” in the ditch.
I got out and said, “Carol? Barb?”
“Yes?” was their answer. The man in the ditch was trying to drive a kid’s go-cart out of the ditch, not working on a pump. Over and over he tried, but the small cart did not have enough horsepower.
I said, haltingly, “I...think...we….are...related. I stopped by to find my great-great-grandmother’s grave. I found it at the foot of her son’s grave, Anton Johnson. Do you know who Anton was?"
They looked at each other and agreed, hesitatingly, yes….that was their grandfather. And maybe Andreanna sounded right for the name of their great-grandmother. But they didn’t know she was there. (If you saw the arrangement at the cemetery, it might make sense that they had not noticed before or did not remember being shown).
I explained we were distantly related. I didn’t even want to try to come up with a label for the relationship. I said the Swedes have a name for it, “slect to slect”. My great-great-grandmother was also their great-grandmother. In a way, Andreanna was introducing us.
I could hardly contain myself. I didn’t come here looking for relatives. But I would certainly take them. This was wonderful! Beyond what I could hope or wish for. I was invited to join their outdoor bar-b-que and we talked. I explained over and over why I was there and how I found them. Where was I from, how did I get here? This is not exactly “on the way from Alsaka to Seattle”. I fully understand their inability to immediately accept this new information. They had grown up believing they had no relatives and they knew of none. Here I was, a stranger, showing up on a Sunday evening with news to the contrary. In fact, they had a HUGE family in North America and many more known relatives in Norway. There were even Susags in nearby British Columbia.
There were some interesting, but minor discrepancies in the family history or story, as we each understood it. How, why, and when their grandfather Anton had come here to Alberta may not ever be fully understood. One brother stayed in Norway and two others stayed in North Dakota. The difference in the last names is easy to accept with the varied practice of taking a last name in the New World. In this case, the four brothers (Johan, Edward, Anton, and David) had taken different last names (Johnson, Sivertson, and Susag). The key here to the proof of our common ancestor(s) was the way the independent information that brought me to New Norway, lined up with what I found. I was convinced because the unusual first names (Anton Julius, Andreanna, Sivert) I had come here looking for, showed up next to each other. If Barb and Carol accepted Anton as their grandfather and Andreanna as their great-grandmother, we are related! I certainly accept them in my “tree”.
The sunset. I was way behind schedule. I needed to go. Their hospitality was wonderful. Barb and Carol showed me around the place. They pointed out where the house once was. It had burned down and they had planted a garden there. They fed me. They asked where I was staying the night. I said I planned to sleep in Banff (and I did sleep in Banff) but I did not say that I still had another intended stop tonight. I, later that night, visited the new Covenant Bible College campus, just outside Calgary.
As we parted, I definitely felt we would meet again. There seemed to be a bit of a tear in each of our eyes. A hug seemed more appropriate than a handshake. I promised I would send more family information. I asked them to write their family history and if they wanted to share that with the extended family they would receive a copy of everyone else’s story. I left a rough draft of the family tree that I had brought with me. It was a little like leaving one small tangible item for them to look at in the morning when they awoke and pinched themselves and otherwise probably would have passed my visit off as a strange dream.
My Surprise Visit
by Ralph Hammersborg
from "Double Cousins" by Ralph Hammersborg, A Norwegian Family Chronicle, produced in 1996