– Written By Pete Christensen, NWDA Member
I grew up in a small eastern Nebraska town. My father, the oldest child of his family, had immigrated at age 22 to the US from Sonderholm, Denmark, near Aalborg, in 1910 and brought all of his brothers, sisters, and his parents to Nebraska by 1920. However, he talked very little of his homeland. He was a very hard worker who loved to raise a large garden, and especially enjoyed growing potatoes. For income, he liked working on farms in his early years in the US, although he later worked at a canning factory. He became a US citizen when he was 35 years old. My father died in 1958, after a series of heart attacks and strokes when I was in college. In the following years of career and raising a family, I gave little thought to exploring my Danish heritage.
Years later, I began to have many questions about my Denmark roots. All of my aunts, uncles, and grandparents had long since passed away, so I began to study old pictures, visited the family cemetery plot, talked with two elderly cousins, and recalled stories about my father and his family. There were many unanswered questions. Was my dad really the first to immigrate to the US, or was my Aunt Clara first, as her son claimed? My father had said that my grandfather was a blacksmith as well as the manager of a large farm, and we had one picture of his family home with members of the Christensen family standing beside it. And on what kind of a farm did my grandfather work? Was the area by the farm flat, rolling, or hilly? What was Denmark like in the early 1900’s? And what had caused my father and the rest of the family to immigrate to America?
My wife Linda and I realized that we would need to go to Denmark to find the answers to my questions. We knew of no relatives there from my father’s family so we knew we’d need to do research on our own, and that could be interesting. We decided to travel to Denmark in May 2007.
As we read guide books, listened to Danish language tapes, and planned our trip, we worried if speaking only English could be a problem in Denmark. Was there a class in Danish nearby? Linda went online and found the website of the NW Danish Foundation, which had an article about a Danish language class offered in Vancouver, WA, taught by Lili Gregerson. The class sounded interesting, so we became members of the Foundation and we enrolled in Lili’s class, offered at Trinity Lutheran Church in Vancouver.
The 85-mile drive to Vancouver from Dallas, Oregon each Monday afternoon was predictably busy with rush hour traffic. Two hours later, we arrived for our first night of class. Lili introduced everyone and the instruction in Danish began. “Rookies” read and practiced Danish with Lili in the first hour of class; advanced “pros” the second hour. Oh, how envious we were of how much Danish the 2nd hour group could read and speak! We enjoyed the class immensely, and Lili was a patient teacher. When class ended the first evening, Kyle served Danish pastry that he’d baked. Delicious!
A few days after the last language class, Lili called to say she had talked with her sister-in-law, Lea, in Aalborg. Lea was willing to see if she could help me find out more about my father’s family. It was a wonderful offer of assistance. We began emailing with Lea and shared information and two photos, one of the family by their home in 1905 and the other of my grandfather and grandmother Christensen.
Fortunately for us, Lea had a friend who worked as a reporter at the local Aalborg newspaper office. Family information and photos were shared with the reporter, who then wrote an article about an American coming to the Aalborg area in search of his family roots in Sonderholm. The news story invited any reader with information to call Lea.
In a few days, Lea received a reply to the news story from Agner Jensen, an 85-year gentleman who lived in Sonderholm. He remembered the family and could identify the family home from the photo. He offered to meet us in Sonderholm, with Lea as our translator, to show us family sites.
After a train trip to Aalborg, we met Lea and her husband, Knud, and visited with them in the lobby of the SAS Hotel. They are such delightful people! On the following day Lea drove us about eight miles to Sonderholm, to meet Agner.
Agner showed us the town school, where my dad would have attended. It was a one room school with 25 students in grades one through seven. He also gave us a tour of the adjacent family church. He explained about the beautiful artifacts and features of the church, including a model of a ship that hung in the aisle, an ancient entry door from Viking years, and the restored chalk murals on the walls, ceilings and floors. Later we walked along the paths of the cemetery surrounding the church, noting many headstones with the names of Christensen or Jensen (which was my grandmother’s maiden name).
With Agner leading the way, we drove, then walked up to Troldkirken, a Viking church and burial area on a high hill, with a view of miles around, including the Stor Restrup farm, where my grandfather worked. Agner explained that the Stor Restrup farm was a very large farm at that time, with 2500 acres extending nearly to the Limfjord, a waterway separating north Jutland from the rest of Jutland. He said Stor Restrup was sold about 1910 and was divided into 25 farms or so of about 80 acres each. I told Agner that my father had said my grandfather was the blacksmith and the manager of Stor Restrup. Agner said that probably was not possible since both were full time jobs. I asked Agner why so many people left Denmark in the early 1900s and whether there was a famine or other disaster? He said times were good in Denmark then, but he thought many people left because cheap land was available in America. When I asked if he had any idea why my grandfather did not buy one of the smaller farms, Agner speculated that my grandfather may have felt too old to start a new farm or that since the blacksmith was quite an honored position, he might not have wanted to become a farmer of a small part of the estate.
We drove to the manor house or headquarters for Stor Restruup. The manor house has been extensively restored as a hotel and restaurant resort, now named St. Restrup Herregard. Ironically, I considered that resort/hotel on a Denmark hotel internet site, although we decided to stay in Aalborg. What a coincidence to find the resort was one of the places for which we were searching. (On another day, Linda and I were allowed to walk through the resort and take pictures of the dining rooms and exterior.) It was a beautiful place.
Agner led us a half mile farther to my father’s family home. My dad and Aunt Clara had told me that the original home had been living quarters for the parents and nine children in one half of the house and a blacksmith shop in the other half. More recent owners had renovated the home, removing the blacksmith shop, adding a second floor, and moving the chimney to an exterior wall rather than in the center of the home. Even so, the home was perhaps 1500 square feet, which included the blacksmith shop. There was no chance of squabbling about what child got their own bedroom in those days!
As we said goodbye to Agner and thanked him for a wonderful day, he said, “I hope, Peter, that you have found some peace today.” It was touching.
Lea and Knud were very gracious. Lea took us on an insider’s walking tour of Aalborg, a beautiful and very interesting city. We visited City Hall with beautiful murals, Jens Bang’s house, artist studio/shop, a cemetery/excavation site of skulls & bones from the 1500’s, an underground archeological site, and the Aalborg Stadsarkiv (Archives). It was there that I learned additional information about my family from the census records. We enjoyed Lea and Knud’s company at dinners in a local restaurant and at their home. They are wonderful and were so welcoming to us. We are hoping to see them again soon on their next trip to the US.
We enjoyed all the sights in Copenhagen, and the beautiful towns of Hillerod, Roskilde, Ribe, and Odense. The Fredriksborg Castle in Hillerod was our favorite castle. Linda enjoyed overhearing people talk in Danish, and trying to translate the meanings of train station signs without using her translation book. We enjoyed lunches of good Danish bread and cheese, leftovers from breakfast every day we were in Copenhagen.
When the rainy season begins again in Oregon and we can’t work in the yard & garden for awhile, I plan to contact the Aalborg Stadsarkiv (Archives) for additional family information. The search will continue.
We had a wonderful visit in a beautiful country! Our heartfelt thanks are sent to Lili, Lea, Knud, and Agner for all their help.