With Christmas just a day away, I feel it is the perfect time to share this story. It is going to be rather long but it is a story I love deeply. The story of how I reconnected with the history of my great uncle Carl, who immigrated to the US in 1912. The story of how we found his grave. How we met and became friends with wonderful people who remembered him well and could relate many stories. And it is the story of how I got to play ping pong with a 72 year old cowboy.
Carl Jensen 1892 – 1967
My great uncle Carl (born Karl) was born in 1892 on our family farm, the same farm I grew up on 80 years later. For reasons not entirely known to us, he immigrated in 1912 to the USA. I am sure wanderlust had a big part in it, wanting to travel, to find a new life. He arrived in the US via the ferry and made his way to a small northeastern part of South Dakota, an area where many Norwegian and Danish immigrants had settled in the homesteading days.
After a while in South Dakota, he traveled around the US working on farms in several states. But he wrote that he always felt South Dakota was his home and he didn’t really know why he ever left South Dakota. He returned to live in Lake City, South Dakota in 1960 and lived there till he died in 1967.
He returned once to Denmark, for a year, in the early 1950s. My father has told me many times the wonderful story of how they’d heard rumours for a few months he might be on the way on the ferry. One rainy day, my 7 year old father saw a man get off the bus and start walking down the gravel road towards our farm. “He’s here, he’s here” my father cried out. My grandfather stepped outside the house. Then follows a magic moment described by my father as “they just stood there in the pouring rain, two brothers, shaking hands, not having seen each other for three decades”.
Carl hung around the farm in Denmark for
a month (edit: a year) but I guess he missed his spiritual home and his friends in South Dakota, and one morning he was gone. He didn’t like goodbyes. He sent a postcard later that he was on the ferry back to the US. He never returned to Denmark again.
My dad was 7 years old at the time and only remembers little about him. My aunt was a few years older, but tells me she was to shy too talk much to him. So we do not know much about his life in the US, except through the letters he sent back over the years.
My aunt has done extensive research on his life in the US, and that is how we know where he lived his last years and where he is buried. We also knew he worked for the Damgaard family on their farm. For years, we have talked about how interesting it would be to actually get to South Dakota and see if the gravestone is still there and what else could be learned about his life. I have been to the US many times over the past 5 years but South Dakota has always been a bit too far away from where I was and I never had the time.
This time, for our 3 months US road trip starting in September 2014 Charlene and I made it our mission to get there. To drive halfway across the country from Los Angeles to Britton, South Dakota. To see if we could find traces of Carl.
Britton, South Dakota. September 2014
I gave up counting how many miles it is from Los Angeles to Britton, but Google Maps say around 1,700 miles. We took our time getting there, as the road is peppered with amazing sights such as Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore. On the last day, driving from Rapid City to Britton, it felt like we would never get there. South Dakota is a lot of never ending farm land, you drive straight for an hour, turn 90 degrees, drive straight for another hour etc. Even shouting “Jooooooohn Deere” every time we saw a John Deere (many many!) got old. But, our direction proved true and our excitements high when we passed this sign:
Finally, the miles could be counted on two hands and then one (I wasn’t driving, so I could DJ and count miles!) and we arrived at Britton around sunset. We walked around the small town extremely excited, we had made it! The population of Britton is around 1,200 but not a soul was around on the Sunday evening we arrived. We soon learned why, as an armada of mosquitoes chased us around town until we found refuge and some insect repellent at the gas station.
We kicked off Monday morning at Britton Library. A few weeks earlier I had emailed them and Peggy from the library immediately replied with what proved to be essential information: She put me in contact with Neil Bien, grandson of the owner of the farm my great uncle worked for – more about this later. She also told us to drop by, she had the old newspapers on microfiche.
Peggy welcomed us at the library and found the old microfiche. I donned my reading glasses (those letters are small for old eyes!) and after intense searching I managed to find the eulogy in the Britton Journal from december 1967. This was a big moment, and it was to be just the very first of special moments during our 3 incredible days in Britton, South Dakota.
High on the success of finding the eulogy, we drove a few miles outside of town to the Britton cemetery. After consulting the “directory” in the small chapel at the cemetery the correct lot was easily found. And I then found family history:
Carl’s gravestone was in perfect condition and found on the Damgaard family lot. Apparently Carl and the Damgaards were very good friends as well, Carl’s stone is right next to Godtfred and Jensena Damgaards gravestone.
I had never given it any thought, how I would react when I saw the gravestone. Standing there, kneeling down, looking at Carl’s name and our family name Jensen. It was a moving moment. I always felt a certain connection to Carl, not that I knew him of course, but I connected to the stories about him. The wanderlust, traveling to the USA, looking for a new life, new adventures. All feelings I relate to. The gravestone was physical proof I had found Carl. I had found family history. But the days in Britton were just getting started.
The Damgaards and the Bien family
Peggy from the Britton Library kindly pointed me towards the Bien family, she mentioned they were descendants of the Damgaard family. One of the first nights on the road after leaving Los Angeles, I call Neil Bien. After just mentioning Carl’s name, Neil immediately says “oh yes I remember him, he was a wonderful man”. I was stunned, I had actually found a person who remembers my great uncle, something I just never had imagined possible. Neil immediately invites us to visit when we get to Britton.
Ben Steals The Show
Lyle Bien is the brother of Neil and the first of the Bien’s we meet as Neil is out of town on the Monday. Lyle has prepared a wonderful tour for us of the whole countryside around Britton, a tour so awesome I really believe Lyle could start a tour company.
Lyle brought his dog Ben along, and well, in 2 seconds he took over and stole the show for the rest of the day. Ben is gorgeous and a movie star, as he perfectly poses himself in every shot. Ben is charming, in a heartbeat Charlene falls in love and wants to adopt Ben. Lyle – and Ben – takes us around to where Carl’s house used to be:
We spend the next 3 hours learning about the history of The Damgaards, the Biens and a lot of other families in the area. Lyle is a treasure trove of amazing stories and I could listen to him for days. All of this history, of which my great uncle was a part of, become very much alive through Lyle. One thing that strikes me is how similar the landscape looks to where I grew up. This would have looked very familiar to Carl. Through Lyle’s perfect timing of his tour, we end on the highest peak in the area to witness the sun set.
Two days later, Neil Bien is back in town, so we are excited, we get go out to the Bien farm and meet Neil and his wife Muriel. Neil is the oldest of the grandchildren of Gotfred Damgaard and therefore remembers Carl well.
We start the day with a little tour of the ‘museum’ on the farm. The Bien’s have collected a lot of stuff over the years from days past including an impressive collection of vintage John Deere tractors! I get to try my hand at using a cream-milk-seperator machine, the very same machine Carl used! My years of training in growing up on a farm comes in handy here, observe the expert in action:
Neil and Muriel takes us on another fantastic tour of the area. The Bien farm itself is quite a tour, 1500 cattle and 8,000 acres. We even get to taste the cattle! For dinner we have home grown angus steak burgers, that are absolutely fantastic. After dinner, it’s time for a little game of ping pong and pinball as the rec room in the house is very well equipped. I am fairly ok at ping pong but Neil turns out to be really good. I have to work really hard, and I only beat him as I am a bit more mobile. Cowboys can play ping pong!
A new family in South Dakota
Going to Britton was always an uncertainty. After a week of travel, we had no idea what we would find, if anything at all. Sitting at Carl’s gravestone was by itself a deeply moving experience and a slice of magic. But not only did I find a big chunk of family history, the Biens warmly welcomed Charlene and I into their lives and homes. I feel like I now have new family in South Dakota. After a few days I think the whole town of Britton knew who we were and why we were there. We’d meet a relative of Neil and Lyle and without any intro he’d jump straight into a story about Carl like “He had a dog, they used to fight over who got the sofa, the dog had sharper teeth and would win”. I will never forget these days in Britton and hope to return soon. Sometimes real magic happens!
My aunt Solveig did a great job researching the family history, and without all the information and pictures she supplied this could never have happened. I just went there, she did all the work. Charlene was a huge support and catalyst, her excitement, the energy she poured into it, it was all instrumental in making this happen. And she documented every day in awesome pictures (and stole a dog’s heart and vice versa!).
Neil and Muriel, Lyle (and Ben!) Bien were absolutely wonderful, you guys are all my new family in South Dakota. Thank you so much for everything you did for me and Charlene, I cannot express how much I value and appreciate it. I cannot wait till we can return and spend more time with you.