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A Letter by Jean Swoboda

Dear Children,

Let me tell you about your Great Grandmother, Mary Uhlness Thompson Ness, a woman who had a great influence on me.

She was a young widow of nineteen when she left her village north of the Artic Circle in Norway in 1874 to come to America. She came with her baby boy, not yet a year old. His name was Amos Thompson.

The boat trip was arduous. She suffered from “mal de mer” during the whole trip and was hardly able to stand. Her baby would not have fared well if it hadn’t been for the help of strangers.

After leaving Norway the ship stopped in Ireland to pick up more immigrants. Among them were a brother and sister who my grandmother described as the tallest people she had ever seen and who, she said, walked the decks constantly. They saw how sick my grandmother was and how she was unable to care for her baby. They took over his care and she used to tell us how they saved her baby’s life.

She traveled to Minnesota to stay and work on her cousin’s farm. Very often early immigrants had a relative pay for their travel and then they worked for them to repay these expenses. Several years later she met my grandfather, Thomas Ness, who had traveled up from Iowa to visit his cousins. Grandma saw him for the first time as he walked through the field towards her. She would tell us that when she saw him that day that she recognized him as the man she saw in a dream and to whom she was married. Later she went to Sioux City, Iowa where they were married. She was six years older than Thomas and people said an older woman with a child shouldn’t marry a younger man. Yet, in later years everyone remarked that they were a very devoted couple.

Like many other immigrants, the only education they had was that of the village school. My grandmother highly regarded learning. She taught herself to speak, read and write in English and encouraged her children to learn so that they could have a better life. My mother said that she could always get out of household chores by saying that she had a school lesson to do. Grandma alwys checked to make sure the reading or arithmetic problems had been done.

My grandfather was a carpenter. In the winter, when work was scarce he drove his employer’s dray and cut ice from the surrounding lakes to be stored and used the following summer. The dray was a strong low wagon without sides and used to carry heavy loads. Two horses pulled it and were kept and cared for by him in a barn on the back of my grandparents’ property. To keep her children from dropping out of school and going to work my grandmother worked several days a week as a domestic.


Next to her family was her devotion and love of God and her church, the First Lutheran Church of Sioux City. She demonstrated her love of God by her service to others. Grandma was always the first called to help deliver a baby or be with a sick and dying person. I remember when she died, many people came to the house with food and talked about how it was she who had often been with them during a crisis bringing both food and comfort. 

At the end of this letter, I printed a picture of Grandma and her sister Katrina who we called Auntie Olson. She immigrated from Norway several years after Grandma did. They and another sister, who came later were the only members of the family who came to America. The picture was taken to send to Norway so that those “at home” would know they were well and prospering. The original is a tintype. This name came from the fact that the picture negative was printed on a thin iron sheet. The process was called ferrotype, which was to give a gloss to a photographic print by squeezing it face down onto a metal plate while wet and then allowed to dry. In this photo they are dressed in the fashion of the 1890's. Back then people didn’t smile and say cheese for the camera because you had to be very still for several minutes while the film on the plate was being exposed.

Grandma and grandpa never returned to Norway to visit because life there had been hard and had little to offer. She came to learn that in America if you were willing to work hard you could make a new home, have a good life and happiness with a loving husband and children.

I spent summers at grandma’s house in Sioux City. She told me stories, sang to me in Norwegian, took me downtown shopping and, to meetings of her Ladies Aid Society. There we visited with her friends from Norway who spoke only in Norwegian. I seemed able to understand but not speak it. She told everyone I was her favorite child and that God meant me for her.

It was a bright sunny August day. I was playing with my dolls when she called to me. I came; she asked me to take her hand. She said it was getting dark. She slipped slowly to the floor and died. Grandma was 80 years old. She had lived a long life, loving and caring for others.

Love, Mother

Originally Posted (Jul 02, 2002)


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