151 years of Olson family history

An old picture of the house built in 1900
The driveway to the farmhouse and an oak tree remain the same in every picture of the house which was built in 1900.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

The stories of the Olson farm are rich, just like their soil. For 53-year-old Ole Merrill Olson and his family, the story begins when Matts Olson came to the United States.

"He came over from Ringiricki, Norway in 1853 on the boat, and went from the East Coast to Illinois," said Olson. "(He) worked the railroad for a short time and worked his way up here."

Ole M. Olson
Ole Merrill Olson holds a lefse rolling pin believed to have belonged to his great-great-grandmother Marte Olson.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

Matts Olson, Ole's great-great grandfather, settled the 160-acre farm north of Albert Lea, however the exact year is a little sketchy.

"A lot of the stuff I'm able to find out said he settled the land in 1855," Olson explained. "But everything I find that dates it with the state land office only goes back to 1857. So, I've got two years I'm trying to find and I can't find it yet."

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What Ole Olson can find is how Matts came to own the land, and that goes back even farther.

Olson holds a black and white copy of a document called a Military Bounty Land Act. As he scans it, he tells a story of a war widow who receives land from the government.

"This is the certificate. Mrs. Patty Herrick had a husband, Daniel. [He] was a captain in the Maine army and he was killed in the war of 1812."

Anniversary article
Ole M. and Martha Olson, the first Ole of the six generations of Ole M.'s to live on the family farm near Albert Lea.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

After Capt. Herrick's death, his widow was given 160 acres in the territory that would later become Minnesota.

"Instead of coming out here, she sold that [land], from what I'm able to find out, to my great-great grandpa Matts Olson, and that's how he got started," Olson continued.

The aged document is written in flowing script. You have to look closely to notice the X, written as a signature by Matts Olson, who could not read or write.

"There's his X. They wrote his name, that's his X," Olson pointed out. "Then it was verified by a Sievert Johnson, who couldn't read or write, and he marked his X."

Matts and Marte Olson
A photo of Matts and Marte Olson remains in its original frame. The picture is printed on tin and square nails hold the back in place.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

Soon after purchasing the 160 acres for $1.25 an acre, Matts married a woman named Marte. The two lived in a dugout in what's now called the west 80.

Later came a log cabin, and in 1900 the farmhouse Ole and his family live in today was built. Logs from that first cabin are still part of the foundation, along with field rock cut in perfect squares.

The house has had additions -- more rooms and a garage. The barn and first grove of trees planted by the family were destroyed in a tornado in the early 1960s.

Other than the house itself, there aren't many family heirlooms left. Most of them fit in a large plastic tote.

Ole Melankton and Mae Olson and a drawing
Ole Melankton Olson and his wife Mae. The drawing is of Mae's sketches of the dugout, log cabin, and house that different generations lived in. The sketches turned into a painting on a saw. The design dates from when the family lived in the different dwellings.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

Covered in brittle old bread bags is a rolling pin, likely used by Marte to make Ole Olson's favorite Norwegian treat.

"This is a lefse rolling pin," Olson said. "I think it got used quite a bit. My mom used to make lefse, oh my gosh."

The plastic container is filled with papers and pictures. There are negatives of pictures made from a thick slate, and pictures made of tin. Great-great grandmother Marte's picture is fading.

As he talks about his ancestor's pictures, Ole Olson explains the one thing that remains from Matts -- and that's the name.

Land document
This is the item that shows the original sale of 160 acres to Matts Olson.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

"This is my great grandpa, Ole M. and Martha. Then it's my grandpa Ole Melankton and Mae," he said. "My dad is Ole Marlowe and Margaret, and I'm the next generation, Ole Merrill. So each generation is Ole M. Olson."

That tradition continues. Ole Merrill's first-born son is Ole Matthew, who also has a son, Ole Mathias.

Ole Merrill and his wife Ann own the family farm now. They rent the land to neighboring farmers while the two work in town.

Olson says while he appreciates the land and its history, he's not a farmer.

As he looks for something in the family collection, Olson suddenly remembers Ole M.'s first phonograph. There are about two dozen thick dusty discs.

Ole M. and Martha Olson
Side-by-side generations of Ole M. and Martha Olson. The picture on the right is the wedding picture of the young couple. The picture on the left is from the couple's 56th wedding anniversary.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

"[That's] 'Just One More Waltz,'" Olson said about one of the discs. "It's an Edison record. Here's, 'I Love You,' from Little Jesse James. Let's try that, it's a little cleaner."

He winds up the machine and places the needle gently on the spinning disc. It sticks, but a little nudge helps bring the music out.

There's only one volume choice, and suddenly the room fills with scratchy sounds from a time long gone.

"We used to play that every Christmas when I was a kid," Olson recalled. "And you know what, we didn't dare touch it before then either."

Olson continues the tradition with his children, only playing the phonograph at Christmas.

He says he's confident the traditions of music and lefse -- and even the name on the land title -- will remain for many more generations.