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Hegra 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 Norway’s Bondelag (Farmers’ Association), and honorary citizen of Minneapolis.

With the author’s 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 Leirfall’s 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 situation.

Discord and conflict were, no doubt, common with so many people crowded together. But there was another side of the coin: “man is man’s 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 day’s 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,
Æres næsten
Mer end Presten.

At festive boards,
As honored guests they sit,
Adorned in gay apparel,
Jackets blue and waistcoats white,
Reverenced almost
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 Bojer’s 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 Bjørnson’s verse:

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 back.

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 more elbowroom.

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 entirely.

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 centers.

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.

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