Written By Albert Ravenholt, reproduced with permission.
On October 12, 1870, that is on the day he was 24 years old, Anders Christensen Ravnholt stood on the wharf in Copenhagen ready to go on the steamship “Aurora”, bound for Kiel. It was with not a few misgivings that he bade farewell to his homeland and faced the great unknown.
Born the oldest in a family of five boys and two girls, his experiences had been those of the average young fellow of his time. Schools were uncommon, but possessing a natural desire for learning, young Anders attended night school, taught by a young teacher, Jensen, from Knudstrup. His teachings were to leave a lifelong impression upon young Anders and later incite him to further his studies. Though books and periodicals were scarce, such as there were, were devoured eagerly. When the one paper did arrive, it happened perchance that the oxen took a turn around the field alone as the young man became enveloped in fantasies of far off places. Our Civil War was at that time in progress and its development was followed with keen enthusiasm. Indeed, his interest in America became so great that after he had served his time at the military infantry camp at Hald, he packed and embarked upon his ventures.
Since there were at that time no ships running directly, he had to go via Kiel to Hamburg, Germany, and thence aboard ship for Grimesby, England. The Franco-German war caused considerable interference with shipping and complicated circumstances somewhat. A number of Germans, taken aboard at Hamburg and also bound for America, entertained on shipboard with all their new wartime songs. At Grimsby they boarded train for Liverpool and from there shipped to New York aboard the ship, “City of Washington”. The fourteen-day passage proved uneventful except that Anders witnessed his first funeral at sea. A child of Swedish immigrants had died and the captain summoned all Scandinavians on deck to witness the burial. The wind and waves and sorrowing relatives all lent atmosphere to make the scene very touching as the hole-riddled coffin was shoved overboard and quickly sank in the deep.
Just as it has to so many others, New York, with its thousands of ship masts, immense buildings and bustling traffic, impressed Anders Ravnholt profoundly. Of course, at the time, an immigrant was treated as such, and great was the sorrow among the women as they watched their treasured trunks haplessly shoved down the gangplank to break open and their contents lost.
After the usual customs inspection, the journey was resumed westward by rail for St. Paul via Cleveland, Toledo, Chicago and Milwaukee. From St. Paul he again continued westward by rail to Wilmar, Minnesota, and from there finished the last lap of his journey behind a team of oxen, with a farmer just returning from town. Here in central Minnesota, Anders had reference to one of the first Danish immigrants to that region, Jens Troelstrup.
With his destination reached, Anders sought employment. The Northern Pacific Railway was being extended westward from St. Paul to Brainerd and, like many other young Danish immigrants, he worked here during the summer, and in winter found employment on surrounding farms. “Birds of a feather flock together” here as well as elsewhere, and young Anders soon became acquainted with a number of contemporaries. One of his newly found friends was in the sorrowful plight of losing his sweetheart in Denmark. She, in the usual fashion, was destined by her parents for another. In his predicament, he petitioned Anders for help, and so well did Anders employ what little literary skill he had achieved that the girl was permitted to wait and eventually marry the one she desired.
By the summer of 1874 the lure of chance proved too much for him and he set out for the new gold mines in Montana. The trip was made on the Union Pacific to Ogden, Utah, and from there north by ox caravan to Helena, Montana. In company with his friend, Hans Jensen, he secured a cabin and set up housekeeping. The West was then still in its wild and wooly stage of development, yet there were two things he never carried with him: a watch and a revolver. Not that he was any kind of conscientious objector, but he merely thought that carrying a gun was inviting trouble. Eventually, the strenuous work in the unhealthy mines plus the bachelor food proved too hard for his health, so in August, 1876, after two years in the mines, he decided to return to Denmark. That trip proved the most adventurous of his life. By this time he had taught himself to read and write English and happily kept a diary of his journey.
The first leg of one hundred and fifty miles from Unionville, Montana, to Fort Benton, on the Missouri River, was made in stage coach. From Fort Benton he had expected to proceed by steamboat; but alas no steamer was there. The next day in company with a Yankee and a German they bought a row boat and proceeded down the Missouri River. That summer witnessed the noted uprising of the Sioux Indians under Chief Sitting Bull, and while in the mines they had heard of General Custer’s massacre. So the trip of 198 miles to Cow Island in an open boat was by no means a pleasure jaunt. As they floated down the river, they at times thought they heard Indian war whoops, and at one time, after a particularly anxious moment, Anders sat up and let go a sigh of relief. But the German, not yet feeling entirely secure, knocked him so hard with the stock of his gun that it sent him rolling in the bottom of the boat. Strangely enough, he made it through even with the seventeen hundred dollars he carried on his person.
Arriving at Cow Island, a wait of ten days for a steamer proved futile; so they continued on in the rowboat to Carroll, a distance of 67 miles, and there (after a further wait) took passage on the steamer “Benton” for Bismark, Dakota Territory. While en route he had the experience of watching the buffalo swim the river as the steamer hove to and passengers enjoyed themselves by massacring the buffalo until the river ran red.
From Bismark the journey continued by rail to St Paul and Chicago. Both in St Paul and Chicago, Anders visited museums and theatres, and stopped at Scandinavian hotels whenever the opportunity permitted. The United States was then celebrating its birth at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, and with natural curiosity he trouped thither. Six days were spent visiting the exposition, Independence and Carpenter Halls, theatres, museums, and other places of interest. On the second day of November, 1876, he sailed for Liverpool, and returned home via Hull, Hamburg and Kiel to Copenhagen, and finally arriving home in Thorning Sogn on the 26th of November, 1876, after three months of travel.
So ended his first experience in America. And now, having had his fling, he was in the usual sense thought ready to settle down.
During the winter of 1877 he attended Askov Folk School, then under the direction of Ludwig Schroder. Askov was one of the folk high schools which at the time were beginning to play an ever more important important role in Danish religious and political thought. Since then they have become recognized as the means through which Denmark awoke mentally and resurrected herself. About this time Anders came under the influence of Markus Lund, a minister of remarkable intellect, who preached in his home locality.
Apparently he had a preference for October 12, for on that day he married Inger Johanne Thestrup. The young couple then purchased and settled on his homeplace, Ravnholt Gaard.
But by the summer of 1883 his longing for America had again become so strong that, against the advice of relatives, the young couple sold their belongings and left for the United States.
Their first destination in the United States was Ashland, Michigan. But the opportunities there appeared so meager that they decided to go to Elkhorn, Iowa. Unhappily for them, they stopped-over in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where a fair was in progress. Here Anders cashed the bank draft he carried representing their worldly possessions, somewhat above a thousand dollars. While he boarded a street car, someone dislodged his suitcases, and as he stooped to recover the suitcases, someone snatched his billfold from him, and disappeared in the crowd. The police were notified at once but all efforts proved fruitless. Destitute indeed were the straits of the young couple as they stood alone in an unknown world with all their worldly belongings lost. Luckily they held tickets to Atlantic, Iowa. Whither they went.
In Elkhorn, through the aid of friends, they got started on 80 acres of virgin prairie. But their debt overhead was so great that the next year they sold out; and attracted by the glowing reports of the country there, they moved to West Denmark, Wisconsin, where they settled – purchasing forested acreage, which they cleared and built a home.
In 1885 a group of Danes banded together and started Wisconsin’s first cooperative creamery. Having studied buttermaking in Denmark, Johanne Ravnholt was chosen to run the creamery and Anders was employed to gather the cream and do other hauling. After 5 years they ceased operating the cooperative creamery, and in 1992 started their own “A.C. Ravnholt Danish Creamery”, which they operated until 1898.
From the very first, Anders took a keen interest in the religious questions of the time and became an active member of the West Denmark congregation. Discussions appealed to him; and though he considered local politics too petty for his consideration, he followed intently political trends here and abroad.
In 1899 his longing to again see family and friends in Denmark prompted his return to relive the experiences of his youth. Though he enjoyed his visit, he returned to West Denmark after several months and resumed farming. In 1903 he and family moved to Des Moines, Iowa, the location of the Grandview College and seminary for the synod; and for two years they enjoyed the cultural life centered there. Upon their return to the farm in Wisconsin, he entered again fully into the life at West Denmark with all his old vigor. Nearing the fullness of his years, the returns of a vigorous life were beginning to be his; and in various capacities he participated wherever people of like interests gathered.
During the summer of 1912 Ravnholt suffered a fractured collarbone as he was dragged while trying to arrest a run-away team. And at year’s end he began suffering from what proved to be gallstones and cancer, for which he had two operations which did not arrest the cancer. He passed away on May 14th, 1913, and was laid to rest in the tranquil West Denmark cemetary.
That is a brief biographical sketch of my grandfather. He lived a turbulent, fast-moving life, deeply affected by his religious and social convictions. With perhaps a little provincialism I can say that I am proud of my grandfather in that he let a keen mental balance dominate his actions. But his importance lies, not so much in what he achieved individually as in the spirit and type of people of which he is at least partially representative, namely, Danish-American immigrants, to whom America owes a far greater debt than she at present realizes.
– Albert Ravenholt, October 1939