By Tucker Henderson

Special to the Dispatch

Many families in our area, like most rural areas of the world, come from a line of poor farmers. Some were better off than others, and those who lived under better conditions helped those who didn’t have much. This was especially true in communities of socially-minded Finns such as New York Mills. I am proud to say I am from many long lines of poor farmers and many of them ended up in this area.

In memory of my great great aunt, Estella “Esty” (Olsen) Brasel, who passed away in January, I dedicate this article. The Olsen family lived east of NY Mills on what is now Highway 14. If you read my last article, they are the namesake of Olsen’s Corner. They were some of the poorer farmers around this area. Here is a quick biography of the Olsen family starting with Esty’s parents.

Hjalmer Olsen was born in Otto Township, rural New York Mills in 1884. Elizabeth Hyypio was born in 1888 in Calumet, Mich. They were married in the summer of 1905 in Hancock, Mich. Hjalmer had taken a train out to Hancock to marry her after she left this area with her mother and siblings to return to their former home on Otter Lake, rural Tapiola, Mich. Elizabeth had been a maid in the Olsen home while Hjalmer was a young man.

In a span of 23 years Hjalmer and Elizabeth had 14 children together; Benjamin, Esther, Edna, Elma, Stanley, Ethel, Rueben, Simon, Edith, Elmie, Emily, Elizabeth, Eldora and Estella. Baby Elizabeth died at age three. Hjalmer and Elizabeth lived on a 320 acre farm in section 15 of Otto Township, near New York Mills. This was Hjalmer’s parents’ farm.

Hjalmer was a farmer and also did various jobs for people in the area. His son, Rueben, remembers helping his father cut wood for school District 110 North in Otto Township. They were paid $1.75 a cord. This money helped buy essentials around the farm that they would have had to go without otherwise.

Elizabeth was a full time mother. Her daughter-in-law; Lorraine Olsen, remembers that even with all the help around the house, sometimes the farmwork fell onto Elizabeth. Despite being born in America, Elizabeth spoke almost exclusively Finnish throughout her entire life. She was called “Bette” which is a Finnish variant of Elizabeth. Bette knew enough English to tell a stranger how to get to town but she couldn’t hold a long conversation. Lorraine also remembers Bette’s Finnish flatbread. She says all her cooking was very good but her flatbread (or hinoleipä in Finnish) was her specialty. 

Hjalmer’s parents Christian and Hilda Olsen lived with the family in the late 1920’s. They later moved into New York Mills to live with George and Fannie Underwood, Hjalmer’s sister and brother-in-law. The house the Olsen family lived in was, as my great grandpa Rueben explains it; “A huge two story house. The rooms were all 16’ x 16’. The kitchen and dining room was one and there was a wood burning cook stove which was fired all night along with heater stoves in each of the main floor rooms.”

Rueben writes that the house was built by his grandmother Hilda and that there was no insulation in the walls. He also writes that it took one of them half of a day to carry the firewood in for the day and night. It was not uncommon for three kids to share a bed. Ben, Stanley and Rueben all shared a bed at one time. They had an outhouse for a toilet and a sauna for bathing.

With a family of 16, Bette and Jallu (Hjalmer’s Finnish nickname) had a lot of mouths to feed. Rueben and likely a few of the other children were sent to a summer camp one year on Leaf Lake. There, they had a place to stay and meals to keep them from going hungry. What their parents didn’t know was that this camp was run by the local Communists! They never sent them back, despite the hospitality.

Rueben recorded that his favorite pastime as a kid was playing “store” with old food containers and discarded items. They really had no money to spare for extravagances such as toys. Neighbors of the Olsens, the Peralas, would stop in on the way to town to ask if the family needed anything or perhaps a ride to town. This is how my great grandmother, Lorraine (Perala) Olsen, met my great grandfather, Rueben Olsen.

Estella was the youngest, so she likely grew up in the years with a bit more money. That certainly doesn’t mean she grew up with much more than the rest of her siblings. The Olsen childrens’ formative years were spent in poverty. I would like to stress that their mother, Bette Olsen was one of the most hardworking women I have ever heard of. She worked extremely hard for her family, often without a lot of help. Estella’s example of motherhood was a great one and it shows in her children. May Bette’s example continue throughout the generations.