Stordal, Nord Trondelag, Norway

The farm is changed little historically with the exception of new paint and shingled roofs… traditionally grass was planted on the roof, which served as excellent insulation but made it difficult for Mamma to keep the beds free of debris. Note how the stream wends its way around the property, framing the farm between the densely forested slopes behind. I apologize for the picture quality… I was forced to combine two separate photos to create the right effect (need one of those panoramic cameras next time I’m in Norway!)

Picture of the Sten-oyen farm taken in 1994 in early June. Sweden mountains in the background.

The land of Norway, famous for its Viking heritage and their touted exploits, is the land to which we Stenoien family owe both our heritage and our namesake. It is a country with a long, unrecorded history. Because of the land’s northern location (fully half lies north of the arctic circle) with its short summers, mountainous terrain (which made for difficult travel), civilization came relatively late. Only in the ninth century did the scattered rural communities organize themselves under the leadership of King Harald Ha arfagre (Fairhair). It was only then that any of Norway’s history began to be recorded, three centuries before Leif Eriksen discovered America (all Norwegian Americans acknowledge this as fact of course!).

The unification of Norway heralded the age of the Viking conquests. Land was scarce and if one was not the oldest daughter or son, it was often necessary to leave the homestead and seek out one’s fortune. Small Viking settlements were established in England, Ireland and Normandy. It has been written that the Irish saved European civilization (St. Patrick’s influence led to the building of many monasteries which preserved ancient Greek and Roman literature during the dark ages of medieval Europe.) It can be said that the Norse Vikings destroyed Irish civilization. Raiding forays led by single chieftains and their crews, or often many ships functioning as a unit, ravaged many of Europe’s coastal regions. The Norse barbarians were feared by all. Imagine a world with no communication network: our ancestors attacked by dawn, waking the slumbering farmers, fishermen or shopkeepers. They were no match for these tough, vicious battle-seasoned veterans who were skilled fighters, strengthened by long sea voyages and inspired by the Norse gods. To glorify their deeds is to err; these barbarians burned some of the most beautiful monasteries in Europe, murdered innocent men, women and children, raped and plundered and pillaged.

In the end, they sailed off with all the booty they could carry, and often kidnapped (beautiful) young women from the settlements (it’s no small wonder that today’s Norwegians are not all blond and blue-eyed. There was a lot of genetic intermingling occurring at that time. The life of the Viking was neither noble nor glorious, but these men changed the lives of untold many, and changed forever the cultures of Northern Europe. We can admire their tenacity, navigational ingenuity and extreme courage.

The introduction of Christianity to Norway left little room for Viking barbarism. Norway was united under a Christian king in 1050. Though his rule did not last, this was the death knell for the Viking Gods (immortalized by the sagas of Snorre Sturlasson in the twelfth century.) Adopting Christian principles, but remembering fondly the gods of Asgaard (who can forget Thor and his mighty hammer, Mjalmir!) our ancestors farmed the valleys of Norway. Because of a short life span (25-30 years), high mortality rate and relatively low birth rate, the population grew slowly. By the fourteenth century, much of the land, including Stordal, was settled. However, in 1350, the black death (plague) killed over half the population of Europe, and our ancestors moved back to the lower, more easily farmed valleys (at these lower elevations, the winters were milder and the growing season longer).

The valley of Stordal lies east of Trondheim, two hours journey by train to Meråker and then twenty minutes by car to this valley. Stordal lies at an altitude of about 3000 feet, extending east to the Swedish border. Because of its altitude and geographical isolation, no Norwegians lived here after 1350 and before 1700. Lapps were likely the only inhabitants of the valley for several centuries. They followed their herds of reindeer, present to this day in the valley. Other visitors to the valley included occasional hunters and fishermen. The river was rich with salmon, the forests thick with bears and elk.

In the late eighteenth century, metal ore was discovered in Stordal. In 1777, Selbo Kobberverk (copper works) purchased the entire valley from the Bishop in Trondheim. Although single men were employed to extract the copper and (rarely) silver, the company preferred hiring men with families. These men worked at the smelter, cleared the slopes of trees, or transported the ore. In exchange, they received a small salary as well as permission to occupy small farms with their families, as tenant employees. By the time of the 1801 census, all of the valley’s tenant farms were occupied.

Our direct ancestor, Ola Hansson, was born in a neighboring valley, Tydalen. He married Beret Pedersdatter and moved to Stordal approximately 1780. Ola was granted permission to live in one the clearings, the site of the current day Stenøien farm. He worked long hours for the smelter, often seven days a week. It was the responsibility of his wife and children to tend to the farm. Only during the dark, cold winter months were men free to build the requisite barn, and later, house.

The unusual name of the farm, our namesake, was likely picked in frustration or jest. Although picturesque, the farm is isolated by a creek in front, trees and mountains to the rear. A bridge crosses the creek. Each year, the fields were cleared of the annual spring crop of rocks. These first provided the foundations for the buildings. Then a wall was built along the wending creek. Still the rocks came up, and were now tossed into piles, or into the creek. ‘Sten-oyen’ literally means “stone island!”

Farming in Stordal was fraught with difficulty. The combination of its northern location and high altitude shortens the growing season. As a result, staple crops such as corn, wheat and alfalfa could not be cultivated. Even potatoes, the staple food, sometimes failed to be harvested. The only predictable crop was hay (grass). Each family owned a cow for milk, a horse for transportation, and sheep to produce wool meat. Harvesting the grass was difficult. It was first cut by hand. Because of the cool, wet weather, it was hung to dry on ropes attached to stakes. When dry, it was gathered and transported to the barn for storage. A six month supply was necessary to feed the animals through the long, cold winter.

Some of the early history of the valley can be gleaned from the Stordal congregation centennial book (Stordalen Kapell 1863-1963). This book helps us to understand just how isolated our ancestors were. Until 1850, the closest church was located in Stjordal, seventy kilometers (40 miles) to the west, on the coast. Twice a year, the Stordal families journeyed en masse to church. They left early in the morning and arrived late that first night. There, the local inhabitants sheltered them (I’m sure that more than a little food and drink were consumed upon arrival!) On the second day, they went to church. During this long service, children were baptized and couples married (not necessarily in that order). It was quite usual for the brides to be pregnant, thanks to the custom of bundling (below). Afterwards, the Stordal travelers purchased/bartered the necessities that would carry them through the next six months and tried to catch up on local and world events. Church was as much a social affair as a spiritual one; the families were so isolated on their farms, particularly during the long, cold winter when the they might be cabin-bound for weeks at a time. On the third day, the weary group traveled home again. In the Stordal book I discovered a notation on one of our relatives (translation): “In the winter of 1803, he developed cabin fever, fled, and was never seen again….”

The custom of ‘bundling’ is not dealt with in the centennial chapel book, but rather is passed down from some of our older relatives. In those days, particularly in winter, it was quite difficult and indeed dangerous to travel about. It was customary for adolescents to begin courting early (Ole P. Stenoien and Johanna were ‘man and wife’ at the age of sixteen). Once the two were ‘steady,’ it was permissible in some households for the young suitor to spend the night with his ‘kjaereste’ or darling (pronounces scháh-rista).

The purpose was to keep the teens warm; anything else that might take place was left unspoken. This practice more or less accounted for the abundance of pregnant brides that presented themselves in Stjordal each spring! Note, not all of the households felt this was ‘proper.’

In 1850, the church in nearby Meråker was assigned a traveling pastor. Meråker lies only twenty-five kilometers from Stordal, in an adjacent valley (as a matter or fact, if one wishes to visit Stordal today, one takes the train from Trondheim to Stockholm and gets off in Meråker.) Between 1850 and 1862, when a member of our family died, he or she was carted down to the Meråker chapel. In winter, the horse-drawn sleds came down off the snow-covered mountain roads onto the gravel roads of the town. The horses could barely pull the heavily laden, screeching carriages through the town to the cemetery. Up to 150 people, drove, rode and walked down. It was said in Meråker that whenever such an uproar was heard, surely it was time for another Stordal funeral. The family buried the body in the graveyard, performed an impromptu service, and went home. Sometimes, the ground was hard-frozen, and the burial delayed until the weather warmed. Some weeks or months later, the traveling priest would perform a service for those laid to rest during his absence.

The daily life of our ancestors was a harsh one. As noted above, able-bodied men were expected to work seven days a week during periods of good weather. These were twelve and fourteen hour days, not the eight to which we are accustomed. The women and children were in charge of the farm. Their chores included milking, shepherding the animals and in general running the household without any of the modern conveniences. The children were schooled during good weather. Our great-grandfather, Ole Pederson Stenoien was taught by Herr Stokke in his home. It was customary in most households to read the family bible after supper. There were many fine stories to tell, and music was a constant companion, whether it was song or instrument. Indeed, some of the modern Stordal inhabitants have left to play in the Bergen and Oslo conservatories! There is even an instrument designed in Stordal that is displayed in one of the Oslo museums. The Skordalsvold family was renowned for its hunting abilities, and fish were plentiful. Life was routine, but the inhabitants managed to divert themselves sufficiently.

In the summer of 1991, I visited Stordal, Nord Trondelag, Norway. Sverre Strom, with wife May, entertains us with superb talent on his accordian. I apologize for the quality of the video, it was very dark in the house. Close your eyes, truly amazing.

In the spring of 1860, a meeting was heId in Stordal. A petition was drafted to the bishop in Trondheim to obtain permission to build a church in Stordal. This was obtained, and the Meråker congregation volunteered their pastor four times a year. The Selbu copper company donated the land for the chapel, as well as forest on the mountain slopes behind it. Tenants of the valley cut and delivered timber without pay. Peder Larsen Stenøien, father to Ole P. Stenoien (note spelling change), was a carpenter. The Stenøien farm lies less than half a mile to the west; he undoubtedly pitched in with his neighbors and helped to build the handcrafted chapel.

The chapel was consecrated with great pomp by the district bishop. Several hundred persons attended, many coming from adjacent valleys for the festivities. This was likely a once in a lifetime experience for many of our ancestors. The first baptism at the church was a Stenøien… Anna, daughter of Hans Larsen Stenøien and Marit Pedersdatter.

The decade of 1860 marks the first of three great Norwegian emigrations. Because of improving health standards and diminished infant mortality, the population grew quickly during the nineteenth century. All available land was utilized. According to Norwegian tradition, the oldest son or daughter inherited the use of their parents’ farm. This left many of the younger siblings with no place to go. Shortly after the baptism of their oldest daughter Anna, Hans and Marit Pedersdatter Stenøien traveled to America. The first group to leave also included Jens Skordalsvold, whose daughter Lisa was later to marry Ole P. Stenoien’s brother, Lars. Sailing ships departed Trondheim and arrived in Quebec, Canada. The group then made their way by train to Minneapolis.

The first group of Stordal settlers was quite poor. They carried all of their earthly possessions in large steamer trunks. Selbu Copperworks was not known for its generous wages and benefits! In order to establish themselves in their new home, they first journeyed to Goodhue County in southeastern Minnesota. There they worked for established, prosperous Norwegian farmers. They were not content to work for others, but quickly sought out land for themselves. By 1865, homesteaders had claimed the best farmlands in the flat plains of southern Minnesota. Thus in April 1870, a group of three men, including Jens Skordalsvold, walked to Ottertail County in search of land. That trip was unsuccessful. However, on return, while passing through West Union Township in Todd County, they were told that good homesteads were available to the northeast in the timber. They struck out into the forest and found what they had sought. The lands had been surveyed only twelve years before, so stakes and witness trees were easily found. They stopped in St. Cloud and filed their claims at the U.S. land office. They returned in June with many others, including Hans Larsen Stenoien, settling in Little Sauk Township, Todd County, Minnesota.

Meanwhile, life in Stordal continued. By this time the richer veins of copper ore had played out. People still sought the mother lode, to no avail… it was never to be found. The farm provided only bare sustenance. In 1869, Lars, the oldest son of Peder Larsen Stenøien, left for America. Peder (our direct ancestor and the oldest son of the family) inherited not only the use of the farm, but also the responsibility of taking care of his parents in their old age. They both died in 1879. Immediately, the entire family except for a married daughter, Johanna, left for Gordon Township, Todd County. The farm was left vacant, only to be later occupied by strangers who themselves took on the Stenøien name.

Today, Stordal retains the same general appearance. Change has come slowly; the first road in 1950, followed by electricity in 1958. Farms are situated along the road, backed by rolling slopes leading to gently sloping, tree-lined mountains. Sheep graze the meadows and hay is still harvested. But now the Stenøien farm lies vacant, as do many other family farms. Thirty children rode the school bus to Meråker fifteen years ago, only eight ride it today. Children pursue their studies in Trondheim, Bergen or Oslo and do not return. While Norway subsidizes its farmers, there are fewer to take on the responsibilities required to keep the valley habitable. It is conceivable that in the near future the valley will revert to its former state, frequented primarily by hunters and fishermen. Time will tell.

Randy Stenoien 1996