Thelma Irene Underdal Johnson Oral History Interview, 1980

Overview of the Collection

Johnson, Thelma Irene Underdal
Thelma Irene Underdal Johnson Oral History Interview
1980 (inclusive)
2 file folders
1 sound cassette
1 compact disc
Collection Number
An oral history interview with Thelma Irene Underdal Johnson, a Norwegian immigrant.
Pacific Lutheran University, Archives and Special Collections
Archives and Special Collections
Pacific Lutheran University
12180 Park Avenue South
Tacoma, Washington
Telephone: 2535357586
Fax: 2535357315
Access Restrictions

The oral history collection is open to all users.

Additional Reference Guides

Funding for encoding this finding aid was provided through a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Biographical NoteReturn to Top

Thelma Irene (Underdal) Johnson was born on January 12, 1908 in Everett, WA. Her parents were John and Kristine Underdal, and she had four brothers and sisters. Both John and Kristine were born and grew up in Underdal, Sogn, Norway, and Thelma grew up speaking Norwegian. Her parents moved to Montana in 1910 when Thelma was two years old and began to homestead 160 acres about 75 miles east of the Rocky Mountains; Galata, MT was one of the closest towns. The Prospect School was only a mile away from her parents' farm, and Thelma completed all eight grades there, after which she attended high school in Galata for a year. Her parents moved to Portland, OR the next year so she went to high school there, but she went back to Galata the year after that and graduated. She then went to a business school in Great Falls, MT to become a bookkeeper, and she worked as a bookkeeper for a few months after finishing the school.

She married a Norwegian man and moved to Banff, Alberta, Canada, where they lived for five years. They moved back to Montana in 1930, at the start of the Depression, and stayed there for eleven years. Thelma opened a craft shop in Shelby, MT, and her husband was in the lumber business. She moved to Tacoma in 1943; her husband moved to Tacoma to find a better job, found employment building houses, and Thelma closed down her shop and moved out a year later. Her husband died in 1949, and she remarried a Swedish man in 1958; both husbands were named Johnson. She has been active in Bethel Lutheran Church in Tacoma and has belonged to Scandinavian Fraternity since 1958. She also joined Vasa, a Swedish organization for men and women, after she married the Swede and was president for three years. She has also been president of the Leif Erikson Committee, which started the Scandinavian Days festival in Tacoma, from 1966-80. She visited Norway in 1970 and spent time in Sogn, primarily in Høyanger, but she also went to Underdal, where her parents grew up; she visited Sweden and Denmark as well. Her second husband died in 1976.


Full Name: Thelma Irene Underdal Johnson. Maiden Name: Thelma Irene Underdal. Father: John Underdal. Mother: Kristine Underdal. Paternal Grandfather: Ole Underdal. Paternal Grandmother: Breta Underdal. Maternal Grandfather: Torstein Underdal. Maternal Grandmother: Ingeborg Underdal. Brothers and Sisters: Cora Jeannette Underdal, Selmer Underdal, Theodore Underdal, Borghild Inez Underdal. Spouse: (?) Johnson, Anders Victor Johnson.

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

The interview was conducted with Thelma Johnson on April 29, 1980 in Tacoma, Washington. This interview contains information on family history, homesteading in Montana, hardships for the women while homesteading, wildlife, gardens, community and school in Montana, life after school, marriage, work, move to Tacoma, church, Scandinavian organizations, Leif Erikson Committee and Scandinavian Days, and visit to Norway. The interview also contains two articles from the Tacoma News Tribune about Thelma Johnson, one on wreath making (November 11, 1979) and one on her recipe for meatballs. The interview was conducted in English.

Use of the CollectionReturn to Top

Restrictions on Use

There are no restrictions on use.

Administrative InformationReturn to Top

Custodial History

The Oral History collection project was started during an experimental course on Scandinavian Women in the Pacific Northwest. Students in the course were encouraged to interview women and learn about their experiences as immigrants to the United States. The project was continued and expanded with support from the president's office and by grants from the L.J. Skaggs and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation, from the Joel E. Ferris Foundation and the Norwegian Emigration Fund of the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The project was directed by Dr. Janet E. Rasmussen. The collection was transferred to the Archives and Special Collections Department.

Acquisition Information

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Processing Note

The interview was conducted by Donna Mallonee using a cassette recorder. A research copy was also prepared from the original. To further preserve the content of the interview, it is now being transferred to compact disc. We deliberately did not transcribe the entire interview because we want the researchers to listen to the interviewee's own voice. The transcription index highlights important aspects of the interview and the tape counter numbers noted on the Partial Interview Transcription are meant as approximate finding guides and refer to the location of a subject on the cassette/CD. The recording quality is good

The collection was transcribed by Mary Sue Gee, Julie Peterson and Becky Husby.


Rasmussen, Janet Elaine. New Land New Lives: Scandinavian Immigrants to the Pacific Northwest Tacoma, Washington University of Washington Press 1993

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
39, side 1 013/05:
Thelma Johnson was born in Everett, Washington in 1908.
39, side 1 019: PARENTS
Homesteaded in Montana. Government was advertising free land. Young people thought they'd get rich in a few years. Thelma was two years old when they moved to Montana (1910). Her father, John Underdal had a creamery in Everett. Her mother's name was Kristine. They were…
39, side 1 055:
both born in Underdal, Norway. Young immigrants would often take the name of the community they came from. Underdal is on the Sogne Fjord. Thelma's father and uncle were adventurous and thought they could make a good living in the U.S. Her mother came a few years later. She knew Thelma's father before she left Norway. They were from the same town. They got married in Albert Lea, Minnesota. Her father…
39, side 1 085:
had a hotel and restaurant there but he wanted to go farther west. Thelma's mother had a brother in the U.S. who was a land locator. He tried to get people to take free government land, which was offered, to everybody. They would get 160 acres. This sounded like a lot since they came from a little village. First they went to eastern Oregon. They didn't like it. They had friends in Everett so they went there.
39, side 1 142:
Her father went into this creamery business. The climate didn't agree with him, too wet. The government was still offering this free land. All they had to do was homestead it and live there for five years. They didn't sell their house in Everett. They planned to stayed in Montana…
39, side 1 166:
For only five years. Thelma's father and several of uncles went to Montana to check out the land. They all homesteaded in the same area. They came back to the coast to get their families and belongings. They built little "homestead shacks." That was all they could afford.
39, side 1 190/06: HOMESTEADING
The land was beautiful but it was 40 miles from town. It was a long ways to go shopping. They had to buy horses, wagons, cows, etc., so they could get established. It wasn't long before their money ran out. Different parties would buy different pieces of farm machinery and then they'd exchanged help.
39, side 1 215:
Thought that they had a lot of land in cultivation when they cultivated 20 acres. Found out they needed more land than that. They didn't know how to farm. Didn't know how to conserve moisture. Crops didn't come out very well. Many hardships. They'd have to work for the big ranchers.
Ranchers had thousands of head of cattle, big herds. There was a lot of land to feed their cattle on. They weren't happy to see homesteaders come and obstruct their pasture. At night they'd turn their cattle in on homesteaders crops. Attempted to starve the homesteaders into leaving.
39, side 1 274: HARDSHIPS FOR WOMEN
If they went to town for groceries once a month that was often. They'd have to go early in the morning and come back late at night or else stay over night.
39, side 1 290:
Water was a hardship. They couldn't dig wells. There was no surface water except for what they called sloughs, which was stagnant water made into ponds by the melting snow. This could be used for washing clothes, but for drinking water they'd have to go 7-8 miles to the Marias River. Drinking water was hauled in barrels and used sparingly.
39, side 1 321/07:
They were all young and healthy people. There was no doctor in the area. If someone got sick, they'd have to go to Conrad, Montana. Thelma doesn't remember anyone getting sick until 1918, when the flu came to the area.
39, side 1 338:
For heat, they'd have to gather dry wood from the river, drag it home, and cut it up. As a little girl, Thelma remembers gathering "prairie chips" with her mother. Buffalo chips made a good hot fire. Thelma doesn't actually remember seeing buffalo in the area.
39, side 1 368:
Indians lived in the area. They would see "Indian rings." There were rings around where the tepees had been. They lived in an area known as "Dead Indian Coulee." It was called this because there had been a battle fought there between the Indians and white men. Many Indians died.
39, side 1 397: WILDLIFE
Wild birds, antelope were in the area. She doesn't remember seeing deer. They lived about 75 miles east of the Rocky Mountains. The deer were closer to the mountains. Antelope couldn't be used as a food source. They were a protected animal. She doesn't remember her father hunting.
39, side 1 420: GARDENS
They tired to raise gardens, but there wasn't much water. How good their gardens were depended on the rainfall. They raised potatoes, carrots, and cabbage.
39, side 1 432/08: SCHOOL, CHURCH, AND COMMUNITY
A school was started only a mile from where Thelma's parents lived. It was called the Prospect School. A post office had been established after a few years. A man named Valentine had a store there and ran the post office as well. This area was called Prospect. The school was a one room schoolhouse. All eight grades were in that one room. Education wasn't as demanding then. The teacher…
39, side 1 456:
had gone to high school for two years and then to two months of summer school for teacher training. That was all one needed to do to be able to teach. Later, teacher had to finish their high school education. Teachers were looked upon as a second mother. Whatever they said…
39, side 1 480:
was the gospel truth. Thelma completed her eight years at that one school. She finished the 8th grade in five months. There had been droughts and a crop infestation. The school district was too poor to pay the teacher for more than five months. She had to take a state examination…
39, side 1 496:
at the county seat to complete the 8th grade. This was a big event for Thelma. It was exciting to take the train. A bridge had been built over the Marias River so people did quite a bit of trading with the town of Galata. Thelma rode on horseback to Galata and then took the train from Galata to Shelby, which was the county seat. The test took two days.
39, side 1 546:
Went to high school in Galata for a year. Was homesick at first. Had a cousin who went to the same school.
39, side 1 572/09:
Her folks moved to Portland the next year so she went to high school there. Quite a change. 1,400 students at the school. She enjoyed it but the kids in town had a limited knowledge because they'd seen so little. They probably knew a lot of things she didn't. She went back to school in Galata the next year and graduated. There were only 6 or 8 students in her class. There was a high school there until WWII. Then people moved away.
39, side 1 608:
After high school, Thelma went to business school in Great Falls, Montana to become a bookkeeper. She had to work for room and board. Was a bookkeeper for a few months. Got married. Moved to Canada. Lived there for five years. Moved to Banff, Alberta, a very historical place. Moved back to Montana, with her husband in 1930 at the beginning of the Depression. Stayed there for eleven years.
39, side 1 628:
Started a craft shop in Shelby, Montana. Knitting was becoming popular. She taught knitting. WWII started. Everybody was knitting stockings for the Red Cross.
39, side 1 666/10:
Moved to Tacoma in 1943. Her husband was in the lumber business. Not much lumber in Montana. He came to Tacoma first. Built houses. Difficult to get merchandise in Montana so Thelma sold out and came to Tacoma a year later. Her husband was Norwegian. Died in 1949. Remarried in 1958. Married a Swede. He died about four years ago. Both husbands were named Johnson.
39, side 1 692:
CHURCH: Has been active in Bethel Lutheran in Tacoma. This is a Swedish church. Belonged to a Norwegian church before she remarried.
Scandinavian Fraternity, an organization for all Scandinavians. Stronger in the east than in the west. Tacoma's lodge just celebrated its 53rd birthday (1980). Has been active in this since 1958. After she married the Swede, she joined the Vasa Lodge, a Swedish organization for men and women. She had been president there for three years.
Organized many years ago. Made up of representatives of all the Scandinavian organizations. Was to promote Scandinavian heritage. Thelma has been president of the committee for the last 14 years (1980). They started the "Scandinavian Days" which was three days at first. Now it lasts for a whole week. It takes place at the Bicentennial Pavilion in Tacoma. All the Scandinavian organizations…
39, side 1 802:
work together in this. Each of the five countries has one day in which activities are centered on their heritage. A princess is selected to represent each of the five countries as well. On Saturday night they present the flags and princesses. The money made from "Scandinavian Days"…
39, side 1 837:
is used for scholarships. The making of foods and crafts are demonstrated during the week of festivities. Lefse, krumkake, pepparkaka, aebleskiver,…
39, side 1 920:
peasoup, etc. "Scandinavian Days" creates a good feeling in the city. It's one way, which all the Scandinavian organizations can work together. It helps keep traditions alive for the organizations. On each day of the week, the oldest immigrant present from the country being celebrated that day is honored. "Heritage can easily be lost." It should be kept by all nationalities.
39, side 1 964: VISIT TO NORWAY
In 1970, she spent time in Sogn, mostly in the town of Hoeyanger. She also went to Underdal, where her parents grew up. Met some of her mother's childhood friends. Her grandfather used to a have a freighter boat on Sognefjord. She and her grandfather were "great pals." He used to tell her stories of the places he'd go on his boat. She had an opportunity to take a boat through the fjord and it seemed like she'd already visited the little towns along the way because she'd heard so much about them. The only way to get to Underdal was by boat. The scenery was beautiful. She visited Sweden and Denmark too. She grew up speaking Norwegian so she could communicate with relatives and friends. Her grandmother came to the U.S. after her grandfather passed away. She never learned English.
39, side 1 1046:
She talks about the problems homesteaders had in the early 1900s. They had to learn how to farm in Montana.

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

Subject Terms

  • Education
  • Family--United States
  • Homestead law--Montana
  • Marriage service
  • Norway--Social conditions--1945-
  • Norwegian-Americans--Economic aspects
  • Norwegian-Americans--Northwest, Pacific--Interviews
  • Norwegian-Americans--Social life and customs

Personal Names

  • Johnson, Anders Victor
  • Underdal, Ingeborg
  • Underdal, Ole
  • Johnson, Thelma Irene
  • Underdal, Breta
  • Underdal, John
  • Underdal, Kristine
  • Underdal, Thelma Irene --Interviews (creator)
  • Underdal, Torstein

Corporate Names

  • Bethel Lutheran Church (Tacoma, Wash.)
  • Leif Erikson League (Tacoma, Wash.)
  • Pacific Lutheran University
  • Scandinavian Fraternity of America -- Harmony Lodge (Tacoma Wash.)
  • Vasa Order of America. Lodge Number 233 (Tacoma, Wash.)

Family Names

  • Johnson family
  • Underdal family

Geographical Names

  • Banff (Alberta, Canada)
  • Everett (Wash.)
  • Galata (Mont.)
  • Great Falls (Mont.)
  • Høyanger (Norway)
  • Portland (Or.)
  • Tacoma (Wash.)
  • Underdal (Norway)

Form or Genre Terms

  • Oral histories


  • Bookkeepers
  • Farmers