151 years of Olson family historyby Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio
The land attracted many settlers to Minnesota even before it was a state. The land is what has kept six generations of Olsons on a family farm hear Albert Lea.
Albert Lea, Minn. — The stories of the Olson farm are rich, just like their soil. For 53-year-old Ole Merrill Olson and his family, the story begins when Matts Olson came to the United States.
"He came over from Ringiricki, Norway in 1853 on the boat, and went from the East Coast to Illinois," said Olson. "(He) worked the railroad for a short time and worked his way up here."
Matts Olson, Ole's great-great grandfather, settled the 160-acre farm north of Albert Lea, however the exact year is a little sketchy.
"A lot of the stuff I'm able to find out said he settled the land in 1855," Olson explained. "But everything I find that dates it with the state land office only goes back to 1857. So, I've got two years I'm trying to find and I can't find it yet."
What Ole Olson can find is how Matts came to own the land, and that goes back even farther.
Olson holds a black and white copy of a document called a Military Bounty Land Act. As he scans it, he tells a story of a war widow who receives land from the government.
"This is the certificate. Mrs. Patty Herrick had a husband, Daniel. [He] was a captain in the Maine army and he was killed in the war of 1812."
After Capt. Herrick's death, his widow was given 160 acres in the territory that would later become Minnesota.
"Instead of coming out here, she sold that [land], from what I'm able to find out, to my great-great grandpa Matts Olson, and that's how he got started," Olson continued.
The aged document is written in flowing script. You have to look closely to notice the X, written as a signature by Matts Olson, who could not read or write.
"There's his X. They wrote his name, that's his X," Olson pointed out. "Then it was verified by a Sievert Johnson, who couldn't read or write, and he marked his X."
Soon after purchasing the 160 acres for $1.25 an acre, Matts married a woman named Marte. The two lived in a dugout in what's now called the west 80.
Later came a log cabin, and in 1900 the farmhouse Ole and his family live in today was built. Logs from that first cabin are still part of the foundation, along with field rock cut in perfect squares.
The house has had additions -- more rooms and a garage. The barn and first grove of trees planted by the family were destroyed in a tornado in the early 1960s.
Other than the house itself, there aren't many family heirlooms left. Most of them fit in a large plastic tote.
Covered in brittle old bread bags is a rolling pin, likely used by Marte to make Ole Olson's favorite Norwegian treat.
"This is a lefse rolling pin," Olson said. "I think it got used quite a bit. My mom used to make lefse, oh my gosh."
The plastic container is filled with papers and pictures. There are negatives of pictures made from a thick slate, and pictures made of tin. Great-great grandmother Marte's picture is fading.
As he talks about his ancestor's pictures, Ole Olson explains the one thing that remains from Matts -- and that's the name.
"This is my great grandpa, Ole M. and Martha. Then it's my grandpa Ole Melankton and Mae," he said. "My dad is Ole Marlowe and Margaret, and I'm the next generation, Ole Merrill. So each generation is Ole M. Olson."
That tradition continues. Ole Merrill's first-born son is Ole Matthew, who also has a son, Ole Mathias.
Ole Merrill and his wife Ann own the family farm now. They rent the land to neighboring farmers while the two work in town.
Olson says while he appreciates the land and its history, he's not a farmer.
As he looks for something in the family collection, Olson suddenly remembers Ole M.'s first phonograph. There are about two dozen thick dusty discs.
"[That's] 'Just One More Waltz,'" Olson said about one of the discs. "It's an Edison record. Here's, 'I Love You,' from Little Jesse James. Let's try that, it's a little cleaner."
He winds up the machine and places the needle gently on the spinning disc. It sticks, but a little nudge helps bring the music out.
There's only one volume choice, and suddenly the room fills with scratchy sounds from a time long gone.
"We used to play that every Christmas when I was a kid," Olson recalled. "And you know what, we didn't dare touch it before then either."
Olson continues the tradition with his children, only playing the phonograph at Christmas.
He says he's confident the traditions of music and lefse -- and even the name on the land title -- will remain for many more generations.
- All Things Considered, 05/12/2008, 4:45 p.m.