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The Good Ol’ Days: Coming to America

By Staff | May 20, 2016

Most Tribune readers have at least one relative who emigrated from “the Old Country” in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. My grandfather, Fingar T. Gronvold, was one of thousands of immigrants who came to this part of Dakota Territory before it was a state. He was 18 and arrived in the U.S. in 1887. His wife, my grandmother Alice, was born in Manitowoc, Wis., to Norwegian-born parents.

My mother’s father, O.B. Lund, came to Minnesota with his Norwegian immigrant family at the age of three. He married Jesse Sears, whose familial heritage can be traced to the Mayflower (possible as “Sayers”), according to my mother’s cousin Fairy Bosley (Mrs. Bill, Sr.). I have often wondered how one can trace one’s heritage back to the Mayflower. I guess by following the trail of bread crumbs and candy wrappers.

My parents were born during World War I and grew up in the 20’s and graduated high school in the “dirty 30’s”, as Dad called that Depression-era decade. Like most first-generation Americans who came of age when “talkies” (motion pictures with sound) came of age, they were not interested in dressing up in Old Country costumes and (fortunately) cooking and/or eating traditional Norwegian food. These days, in most European tourist guides on Norway, the “Delicious National Dishes” section is usually blank or has a note that says (see our “Guide to France”).

Which brings us to the issue of Ellis Island. There comes a time in many men’s lives, usually with the arrival of their Medicare card at age 65, when they begin thinking of: a) their mortality; b) their spiritual condition; and c) their roots. When my Dad received his Medicare card, Mom said that he laid down on the living room floor and said “I am officially old”. This was despite his playing 3-4 rounds of golf per week, regular dinner-and-a-movie dates with Mom and dancing til the wee hours on some occasions.

When his dancing and golfing days were over, I would find him, like his mother before him, reading the Bible every day and taking an interest in Sigdalslagen, a sort of counterpart to Germans from Russia only without the laughter and the great beer.

The Sigdal Valley, north of Oslo, is one of the main sources of Norwegian immigrants to North Dakota. Both my grandfathers are from there, although I know very little of it. Once they were here and became established in America, they took pride in becoming American citizens (the old-fashioned way). So I was left to simply imagine them coming through Ellis Island like little Vito Corleone and then catching the Sunset Limited from Grand Central Station nonstop to Dakota Territory (Northern portion).

When the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. was created in 1982 it would eventually raise over $350 million to renovate the Statue of Liberty. There was also a fundraising effort to maintain Ellis Island, which closed in 1954, as an historic site. My father donated the requisite amount to place his father’s name on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor (Panel 605, if you want to look it up). It was Dad’s way of paying tribute to his family’s courage in coming to the new world.

Recently I watched the PBS multi-episode documentary about New York City that first aired in the 1990s. It traces the discovery, colonization and development of what was first known as Nieuw Amsterdam and later became New York. There was no mention at all of Don Corleone or any of his colleagues, by the way.

When they came to the part about needing a larger immigration processing center and the development of Ellis Island, I had to stop the DVD and replay it to verify the year it was established: 1892. So I Googled Ellis Island and, yep, 1892 was its first year. So that meant that my grandparents and your grandparents and family from the Old Country who arrived before 1892 probably had their welcome-to-America screening at Castle Garden Immigration Depot in Lower Manhattan, just across the bay from Ellis Island.

My grandfathers probably saw the Statue of Liberty, in its infancy, but were not a part of the Ellis Island experience. You read it here first.

Gronvold is a former area resident and 1966 graduate of Rugby High School.

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