Thora Moves West

Thora Moves West

The family of Harry Grover Olson, Landon and Harry’s grandfather, has a history of Scandinavian forebears some of whom made their living from the sea. Could this partially account for Landon’s love of the seashore? More likely carefree summers spent with their grandfather, Harry Olsen, in Newport on the Oregon coast are the cause – although genetics might play a role?

There are quite a few Scandinavians in this branch of the family. In the Norwegian batch of immigrants, Harry Olson’s grandmother, Thora Sophia Olsdatter, was born and married in Christiansand, Vest-Agder. Her first husband, Thorkild Thomassen, seems to have already been committed to emigrating to America, as they married in 1871 and left Norway within months.

Prior to the emigration of this couple, Norway had suffered from serious food shortages, and it was clear that the land available to farm was limited. These years saw Norway lose many of their population, especially the younger generation, to the United States. For example, the 1850 Federal Population Census records about 1,800 persons in the USA of Scandinavian birth – in 1880 there were over 440,000, nearly 250 times larger.

We’re not sure if the Thomassen couple (later Thompson), came through Canada to the US, but the first indication that they had arrived is the birth of their older daughter, Mathilda, in Connecticut in November of 1872. As the family then moved from place to place, Mathilda was baptized in New York City at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in March of 1874. Their second daughter, Sophia, Grandpa Harry’s mother, was born in November 1876 in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where the family settled to farm.

The last we know of the family as a unit is in the 1880 Federal Census where they are enumerated near Warrensville, now a suburb of Cleveland, in Cuyahoga County. The name used there is Thomasen and they were born in “Prussia”, likely due to an enumerator’s error. The various spellings and common name complicate finding any other record of the family – or at least finding Thorkild. He disappears from Thora’s life and she and the girls are next found in Astoria Oregon, living with George Pearson, a light (buoy) tender. Although no marriage record has been found yet, George and Thora report in the 1900 census that they have been married for 16 years – since 1884. What happened in the four years between the farm in Ohio and the home in Astoria is still a mystery!

In about 1875, as the Thompsons were on the East Coast, Astoria fisherman discovered that the royal chinook salmon, which frequented the fresh waters of the Columbia River, was one of the best food fishes in the world. This fish was especially adapted to canning, a critical factor in its popularity in the age of little refrigeration. Canning quickly became a major industry, and the population grew from just a few hundred souls to a “metropolitan” city of 6,000.

By the mid-1880s, people were already calling Astoria the fishing capital of the world because of the huge catches of salmon being hauled from the river. In 1874, the first fish cannery opened in town; six years later, there were fourteen canneries; and by 1883, thirty-nine canneries operated along the lower Columbia River. More than 630,000 cases of salmon were packed in 1883, the equivalent of 43 million pounds. History file 7189

It’s during this expansive time around 1884 that Thora and second husband George Pearson, the Thompson daughters, and Hans Peter Olsen, arrive in Astoria. George is listed in the Morning Oregonian in August of 1882 at a hotel. His residence is listed as Astoria. He may have arrived in the city prior to the rest of his family. Hans Peter is a fisherman and joins the substantial percentage of the population that makes their living from the Columbia. More about Hans Peter later.

George himself is still a bit of a mystery. He was born in Norway in 1850 and reported that he immigrated to the US in 1870. A person by that name appears in an immigration list from Ontario, Canada in 1871. Where he ends up after that and how he met Thora remains unknown. It appears that they came to Astoria in about 1884 together, but that is not verified. As mentioned before, no marriage record has been found in Oregon or Ohio for them which leads one to believe they may have been married in another state.

George and Thora settle in Astoria and two additional children are born to Thora: Maybelle in 1887 and Robert George in 1891. In 1900 they are enumerated in the census in Alderbrook, a part of Astoria which included a large population of Scandinavians who were involved in the sea trades: fishing, canning, and packing. They likely built, or had built, their house on Cedar Street. The neighborhood was a bit out of the main part of Astoria, in fact was a separate voting precinct, and was filled with folks who were primarily Scandinavian and involved with the sea in one way or another.

George Pearson worked as a seaman on the tender Manzanita from August 1887 to February 1889. He was then transferred to the Tongue Point Lighthouse Depot as a laborer. Eventually he became the “laborer-in-charge” of several post lights where maintaining buoy lights and cleaning, repairing and replacing equipment were his primary duties. He was on call and maintained a launch to assure that the lights were working at all times. The Depot was near their neighborhood so supported his home location and long service. He served in that capacity for nearly 30 years.

Later photo of a buoy tender

Thora’s oldest daughter, Mathilda, married Bernard Benson in 1890 at 16 with her mother’s permission and gives birth to Edith Victoria in June of 1891. Thora has given birth to Robert George, her first child with Pearson, the January before. Imagine both mother and daughter being pregnant at the same time, even if the overlap was just a couple of months. For various reasons, likely that being one of them, Thora and Mathilda remained close during Thora’s lifetime. Mathilda and Bernard have another daughter in 1892 who died at 3 weeks of age. They subsequently separated and divorced. Mathilda describes herself as “widowed” in the 1900 census, a common fabrication in those days, and her daughter is enumerated with her Pearson grandparents. Mathilda married Charles Oscar Johnson in 1906 and they had a daughter, Myrtle, in 1907. We are pleased to be in touch with some descendants of Myrtle.

The younger Thompson daughter Sophie soon follows with a marriage of her own to Hans Peter Olson who is 16 years older than her. She is just 15, but permission is given by her stepfather, George, who claims she’s older. Hans Peter is a Dane, and a fisherman, who immigrated in 1880. Denmark had avoided much of the land loss and famine that plagued their Scandinavian neighbors, and never lost as great a percentage of its population to emigration. Danes remained a minority in the fishing community, which was dominated by Finns in Astoria. Hans and Sophie’s son Harry is born several months later in 1893. Hans Peter, or H.P., as he is known, buys and sells property in Astoria and eventually arranges for a home for his family in the Alderbrook neighborhood next door to Thora and George.

Thora dies at Mathilda’s home in 1903 of apoplexy – paralysis due to stroke. She dies intestate, or without a will, and George petitions the court in 1906 to administer her estate. He subsequently names pieces of property that appear to belong solely to her. An ongoing question is how she purchased property, or rather with what, unless she had funds from her previous marriage? George and the four children: Mathilda, Sophie, Mabel (or Maybelle) and George inherit from her estate.

George marries a neighboring widow, Bertha Anderson, in 1905. His new wife has two nearly grown daughters to add to the household. Bertha and George have a daughter together, Bonnie, in 1908.

Mathilda’s older daughter, Edith Victoria, marries the rising star in the Astoria Police Department, Edward “Leb” Carlson in a well-attended wedding – likely one of the events of the 1909 season.

Just a year shy of retirement at age 70 George received a commendation for saving a man from drowning. He was named as “Captain” Pearson in his obituary, which appeared on the front page of the Morning Astorian. He lived for several years after his retirement on a generous pension of $652.95 per year and died in 1927 in Astoria at the age of 77. Bertha survived him until 1931.

Photo of the Pearson House in Alderbrook – 2014

In September 1908, Sophie, mother to Harry (now 15) and two additional children born in Astoria, Violet (11) and Thomas (13), moves with her husband and family to Washington State. Her husband, Hans Peter, had been a successful fisherman in Astoria for quite a few years and wished to devote his time to his “oyster interests” on Shoalwater Bay. The family makes their new home in Tokeland where they continue to prosper and become well known in Pacific County into the late 1920s. More on them next.

A Woman of Her Time

A Woman of Her Time

“The fact is, of course, that in real life beauty is not an asset, but a handicap, and the beautiful woman has the least possible chance of attaining happiness, or success, or both.”

Attributed to a well-known Englishwoman in the London Daily Mail 15 December 1921

Life for women in the 1930s was quite different than it is today. Men ran the world, as epitomized by the list of the Newport (Oregon) High School graduating class list in the paper: alphabetical by men and then alphabetical by women! A “woman’s place was in the home” and IF they were not married, the average woman was looking to get married. There were avenues to meet an eligible man, one of the best was college – another was just to be noticed. In this, Sylvanne Olson was no different. Having been blessed with exceptional beauty she was able to have some experiences that most girls her age were not able to have. But what appeared to be a valuable endowment in her youth may not have contributed to her happiness later in life.

The late 30’s to early 40s was the evolution of the bathing suit competition. Due to the figure-hugging nature of these garments, photography eventually evolved into swimsuit photography exemplified by the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Beauty contests also required contestants to wear form-fitting swimsuits. Swimsuit companies, such as Catalina, began to have contests to showcase their wares. These contests were open to young women across the country and their participation was preferred over professional models, likely to create more of a grassroots feel.

During this time, Sylvanne’s family had moved to Newport from North Cove in Pacific County, just north of the Oregon border in Washington. Sylvanne’s father, Harry Olson, was a crab fisherman and he felt that the tax structure in 1936 was more conducive to his business interests on the Oregon Coast, hence the move. Adjustment to the new school and friends seemed to be fairly easy for her and she becomes a member of the high school sophomore debate team, as well as becoming involved with the local Rainbow order, traveling to Corvallis with her fellow members to attend various events. Newport was surely more cosmopolitan than North Cove!

Having settled into life in Newport, Harry was active in Newport boosterism. He was enthusiastic about mounting the First Annual Crab Festival in Newport in 1938 to encourage tourism and introduce the local catch to the uninitiated. His daughter, by then, was known as a local beauty and was chosen as one of the mermaid princesses who served as figureheads for the festival. The number of attendees to the festival vary from 2,000 to 25,000 depending on which account you read. At any number it was quite an event – billed as a free lunch – and people came from as far away as Portland to sample the crab.

Tourism became a sought-after form of revenue and with the new coast highway developed into a real possibility. Sylvanne was also a part of the commercial community and became a swimsuit model for a local dress shop while still in high school.

After high school graduation Sylvanne entered what was then known as Oregon State College (now OSU), joined a sorority and seemed to settle into the academic life. Or perhaps the hunt for a husband. Few records remain of her time there. A note in the Corvallis paper about a fashion parade benefit names Sylvanne as modeling for her sorority, Gamma Phi Beta.

Along the way Sylvanne entered a swimsuit competition and was chosen as one of ten from 4,000 or 40,000 (depending on which article you read) nationwide entries. Can you imagine? The prize for being chosen was a trip to Hollywood. One of the ten young women chosen in addition to Sylvanne was Rosemary LaPlanche, who later became Miss America. Talk about star power! Since the contest was sponsored by Catalina, the girls appear in photos wearing swimsuits as they travel about town meeting lots of famous people and seeing the sights. Sylvanne’s parents accompanied her as chaperones.

NEWPORT, Aug 22 – (Special) – Sylvanne Olson, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Harry G. Olson, has returned home following an exciting ten-day stay in Hollywood, Calif., as guest of the Catalina people. Miss Olson was one of 4000 girls entering a bathing-suit-photo contest,  and was one of the final ten of this number selected as a winner. She met many movie stars during her stay and made numerous trips over Hollywood.

Miss Olson, who was sponsored by the Beatrice Shop, was quartered at the Ambassador hotel, appeared on the Burns and Allen radio program, at the Earl Carroll and Grauman Egyptian theaters, attended a dance in her honor at the Cocoanut Grove and was honored with dinners at Beverley Hills and at the Biltmore Bowl. She also visited Warner Brothers and Universal Studios.

From the Corvallis Gazette 22 August 1940: Bathing-Suit-Photo Contest Girl Home

The bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States entry into World War II up ended the lives of many Americans. In the case of Sylvanne it created some interesting opportunities. For reasons we don’t know, other than the call for women to join the war effort, Sylvanne ended up in Dayton, Ohio around October of 1942. We‘re not sure of her job but it apparently put her in proximity with a certain Lt. R. L. Kimbrough.

We’ve not found much about their courtship. Letters from Bob to his father during this time make no mention of Sylvanne. A letter to dad from Bob April 14th, 1943: “evidently sister <his sister Evelyn> has been singing the Blues about my not seeing her which isn’t unusual for women they’re always complaining about something. However I don’t have the time or gasoline to drive about 20 miles for a round trip to see her. I’m not living within the city of Dayton anymore and it’s quite a trip across town to visit”. He asked about home and then in a new paragraph: “My status is as per usual and nothing is available for a report I’m still single, lazy and 24.”

Fast forward a month. Letter of May 15th, 1943: “I saw sister the other night for dinner. She ate with me and the girlfriend. You’ll probably be surprised to hear this news since I’ve never had mentioned any of my female affairs before. Well it seems there’s a certain little girl from Portland OR that I’m very serious about so you’ll probably have a daughter in law on your hands this fall unless one or both of us back out which isn’t likely. She’s working here in Dayton now but is returning to Oregon this summer before we get married. She’s a swell person and I know you’ll like her. I’ll give you more details after our plans are a little more fixed.”

Plans were soon fixed and a date set: August 28. Sylvanne went home, was feted by the community and her family, and returned with her mother in tow to Dayton. It appears to have been a very small wedding ceremony. In addition to Mrs. Olson, Mr. and Mrs. Kimbrough attended from Guthrie, Kentucky; no other family is mentioned. Bob has been promoted to Captain by this time.

After a weekend honeymoon, the couple set up their home in Dayton. It’s doubtful that Sylvanne returned to her job. The next couple of years see juggling rationing and other wartime challenges, although Bob continues to be stationed at Wright Field due to his military assignment. Landon is born in January of 1945.

Eventually Bob is discharged from the military and the family moves to the West Coast to seek housing and employment for Bob. He subsequently goes to work for Boeing Airplane Company in Seattle and works there until the end of his career. Their second son, Harry, is born in 1948. Bob designs and builds their house in the Seward Park neighborhood and lives there until his death in 2009. Sylvanne died at home in 1980.

Sylvanne may have been a victim of her early success. Born a youngest daughter to an adoring father, one could imagine her being spoiled. Being feted for her beauty from the beginning, it could be that it was the primary means for her to measure her worth. Housewifery and motherhood failed to provide that level of attention. Many women have experienced the invisibility of middle age and find other ways to create meaning in their lives. Often alcohol and drugs – usually prescribed by a well-meaning physician –  seem to help to ease the transition, until they become the problem. Her husband was raised in the traditions of the old south where women knew their place and their expectations for the marriage may not have aligned. They both were casualties, in some ways, of their times and the inherent pressures. For Sylvanne, what was an asset in her youth may not have contributed to her happiness later in life.

Ancestor Charts

Since it has been a long while since I posted, I thought a quick ancestor summary could be helpful. Here’s a fan chart of Bob (Robert Landon Kimbrough)’s ancestors, in hopes of catching a cousin or two. We continue to research in the background, but despite retirement it always seems we’ve just not quite solved “that” mystery – whatever it might be. rlk-fan

In this blog we have left out Bob’s wife’s family: an equally colorful group of characters soon to be added: a group of immigrant Scandinavians, Danes, and Germans. Despite the appearance of a lack of facts, we have spent nearly as much time on this crew as on the Kimbroughs. With one look at the surnames, however, you will understand some of our problem. Sylvanne’s grandparents were nearly all immigrants. The fortunate part of this family is that they settled in Oregon and Washington, closer to us than Kentucky or Virginia so easier to research. Sadly, the frontier nature of the area has created some record gaps. We’ll just keep looking and create some posts about them as well.