The Thøgersen Saga
- as I see it.
It all began - in a way - on April 13, 1871.
It was a Thursday. Spring had just begun in rural Northern Jutland, the continental part of Denmark. Ane Kirstine (28 years) gave birth to Niels. Her first child (of five) with her new husband, Anders Christian Thogersen (35 years).
They lived on a medium-sized farm almost in the centre of the village of Grynderup, which has been in existance since the medieval ages, at least. The small roman style church next door is bearing witness to that effect. The farm called "TOFTEGAARDEN" was built around 1800 and consisted of four buildings typically constructed in a quadrangle. And also typically it had a thatched roof.
The parents of Niels were of course, very proud of their son. The future of the Thøgersen family was almost guaranteed. They were married on July 16, 1870. But the background was somewhat special and certainly sad.
In 1863 Ane Kirstine married her first husband, Niels Jensen Gundersen. They had 4 children, a boy and three girls. Only the two girls survived their first year, and their father died suddenly 42 years of age in 1869. The girls were 4 and 2 years old. As farmer Niels grew weaker from his illness he hired around 1867 a young man to help him on the farm. This young person was Anders Christian - my great grandfather.
14 months after the death of her first husband widow Ane Kirstine married Anders Christian. It was very common in those days to remarry. She had a farm and two very young daughters to look after, and no such thing as public assistance of any sort existed. So she decided to marry again hopefully also following her heart. Nine months later on April 13, 1871, my grandfather Niels was born. He got his full name (almost) from his mother's late husband: Niels Jensen Thogersen. Also a very normal habit.
lived most of his childhood on "Toftegaarden" with his two older half-sisters of course. Later four younger brothers and sisters followed: AnthonChristian born 1874, Kristine born 1877, Kirsten Marie born 1880 and finally Theoder born 1884.
went to school as did all his sisters and brothers, in a small village school 1,5 km away. But only 3 days a week, and only for 7 years. That was how education was organised in Denmark well into the 1950'ies by the way. He was taught his mother-tongue Danish, his arithmetic and his religion. However, already from the age of 10 he had a job - as had most kids in those days - namely to look after the cattle and the sheep.
In the meantime his father, Anders Christian, became a highly respected farmer in the small village community and even beyond. He was very good at farming and he was involved in many civic activities. He was also known to be a very determined person. Once he had made up his mind, it was very difficult to change his views. You might call him stubborn.
- his son - was hired as an assistant-farmer at a neighbouring farm, but when he was 20 years old he decided to "emigrate". His travelled to Sjælland (the island of Zealand) the eastern part of Denmark about 250 km away - a very considerable distance in those days. What tempted him to go is not known, but a brand-new train link at least made it easier to travel. He was employed at a very big farm.
While he was there (in 1892) two very important things happened. Firstly he fell in love with the daughter of the local gardener. Her name was Ane Marie Pedersen, called Marie. She was 20 years old then, and not only did Niels fall in love with her! He also made her pregnant! The second important event was that he drafted as a soldier and joined the infantry on April 10, 1893. His son was born on April 13, by the way his very own birthday. So father and son never forgot each others' birthday for the rest of their lives.
In the meantime Niels was doing his best at the garrison in central Copenhagen about 70 km away from Marie who was staying in her parents' home with the baby boy. His name was Niels Christian Johan Thogersen. Always called Christian or Chris. He was a cute little boy. We have a nice photo of him as a 6 month old baby.
Military service did not last very long in those days. Niels returned by mid-November 1893, and on November 22 he married Marie in the local church of Bjernede on Sjælland. It is a very famous church by the way. The church is a round building dating from the middle-ages and the building not only served as a place of worship but also as defences.
and his small family soon needed other sorts of defences. They could not stay in her parents' home, because it was simply too small and already somewhat crowded with other young daughters and their off-spring. So the three of them took the train back to his home village, Grynderup, in North Jutland. Imagine young Marie who never lived anywhere else but on Sjælland, now arriving with a very young husband and a new-born son in a totally new environment, meeting her new mother-in-law and father-in-law. It was no fun at all. Niels' father, Anders Christian, was furious. Not only had his son married without his consent, but he had married a girl, who did not come from a solid farm! Not surprisingly the relationship between Marie and her father-in-law never turned out to be outstanding but remained cool.
But here they were, the young family. Grandpapa finally decided to give them the choice between two alternatives. Either take a rather northern and infertile part of his farm in Grynderup or receive the lump sum of 1000 Danish Kroner. Quite a considerable amount at the time. They chose the first alternative.
The offer included the construction of a small farm-house, with habitation in the western part and room for cattle, horses and pigs in the eastern part. The house was ready in 1894. The walls were made from solid stones found in the area of the farm. One difficulty arose because grandfather Anders Christian strongly objected to the house becoming bigger than his own house. Although they had found timber which would have permitted the construction of a wider house with more up-to-date dimensions the answer was NO! They were forced to shorten the timber. The following generations of our family consequently had to content with these narrower conditions.
The new farm with no name of its own had about 20 acres of land. Half of it was already cultivated, the other half was covered in heather and had to be prepared for cultivation. Only a year after the house was finished a lightening struck and a good part of the house was destroyed. Marie and young Christian were in the kitchen when the accident happened. Marie's eyebrows disappeared but apart from that nobody was hurt. The farm was quickly rebuilt.
Soon there-after a second son Anthon was born. Anthon Gerhardt was his full name and his birthday was February 14, 1895. A Thursday in the heart of the tough Danish winter. Anthon was born in the small bedroom in the western part of the house. By the way in the very same room where all his younger sisters and brothers - and later I was born. The local midwife assisted at the birth, but no doctor was present.
A year later the first daughter Anna Kirstine (called Stine) was born on June 28, 1896. The next child was also a girl Mathilde (called Thilde). She arrived on February 17, 1900. She was followed by my father Alfred Henry (called Alfred) born on February 23, 1902. The final and last child was Regnar a boy seeing the light of day on September 12, 1905.
The final result: Six children, four boys and two daughters, all living on the small but solid farm in Grynderup with their parents. They did not get around very much. No cars of course!
And no bikes either! Marie and Niels never learned the noble art of cycling. Yes they had one or two horses and a carriage, but it was very rarely used. Every move needed walking. In 1892 the railway had arrived nearby, but in no way would they use it. It was much too dangerous and much too expensive. Yet they made frequent visits to the nearby town of Hobro (10.000 inh.). The distance of 15 km each way was - of course - made on foot.
The grand-parents Anne Kirstine and Anders Christian lived on their old farm approximately 2 km away. But contact was scarce. The tough start in 1893/94 still prevailed, and the poor relationship lasted as long as Anders Christian lived. He remained as stubborn as ever all his life. When he passed away in 1902 (from cancer) at the age of 66 relations became closer. The children loved their grandmother very much. They very often paid her a visit coming home from school, which was only 400 m from her farm.
A new school had been opened in 1892 and it was very popular. The teacher - there was only one - Mr. Ulrich was very qualified, very tough, but both stimulating for and popular with the pupils. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he taught the "older" classes (10-14 years) and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays he handled the "younger" classes (7-9 years). Most of the children had jobs to look after too. Like my father, who started working on a foreign farm when he was 10. So very often a small nap was needed during school hours. But did Master Ulrich see, hell broke loose.
These were the happy years for the Thøgersen family. The parents working hard on the farm developing it and making it a more fertile place. The children grew up and one by one they had to take up work at neighbouring farms to bring home extra money for the family. Life was hard and busy, but from time to time there was fun too.
A postcard in my possession sent to 16 year old Christian refers to great fun at a local dance. A photo of my father Alfred some years later shows him at an Aalborg show all dressed up, almost like a Chicago gangster from the 30ies. Later he told that the proud show-off did not last long. A dramatic rainfall, the worst of the year, made his hat and suit all soggy and he looked more like a drowned mouse than a Chicago gangster. Brother Anthon it seems also had his good times out and about or so he told us. But he also told us about one of his farm jobs where he was beaten up by the farmer himself. It was by the way his uncle Theoder who was the bad guy. Not surprisingly he left the job only to meet his uncle again 50 years later. This, however, happened under much more pleasant circumstances.
The two pairs of grand-parents played an important role in the life of the family, each in their very own way. Niels' parents lived as described earlier in the same village of Grynderup. When Anders Christian died in 1902 frequent and warmer relations were established. Grandmother Anne Kirstine soon sold the farm (to her son Theoder) and had a small house built just a few yards away. From this house she looked after the first telephone switchboard in the area. It had 12 subscribers. She was assisted by her daughter Kirsten Marie until her death in 1924. She was a sweet and very caring lady much loved by the young generation.
However, a lot of very dramatic events had happened a long time before Anne Kirstine passed away.
The first event was the emigration to America. Ten thousands of young Danes left for the US every year, most of them young men. This emigration started already in the 1880ies. They did not leave because of famine or other disasters (like it was the case for the Irish and the Swedes). They decided to go looking for a better life than the one they were offered in rural Denmark. They did not speak a single word of English. They had simply never heard it, but they took jobs with Danish farmers already in America, in particular in the Mid-West.
17 years old Christian started contemplating about going. He knew people who had already settled in Iowa. So he made up his mind. The local farmer whom he worked for organised a big party for him, and a few days later he said good-bye to his parents (42 and 41 years of age) and to his younger sisters and brothers (18, 16, 13, 11 and 6). One of his uncles took him to the train, and he promised to return 5 years later.
He left Copenhagen on February 20, 1913 on the ship "Hellig Olav" (Holy Olav), and he arrived in New York (Ellis Island) on March 5, 1913. The total number of passengers on the ship was 584, and Christian's cabin had number 461. Most of the passengers were Danes.
Having been cleared by US Immigration at Ellis Island, Christian boarded a westbound train together with a lot of other Danish immigrants. He arrived safe and sound at the Danish farmer in Iowa and started working. Not least he started making money. All his savings from Denmark had been spent on the voyage.
His letters to the family in Grynderup started tempting his younger brother Anthon. He wanted to go too. His parents were worried, especially his mother Marie. She never said it, but it was obvious to everybody that Anthon was here favourite child. And now he wanted to go west too!
The decision was taken. On February 5, 1914 Anthon left Denmark on the ship "Frederik VIII". It was her virgin voyage, and she arrived safely in New York only on March 1, 1914. The reason for the long trip was that she had to make a detour to The Azores to take more coal on board. They had simply miscalculated the amount of coal needed to make the trip. A total of 436 passengers was on the ship, and Anthon's cabin had number 434. Anthon celebrated his 19th birthday on board. Interestingly this was the last emigration ship to sail from Denmark before the First World War broke out on September 1, 1914.
But Anthon reached his final destination, and he found his brother in Battle Creek, Iowa and he found the farm to work at. The family in Denmark received nice and warm letters about the new life in America.
But trouble was soon to start. The war did not directly touch neither Denmark nor The US. But communication became more and more difficult between the two countries. When the United States entered the war in April 1917 any contact became impossible. Yet the parents in Grynderup heard that both Christian (24) and Anthon (22) volunteered to the US army. But having been informed about that they received no further news. It was impossible due to war secrets. The fact was that Christian went to a "boot camp", "Camp McArthur", Waco, Texas and Anthon to New Mexico and to Texas (as a sergeant). Finally both of them went off on a ship to France. They went off to the front.
Looking at the documents about their military service a number of interesting details can be added.
enlisted in the US Army on May 9, 1918 in Sioux City, Iowa not far from Battle Creek. After the basic military training in Texas he left the US on August 17, 1918. The voyage by sea was very dangerous. In 1917 Germany had declared the so-called "unlimited submarine war" in the Atlantic Ocean which meant that any ship could be attacked and sunk without warning. However, all ships transporting troops were accompagnied by US battle ships, and most vessels including that of Christian, reached Europe safely.
belonged to the 7th Army in the American Expeditory Forces. His regiment was the 34th Infantry Regiment and it served the last 2,5 months of the war at the front east of Paris and south of Luxembourg. The Germans had launched an all-out attack along that front from September. It was mere hell with colossal losses on all sides. Chris' regiment was heavily engaged in battles around places like Chateau Thierry, Thiaucourt, Rembercourt, Jaulny and Bouillonville. Most of them are near and around Verdun one of the bloodiest battlefields of the war.
On November 11th, 1918 the terrible war was finally over. A general armistsice was agreed. Millions of young men had died. The whole north eastern part of France and a good part of western and southern Belgium was totally destroyed. The German Army withdrew to Germany. The allied army including the American stayed on for some months.
left France with his regiment in June 1919 and the s/s "Agamemnon" and arrived in New York on June 18th, 1919. They went to Camp Merrit, Bergen County, New Jersey. It was from here that Christian gained American citizenship on August 8, 1919. As the papers reveal: 25 years, height: 5 feet 6 inches, blue eyes, brown hair.
In the meantime he had already continued in June to hos home state Iowa and had got his "honorable discharge from the United States Army" on June 26, 1919 in Camp Dodge, Iowa.
Whether Chris left a bit of his heart back in France is hard to tell. But a photo of a very lovely young lady was kept by him forever - and is now in our possession. On the back you can read: "A remembering of your friend Berta M., Thionville, September 1919.
The war itself had been such a terrible experience for Chris that he hardly ever talked about it ever since. If you have visited the site of Verdun and its surroundings it is perfectly understandable.
enlisted in the Iowa National Guard on June 18, 1917 in Ida Grove. He was sent to Camp Deming, New Mexico where he was promoted to sergeant on August 3, 1917. From here his regiment was transferred to Brownsville, Texas. In those years the US had some problems with Mexico who to some extend played games with the Germans. Therefore the Texas-New Mexico boarders had to be well looked after.
left on September 17, 1918 on a ship to France. His regiment took part in the battles in Lorraine, in German: Lothringen.This region had been the subject of a permanent dispute between France and Germany for centuries and it changed hands many times. The population had a Germanistic background and normally spoke a German dialect. After the Franco-German war in 1870-71 Lothringen also became a part of Germany. But after the First World War it became French. It has remained so ever since, except during part of the Second World War, when Germany annexed the region in "Das Reich" for a few years.
For Anthon and his comrades the war also came to an end on November 11, 1918. The big guns were silent, and life in the war zones started slowly again. Anthon returned to the US with his regiment on July 16, 1919 and had his "honorable discharge from the United States Army" on July 23, 1919 from the very same Camp Dodge, Iowa where Chris had his discharge about a month earlier.
In the meantime, what had happened in Grynderup, Denmark. The war had not directly touched the country, which was neutral. But it has to be said though that the southern part of Denmark, Sønderjylland (Southern Jutland), was very much involved. It was taken by the Germans in the war of 1864, and though the population of approx. 200.000 was 95% Danish the region was fully incorporated into Germany. Consequently the population was forced to contribute actively to the German warfare. Altogether 30.000 young Danish men were drafted into the German army. 6.000 were killed at the fronts. Their feelings for Germany were generally very negative and therefore many of them decided never to fire a real shot a the allied lines. They simply fired their shots in the air.
Anyway, Denmark as it existed at the time did not take part in the war. Many people though earned quite a lot of money by delivering for instance farm products, horses etc. primarily to the Germans. A special name was labelled to these individuals "The Barons of Goulasch", and they were as you might think not very popular with the general public.
and Anthon's parents were of course very worried about their sons. What had happened to them out there in the war? They in their turn of course knew that the war was tough and inhuman, but fortunately they had no idea of the ugly caracter of this war. It was in fact the first industrial war in world history with extremely efficient killing machines (f.i. the automatic machine gun) confronting soldiers led by old generals who still lived in the past and who had no idea of how to direct a modern war. The result was fatal: Millions of young men killed, in a war, which had no purpose and had no significant result.
The Thøgersens did not know that, but of course the news of the general armistice on November 11, 1918 also reached Grynderup. Though everybody was happy, they were still worried. On November 22, 1918 the parents celebrated their silver wedding anniversary. 25 years of married life is a big family celebration in Denmark. But the family photo from that event clearly shows that everybody was very worried. They had heard nothing from their sons.
After some weeks the Red Cross finally managed to get a letter through from France. Everybody was relieved and anxious to meet eachother. The parents tried to get their sons to Denmark before returning to the US, but it was impossible.. The US Army insisted on all their soldiers to be discharged at home - not in Europe.
continued to believe that they would come some day. She actually walked down the road to the nearby mini railway station in Grynderup each time a train came in. She was convinced that they would arrive on one of these local trains. But no, they did not come.
Life started again in Grynderup and in Iowa. And a frequent contact by letter was resumed. Especially Marie was writing very often. Anthon wrote back more often than Christian. Anthon had by now moved to Mankato, Minnesota where he started a new career with different jobs and in particular through intensive education. Chris stayed in Battle Creek where he worked as a farmhand until he had saved enough money to pay the down payment for a 360 acre farm. This farm he spent a lifetime developing.
( to be continued)