August 17, 2008

I'm (literally) on a roll, now

I'm so grateful to Elisabeth (my former hostess, now adopted daughter-friend) for setting in motion the next bits of my journey. On her suggestion, I made contact with a wonderful woman named Aine Aske at the Larvik Museum. Aine is the Cultural curator/historian for Larvik - so the perfect person to ask questions about my ancestors and their history. As I mentioned briefly before, Aine was immediately very helpful, but she suggested I contact a man name Tor Bjørvik, an avid local history buff for some even more in-depth help with records. I emailed Tor and he wrote back that genealogy wasn't his real specialty, but he'd ask another man - Kolbjørn Næs - if he would help me. Kolbjørn emailed me and we made a date to meet up on Saturday to go through the available records..and to try to sort the puzzle of who came from where, with whom and what for...and all that.

We were to meet up in Hedrum - which I thought I thought I could walk but turned out to be about 20k away, so Elisabeth took charge and asked her father, Olaf Holm to give me a ride and - along the way - to show me the Hedrum church, where Kristen Tolstrup's children were all baptised.

Hedrum Kirke is famous for it's exquisite interior, parts of which date back to the 12th century. Olaf has a particular fondness for the church because, for the last few years he's been the bell-ringer (this must be a dying art). Now for those of you who knew my Dad, Olaf reminds me a lot of him - a very straight-forward, intelligent, saavy, modern business man - not exactly what I'd think of as a bell-ringer type. On the way he showed me the house he was born in, where his parents hid from the Nazis (his father was a priest and therefore a particular target) and then showed me the interior of the Hedrum Kirke (as bell-ringer, he has keys). It was magnificent! Honestly, I've seen some huge and amazing cathedrals, but nothing more powerful than Hedrum Kirke. And like all really sacred-feeling churches, it was built on a sacred site recognised by prior generations: At the back of the churchyard there are Viking burial mounds - dating to the 500-900's or so, and recent archeological digs nearby have revealed even earlier use with the discovery of bronze and even iron age artifacts. We arrived at Hedrum Bygdetun (an old town square used by the local historical society as their base of research operations and for historical events) and Kolbjørn had raised an American flag in my honour! I can't begin to describe how touched I've been by the willingness and enthusiam of strangers to help me with my search.
Kolbjørn and I started to comb the records and shared bits of information back and forth. I was happy to be able to contribute pieces of the puzzle by alerting Kolbørn to some records that Kolbjørn hadn't seen - the 1801 census, for instance (discovered by Dave) and the names of the ships Mathias captained (gleaned from my meeting with Ruth Eli). I became aware that I was playing a very particular role in the process - as a kind of weaver of the various pieces and sources of familty history.
Kolbjørn was able to put a lot of information into historical perspective by interpreting the records in ways that made sense of and filled out the dry and simple lists of dates, places, and other entries. Turns out, both Kristen (gr-gr-gr-grandfather) and Mathias (gr-gr-grandfather) were very wealthy men and Kristen, quite possibly was the administrative overseer for the Hedrum Ironworks: you'll like this, Max - Hedrum Ironworks was connected to the Larvik Ironworks, but was where they specialised in forging metal for blades.

The records were definitive that Kristen was born in Tolstrup (near Aalborg) Denmark and that he lived and worked in Hagnes (near Larvik). In 1809, he married Maren Mattisdatter from Skoli (or Scholi) near Andebu and they had 5 children, all of whom were baptised in Hedrum Kirke –3 daughters, Line Magrethe, Maren Petrine and Else Katrine and 2 sons, Kristen (who died unmarried and without children at the age of 24) and Mattis (my ancestor) who was a sea captain. In a footnote, the entry also mentioned another son, Peder, born out-of-wedlock before Kristen married Maren. Peder Christensen seems a pretty interesting fellow: Though not raised by either his birth mother or father (he was fostered out to a farm), he was self-taught and educated, became a sea captain and at the age of 50 (unmarried and childless) he wrote a book about his life and sea-faring adventures. Ruth Eli told me that Mattis' first experience as a sailor was as a navigator on a ship captained by Peder, his illegitimate half-brother. I hope this means that, at least, there was no bad blood or resentment between Peder and his half-siblings. This, along with the fact that he was well educated, gives me reason to think (or maybe, hope) that Kristen looked out for him, somehow and tried to give him opportunities he might not otherwise have had. I’d like to get a copy of the book (and learn to read it), because maybe there’s some more personal and individual history there - a sense of who all the people really were.

Kolbjørn and I covered a lot of ground and ended our research session with the arrival of Tor Bjørvik who came to take me on a tour of the locations where my ancestors lived and worked. He asked if I was able to ride a bicycle (Chris, I know you're smiling now): it seems that one of the roads we needed to travel was in the midst of roadworks and closed to traffic. I said that was fine (but not without a moment’s trepidation – I haven’t ridden a bike in probably 20 years!) and I’ll admit that the bike (and I) felt pretty unsteady at first...besides which I needed to walk the bike up some of the steeper hills, and down some of the most slippery trails...but we were all the while passing through some incredible ancestral countryside and soon came to our first stop - Hagnes Nedre Verket (Hagnes lower ironworks) – the ironworks site where Kristen Tolstrup worked and the very house where he lived during the early part of the 19th century. I think it’s extraordinary that the house is not only still standing, but still inhabited. The man who lives there was mowing his lawn and when Tor told him why we were there offered to let us look inside.
Tor then showed me the point on the river where the forge had been - an exquisite place, with a small waterfall to drive the water-wheels (no longer there). The water flowing was particularly heavy because there’d been so much recent rain. The beauty of the place and the power of the water was stunning! We got back on our bikes and by this time it was feeling like an adventure..seriously winded or not, the day was perfect, the discoveries compelling and the experience entirely engrossing. Our next stop was the Hagnes Østre Verket – the upper Hagnes ironworks. The property is now owned by an extended family: the first house – which was part of the ironworks, is now being renovated and occupied by a young couple. We met the husband by the side of the road and Tor told him why I was there. I asked if the house had any ghosts and he said that he was pretty sure there was a spirit in one part of the house, but hadn’t dared to tell his wife. He said the spirit seemed friendly enough, though and I said that maybe it was my gr-gr-gr-grandfather! We went on to the river’s edge where the parents of the young husband we’d met had built a huge, gorgeous house with sod roofs. Honestly, it was one of the most beautiful houses in one of the most stunning locations I’ve ever seen. Back on our bikes and back to our starting point...and all too soon, the adventure was over! I was genuinely sorry to see it end.On our way back to Larvik, I asked Tor if we could stop again at Hedrum Church so that I could photograph the gravestone of Kristen’s sister, Else Katrine Tolstrup. Kari had said the day before that she thought Kristen and Maren Tolstrup might be buried there, too. This time, too, I was taken by the Viking burial mounds just beyond the churchyard and can’t help but think about the power certain sites seem to have to inspire a sense of the sacred in succesive and often quite disparate cultures.
Once again, I am struck by a sense of absolute gratitude for being here, now, doing this: and as well, for all of the help, good will and friendship that’s been offered me. I would never have come so far in my efforts to locate past and present family, to learn their stories and to piece together our history without it.

Thank you Elisabeth, Thank you Aine. Thanks for your good humoured and inspired research Kolbjørn and Thank You Tor for your graceful, soft-spoken companionship and an unexpected adventure.


Katie and Emir said...

Look at you living the dream!

Max, Ebbie and the Fuzzheads said...

The Norway leg of your journey seems to have been an enormous sucess! We're really excited about all your discoveries.

More please!

jt said...

every time I read your blog my mind is totally blown. wow. wow. wow.

Katie and Emir said...

BTW you look so beautiful in these photos - I can see the light radiating out of you like that day in