Photo by Peggy Sturdivant
Kathleen Stamm with her family "shrine." 

At Large in Ballard: Far from Meeker

By Peggy Sturdivant

There will be many amazing auction items at the Nordic Heritage Museum’s “Northern Lights Auktion” on Saturday, May 10th but with a celebration of mothers theme one item will be incomparable. The catalog listing is Norwegian Heritage Package, donated by Elvira Kenney, 102 years old: that doesn’t begin to describe the backstory of the mothers and daughters behind this donation.

In 1886 a young woman named Maren traveled with her infant daughter Gunhild from Tarmen, Norway to join her husband Stengrim in America. She made her way to Litchfield, Minnesota but died in childbirth when Gunhild was eleven. As a wife and mother Gunhild in turn bore children but also died in childbirth, leaving behind her children, including Elvira, always known as Dolly.

Dolly recently turned 102 and has been a member of the Nordic Heritage Museum for over 20 years, even though she lives in Wisconsin. Which brings us to another daughter, Kathleen Stamm, who lives in Broadview. But the catalyst in this family story is Mari-Ann Kind Jackson, a Norwegian-born woman who describes herself as somewhat involved with the Nordic Heritage Museum. (Considering that Mari-Ann is tireless on behalf of the museum, the oral history project and will be an honorary Grand Marshal of this year’s 17th of May Parade this is borderline ludicrous).

Kathleen Stamm and Mari-Ann Kind Jackson met in the 70’s as fellow faculty wives in Bloomington, Indiana. They lived about fifteen minutes from each other; decades later they live about three blocks apart. Jackson returns “home” to Norway every year. In 1994 Kathleen Stamm and her mother Elvira “Dolly” Kenney joined her; their first visit to the land that Dolly’s mother had left as a babe in arms. Dolly was 82 years old but when Mari-Ann and Kathleen had to rush her to the train it wasn’t her legs that were slowing her, it was her desire to “see everything.”

That 1994 visit deepened an interest in Norwegian family roots, and the family’s path from Tarmen, Norway to settling in Meeker, Minnesota. A cousin had begun genealogical research with a focus on the American branch. Kathleen used the Norwegian American Genealogy Society to help her trace the Norwegian roots. She now has information considered 100% accurate, dating back to 1791.

Mari-Ann Kind Jackson contacted me because she thought I might be interested in the story. Even before I learned about the mother-daughter connections I was drawn to the escapades of Mari-Ann and Kathleen as they engaged on 24-hour quests for Kathleen’s family; somehow involving an outdoor Tina Turner concert in Oslo and semi-accosting a shirtless man by a brush fire in a small village north of Oslo.

In 2000 they had a rental car for one day. Mari-Ann warned Kathleen not to have expectations about what they could find in one day. She also warned her friend that Norwegians in Norway “are rather subdued and reserved, although generous.” She did not want to pop out of the rental car and start questioning the young man without a shirt. But he didn’t speak English, so for a friend…

That man took them inside to his mother Britt, a teacher who has never even left Norway, but to this day “travels with us via our story.” Britt called neighbors and within 20 minutes they were having coffee with a woman able to shed light on Kathleen’s family. Together they called Kathleen’s mother Dolly to tell her, “We’ve found the farm.” That was in 2000.

The pair once again embarked on a 24-hour quest in 2008, this time with an overnight. They stopped to look at a railway map and realized that what they thought were the names of towns were actually farms: seven names from Kathleen’s list of clues. Their jumping and squealing brought railway workers running. Once enlightened the workers sent them to Torstein, the most genial of local record keepers at the municipal building. “Let me do some research,” he told them. When they returned the next morning, he greeted Kathleen. “You have more living relatives here than I do.”

In fact they already had an invitation to meet family and he had called their friend Britt to take them there. While several generations chatted expectantly the senior member John pored over Kathleen’s information to see the connection for himself. Then he said, “I see where you’re related to me, now would you like to see where I grew up?” The homestead had been preserved. Kathleen stood where her mother’s people had stood.

In an ongoing act of appreciation for her friend and the Nordic Heritage Museum, Kathleen and her family have given generously for many years to the annual auction that is so important to fundraising. In addition to the one year membership to the Norwegian American Genealogy Center and its 2013 Research Guide, the donation includes a fine arts book of Olive Jensen Nordby’s Norwegian-inspired, hand-painted woodcuts.

Telling me their story together, along with photo albums and mementos of those trips, Mari-Ann and Kathleen discussed not just what they learned on their journey, but how they had lived the journey together. Finding family roots has helped reconnect family in the U.S. and abroad. “She is the matriarch again,” Kathleen said of her mother Dolly.

Explaining the auction donation in terms of what it could provide to other families, Kathleen said, “It’s not all about Norway, but it is all about family.”

More information about the May 10, 2014 Northern Lights Auktion is at or by calling Katy Ahrens at 206.789.5707. Tickets are available through May 2nd.

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