Memories from Little Iowa Parsonage
By Caroline Mathilde Koren Naeseth
Translated by Henriette C. K. Naeseth (Volume XIII: Page 66)
That was what the parsonage at Washington Prairie was called at the beginning: a small
log house with three rooms and an attic, built in 1854, which little by little was changed
and enlarged until it burned in November, 1872. There we children grew up in a happy home.
Spoiled we were not; everything was simple and unpretentious. The food was plain. Bread
and milk for the children for breakfast, and porridge and milk for the evening meal for
all was the rule, during the first years at any rate. At that time one had to be
self-dependent in many ways. I remember, for instance, with what interest we children
watched the maid work at candlemaking. The wicks were fastened on sticks and dipped in hot
tallow, and then hung between the ropes of one of the old beds with rope bottoms. Stick
after stick as long as there was room, to be dipped again when they had stiffened, and
that was repeated until the lights were thick enough. Afterwards we got candle molds,
which made the task less burdensome. Our first kerosene lamp was a gift, a little glass
lamp accompanied by a bottle of kerosene. Some time later we got a hanging lamp in the
parlor; then the room was light and festive.
To my first memories belongs our custom of gathering in the parlor for morning
devotions. My father sang well; for a while we had maids with good singing voices, and we
children enjoyed the singing. We had bound pamphlets of prayers and hymns for morning and
evening, which were called "The Mercy Seat." Our copies burned, I believe, and I
have never seen any since, and wonder if any exist. Later our morning devotions were held
at the breakfast table; in the evening before the children's bedtime there were devotions
in the parlor. In the first years there were three or four Sundays between each church
service, and on Sunday Mother read to us from a book of Luther's sermons. When we were old
enough we memorized the gospel texts for each Sunday, later also the Epistles.
Christmas Eve was the great festival, and the Christmas tree was an important part of
it. It was difficult to get Christmas fir the first years. Mother has told us about the
first Christmas tree she decorated; she had a little oak bush brought in from the woods,
and she took white paper and painted that green. She was fond of painting, and had brought
water colors from Norway. Then she cut the paper in strips and wound it around the
branches. The first Christmas tree that I remember was something we called the
"pyramid." This Mother had obtained through German friends. A round rod in the
middle passed through several shelves which grew smaller toward the top, and the whole was
bound together by four corner rods so it formed a kind of pyramid. On the top shelf stood
a doll, dressed like an angel. The pyramid was decorated with lights and other things, and
when the lights burned the center rod revolved, and the angel with it. We thought the
pyramid was beautiful, and it could be used year after year. But it was not like the real
Christmas trees we had later. While Mother took charge of the decorating, we usually
waited in the bedroom, and there we passed the time reciting our Christmas hymns to be
sure we knew them--each of us memorized a hymn for Christmas. Great was the joy when
Mother came in and put on her white apron, and we knew the time of waiting was over. And
then the tree had to be taken out, for there was not enough room to leave it standing in
the little parlor.
The evening of Twelfth Night we also had a celebration. One of the most important parts
of candlemaking was the three-branched light which was to be burned that evening. We ate
nuts and small cakes, played "Gnav,"
and enjoyed ourselves. And then
Christmas was ended.
Our instruction we received from Mother; for many years she taught us every morning
from 9 to 12, much of the time with the youngest child on her arm. Of course there had to
be interruptions and she had to have help with the housekeeping; but I am constantly
amazed that she had strength and endurance to do it. She instructed us in the ordinary
school subjects, in religion, and in Norwegian, English, and German. We read aloud,
translated, wrote from dictation, and memorized hymns and poems in the various languages.
And much of what I learned in this way I still keep in my memory, and read in my thoughts.
The treasure of hymns I then began to gather has of course been augmented since, and I
know I would not give it up for any price.
Besides Mother's school we once had a governess in the house for some months; she was
to help give us a good foundation in English. She was Synneve Lomen, a sister of K.
Throndsen, who edited the reader, Throndsen's læsebog.
In the afternoon my sister and I had a sewing hour and practiced different kinds of
hand sewing. We did not have a sewing machine until the close of the sixties, when it was
useful in making ready our wardrobes for a trip to Norway. We also learned to knit. At
that time all stockings were knitted at home, and though Mother was helped by a young girl
who was staying with us, she has told me she had to exert herself to keep us all supplied.
We usually spent the rest of the day outside, playing, gardening, and the like.
The house was situated on a beautiful slope, open, but with woods near by. There were
large, beautiful oak trees scattered through the south side of the grounds, where Mother
had her garden. Nearest the house, but beyond the oaks, was the flower garden, seven or
eight large oval flower beds, with many kinds of flowers--mignonette, stock, and numerous
other varieties. There were also roses and many kinds of flowering shrubs. Below the
flower garden was the vegetable garden, with practically all kinds of vegetables. Mother
was used to gardening from her childhood and youth, and enjoyed it, and we learned from
her. Each of us had a little garden plot, with radishes, cress, and the like. Mother had
many of the best wild plum trees brought in from the woods, and we had long hedges of wild
gooseberries, black currants, and raspberries, all from the woods. There was an apple
orchard, too, with wild crab apples from the woods and trees my father had bought, so we
did not lack fruit.
On the north side of the house there were also a few large oak trees. One of them had a
thick branch quite low down, which jutted straight out, as if made to sit on, and we spent
many happy hours there. Under these oaks was a small summer kitchen. Somewhat farther to
the north was a little wood with numerous hazel bushes, where we went nutting in the fall.
Refreshed by a couple of large watermelons, we would pick many sacks full of hazelnuts for
the winter evenings. In that wood was an old oak, called the "Great Oak," which
consisted, I believe, of seven large trunks and a crown. It stood on a green slope, and
with its branches wide-spreading and bending low, the tree was like the loveliest summer
house. It was a real sorrow when the tree was too old and had to be felled. In the winter
we amused ourselves out in the snow. In those days there always seemed to be large
snowdrifts. We coasted, threw snowballs, built fortresses, and excavated entire rooms in
It was a great joy for us when our parents could find time to tell us about their
childhood. Mother had much to tell us about her childhood home in the "Manor
House" at Larvik,
about their playing on the large hill behind the house called
the "Manor House Mountain "; and their visits to their Scottish friends at their
home, "Tolderodden." Father told us of his childhood in Bergen and at Sellø,
and of his school days.
His first school was the Lancaster School, where instruction
was according to English pattern. Next was the Latin School, with Lyder Sagen
able and original teachers. I remember Lyder Sagen's illustration of how they should not
express themselves. "I see the footprints of the Almighty's hand on the
gray-haired old man's bald pate." One story Father told about Sagen amused us
greatly. Sagen's wife had sailed across the fjord, and when a violent storm came up and
she did not return, he became anxious and went out to look for the boat. He lost his
footing on the slippery hill and fell down. His very cross-eyed daughter saw his mishap
and began to laugh. But then Sagen became angry. "Your mother lies at the bottom of
the sea, your father has broken both arms and legs, and there you stand, you miserable
ninny, with one eye to the west and one to the east, and laugh at the whole thing."
Father was, of course, much occupied and frequently absent from home, but when he had
any leisure he sometimes would entertain us by reading aloud to us or singing. Often it
was from Runeberg's Fenrik StŒls SŒgnar, about Sven Dufva, Sandels, and many of
the other heroic figures Runeberg describes. Many passages from Frithiofs saga, too,
he sang or recited. This reminds me of a verse I have been told he used to sing for me
when I was quite small.
Child born in the grove of laurel,
Surrounded by apples of gold,
With victory's smile on your mouth,
Here you found your hero's death.
Was it not sung at the cradle
Still it is sung at the grave:
More joyously has no one wielded
The sword under Danebrog.
The poem, of which this is the first verse, was about Ernesto Dalgas, a young Italian
who came to Denmark to help in the fight for freedom, and there fell in battle. I read it
later in a little collection of Danish poems and melodies, which I have often wished I
still owned. That, and a collection of folk melodies from all countries, music and texts,
we lost in the fire, also a volume of songs and other music which Father had copied while
he was a member of the Behrensk Quartet in Christiania.
When, toward the end of the
sixties, we secured an old melodeon, I found much happiness in trying to play these
We did not own a piano until late in the seventies.
I remember the old living room, low-ceilinged and not large. There was a window toward
the south and one toward the north. On each side of the south window hung three wooden
shelves, joined with cords; they held the "Skjønliteratur"
that had been
brought from Norway, and some that was added here. I remember there was a beautiful
edition of Oehlenschlæger's works, as well as some Wergeland and Welhaven, besides books
by Asbjørnson and Jørgen Moe, at that time the most modern Norwegian writers. There were
Mathias Claudius, some English poets, some Dickens and Thackeray, Prescott's Conquest
of Mexico--I cannot name them all. These were all destroyed in the fire. In the
northwest corner of the room stood a corner sofa upholstered in black oilcloth. When the
Synod had its meeting there in 1857, it was found, to the amusement of all, that all its
ministers could be seated on this sofa. In front of it stood a large round table. My
parents had had it made, and it still stands in the present parsonage.
On a shelf in
another corner stood an old silver loving cup, which represented Anna
We children had a great admiration for it.
A great pleasure for us were the long summer visits from the families of the ministers
of Spring Prairie, Koshkonong, and Painted Creek.
During these visits there were often
many in the house, and it was lively both inside and out. We had a long table in the
garden, around which we children stood and ate our evening meal, and drank cambric tea
from small brown varnished tin cups. I suppose good milk might have been scant for so
many. When Luther College was moved to Decorah we were frequently with the faculty
families there. While the college was being built we occasionally drove up to see how far
they had progressed. The bricks were manufactured right in front of the building, and for
many years that slope went by the name of "Brickyarden," and was used as
a playground. The first Seventeenth of May festival I remember we celebrated with the
college faculty families and students. We met at Peder Haugen's home, some miles south of
Decorah; the students walked out there. Professor L. Siewers gave the chief address; what
songs and music there were I do not remember; on the other hand, I remember that the chief
dish at the dinner was boiled ham and scrambled eggs with chives. That is how things were
in those days. Of course, most of the time we spent quietly at home; but now and then we
were allowed to go to Decorah with our parents or to accompany Mother on visits to the
neighbors. I remember a Sunday afternoon we were to walk to the home of Mrs. Anton Hegg,
who lived some three miles away. We had not gone far before we met Mrs. Hegg and her two
little girls, about our age, who were coming to visit us. I thought the children looked so
pretty, in little red jackets trimmed with black braid. The elder of them later became
Mrs. A. K. Sagen.
From the Civil War time, when I was about six years old, I do not have many memories,
although I remember that older men, who were afraid of being drafted, came to seek counsel
and comfort from my father; of course many of the younger men were in the army. I have a
clear recollection of the Sunday Father came home from a service in one of his churches
and brought the news of Lincoln's death. His serious face made a deep impression on me. I
remember also rumors of Indian disturbances at that time. Once Father was to hold services
in Little Turkey, and met the entire congregation fleeing to Calmar. But there was never
actual danger from Indians in our neighborhood.
My father's younger brother made us a short visit; that I do not remember. On the other
hand, I remember what a great event it was when his older brother visited us for a few
days. Then Mother fulfilled an old promise, and treated him with roast turkey. Otherwise
none of our immediate family visited us. But in 1870 my parents, with their seven
traveled to Norway to see their old parents once more. It was their only
visit there. Memories from the trip do not belong here, and something more than a year
later the old parsonage burned, and much became new and different.
The things I have written here are simple and unimportant, and probably may have little
interest for others; but it has been a pleasure for me to recall and gather them in my
<1> This reminiscent sketch was written at the request of the Reverend D. C.
Jordahl, for publication in the Folke kalender for 1933. Caroline Mathilde Koren
Naeseth, Mrs. C. A. Naeseth, is a daughter of Dr. Ulrik Vilhelm Koren, who came to America
as a pioneer minister in 1853 to serve a large district in northern Iowa and southern
Minnesota. The house she describes was built at Washington Prairie, Iowa, some seven miles
south of Decorah, after her parents had lived for a year with families in the Little Iowa
congregation, later called the Washington Prairie congregation. The experiences of this
first year are related in Mrs. U. V. Koren's Pioneertiden. A new house was built on
the same site two years after the one here described burned in 1872, and the family home
remained at Washington Prairie through the years when Dr. Koren served as president of the
Norwegian Synod and until 1941, when his son, the Reverend Paul Koren, who had assisted
and succeeded his father, retired.
<2> "Gnav" was a game played with small decorated wooden disks. The set
long used at Washington Prairie was the gift of Mrs. H. A. Preus, who herself painted the
disks with appropriate pictures.
<3> Mrs. Koren's father, Ahlert Hysing, was rector of the Latin School at Larvik.
<4> The family home was at Bergen, but they also spent much time at Sellø, at
the home of Dr. Koren's paternal uncle, Provst Laurentius Koren, especially after
the death of the father, Paul S. S. Koren- a sea captain- in an earthquake at Haiti in
<5> Lyder Sagen, 1777-1850, was a famous and influential teacher of Bergen, and
was also known as a translator and writer of verse.
<6> This was during his university years in Christiania, 1845-52. The Behrensk Quartet,
founded in 1842-43 by Johan Didrik Behrens, gave the first impetus to quartet singing
in Christiania, and was the forerunner of the Studentens Sang Forening, founded in
<7> The melodeon was purchased from Dr. Laur. Larsen, president of Luther
<8> Polite literature; belles lettres.
<9> The table and one side of the sofa are now in use in the home of the Reverend
Paul Koren at Decorah, Iowa.
<10> Anna Colbjørnsdatter was a Norwegian peasant heroine who supposedly played
a part in the death of Charles XII of Sweden.
<11> Reverend H. A. Preus and Reverend J. A. Ottesen of Spring Prairie and
Koshkonong, Wisconsin, and Reverend O. J. Hjort of Painted Creek, Iowa.
<12> Henriette Koren, 1854-1939; Caroline Mathilde Koren Naeseth, 1857-----;
Ahlert Hysing Koren, 1859-1901; John (Johan Bøycke Rulffs) Koren, 1861-1923; Paul Koren,
1863----; William Koren, 1864-1937; Elisabeth Koren Torrison, 1867-1914. Another daughter,
Marie (Laura Marie Christiane Sophie) was born later.