When I was born in 1934, I won the ovarian lottery. I was born white, I was born a male and I was born in the United States of America. And how did I happen to be born in Escanaba, Michigan? I’ll quote the dedication section of my web site:
This site is dedicated to my Grandparents who braved
the arduous journey from Scandinavia to the
Upper Midwest in search of greater
opportunity for themselves
and their descendants
And to my Parents for continuing the odyssey
This odyssey began around the year 1905, when two young men, unknown to each other, emigrated to America. One came from Eastern Sweden, the other from Western Norway. They both left their families, wives and children, and homeland and traveled via steamship and railroad through England and Canada to reach the United States. It is said they came to this country and traveled and traveled until they reached an area where the weather was as bad as it was in the old country.
Each man was following a younger brother who had made the same journey some years earlier. More on these great-uncles, later.
The man from Sweden was my fraternal grandfather – named Johan Jonsson Mattesson (later changed to John Mattson.) The man from Norway was my maternal grandfather – Nias Carlsen Jenshus (changed to Nias Mickalson upon arrival in this country). Both would later be joined by their wives and children.
Besides the greater opportunity in this country, why did Nias and John, and their families, leave Scandinavia? Much of this is speculation, but several reasons suggest themselves: population growth caused by medical advances, limited land availability, the practice of passing farm ownership to the oldest son and similar geographies. And, maybe, just maybe, it was because of their Viking heritage.
Why Escanaba? Because it was a boom town in those days, with large stands of virgin timber, dense fish populations, available land and a rapidly expanding shipping point for iron ore. Not sure this had any bearing on their decision, but it was said to have more bars and taverns, per population, than any other city in the United States.
Much of this timber was converted to lumber by the I. Stephenson Lumber Co. Their saw mills, located at the mouth of the Escanaba River on Little Bay de Noc, were the largest producer of timber in the world in the mid 1800s. Much of this lumber was shipped down Lake Michigan to build the rapidly growing city of Chicago. The first street I lived on when I moved to Chicago was Escanaba Ave.
This combination of trees, fish and land would have been very attractive to my Norwegian grandfather. The Norwegian census of 1900 states that he was a farm hand and a fisherman. Unfortunately, no similar information has been discovered concerning my grandfather Mattson’s activities in Sweden.
Both of my grandfathers built homes on an unoccupied stretch of road (approximately five miles long) leading from Escanaba to the farming community of Danforth, MI. The 1920 census lists their two families and the Kahlman family as the only residents of what was to become a small community named Soo Hill. This is where I lived for eleven years after winning the lottery at my birth.
The two great-uncles that preceded my grandparents were Evan Kasper Michalson and Carl Emil Mattson. Even went by the name of Charlie.
Charlie lived under the radar for his first twenty years after coming to this country in 1887. He is not listed in the 1890, 1900 or 1910 censuses. He was finally listed, in 1920, as living in Escanaba. House painting (decorating) and fine painting were his vocations. A number of his oil painting still exist and he won a number of local competitions. He also raised flowers and flower bulbs for sale. Charlie never married or had children. He died at age 70.
Carl Mattson, the other great-uncle married a local Escanaba girl, had eleven children and lived to the age of 98.
My fraternal grandfather, John Mattson, had married and fathered two children before emigrating. The second of these two boys was my father. John’s wife was named Hedvig.
John worked, initially, in the lumber industry and then went to work for the St. Paul Railroad as a car repairer. The St. Paul RR was involved in hauling iron ore from the iron mines in Norway and Marquette (both in the UP) to Escanaba. There the ore cars were unloaded directly into the holds of long ore carrying ships bound for the steel mills in Indiana.
He finally was fired for scavenging coal pieces from alongside the railroad tracks to be used for heating his home. This same collecting I often did as a teenager. John also had a blacksmithing business at his home in Soo Hill. He lived to the age of 81 and Hedvig reached 69 years. They both are buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Escanaba. My maternal grandparents are buried in an adjacent plot.
Hedvig and John had a total of four children – three boys and a girl, including my father Fred Carl Mattson. Two of the sons would own mink ranches, my dad was in the woodworking business and the daughter, Florence, married and moved to California.
Hedvig and John seemed to be a good match – their first two boys lived into their 90s, the daughter into her late 80s and the last child made it to 80, even after being a diabetic for many years.
Nias Mickalson and his wife Anna Christina also had two children before moving to America. After settling in Soo Hill they had seven more children, of which only five survived. Nias was a farmer with strawberries being his major crop.
This marriage was not so good a match. Five of the children would die of kidney disease, as would Nias. Five of the children would also have alcohol problems and three would die in middle age. This alcohol problem would be passed down to several grandchildren.
True to their Viking heritage, four of these children, and Nias, would move on to California about the time World War II started. Nias moved after the death of Anna in 1940. He died in 1944 of kidney disease while building Liberty ships.
My mother, Mildred Evelyn, was number five of the seven. Two weeks shy of her 17th birthday, she married my dad in 1929. He was 26 years old. They had six children. I was number two in birth order.
Milly, as everyone called her, was a petite, pretty woman, who was very outgoing and involved in her family and community activities. In her mid-thirties, she changed drastically. She was finally diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and lived the rest of her life in her own world. Many treatments, including electroshock therapy, were given to her. On top of this was her alcohol problem and being a lifelong smoker. She died at 90 of old age.
My dad was a workaholic. He built many homes, machines and businesses. He and his older brother, Gunnar, were very mechanically inclined. Both only had an eighth grade education. The high school principal was met by my grandfather, carrying a shotgun, when he tried to get my dad to continue his schooling past the eight grade.
Fred would later take math and English classes from the International Correspondence School in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I remember seeing his papers with straight As and his beautiful handwriting.
Fred built his last home when he was in his 70s. He did heating and air condition work into his 80s. He died at 94.