Can anyone imagine how thrilling it was, for a young boy who loves the outdoors, Indians, the northwoods and the wild frontier, to know that his great-granddad owned a real, honest-to-goodness stage coach line? And when one really thinks about it, just how many other youngsters in this country, or the whole world for that matter, can say the same. How exciting--whether one is a youngster of 16 or a young-at-heart of 56, to have such an ancestor!
Actually, we know few specific details about Andrew Olson, but by piecing together what little we we have about the family, we get a pretty good idea of the major events of his life until he headed west to California. Our knowledge comes from written information, mainly dates, from my Grandmother Alice, the many recollections of my parents, newspaper clippingsfrom Roseau, MN. which Stella Olson sent to my parents after the death of my father's Uncle Scoop, and the detailed Johnson family tree information, which I was very grateful to receive from Winifred Stigen. These sources complement each other in such a way that we get a fairly accurate account of his family during what must have been a very eventful time in his life.
The Ole Olson family came to the U.S. from Sweden in 1881 and settled in Hillsboro, N.D., which is located on the Minnesota line, due west of Bemidji. The family consisted of the parents, Ole and Anna, a son, Andrew, and quite likely an older son named Nils. (Though none of our family know anything of a Nils, I have what appears to be a formal family photograph of Andrew's wife, Mary, holding baby Johnnie, and a Maude Olson, wife of Nils, with young son Edwin. It would appear that they are the wives and children of Olson brothers). We know of no others.
Just a few years later, in 1886 and 1887, Halvor and Karen Johnson and their two children, Clara and Hakon, left their home in Hurdal, Norway, to settle in Avalanche, Wisconsin. In spite of a dreadfully difficult trip (which my Great-Great Aunt Nettie has described in heart-rending detail, in her essay on her family history) the family soon made a second major move to begin homesteading near Hillsboro. They kept their home farm in Avalanche, however. One might assume that the wide-open prairie fields of North Dakota must have seemed a far easier place to farm than the steep, heavily-wooded hills of Vernon County.
We don't know how often the family traveled back and forth between their two farms, for this undoubtedly was a long and difficult journey. Unfortunately, after her lengthy description of the trip from Norway, Nettie never mentioned the farm in North Dakota, with all the related travel and hardships. It was in Hillsboro that Clara first met her future husband, Thieman Lee. They were married in September of 1884. It was probably around this time that the next younger sister, Mary, also met a young Hillsboro man by the name of Andrew. You don't suppose that Mary and Andrew were a part of Clara's wedding party when they met. It would seem most logical that Mary would have been the maid of honor, and in that small, remote town, the two men undoubtedly knew each other well.
At this point, major events began to occur in rather rapid succession. In 1886, two used stage coaches were purchased from a bankrupt company in Medora, North Dakota, and sent to the STEPHEN-ROSEAU STAGE LINE AND STEPHEN LIVERY in the northern-most part of Minnesota. Whether Andrew left from North Dakota or northern Minnesota, either alone or with Mary, we do not know, but it was only a year later that Andrew and Mary were wed in November of 1887 in Avalanche. Soon after the wedding, the young couple was in their new home in Stephen, Minnesota.
We also do not know if the stage line had been in operation and was now purchased by Andrew, whether he founded a new line, or perhaps was merely an employee. It would appear, however, that his taking a new bride into such a remote and wild area would indicate that he now owned the line, and somehow raised the capital to purchase the coaches, equipment, numerous horses, the hotel at Pelen, and all the other things required of a stage and livery line, as well as a house in Stephen. It would not seem logical that such a major move with a new bride would have been made if he were taking only a menial job.
On the back of a formal portrait of Mary that was taken in Roseau, their residence is given as Stephen. From that, we might gather that their main house was "in town," but certainly one, or perhaps both, of them spent a lot of time out at the hotel in Pelen. The couple had been up there only a short time when they had their first son, most likely in 1888. The photo of Mary and Johnnie, in which the baby appears to be about one year old, was probably taken in 1889. Three more children were to follow at close intervals. Mabel was born in either 1889 or 1890 and then my grandfather, Clarence, in November of 1891. The last to arrive was Elvin (Scoop).
Pelen was the midpoint between Roseau to the east and Stephen to the west, which in the words of one of the stage coach drivers, Tom Hegre, "consisted of Olson's livery stable, a big hotel where passengers on his stage spent the night, a couple of stores and a saloon." There were other stops along the way for changing horses. My father has passed on to me stories that Grandpa Clarence has told him about jumping on a coach, riding to the next stop, spending the night and returning the next day. Quite something for a boy no older than ten or eleven.
It must have made Mary extremely happy when her younger sister also decided to move to Stephen. In 1898, Anna was married in Grand Forks, North Dakota, just north of Hillsboro, and then moved on up to be with Mary. Perhaps Andrew gave her new husband employment. To my knowledge, Anna is the only one in the family never to return permanently to Wisconsin, choosing instead to reside in Grand Forks.
Unfortunately, this narrative doesn't have a happy ending. While we don't know of the success of the business in the early years, it would seem likely that by the time Andrew sold the line to George Roberts in 1903 we were at the end of an era and other means of travel and shipping were now possible. The newspaper accounts of the time appear to indicate that only one coach was now running and both Andrew and the new owner experimented with motor vehicles, albeit with little success. Pelen itself no longer exists. All that my parents could find are foundations on a stream bank, undoubtedly the same stream where all those horses were once watered.
It wasn't only the business that had difficulties---the marriage also had apparently ended. While we have no way of knowing whether the two were related, it would seem reasonable to assume that the hardships of a failing enterprise, in such a remote location, would have had a negative impact on the family. Quoting the newspaper article, "Mr. Roberts will take possession on the first day of March and Mr. Olson will in a short time leave for the West" would seem to suggest that Mary and the children have already returned to Wisconsin and that Andrew's move to California was certain.
It is at this point that Aunt Nettie's family history gives a surprising account. It turns out that Andrew didn't leave for California after all, but went back to Salem Ridge, just above the small community of Avalanche, where he and Mary purchased her parent's farm, undoubtedly with the funds from the sale of the coach line. One could assume that this was an attempt at reconciliation, by leaving the North woods and returning to family and farm, there was hope the marriage could be saved. Unfortunately, Andrew probably didn't care much about farming, the family problems didn't end, and the break-up was delayed only a year or two. The move to California now took place.
A short time later, in July of 1908, Mary wed a widower by the name of George Melvin, who also lived on Salem Ridge. Three Melvin children on the 1906 roster of the Sugar Grove School leads one to believe he had at least three children of his own who were a little younger than the Olson children. Mary died just a few years later in 1914, 15, or 16 (I have three different years from as many sources) after an obviously difficult life of only about forty eight years. A family picture, with the daughters seated around their father, Halvor, must have been taken shortly before her death. She looks much older.
It would appear that running a stage coach line wasn't Andrew's only adventure in life. I grew up hearing stories that he "made and lost a number of fortunes" in his lifetime, but never knowing how we were aware of this information. I do not know of any contact he made with family or friends after he left. His daughter, Mabel, followed him to California, and then to the Phillipines where she taught school. We would have to wonder if she had any contact with him before he died in 1919. The location of his death and burial place is unknown to our family.
Many thanks to Winifred Stigen, of Viroqua, for passing on to me a copy of my Great-great Aunt Nettie's essay, and also to Esther Bakke, of Westby, for her excellent translation of that document from the original Norwegian.
Rev. Jan 19, 1995