A Wilderness Within


The beginning of Chapter One

November can be a treacherous time on the Great Lakes. Storms flare with little warning, whipping the waves, capsizing ships. Ida May Olson surely knew this as she boarded the boat in Chicago that November morning of 1906. She had reason for concern: the last time she had sailed on a ship she had nearly died. She was just nine, then, an immigrant on a small, storm-tossed vessel. Her parents and brother were with the other passengers in the ship's deckhold, which reeked of vomit. Ida May took a bucket to get some fresh water for the sick and climbed the ladder. When she reached the top deck a huge wave slapped the ship, nearly rolling it over, and she was thrown across the slippery deck. A sailor caught Ida May before she plummeted over the side.

Twenty-five years later, Ida May once again had to trust herself, her family and their few possessions to the skill of a ship's captain and to the winds of November. Sailing north out of Chicago, she and her husband, her mother and three sons were bound for Wisconsin's Door County peninsula, which jutted into Lake Michigan like the thumb of a mitten. It must have been early evening when they reached the tip of the peninsula and crossed Death's Door, the narrow passage between the mainland and Washington Island. Over the years hundreds of boats had been dashed onto the rocks there by vicious crosswinds and a strong current. It would have been dark when the Olson's ship docked in the harbor of their new hometown, Sister Bay.

Although the weather was good, it's hard to imagine that Ida May Olson was happy during that long day's travel up the Wisconsin coastline. She was leaving a nice Victorian home in Humboldt Park on Chicago's west side to live in--what? She wouldn't have seen the house yet, but she'd been in rural parsonages before, two of them, to be exact, in two states, and she couldn't have expected this one to be any better. It was so isolated. The Door County peninsula was reachable only by ship. Ida May had lived for eight years in the capital of Swedish America: Chicago was home to 60,000 Swedish-born citizens. She had enjoyed access to good doctors and well-stocked stores; she couldn't have expected to find either at Sister Bay. True, much of Chicago was ugly: streets full of horse manure, the river steeped in raw sewage. Upton Sinclair had just publicized the "hideous and bare" landscape of the south side stockyards, the killing beds where poor immigrants were treated little better than the pigs and cattle they slaughtered. But this undoubtedly seemed a world away from Humboldt Park, and Chicago had given Ida May Olson amenities she could not have looked forward to leaving behind.

Her husband, Lawrence J. Olson, may also have gazed at the receding Chicago skyline with watery eyes. There is no record to indicate if he freely chose his new congregation or if he was assigned without regard to his wishes. But he was a single-minded man to whom his faith meant everything, and the 37-year-old minister certainly faced a challenge that may well have excited him. He was replacing Rev. Charles Wassell, who had just retired after completing 25 years as the first pastor of Sister Bay's Swedish Baptist Church. The people had loved their heavyset, balding preacher who, with his dark eyebrows and with his thick gray beard running ear to ear below his chin, perfectly fit the image of a distinguished church elder. The job of the thin, angular Lawrence Olson, with his naturally wavy brown hair combed up and back, and a thick moustache instead of the more traditional beard--he looked quite striking when he put on a little weight--was to modernize the practice of the faith in Door County by introducing English language services. Second generation Swedish Americans everywhere were embracing their new culture, and the Swedish Baptist Church did not want to lose its youth. This must have been a difficult task for Olson and a controversial one, for without the Old World language there was little to separate Swedish Baptists from any other northern Baptists. But he may well have foreseen his assignment as a step up in his career.

Ida May's mother, Anna Cederholm, must have been miserable as the ship pulled out of the Chicago harbor. This was her third move in two years, and each one had been sorrowful. In 1904 she and her husband, Christian, had moved from Minnesota to California in a last-ditch effort to regain the health of their 28-year-old, crippled son, Emil. During their journey west they lost all of their household goods in a flood. Then, three months after arriving in California, Emil died. Anna and Christian moved to Chicago to be near Ida May, and Christian worked as a janitor in L.J.'s church. In 1906, however, as L.J. prepared to relocate to Sister Bay, Christian died. Anna moved in with her daughter and son-in-law and prepared to go north with them. L.J. resented her presence. She was 70 years old, spoke only Swedish, and had no say in family decisions.

The children, no doubt, reacted to their voyage and new prospects much as children always do. Kenneth, age 11, likely had good friends in Chicago whom he hated to leave. Leonard, age 3, would have been too young to understand the full implications of their voyage up the lake. Of the whole family, only the middle child recorded any memories of the move. Sailing north to Sister Bay, he excitedly watched flocks of gulls, listened to their cries, and cast his eyes out over the broad, wind-swept waters of Lake Michigan. It was a taste of freedom. Seven-year-old Sigurd Olson, a second-generation Swedish American caught between Old World customs and New World possibilities, would seek out and savor open horizons for the rest of his life.