before and after the Emigration Era
by Jon Leirfall (Volume 27: Page 3)
The article translated below is
taken from a book published in Oslo in 1970 entitled Stormaskina
(The Threshing Machine), a collection of essays dealing with
economic and social developments in the community of Hegra,
Trøndelag. They are concerned largely with the later
decades of the nineteenth century. Jon Leirfall, the author,
was educated as an agriculturist, and he has managed his family
farm since 1946. Besides being an active farmer, he has filled
many positions of trust in Norwegian agricultural associations,
but he is especially well known as a politician and writer.
Leirfall has been a prominent leader in the Norwegian Agrarian
Party (Bondepartiet), and he represented his district in parliament
(Storting) from 1945 to his retirement from politics in 1969.
Among his numerous publications is a four-volume work, Liv og
lagnad i Stjørdalen, which, for lack of a better title,
can be translated as Fate and Fortune in Stjørdalen.
Stjørdalen is the district in which the community
of Hegra is located. This work is recognized as one of the
very best of numerous local social histories published in
Norway during recent years. A companion volume to Stormaskina
entitled Mangt eg minnes (Many Are My Memories) appeared in
1973. During his busy life as agriculturist, politician, and
scholar, Leirfall has also found time to write four hilariously
humorous paperbacks in mock saga style about Norwegian political
struggles since World War II. They have become best sellers
in Norway. Among distinctions awarded him, the following should
be mentioned: Knight of the Order of St. Olav, Commander of
the Order of the Lion (Finland), honorary member of Norways
Bondelag (Farmers Association), and honorary citizen of Minneapolis.
With the authors permission, the Association has chosen
to publish this article about emigration from Hegra because
it gives readers an intimate feel for the life lived in
a typical Norwegian rural community a hundred years ago. Here
are detailed the restricted circumstances, the narrow horizons,
and the population pressures which made the people - especially
the young and the poor - ready victims of America fever,
which was sweeping large areas of Europe at the time. Following
is the text of Leirfalls account:
In 1815 approximately 1,800 people lived in Hegra, my home
community. It was then exclusively a farming district, where
soil and forest were the only sources of livelihood. Fifty
years later, in 1865, the population had risen to 3,400. There
were 225 farmers compared with 150 in 1815, and the number
of cotters (husmenn) had increased from about 100 to 300.
Within a couple of generations, employment and sustenance
had to be provided for twice as many people as previously.
No appreciable amount of new acreage had been put under cultivation,
and farming methods had remained largely the same as before.
With the exception of the potato, nothing new had been introduced
which could increase the production of food. Implements were
identical with those of the Middle Ages, and artificial fertilizers
and grass seeds were unknown. The lumber industry had been
greatly reduced and as a result work in the forests, which
had provided employment and wages for many men during the
previous century, was sharply curtailed. It was a loaf of
the same size that was to be divided - but there were twice
as many consumers to share it.
How did the community solve the problem? It was not solved;
it was merely postponed. Makeshifts were resorted to which
limped along for a while - about as we are now trying to solve
the problem of pollution. So long as most of the farms were
leaseholds, the landowner was not at all interested in having
them subdivided to an extent that would reduce the ability
of the leaseholder to pay taxes and rents. The king was also
interested in seeing that the farmers had areas sufficiently
large to enable them to pay taxes. The subdividing of land
and the setting up of new farms during the era of leaseholds
was therefore, as a rule, not carried to extremes. Each farm
was allotted cultivated soil, pasture, and woods sufficient
to feed its man. The landlord also had a certain control
over the establishment of new cotter holdings.
But as early as 1800, the leaseholders had become freeholders
and thus were in full control of their lands. Often they divided
the farms between two sons as soon as they gained title to
it. A third son might also secure a bit of the land as a cotter.
When a farm could not be further subdivided, two brothers
frequently worked it in co-operation.
Many of the subdivided farms were too small to provide an
acceptable livelihood for holders who depended solely on the
cultivable areas. Therefore, more than ever before, it was
the highlands or the mountains that had to furnish the required
extra space. In the lowland home pastures, more and more cattle
had to be accommodated, and the mountain areas thus became
more and more important. Never before or since have so many
seter (summer dwellings) been occupied nor so many cattle
cared for in the uplands as during the first half of the nineteenth
century. The highlands also had to furnish more of the winter
fodder than before. Even on the larger farms, the holders
could not do without the hay from the higher slopes; consequently,
all the available meadows or hay bogs had to be utilized.
As a result, the cotters, who received smaller and poorer
plots as good land became scarcer, had to be satisfied with
such marshes and stony acres as the farmers did not care for.
More and more people also became attached to each farm. Sons
and daughters who could not acquire anything for themselves
remained at home and were unable to get married. During the
half century under discussion, there was a clear tendency
in this direction, for there was no extra space for more cottagers.
Servants also became more numerous. Even on smaller farms
with several full-grown children at home, there might be five
or six hired hands.
The older folk were under pressure to give up the farms.
It was not unusual to find two retired families (kårfolk)
on the same farm, and we know of many cases where the retired
old folks and the young folks (sjølfolka), who
were in charge of the farm, had flocks of children of about
the same age. This, of course, is explained in part by the
fact that people died at an earlier age then than now, and
also by the fact that numerous marriages were contracted between
couples varying greatly in age. A widower might marry a young
girl after he had retired and then raise a new brood of children
with her, in addition to the grown-up children he had from
his first marriage. Upon his death, the widow might still
be young enough to have children in a second marriage, thus
making confusion worse confounded.
Farm widows (gard-enker) were in great demand by bachelors
desirous of settling on a farm of their own, and we know of
many instances where men aged twenty to thirty married widows
fifty years of age. In cases like these, the oldest son of
the first marriage might demand possession of the farm when
he came of age. As a result, a man in his thirties might be
forced into retirement to the house allotted for the old
folks (kårsstuggu)! Aged wife and young husband - many
a story developed out of such situations. The servant maids
could relate a variety of things about indiscretions by such
retired men (kårkellar), in their best years, who
had a seventy-year-old wife sitting in the next room.
In addition to all the other people, the parish paupers would
come for their regular visits. They might be welcome or unwelcome.
Some of them were mean, and they might be more or less mentally
subnormal. But others might bring cheer to the farm because
they had so many things to talk about - they were peripatetic
newspapers. The young boys clustered around them; and the
pauper woman and the woman of the farm undoubtedly would have
many a confidential chitchat out in the kitchen about how
things were going on neighboring farms.
It was the usual thing for twelve to fifteen people to sit
down at table on a medium-sized farm. In the coffers homes,
there were also more people than formerly. It was difficult
for the children to find work and as a result they remained
at home. Lodgers (inderstar), laborers who paid a pittance
for staying with the cotters, also became more and more common
in the tiny cabins. Farms and communities teemed with people,
especially where most of the cotters were located. In neighborhoods
in which some ten to twenty people dwelt during my childhood,
there had lived a hundred or more fifty years earlier.
We may well ask how the farms were managed, not only to feed
so many people, but how they also frequently extended help
to the cotters when conditions became unendurable for them.
The specter of want was a daily guest; sharing of meals was
a necessity. Porridge and potatoes were the saviors of the
Discord and conflict were, no doubt, common with so many
people crowded together. But there was another side of the
coin: man is mans delight, as Håvamål, the
Eddic poem, puts it. The milieu created by this wealth of
human beings on farms and in communities had many desirable
aspects. It developed rich traditions because people of all
ages mingled with one another, and there were lively contacts
with a variety of human beings. And life did not become monotonous,
because there were frequent changes of activity from labor
at the seter in the forest and in the fields. All sorts of
crafts were common, activities which have now been shifted
to dairies, mills and factories.
Even though there was a great deal of work to do, there were
also many hands to do it, and the pressure was not so intense
as it is now. The working day was long, but a bit of loafing
now and then would undoubtedly be overlooked. In the evenings,
all were gathered together and someone always had a ready
tale to relate. This undoubtedly created more coziness and
fellowship than television does today. The children were generally
happy: there was usually some person who had time to listen
to them when they quizzed and queried about all sorts of things,
and they had numerous playmates in the neighborhood. The feeling
of living apart from others, which now-a-days haunts people
occupying marginal lands, did not exist then. They did not
run everyday errands to the store or to local governmental
offices. The homes were close together, creating a climate
entirely different from that of a present-day decaying community.
But the milieu allowed little place for personal initiative.
Everything was centered in the most pressing demand - to secure
food. It was this work that occupied the surplus population.
There was some little gain in a days labor no matter how
meager the result might seem. There was no escape from these
restraining conditions. Any hope of earning a livelihood outside
of agriculture was nonexistent, and there was no more space
for farms or cotters plots. A person would have to be thankful
if he could be assured of his daily bread; a job on a farm
would at least guarantee this much. It was worse for those
who sank down to become cotters without land or day laborers
- and these individuals became more and more numerous. Conditions
grew more restrictive with each decade, and the number of
poor people in the community increased accordingly. It is
probably safe to say that poverty was never more general in
Hegra than toward the middle of the past century. The agrarian
community was bursting its economic bonds - and a solution
had to be found.
Then came the migration. Within the twenty-five years from
1865 to 1890, the population decreased from 3,400 to 2,500,
a total decline of 900. We can estimate that between 1,200
and 1,500 people emigrated from the community during that
period. Some years about ten per cent of the whole population
left. When we bear in mind that the migrants were mostly young
people, we can safely conclude that today there are more scions
of Hegra parents in America than here at home.
As a result of the migration, the structure of the population
in the district underwent a radical change, and this fact
again caused reverberations in our economic life. We must
undoubtedly go clear back to the Black Death (1349-1350) to
discover forces which had an equally profound effect on the
fate and fortune of the community.
During the years between 1815 and 1865, there were 6,769
more births than deaths in Hegra. Of these, no less than 2,815
came during the last sixteen years of the period covered,
and consequently there was a large proportion of young people
and children in the community. These figures explain to us
how intense the population pressure was and why the migration
had to come with such force. They also reveal why the population
decline had to be so great and why it took so long for it
to correct itself. Indeed, the falling off of population kept
on after the wave of migration had spent itself.
There is a two-fold explanation of this situation: the exodus
exceeded the number of surplus births, and the birthrate itself
also declined. It was primarily young people who left: young
married couples, children, and youths. It was they who, in
years to come, should have added new children to the local
population. Relatively many old people and few youngsters
remained in the community. Consequently, the birthrate fell
sharply from 1865 on, and this trend continued a good while
after the migration had culminated. It was not the pill
and contraception or family planning that caused this decrease,
but the fact that a disproportionate part of the population
had passed the age of childbearing.
Because many old people remained in Hegra, the records of
deaths would naturally show an increase. There were fewer
births and more deaths. This combination of factors explains
why the surplus of births fell to about a fourth of what it
had been before emigration became a major force. Nevertheless,
there were many more young people left in Hegra at that time
than at present. Relatively speaking, however, there were
many old folks, and presumably it can be said that culturally
this fact put a certain stamp upon the community clear up
to the First World War. It was the old people who had the
upper hand in communal affairs, and old customs and usages
had better opportunities to flourish than in communities less
strongly affected by migration.
As a result of the exodus, there were fewer homes and fewer
people in each house. On every farm there was a population
decline. Children left and so did servants and cotters. The
census returns reveal clearly that the number of stay-at-homes
(heimeverande) - sons, hired hands, and lodgers - fell off.
The cotters holdings disappeared either because the whole
family went to America or because only old people remained,
persons who soon passed away. Many of the subdivided farms
were reunited as the owner of one subdivision emigrated and
sold his part to one of the other proprietors. A structural
rationalization took place, as we might say today.
It has become a virtual dogma accepted by everybody that
it was primarily cotters who emigrated. For my community,
at least, this is not a correct judgment. Investigations reveal
that there was about an equal number of farmers and farmers
sons, especially from the smaller subdivided farms and from
the marginal districts, who migrated. And there were many
cotters who could not leave because of a lack of money.
America fever was particularly virulent among the farmers
during the late Sixties. The years from 1862 to 1865 had been
economically poor: taxes and interest rates rose while everything
the farmers had to sell went down in price. And then came
the peace after the Civil War, with good times in America.
In 1867 the district agronomist delivered lectures in Stjørdalen,
but his recommendations had slight effect: Most of the people,
he reported, seemed so entirely gripped by a desire to emigrate
and by America fever that relatively little attention could
be expected for the cause I had to champion.
Emigration helped the transition from one generation to another:
There were quite a few farmers sons who left in order to
earn money and to see the world while waiting for father
to give up the farm. A generation ago there was a fair number
of farmers round about in the community who had spent some
time in America.
I recall that much to-do was always made about returned Americans.
This aroused the dander of a local poet, Jøn Overkil.
As he walked home one evening from a party, where lots of
fuss had been made over some fellows who had recently returned
to Norway, he improvised the following verse:
I hvert Gjestebud
Sidder de som Hædersgjester
Udi sine Høitidsskrud,
Blaae Jakkar, hvide Vester,
Mer end Presten.
At festive boards,
As honored guests they sit,
Adorned in gay apparel,
Jackets blue and waistcoats white,
More than pastors.
But the neighborhood demanded that they should have made
good in the New World. If they had failed, the judgment was
severe: it was their own fault. A blacksmith who emigrated
came back as penniless as when he had left. He excused himself
by explaining that there was a smith out there already.
The urge to get out of limited circumstances and poverty
was, of course, the dominant motive for migrating; and at
that time this attitude was synonymous with the hope of acquiring
land - much land. Karl Skaret in Johan Bojers Emigrants is
an illustration of this land hunger. The America letters
always alluded to the vast expanses of free and rich soil.
But each individual might have his special motives - thirst
for adventure, aversion to military service, and the like.
Thus one thing or another might be thrown in to tip the scales
in favor of leaving. Possibly a person had been unfortunate
in one way or another and had found it best to leave the neighborhood.
Bachelors who had become involved in an affair with a woman
might find it expedient to vacate the premises. Or there
might be two young people who had not mustered the courage
to express what weighed on their hearts, as in Bjørnsons
Hun gik bakom Laaven den kveld
Han kom for at sige farvel.
Hun kasted sig ned,
Hun graed og hun graed;
Sit Livshaab det skulde hun miste -
Men det var det ingen som vidste.
She went behind the byre the night
He came to say farewell.
She flung herself down,
She wept and she wept.
The hopes of a lifetime had vanished -
But none other knew of her sorrow.
Such tragedies were undoubtedly the cause of many departures
for America. Frequently old people were heard to say about
a certain emigrant that he left because he could not get
the one he wanted. Many others found that practically all
near relatives and neighbors had already departed. There were
more family bonds that pulled them forward than held them
The fact that there was more religious freedom in America
than in Norway is often mentioned as a contributing factor
leading to migration. I do not believe, however, that this
carried much weight with the people of Hegra. But the extortions
to which a poor devil might be subjected by officials and
tax collectors undoubtedly created great bitterness and strengthened
the urge to leave. Even though class distinctions were not
as great here as in certain other communities, the rumors
that in America every man is his own master were a very
positive influence. Then there were those who did not feel
at home in a community bound by old traditions and who found
difficulty in subjecting themselves to its pattern of life.
But such a gook or odd ball, or whatever term he went
by, might do very well in a pioneer settlement, where he had
Because many bachelors migrated, a surplus of unmarried girls
was created at home. On the American frontier, however, there
was a crying need for wives; so when a girl who had passed
her thirties departed, the gossips were quick to conclude
that she left to find herself a man.
Many a bachelor who did not locate a proper mate in America
took an inventory of the girls back home. Then he would write
to someone he thought might serve his purpose to tell her
how desperately he had loved her before he left, but that
he had not then had the gumption to speak to her. Now the
question was whether she would be willing to accept a ticket
and come over so they could take the matter under advisement.
To accept an America ticket on these premises was deemed
equivalent to a marriage agreement, and those who failed to
honor it were judged harshly both at home and over there.
Many such letters undoubtedly found their place as keepsakes
in the trunks of women round about in the community. There
were also certain men who were calculating enough to send
identical letters to several girls - as when teachers apply
at various schools in order to be in a position to choose
and discard. But if it came to light that several girls had
received America letters from the same lover - well, then
the game was up.
The exodus dug deep into the life of the community, both
in its work and in its social life. The number of people sank
to the level that the area could sustain with the productive
means at hand. Life became easier; many of those who had been
the worst off were gone. Wages and working conditions improved
for those who were left. Gradually, as the greatest poverty
disappeared, America fever subsided. But, at the same time,
the great blood letting caused the total productive capacity
of the community to decline. Machinery had not yet made its
appearance to replace the human hands. By and large, the
working methods were those of old, and the sum total of the
labor of workingmen decided how much could be produced on
a farm. When the area had been overpopulated, the work force
had had to be utilized wherever food for man or beast might
be wrung out of nature. But after the migration, there were
not people enough to strip leaves from the branches, to cut
hay in the marshes, or to care for cattle and sheep in the
mountain pastures. Neither were the deserted cotters plots
kept under cultivation by the farm folk - all of this because
of the lack of people. There were fewer to divide the loaf,
but the loaf also had become smaller.
In reality there was a sufficient work force still in the
community, but so long as the farmers clung to the old work-consuming
methods created by the overflow population, there were complaints
about a labor shortage, then as now.
The poet Vinje and many others have maintained that it was
the people with the most initiative who emigrated. It was
Vinje who wrote:
Frå Norge reiser kvar ein Mann
Som hey Mod i Bringa.
From Norway every man departs
Who has courage in his breast.
Some commentators were bold enough to say that it was primarily
the chaff that remained, and that when people chose to stay
in the home neighborhood it was simply because they lacked
enterprise for anything else. But here it may be appropriate
to point out that the current of migration met a strong counter
force in the form of certain national ideals which made themselves
felt in the peoples societies, the folk high schools, the
question of union with Sweden - all these movements combined
to occupy the minds of the young people. The native valley
and Norway as a country also had something to offer wide-awake
youths. These factors kept many of them at home. Hence we
notice that exactly the years when the district was losing
so many of its youth were also the years of awakening for
an era rich in idealistic strivings on the part of the young
who remained at home.
The migration movement had entirely altered the distribution
of population. Until the middle of the century, there had
been no communal center or compact settlement (busettning).
The increase in the number of people had, to a large extent,
taken place in the outskirts of the district. There the cotter
holdings were smallest and most numerous, and there a relatively
large part of the population could be found. Homesteading
had increased so rapidly during the last two generations that
the result was the accumulation of a large number of children
and youths. There resources were exploited most thoroughly
- far beyond what was reasonable - and the standard of living
was at its lowest.
A combination of these factors naturally caused the migration
to be heaviest from the outlying areas, leaving them with
the largest number of vacated homes and old people. Unless
the dwellings were entirely deserted, only the elderly lived
in them. Soon there were few children left, few youths, few
people of any age, and fewer hopes for the future. Slowly,
as the old people passed away, these areas became still more
depopulated. In the course of one generation, the number of
people in many such marginal districts fell to a mere fraction
of what it had been before the migration. A chain reaction
had been set in motion which was reinforced by the fact that
people moved toward the center of the community to cotters
places and farms which had been vacated.
Simultaneously, several population centers were developing
around the stations along the railroad built in 1880-1882.
A falling-off in numbers from 3,400 to 2,500 in twenty-five
years therefore does not tell the whole story. A larger percentage
now lived in the more fertile part of the community (blankbygda),
and the age distribution in various neighborhoods had changed
It was the same process which people had gone through after
the Black Death and after the hard years during the early
eighteenth century. It is this same situation that we are
experiencing at present because of the trek towards urban
Migration left space for new population growth in the community.
This came about from 1900 on, but gradually conditions again
became cramped. Now, however, public support for cultivation
of new land enters the picture. As a consequence, new homesteads
have sprung up in the areas which had been deserted during
the America years. This movement was especially strong during
the years 1915-1945, after which it tapered off rapidly.
Throughout our history, the limits of cultivation and the
size of population in our fringe areas have oscillated back
and forth. And so it presumably will continue into the future.
From history we can learn that we should not take anything
for granted. Whether we shall see again a population increase
in the outlying areas of our communities will likely be decided
by the food situation in the world at large. The only judgment
we can make with certainty is that times will again come when
all means of food production will have to be utilized, both
in our country and in the world as a whole.