Searching For Andrew

Rhonda Leanne Stock

© Copyright 2002 by Rhonda Leanne Stock

Photo of Olga and Andrew Iverson wedding.

This story is based on a genealogical adventure I went on with my mom. We discovered a lot more than just the historical facts. It is a story about identity.

As my little car began to descend the hill toward Lake Superior, I felt excitement stirring inside me. The hilly streets of Duluth, Minnesota greeted us as we neared our destination. I reflected on how many miles from home my journey had taken me. My adventure began two years ago when my mom and I discovered the old newspaper clippings in her Aunt Amalie’s Bible. The headline of “Former Fosstonite Killed in Accident on Board Ship” started in motion a journey to discover who my great-grandfather had really been.

Andrew Iverson was born in Fosston, Minnesota on April 15, 1895 to Norwegian immigrants, John and Anna Iverson Sandvik. He grew up on the family farm and eventually married Olga Hanson, the daughter of another Norwegian farmer. His wife died shortly after giving birth to their only child, my grandmother, Olga. These were facts that I knew, but that was all they were to me – simply facts. My mom told me that Andrew had died in 1945, several years before she was born. We had some pictures of him, but he was still a stranger to us…until we set out on our adventure.

It was a warm, sunny June morning when we left Saskatchewan for the thirteen-hour drive to Minnesota. I have always loved travelling, and the time passed quickly for us. We arrived at my aunt’s house late that night, ready to begin delving into our past. We set off to explore early the next day. Our first stop was the small country church where Olga Iverson was buried in 1924. A small plaque marked the grave, and Mom remembered how my grandma had searched to find her mother’s burial place and have it marked, many years after Olga Iverson’s death.

Our steps soon took us to the now-abandoned Iverson homestead. The house and barn still stand, although the house is falling down inside. It still looked much the same as it did in the pictures I have of my grandma by the house. However time had taken its toll, as the well-weathered wood, broken windows and fallen beams proved. The trees that had once been well trimmed now encroached on what had once been the porch. Leaning through a broken window, I made a few interesting discoveries. First, I could see patches of the old wallpaper still on the walls. It was a pinkish-red flower pattern. Then, amongst the debris that littered the floor of the house, I saw several old jars. A closer inspection with the video camera revealed that they still contained preserves after so many years. I was able to lean in far enough to open the door leading down into the old cellar as well. Unfortunately, because of the condition of the house, it would have been too dangerous to explore any further. As we walked from the house to the barn, I imagined how many times Andrew and his father must have walked this very path. In my mind’s eye, I could see them going about their daily chores, a horse and wagon taking the place of my car in the middle of the yard. The barn was still in excellent shape, and we were able to explore it in a lot more detail.

Mom and I spent hours and hours pouring over the microfiche in the small town library, looking at old issues of the town newspaper until our eyes were sore. We searched for any clues as to who Andrew and Olga really were. The most interesting find was their marriage announcement in the paper. Nothing makes the picture more real than a detailed description of her dress, information on the wedding party, and the well wishes of the community. The article was able to transport me back in time, and I could almost hear the strains of music being played on J. G. Norgaard’s violin at the Hanson homestead. As soon as we got back to my aunt’s house, we found the old wedding picture she had and realized that these people were suddenly becoming real, not just storybook characters in our minds. This was brought home even more by viewing the marriage certificate at the county courthouse, which included my great-grandfather’s original signature. He had signed that very page so many years ago when he was young and full of hope for the future.

Then, sadly, tragedy struck the Iverson home. In a newspaper article dated October 24, 1924, Andrew’s wife, Olga, had died at only twenty-one years of age. She left behind her husband and infant daughter, born only ten days before. One can only imagine how this must have affected Andrew, and we began to understand the rest of his life a little better. We understood how the hardships he faced in his life had affected the choices he made, and yet, he had remained a good father to his only daughter his whole life.

Then, we set out for Superior, Wisconsin, my mom, my aunt and I. Andrew had gone to Superior to work on the boats and had returned whenever he could to visit my grandmother. He worked aboard the S. S. Cambria, a laker owned by the Interlakes Steamship Company. We knew he had died by falling through the open hold of the ship and had been buried in the Greenwood Cemetery on the outskirts of the city. It was actually a pretty humourous event when we topped the hill heading down toward the cemetery. We had previously been searching small local cemeteries, where we would simply walk around until we found what we were looking for, and we had assumed we would do the same thing here. The look on our faces must have been pretty funny when we crested the hill and saw the huge cemetery spread out before us as far as the eye could see! Fortunately in this day and age, we had a cell phone and the number for the cemetery contact. It did not take us too long, with the help of a groundskeeper to find the place where Andrew had been buried.

It was an interesting feeling to stand there looking at the unmarked spot under the beautiful spreading tree that was Andrew’s final resting place. His life and his death, which had seemed so far removed from any of ours, was suddenly right there before us, as real as our own lives. It was as I stood looking at the small piece of sod the groundskeeper had dug up to reveal the grave number that I decided to purchase a marker for Andrew’s grave. I imagined my grandmother standing here the day her father was buried. She had loved him so much and his death affected her so greatly that she miscarried her next two children. I could hear the wind rustling the leaves of the large tree above me and could feel the silence of the place. I had now seen where Andrew’s life had begun and where it had ended. It seemed strange to mourn for someone I had never known, someone who had died almost thirty-five years before my own birth, and yet I knew that I had to see that a marker was placed on that grave. I had to pay tribute to one of the people who made me who I am.

Our journey of discovery was not over yet. We still wanted to learn more about what Andrew’s life had been like when he worked on the Great Lakes. Our first stop was an old whaleback ship that had been turned into a museum. The tour was fascinating for us as we got to see the living quarters of the men, the mess hall where they ate, and the boiler room where they worked to power the great hulk through the bitter cold lake waters. Although Andrew had worked on a larger freight ship, it gave us some insight into what life must have been like on a ship like this. The narrow walkways and small, hard beds would be the same on all ships. It was really amazing to stand on deck and look out across the harbour at the many loading docks and imagine Andrew here so many years ago doing the same thing.

Our next excursion was an amazing two-hour boat tour of the harbour itself. This experience was incredible! We were taken right up next to the huge cargo ships in the harbour as they loaded their freight for the trip through the lake system. This was Andrew’s life. This was what he had eaten, slept, lived and breathed. The cool air off the water touched my face and the sound of the birds overhead filled my ears as I took in the sights and sounds that he had taken in every day of his life aboard the great ships. I looked up at the men working the machinery to load tons of grain, cement, coal and other goods into the massive holds, and I could imagine Andrew as one of them, working hard, sweating in the heat of summer to get the ship loaded under the deadline for its departure.

Our tour took us toward the lift bridge at the end of the harbour and our boat prepared to head out onto the lake itself. As we sat ready and the ship blew three long blasts of its horn to be answered by the bridge, I wondered how many times Andrew had left the harbour under this very bridge. How many times had his boat blown its loud horn to announce that it was ready to enter or exit the Duluth

Superior harbour? As we sailed down the channel and out onto Lake Superior, the wind immediately picked up and the air turned chilly. I suddenly realized why such a lake was called a Great Lake. The expanse of it was huge, just like the Ocean. The brisk wind caught my breath and I could only guess what would happen on a rough day. As our boat hit the waves on the lake, I imagined the fifteen-foot waves that would beat a ship mercilessly during an early winter storm. But today, the lake was comparatively calm and our brief jaunt was over all too soon. As we headed back through the channel toward the lift bridge again, the tour guide described the method used by the sailors to direct their ships safely into the channel using a system of lighthouses. I imagined Andrew standing on board his ship, helping to bring it safely into the harbour for another day of loading, preparing to sail the lakes once again. It was here on the water that I truly began to feel like I understood Andrew’s life. This had been his home, this place where everything seemed larger than life. He had sailed on the Lakes every year, had faced countless adventures as a stalwart sailor. Here was the man from the pictures I had seen, standing on the deck of a great laker, his weathered hands resting on the ship’s rail. This was my great-grandfather.

After a short jaunt up the North Shore to see a waterfall and a lighthouse, we were on our way back to Minnesota. And yet, even as I left, I knew I had gained so much more than just several rolls of film and video. I had gained a deeper self-identity. I had discovered a lost page in my history, a piece of who I was in the person of my great-grandfather, Andrew Iverson. No longer would he be forgotten as simply a figure in an old photograph. He would live on once again in the memories of his descendants, and the story of his life and death would be recorded in the annals of genealogical history. This is my tribute to him; the greatest accolade any one person can receive is to be remembered.

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