Ingolf Kristian Nilsen Oral History Interviews, 1983  PDF

Overview of the Collection

Nilsen, Ingolf Kristian
1983 (inclusive)
2 file folders
1 sound cassette
Collection Number
An oral history interview with Ingolf Kristian Nilsen, a Norwegian immigrant.
Pacific Lutheran University, Archives and Special Collections
Archives and Special Collections
Pacific Lutheran University
12180 Park Avenue South
Tacoma, Washington
Telephone: 253-535-7586
Fax: 253-535-7315
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Funding for encoding this finding aid was provided through a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Biographical NoteReturn to Top

Ingolf Nilsen was born on August 28, 1897 near Bodö, Nordland, Norway in a village thirty miles north of the Arctic Circle and right on the coast. His parents were Andreas and Emma Nilsen, and he had four brothers: Reidar, Asbjörn, Påske, and Teodor. Ingolf began fishing when he was only thirteen years old in order to help the family financially. During this time, he fished for codfish, and when he was eighteen, he began working on the sailing ships, where he salted down the fish. In 1921, Ingolf and a friend decided to immigrate to America. The trip over took three weeks and was rather eventful. By the time they reached Newfoundland, the ship had run out of coal and was leaking. It obtained more coal at St. Johns, Newfoundland and then went on to Ellis Island, New York, where Ingolf boarded a train and continued on to Minnesota. Ingolf remained in Minnesota, working as a house painter, for one - two years before deciding to move to the West Coast with a friend. They joined other friends in Bellingham, Washington and soon became employed at the Pacific American Fishery in Bristol Bay. From there, Ingolf became involved in the Alaskan fishing industry, from which he retired when he was seventy-five. Ingolf met his wife, Bernice Åven at Central Lutheran Church and had two sons: Robert and Gerald. In 1976, Ingolf received free tickets to Norway from the Alaska Company, but went alone because Bernice does not like to fly. He stayed for three weeks and felt like a stranger in his own homeland-everything had changed.


Full Name: Ingolf Nilsen. Father: Andreas Nilsen. Mother: Emma. Nilsen Brothers and Sisters: Reidar Nilsen, Asbjörn Nilsen, Påske Nilsen, Teodor Nilsen. Spouse: Bernice Åven. Children: Gerald Nilsen, Robert Nilsen.

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

This interview was conducted with Ingolf Nilsen on July 27, 1983 in Bellingham, Washington. It contains information about family background, work, emigration, marriage, and return trip to Norway. The interview was conducted in English.

Use of the CollectionReturn to Top

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Detailed Description of the CollectionReturn to Top

The partial interview transcription highlights important aspects of the interview. Numbers may be used as guides to important subjects. Two numbers separated by a slash indicate that the first number is for cassette and the second for CD.

Container(s) Description
257, side 1 007: FAMILY BACKGROUND
Born Ingolf Kristian Nilsen on August 28, 1897 near Bodö, Nordland, Norway.
257, side 1 034: PARENTS
Were Emma and Andreas Nilsen. (Tape fades.) Five boys in the family: Reidar, Asbjörn, Påske, Ingolf, and Teodor.
257, side 1 076:
Dad was many things: painter, carpenter, and upholsterer. Had a shop of his own. Mom was always busy. Their home was a small farm located in the country, a village of 30-40 homes. Bodö was the closest town (tape fades, 109); their village was right on the saltwater about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. They made their living fishing - all you could do in do in northern Norway. He was the cook for eight men on a sailing ship at age 13. Couldn't stay home; had to help feed the family. They ate fish everyday, except for Sunday when they had meat.
257, side 1 139: BROTHERS AND SISTERS
Reidar was a shoemaker for the king and queen of Denmark; had a good job there in Copenhagen. Påske was a "maler" [house painter] in Bodö. Teodor was pretty young and at home when Ingolf emigrated.
257, side 1 166: GRANDPARENTS
(Tape fades) He remembers one Grandpa who chopped wood for his folks and a grandmother on the other side who was still milking the cows at 94 years of age.
257, side 1 182: SCHOOL
Ingolf attended school through eighth grade in a schoolhouse 50 feet from his home. They had lots of snow; used skis all the time.
257, side 1 199: HOLIDAYS
Every farm flew a flag on confirmation day, a big holiday. Everybody attended the state church.Christmas was celebrated for 13 days; they went from house to house singing around the Christmas tree. Norwegians in Minneapolis did this too. (Tape fades, 227) They had a little chest [laup] of wood with a lid in which was kept a small loaf of bread, butter, fattigmann and krumkake. These special foods were the presents because there was no money.
257, side 1 247: WORK
(Tape fades) When he was 13 he went fishing; had to sail across 15 Norwegian miles of open water to a little island to fish for codfish. It was tough for a little guy. They were in an open boat on rough water in pretty tough weather. "That was scary." They fished for codfish everyday using nets, going ashore at night.
257, side 1 270:
When he was 18, Ingolf quit fishing and worked on the sailing ships, salting down codfish - thousands and thousands. The fish were dried on shore and sold.
257, side 1 283: EMIGRATION
"We made up our mind we were going to go. Pretty hard to get away from my sweetheart", he says laughingly, "but we had to go." Ingolf and a friend emigrated with another fellow who had been in America. Right before Christmas they left Bergen on the Bergensfjord. The weather was awful and the trip took three weeks. Nobody could eat; everyone was seasick except - "me and my two partners, we was eating good all the way". Before they reached St. Johns, Newfoundland, the ship had run out of coal. Rivets came out and the boat was leaking. South of Scotland the skipper almost turned back because the big waves would almost throw the ship on its side.
257, side 1 325:
Arrived in Newfoundland and stayed there a day to take on coal before continuing to Ellis Island in New York. Ingolf went through customs quickly and was immediately taken under the wings of two Norwegian ladies traveling to Minneapolis, one who could speak English. (Tape fades, 351) There were several people in Minnesota who helped him: a taxicab driver, a Lutheran pastor, and a painter.
257, side 1 360: SETTLING IN AND WORK
He arrived in Minneapolis on Christmas Eve 1921, and stayed there one - two years painting houses. He and a friend "made up our mind to go west, wanted to go fishing". They came to friends in Bellingham and got a job with PAF (Pacific American Fishery) in Bristol Bay. They hired out by the month, working day and night trap fishing for salmon and being paid $75 a month.
257, side 1 392: TRAP FISHING
The trap is made on the beach by driving pilings into the ground, wrapping wire around, etc. The fish swims into the trap and can't get out. Then the boat ties up to the trap and a brail (dip net) is used to dip out 300-400 fish in one lick. Ingolf was a rug (?) man - the fellow who mends the nets which was a specialty job and in demand.
257, side 1 413:
Most of the Alaskan fishermen were Norwegians, about 20 came from Bellingham. When he retired at 75, only he and Art Anderson were still fishing.It was easy to get work during the winter at one of the many sawmills. He also did cement finishing for Wyler (?) Construction.(Tape fades, 436) Built his own home.
257, side 1 444: DEPRESSION
He fished during the Depression, but there was no work in winter. He lost his house. Times were so tough he didn't have 10 cents to buy "snus" [snuff]. "Went down to Holly Street one day. I looked at the streetcar track - there was a dime lying right on the rail. And I made one jump out in the street and got that dime and that was a box of snus. You may not believe there is a God, but I do!"(Tape fades, 454) He never knew where the next meal would come from, but something always turned up.(Tape fades, 463)
257, side 1 470:
When trap fishing was outlawed, gill netting from the beaches and drifters came in.(Tape fades, 477) He became a beach boss, the guy in charge of everything, over a mixture of people: Indians, Eskimos. It was a hard job, but he liked it and it paid well, supplementing his Social Security.(Tape fades, 490)
257, side 1 497: LEARNED ENGLISH
By reading signs on highways , on telephone poles. It was hard in Minnesota, because the people (kids) didn't talk. He worked for a farmer/state senator who had a set of twins. "And them damn kids- they were the meanest kids and so stubborn - they didn't talk! They went to school; they refused to talk."(Tape fades, 519 AND 523)
257, side 1 524:
Came to Bellingham in about 1924.
257, side 1 531:
Got his citizenship in Bellingham in 1940.
257, side 1 540: MEETING SPOUSE
They met at Central Lutheran Church. (Tape fades, 542) Ingolf tells a story about borrowing a Chevy touring car - but he'd never driven a car before - in order to visit with Bernice at her place in Bellingham. His friend Art Hanson (?) and he had schemed on the fishing boat how to do this.
257, side 1 570:
(Tape fades, 570) Talks about being sick in Norway; hadn't slept for three weeks. The old doctor finally told his dad to give him a little whiskey if he could find it. "That night his dad came with a coffee mug full of Cognac and I had to drink it all and as soon as I swallowed the last drop, I went out and didn't wake up before morning. But I was a new man. I was cured - completely! Ja. That fixed me up."(Tape fades 590 and 595)
257, side 1 600: RETURN TRIP TO NORWAY
When he returned seven years ago, the Alaskan company gave him free tickets to Norway. His wife couldn't go; didn't like flying. He went alone for three weeks. He tried to see his old girlfriend who lived 50 miles away. Phoned her first, but she said, "I don't know". She had 13 kids and didn't think her boys would approve of the visit.(Laughter before tape fades 616 and 626.)
257, side 1 626: CHILDREN
They have two sons: Robert and Gerald.(Tape fades, 633) Robert works in marine construction.(Tape fades, 640) Has five great-grandchildren and about seven grandchildren.(Tape fades, 652)
257, side 1 652: BACK TO NORWAY
He did not travel but stayed right at home. He arrived at 11 pm, walked down to the water and sat on a rock by his old home which was so derelict it was almost falling down. "It (the house) was a sad story. I sat down and I cried. I'm telling you - that's where I was raised, you know." It was 53 years later and he didn't know some of the people. "There was a lot of difference. I don't know - it was a funny feeling; you was kind of like a stranger, you know. Things wasn't what you should have. You see - everything was different. So I didn't like it." He stayed with Teodor, his wife, and two girls, and visited the big new church. The old one which held 3000 people had burned up; people came in boats from all over the district.(Tape fades, 686) Ingolf bought $100 of flowers and put them around the cemetery. He is the only sibling alive now.(Tape fades 696 - 703: STORY ABOUT FIXING A BOAT.)
257, side 1 710: IN ALASKA
He stayed in a village which is very rich now due to oil. (Tape fades 716 and 727) Visited the oldest church in Kenai, Alaska; a Russian Orthodox Church with a gold crown, gold pictures (icons). The service was held in Russian; no chairs - sat on the floor. Tells about the Russian priest (Another good story but tape fades, 748) and communion during prohibition. (Tape fades, 760)
257, side 2 003: SPEAKING NORWEGIAN
Kids don't talk Norwegian, but Ingolf and his wife do.
257, side 2 025:
Ingolf begins to sing, "Built on a rock the church doth stand..." in Norwegian. (From the original tape archive sheet: he was member of a Norwegian male chorus.)

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

  • Subject Terms :
  • Christmas
  • Confirmation
  • Depressions--1929
  • Emigration and immigration
  • Family--Norway
  • Fishing
  • Norway--Social conditions--1945-
  • Ocean travel
  • Railroad travel
  • Scandinavian-Americans--Northwest, Pacific--Interviews
  • Scandinavian-Americans--Social life and customs
  • Personal Names :
  • Nilsen, Ingolf--Interviews (creator)
  • Aaven, Bernice
  • Nilsen, Robert
  • Nilsen, Andreas
  • Nilsen, Emma
  • Nilsen, Gerald
  • Corporate Names :
  • Bergensfjord (Steamship)
  • Central Lutheran Church (Bellingham, Wash.)
  • Pacific American Fisheries Company (King Cove, Alaska)
  • Family Names :
  • Nilsen Family
  • Geographical Names :
  • Bellingham (Wash.)
  • Bodö, Nordland (Norway)
  • Kenai (Alaska)
  • Form or Genre Terms :
  • Oral histories
  • Occupations :
  • House painters
  • Titles within the Collection :
  • New Land New Lives: Scandinavian Immigrants to the Pacific Northwest