Ole Rysstad:
A Norwegian Lumberjack from Bemidji

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In my files about my father I found the document reproduced below. It was written in 1975 during the time he was retired and he and my mother were staying in their trailer in Texas for the winter, something they did several winters. A note attached to it reads as follows:
Daily devotions were held at our trailer park this winter and, being asked to give the meditation one day, I prepared and read the attached article to the group.

Thought you might like to have a copy. You might find the story about Ole interesting. He was related to the "Vigen" side of the family, my Mother's father.

At the top of the note in his handwriting is the name "Jean" indicating this is a copy of what he had sent to my sister, Jean Knudson Danner Thompson. Then at the bottom in his own handwriting is written: "Cold and rainy today. But our house is warm! Mother is over at Ida Boyd's helping to tie a quilt. Sons of Norway Torsk supper tonight. Dad"

The meditation is about a person he here calls "Ole" Rysstad. However, in a booklet he wrote entitled "Vigen - Moi Ancestors" there is an entry on page 16 for "Olaf T. Rysstad b. Norway 1893 d. Bemidji, Mn 1968" so this must be the same person. The booklet was published in 1977 so the name "Olaf" is probably correct.

It is intersting to reflect on my father's own spiritual life, his faith orientation, which centered so importantly on his mother, Julia Vigen. And it reveals something too about the life of a Norwegian lumberjack in Bemidji, Minnesota.

When my father and mother visited at our home in Portland, Oregon, in the early 1980s, he came with me one Sunday to Willamina, Oregon, where I was filling in for the pastor. At the service I mentioned my father from Bemidji, Minnesota, was visiting. After the service a crowd of people gathered around him. They were people who had come from Bemidji after the forests were gone to work in Willamina, a lumberjack town.

I hope you enjoy my father's meditation.

Ed Knudson - 2/13/2013


Shortly before Mother's Day in 1974, we placed a small bouquet of flowers on the grave of Ole Rysstad. Ole died in 1968 and lies buried in Calvary Lutheran Cemetery in Bemidji, Minnesota.

Ole was born in Norway about 1898, migrated to America while still a young man and lived in Bemidji, Minnesota, most of his adult life.

We never knew Ole and were not aware of his existence until 1972 when we spent three weeks in Norway. In Norway, we met Jon Rysstad and he asked us if we were acquainted with his brother, Ole, who he said lived in Bemidji. Jon said he had not heard from his brother for several years and was concerned about his welfare. We promised to check into the matter after we returned to Bemidji.

It was not difficult to trace Ole in the small city of Bemidji. We learned that he had been a lumberjack and that he had lived in cheap hotels and rooming houses most of his life. He never married. He had been neat and clean and always wore bib overalls. In fact, that seems to have been his trademark and as we reminisce we wonder if we didn't see Ole walking slowly and quietly about the streets of Bemidji in his bib overalls.

Like all lumberjacks Ole hired out to loggers in the fall and returned from the woods in the spring. Then the lumberjacks received their winter wages and proceeded to spend them in the taverns and other night spots of the city. It was said that Ole had been no exception to the rule except that he made a diligent effort to save some of his wages. A former employer said that Ole would give him his wages for safekeeping but that every year temptation became too strong and sooner or later the money would be gone.

At least 40 years went by and Ole reached the age of retirement. He rented a small room in an upstairs hotel. He quit drinking and his small social security checks were sufficient for his simple needs.

At some point in life after retirement Ole became ill with stomach cancer and as he became progressively worse his lumberjack friends would look in on him every few days. One day they found him dead on the floor of his room. Life in this world had ended for Ole.--

The police were called - and the undertaker. They found sufficient money in his room to pay the funeral costs. The undertaker gathered up his personal belongings and took them along to the mortuary where they were held a reasonable length of time and then disposed of since no relatives came forward to claim them.

A Lutheran minister officiated at the funeral. Probably there were no mourners unless two or three of his friends attended - we do not know.

We questioned the undertaker regarding Ole's personal belongings. Of what had they consisted? He did not remember but said that in most of these cases the belongings were so meager that they could be placed in a small box. He said that lumberjacks usually did not even have a change of clothing.

Probably Ole did have a change of clothing since it was said that he had been neat and clean. There was probably a razor and shaving cream. A comb. If Ole smoked, there was probably a pipe and some tobacco. Since he had been corresponding with a brother in Norway, there could have been a letter. An old photograph - would it have been of his Mother? Did he have a Bible? We do not know.

Ole probably never attended church. He would not have felt at home in the well-dressed Lutheran congregations of Bemidji. Or in any other church in Bemidji, for that matter. The Salvation Army would have welcomed him - but their Post in the city was closed.

But we like to think that Ole had a Christian Mother who taught him as a small boy the essentials of Christianity, and that in his last days upon this earth he remembered the loving words spoken by his Mother - and was comforted by them.

I know that the things my Mother taught me while I sat upon her lap or stood by her side have remained with me throughout life. She told me in a quiet and earnest manner the essential stories of the Bible. She taught me the fear and love of God and the story of Jesus, living and dying for the sins of all mankind. She taught us right from wrong. To her, the cardinal sins seem to have been the use of alcohol, tobacco and profanity. There were many others - and sooner or later they were all brought to our attention. As many mothers before her have done, I presume, she exacted promises from me which I have been unable to keep in their entirety, but certainly I have never forgotten that I made them. Psychologists may frown on Mother's way of teaching but I am convinced that they were right. How else can we expect our people to remain Christian?

Several Sundays ago we heard a minister tell a story from the life of Dr. Karl Barth, the famous German theologian. Dr. Barth was asked to give a series of lectures at a Chicago University. At the conclusion of the lectures he permitted the students to ask questions. One of the first questions was, "Dr. Barth, what do you think is the greatest discovery man can make by reading the Bible?" Dr. Barth answered without hesitation,

"Jesus loves me, this I know For the Bible tells me so.
Dr. Barth, the great theologian, reached back into his childchildhood to a song learned at his teacher's knee or at Sunday School to answer the student's important question. What greater proof is needed that a Mother's or Father's teachings are of vital importance to their children.

B. C. Forbes, American Business Editor, has written, "Upon our children - how they are taught - rests the fate or fortune of tomorrow's world."

Leaders in totalitarian countries recognize the importance of teaching children and try to reach and train them to think the way they want them to think. Should not Christians do likewise?

Truly we cannot deny the old adage, The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world."

Again, let us trust and pray that Ole's Mother was the kind of a mother who taught him, before he left Norway, everything he needed to know in order to be assured of eternal life.

Ole Rysstad was my Mother's cousin.


Prepared March, 1975

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