Letters from our Grandfather

barn with mailboxPalle Lauring has a two-page discussion in A History of Denmark (David Hohnen, Host & Son, Copenhagen, 1960) in which he analyzes the historical reluctance of Danes to spend materiel, men or money in the interest of a constant state of military defense.

This missing piece in the essential business of self-preservation is  even more significant in the light of another observation he makes elsewhere in the book:

“Even though the central, basic land of Denmark has been obliged to cede various territories, the nation is nevertheless still there….Denmark has maintained her position throughout her 1,000-year old history.  Her inhabitants represent one of the few peoples in Europe that have never suffered from large-scale invasions or population transfers and so today can really claim for the most part to be the descendants of the ‘Danes’ of the Stone Age.”

He  describes this thrift mentality that resulted in their perpetual lack of military preparedness as a “weapons outlook” that concluded money thus spent was “spent unwisely.”

He says, “One sometimes has the feeling that the Danish outlook has never developed beyond the idea that, in time of war, you take your rusty battle-axe down from the wall–or go and try to find it in the woodshed where it has been serving a useful purpose–and sharpen it on a grind-stone…Preparedness has seldom been a strong point in Danish history.  The Danish people are too tied up with everyday life, are blessed with too great a sense of humour to be eternally en garde.  Their mentality dictates their fate.”

I can only conclude that Mr. Lauring’s research touched on some records reflecting our own family’s version of “If you keep your head down, keep your nose to the grindstone and don’t hit back, you’ll be fine.”


My maternal grandfather was born in Fyn, Denmark in 1864.  His future wife was born on the island of Bornholm, Denmark in 1878,    In the map above, Bornholm is the all-by-its-lonesome quite-separated island way off to the right, looking like it belongs to Sweden rather than to Denmark.    Grandpa emigrated to America in 1892 and settled for awhile in Wisconsin where he was a house painter and bakery delivery driver.  His wife-to-be came to America in 1894 when she was 16 years old, the only one of her family to emigrate, as was he.  They were married in 1897. Neither of them ever saw siblings, parents or home country again, but many letters were written.

By 1910 when they homesteaded in northeastern Montana they had six children, so he needed a house.  He found a 12′ X 24′ building available for sale, purchased it and dragged it to his homestead with a good team of horses.  The family of eight moved into their two room house and Grandpa began breaking prairie sod.  After 20 farmer with horse, plowingyears, he was able to purchase his first tractor, a Oil Pull Rumley; and then after some time, he moved up to a Fordson.

By 1924, they had 13 living children–11 girls and 2 boys.

An early goal was achieved when he had a small pump organ shipped by train from Racine to supplement the music already being made in their home with guitar and harmonica.

My oldest brother, born in 1927, transcribed letters he had received as a young boy from  Grandfather, the first of them written in 1930.  In the monograph he prepared about the lives of our maternal grandparents, my brother wrote, “Every letter opens with compliments and is closed with guidance.”  He was in second grade in 1934 when he received this letter:

I was surprised that you could write and spell so well.  I am so glad that you like to go to school.  You must have a good teacher since you are learning so fast.  It will be nice when your little sister will be going along in another year, and you as a good and big brother can look after her.  You know girls, little girls anyway, sometimes need a brother who is willing to give a hand.

They walked the two miles to the little school house each day, so  a little girl certainly might “need a brother who is willing to give a hand.” At the time of her birth in 1930, Grandpa had written to him,

I am longing so much to see your little sister and find out for sure if she is as sweet as she looks….I know you will be a very “good little boy” and that is the reason I like you so much.

It was not considered an unkindness to let a little boy know that being liked was connected to being a good little boy.  Grandpa thought good little boys were easier to like and, of course, he was right about that.


His gentle humor came out in another letter written in Danish to one of his older daughters on April 13, 1937,  just after the marriage of one of her youngest sisters.  The daughter he wrote to had not been able to attend the wedding because she lived 70 miles from the homestead and had just delivered her third baby.  In his letter, he shares this vignette:

You would have rejoiced in being at the wedding.  It was a beautiful festivity, and I had the honor of giving away the bride.  My legs are weak but it all went as it should.

Just before we left, Niels and I were sitting in the living room, bride, 1920sand I couldn’t keep from saying to him, “Now, see here Niels, if I now come up to the Altar with Anna, and then you are not there to receive her, then I will be very disappointed.”  Then he answered in a “Dry Humor,” “Yes, but if now I come up to the Altar and am standing and waiting, and then you fail to come with Anna, then it will be me who will be disappointed.”

There were no disappointments.  Everything went as planned previously.

Grandfather died 12 days after he wrote this letter at age 74, 7 years before I was born.


Because my grandfather was born in 1864 and died in 1937 and my father was born in 1898 and died in 1962,  my rank as youngest in our family of seven has given me an unusual opportunity, considering that their life records and writings  connect directly to the mid-nineteenth century.

My grandparents,  parents and  siblings were all readers, writers and thinkers without  pretense.   They were interested in other people and both personal and world history.  They were skilled in observing and recording  life’s events, and faithful in caring to pass the record along.

Psalm 16:6 (KJV)  The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.

Yea!  It’s a blessing have the written records of their lives, their thoughts and their hearts,  so I gather and document for others in the family–my siblings and cousins, or our children and grandchildren.   Many cousins do the same work in their corner of the family tree.

heritage, doorwayThe Danish original of my grandfather’s wedding report shared above is in the care of one of the daughters of the daughter to whom he wrote the letter.

My brother who received the childhood letters quoted above also provided several family monographs  in his later years based on his transcribed interviews of elderly family members.

Yea! Indeed!


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