Michael McLees and Geri McLees

Recorded October 9, 2008 Archived October 9, 2008 33:48 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: MBY004574


Michael McLees (55) and his wife Geri McLees (52) remember the life and times of Michael’s Grandfather John who immigrated from Norway in 1912 and lived a long full life in the United States

Subject Log / Time Code

- John immigrated to make money. Left Norway with the intentions on returning to see his mother. Didn’t come back for 36 years.
- story of bottled ship. Sent as gift to friends who thought the bottle was packaging and that they needed to extract the ship. When they couldn’t figure it out, they broke the bottle.
- Moving to Peoria. Later years in life
- Meeting funny man with cigar who asked for a match. Later found out that man was Bill Cosby.


  • Michael McLees
  • Geri McLees

Recording Location

MobileBooth West


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00:08 My name is Jerry mclees. I am 52 years old today is October 9th of 2008. We are in Peoria, Illinois and I am here I am the wife of Michael McLea's 55 years old. Today is October 9th 2008. We're in Peoria, Illinois, and I'm the husband of Jerry mclees.

00:37 And I'm here to tell the story about my grandfather in the year 1912 a 21 year old man named John left his home country to work for a year in exchange for his Passage.

00:50 He was from a farming family in the rural area of knots. North of the Oslo from afar name lb.

00:57 As was common in Norway at that time. He took his name from the name of the farm. So he was John Mel B.

01:04 John Mel B was my grandfather and a few years later. He married my grandmother Olga Thorson. She was the youngest daughter of the Norwegian immigrant farmer who'd paid for his passage to America John and I'll go now, but you were part of what I call the foundational generation.

01:20 This is a generation of Americans that immigrated to America to find a better life.

01:26 My grandfather like so many others at that time enter the country at Ellis Island.

01:32 And he worked hard to provide for his family and did so with the patience and good humor.

01:38 This foundational generation laid the foundation for future generations. For example, my parents generation, which lot of people call the greatest generation and our generation Jerry's and mine the Baby Boomers.

01:53 I'm here with Jerry and we're honored to have this chance to share with you some stories about my grandfather's life. These stories are dear to our hearts and similar to the stories of any other Americans who lived through these difficult than interesting times, please sit back and relax. We hope you take time to focus on this one man's life and to focus on the human dimension of some of the important times in our nation's history and there wasn't enough income to support everyone to stay on the farm. So after he finished eighth grade, he got a job in the creamery.

02:36 What is a dirty young Norwegian? He thought he could do better by working in America for a while and then return back home to Norway. What is Mother think about him moving to America? She she originally refuses early request to go when he was 17 and 19 years old, but she reluctantly agreed when John was 21.

02:59 And this was because Gustav Sorensen American immigrant farmer living in North Dakota sent word saying he could use some help on his farm in America.

03:08 So Grandpa to told me later that his mom agreed on the condition that he would come back to work home after a couple years.

03:21 He told us that he didn't he wanted to come back sooner when he discovered a flat North Dakota was compared to Norway, but he couldn't afford the trip back. So he stayed in America.

03:31 He did finally manage to return to Norway to see his mother 36 years later 1948. Tell me more about the adventures. He coming to America for the year was Nineteen twelve. This happened to be the same year the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic. And this was shortly after John's other ship that he was on sale from Norway. So his ship was diverted to England where you headed was stranded for several weeks ended up catching another ship that took a more southerly ride to New York. I must say it always impressed me that Grandpa was already 21 years old when the Titanic sank.

04:15 They went. Well, I'll be at the trip over. I took a long time on the ship. It was also somewhat of a challenge because John couldn't speak any English when he arrived in America.

04:27 He did manage her to find the train heading west from New York to column.

04:33 Kalamazoo small North Dakota town of German and Russian Catholics in a few Norwegian Luther families

04:45 Well, it's new employer Gustav sorts and his wife Ronald it come from Norway to settle about 30 years before and that was just a few years after the Indians were driven out of that part of the country in the battle of the wild Stone Hill, which is very near column Anyway, by the time John a ride and call him Gustav. It almost given up on seeing him.

05:07 But he quickly put John to work on the farm and John helped him build a three-story concrete house that he was building for his growing family of three daughters. And one son. Get your grandpa to learn to speak English. You busy himself and learning to speak English and he later told me he viewed learning English as a must

05:30 And a real key to his happiness, he would laugh and tell me the difficulty. He had understanding the way Americans use flying to say yes or no.

05:40 Weed sayings for yes, and we're know how long did he work on the farm? Where are the cover the cost for a spirit of America John was obligated to work for one year on the farm. And what is year was over he moved to Fergus Falls Minnesota where he worked on the threshing Cruise a thrasher is like a I guess it's a day's combine but it was a stream driven tractor used to cut. Hay his grandson jog tell the story of how grandpa had to pass a test to become a steam tractor driver at the time Grandpa could speak but not write English.

06:22 You would not have been able to take the written exam to get his license. However, the grandpa sponsor knew that was good qualification. So he like Grandpa take a oral exam instead and Grandpa pass with flying colors. Why was he happy Grandpa spent long hours on it steam Thrasher. They would travel from Farm to farm to harvest the crops and in the offseason, but he's got a job in the state mental institution in that job involve long hours without much to do except for watching the patients, but that was okay. He soon busy themselves and mastering exactly in art of assembling shift another wooden constructions in class. There are inside clear bottles with long narrow next.

07:05 You know Jerry there's two things about Grandpa.

07:08 He was good with his hands and he always kept himself busy.

07:12 He made these wooden and constructions inside the bottles, which looked as though they would have been impossible to achieve Jerry. Do you remember Krampus sense of humor is contagious laugh when telling a story in that thick Norwegian accent will heck you listen to his stories all day long. I remember a story that he liked to tell it was about when he sent one of his bottles containing one of those impossible constructions to the Thorson family back in cullom when they got the bottle. They got the wrong impression about it. They thought that the bottle was a method of delivering the construction inside and that they were supposed to figure out a way to extract the construction from the bottle. So when they couldn't figure out how to do that they broke the bottle to get out. What was inside 50 years later. I remember Grandpa would tell that story and he would laugh and laugh.

08:12 Jerry tell me that story about the tomatoes that you and Grandpa would laugh about your grandfather and I were both from Minnesota and we like to put sugar on our Tomatoes instead of salts like the rest of the family he and I would laugh as we ate our tomatoes with sugar on them saying we Minnesota's have it right salt and sugar.

08:40 Tell me again about how your grandpa and your grandma Matt. It was a long before John return to call.

08:50 Where did Ben just about two years since you had completed your service, you know working on the farm for the Thorntons and I was to remember to pay his way over grab a received bad news though from the ghost Gustav Schwarzenegger died of a heart attack in his eighteen-year-old son. I ever been struck by lightning while working in the barn. So raunchy old ask John to come back to help on the farm John read that he agreed to return to the farm.

09:18 It wasn't long before an attraction develop between John and Olga Rothschild youngest daughter. In fact One Day by putting potatoes in the basement. All good jokingly asked her mother with her. She could marry John and her mother jokingly said yes, because at the time she was only 14 years old well to make a long story short. They were married four years later in June of 1919. Olga was 18 and John was just short of his 28 year old birthday and you believe it 10 years older than Olga

09:53 Together over the years John and Olga overcame many hardships and setbacks to give their two daughters a sense of what is possible and how best to meet life challenges. They were a good example of this foundational generation. Do you have any other stories about your grandpa?

10:17 And if you did that you can get it for nothing. He said he also told me it was first house. There were no windows. It was a bare floor and only one hole in the ceiling to let the smoke out because when they burned

10:31 They burn dry. Hay that they had combined.

10:36 And one other quick when he told me about how I friended him went 40 miles with a team of oxen to get a load of wood to build the house. It took him two weeks to bring the wood back time was a little slower back then.

10:54 I have a special 314. I have a tape of Grandpa telling the story in his own words talking to my sister.

11:00 It's about how I got stuck on the railroad tracks.

11:03 The train was coming.

11:06 It begins by explain how you would thrash on both sides of the track?

11:11 The thrash and he says thrash. He sounds like it says trash.

11:17 When he says engine.

11:19 He says Union.

11:22 So it's kind of funny.

11:24 Listen to him as he tells the story in his own words.

11:56 Oh, no.

13:20 Stivers Ford

13:27 And I couldn't get out of

14:26 Time Warner

14:32 Yeah, hope you enjoy that I just love Grandpa's Norwegian accent Jerry. Remember how you couldn't say is Jays. They sounded like wise member. We had a neighbor called Judy and he would call her UT.

14:48 And you know promising Jeanette's younger kids names of Carrie curtain Christine.

14:54 But when he called out Jeanette Joe John and Jeff, he would say yeah Ian and yeah, if he didn't care when we laugh at his Norwegian accent you and you and me to get cut off the boat. Yeah, you betcha. We got a lot of fun with this married to farm on their own with the first years of their marriage food to be very difficult ones. The first two daughters died at Birth and they lost their Farm to the bank in the bad Economic Times that the mid-twenties and this happened after their Farm was destroyed by a tornado.

15:33 That left them living in column in a small house with their daughters my mom marrying who was born in 1922 and my Aunt Jeanette was born in 1926 and for more than 15 years John worked in, primarily for the grain elevator company.

15:49 At the time that was one of the main and only businesses in the farming community and he turned a little extra money delivered oil and gas to other farmers.

15:58 Bring up. My grandma and grandpa played an important role in helping raise. My mom's cousins.

16:03 Their mother Olga's older sister died while giving birth to their fifth child.

16:08 Those cousins later joined thousand other North dakotans and move to California. This included their young column neighbor and friend Angie Dickinson, and he remained a friend and never hesitated to honor her North Dakota routes after she became all star in the movies, but I'll talk more about that later. Tell me about your grandpa and your grandma had

16:36 Well before I tell you about the jobs unless a what was always obvious was the John and Olga MLB were what you'd call a perfect match. They are true life Partners deeply devoted to each other throughout their 51 years of marriage.

16:50 And they were also a great sense of strength for each other and both work and play.

16:56 I always remember this story when John lost his job at the grain elevator toward the end of the Great Depression. He was 58 years old and his wife Olga insisted that they moved to Minneapolis from North Dakota to find work. So they did sleeping on kitchen floors of friends till they found work as a maid in a gardener for a rich family.

17:17 It was not an easy time for them and their employer didn't always treat them with respect.

17:23 Play sleeping forced to leave their younger daughter behind with friends that I can call him. But again, they persevered they began their new life and Minneapolis each making a dollar day and they got fruit fruit free room and board.

17:40 The good news later their daughter Jeanette was able to come and live with him again.

17:45 John's grandson also named John shared another story was 1932 and they were able to afford a piano which by the way is the same piano Jerry's you know that our family had when we were growing up.

18:01 They were very proud of that to piano and we still have pictures of them taking their family. So you in front of that piano shortly after they got it.

18:12 Then when World War II can they both get working military factories and by the end of the war they had saved enough money to buy a comfortable. But modest House in South Minneapolis near the Minnehaha Falls. I remember going there when I was a kid. I was really cool.

18:27 The house is big enough that they could take my mom and dad and my brother John right after he was born to stay with them and that was key because my dad was studying for a second degree at the University of Minnesota and Engineering this ultimately helped dad get his degree and take a job with Caterpillar tractor in Peoria, Illinois. So here we are.

18:49 Later on Grandma and Grandpa moved to their jobs that they had until they retired all go as a seamstress in the dress Factory. She was a member of the United woman's garment workers union and John is a carpenter make in wooden containers for computer parts for a company called Remington Rand John work there as a carpenter until he was nearly Believe It or Not 80 years old. He was a Craftsman. He was proud of his work and is well-liked by his fellow workers in his bosses. Tell me that story again about how they saved to buy their first house. I already did that and he went to the bank to buy the first house. You see they had saved enough money to pay for the house in cash.

19:33 So their Banker suggested they should buy not just one house, but borrow some money to buy two houses.

19:39 But after their experience in losing their Farm in the hardships of living through the depression as adults

19:45 John and Olga prefer to own their home debt free

19:49 What are some of your earliest memories of your grandpa?

19:54 Well the child I'd love to go visit them. You know, we lived in Illinois and they lived in Minneapolis Minnesota by remember about three times a year. Our family would all get in the car and we drive on the two-lane roads through Illinois through Iowa to visit them in Minnesota the trick the trip took about nine hours and was even longer in the snow. And when we arrive degrees US is all we are the center of their universe and you know all his grandkids. Look forward to seeing them and I do remember boy the smell of Grandma's cinnamon rolls. That's it still stays with me hearing a lot about the cinnamon rolls. What did Grandpa enjoy doing outside of his work?

20:37 Well, Grandpa always enjoyed making things. He has a small woodworking shop in the basement in the Summers. He's enjoying fishing in the lakes near his house in Minneapolis, but it's special passion with watching wrestling on TV that I remember that back in the 60s with the only TV show that remember Grandpa watching was the professional wrestling shows and they were very popular in Minnesota and 60s. You may remember that one of those wrestlers gave Grandpa, you know that he like to watch was Jesse The Body Ventura and he later became governor of Minnesota.

21:12 Well, as kids we all thought that professional wrestling stuff is pretty funny. But no no Grandpa took it very serious and he could very animated yelling is thick Norwegian accent is part of his favorite wrestler and his objections when he thought someone was Landing up below unfairly. He said. Dirty guy. Dirty guy. Darn referee should be yeah. Yeah. Yeah, he was saying jail.

21:42 What other passions did your grandpa have besides wrestling in Minneapolis with many varieties of flowers that he planted and with a bird houses. The trellis is another garden decorations that he had made in his Workshop.

22:03 He was very pleased that one year is yard was only one of 10 yards in Minneapolis Minnesota to win the award from the City of Minneapolis. He would sit out in his yard and his neighbors with flock over to enjoy his Gardens in the stories. He had humility a good humor and a real genuine interest. In other people that attracted people to him really throughout his whole life. I do remember that Grandpa was always busy.

22:31 But busy in a relaxed and steady and organized way always making something fixing something working in his Gardens.

22:39 He and my grandma always had projects going projects they decided on together and if they worked on together, they made stuffed bears and Christmas tree decorations and wall decoration a various guys for themselves breast grandkids. And for Aunt Jeanette and her family.

22:59 Granddaughter, Maryland still has the crib never Jerry that crib the grandpa made entirely out of wooden spools. He got from Grandma's Factory sewing job. That was pretty cool. I don't think that I'll have to ask Maryland to show me that sometime where they active in the church Nokomis Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, which they served with are usually Mala t

23:29 Grapple as an usher in Grandma's a member of the altar Guild I never knew your grandmother Olga. She passed away several years before we got married. What was she like they got it. All right here.

23:44 She passed away in 1970 after a long battle with lung cancer truth is

23:52 Grandpa, I thought he would die first being y'all 10 years older.

23:56 Early in the marriage. He told me he was concerned about a whole go and what you do after he was gone, but that didn't happen John continue to live a good life in his home that they had made together for several years.

24:09 Enjoyed is Garnes in his neighbors and keeping the house just said it had been window goes alive even continue to change the kitchen and bathroom curtains with The Season's just said she had done. Can you tell me about some of your grandpa's characteristics?

24:31 Late in life. You get a chance to enjoy one of his passions. Remember that from his youth in Norway? And that was downhill skiing you North Dakota was too flat and his wife all good for forbidden him from ever taking that up.

24:46 You know when he moved to Minnesota thought he had a chance, but she said nope because he was in his sixties and seventies and she thought he was too old for skiing. But after Grandma passed away, he took up downhill skiing again when he was in his eighties. He would go skiing with granddaughter carry at Buck Hill. Remember Jerry we went to get in Buck Hill when he was a little boy in Norway grandpa being a very patient man.

25:18 Tell me about his patients or patients Grandpa like to ice fish and you know, I'm kind of a fisherman and we know all of us fishermen have to be patient.

25:30 Also his woodworking skills. She showed his patients that came in handy when he went ice fishing. You see I remember this one story nose, really cool. He he tell me how he and he showed me. He'd the car and pay these wouldn't little wooden decoys in the shape of some fish and use them when he was ice fishing. See you in one hand. He would dangos wooden decoys on a fishing line just below the surface of the water through the hole in the ice.

25:59 And his other hand he would patiently and gently hold a spear just below the surface of the water. He would then wait patiently in the cold of the ice check waiting for a chance to spear a big northern pike is it came up to the surface to check out one of those wooden decoys, you know, Jerry, I think you know your Minnesota girl, I think maybe we should go ice fishing Sunday. Yeah, maybe we should maybe we can teach that trip to my uncle's that go ice fishing all the time up in Minnesota rabbit, or you can go with your swimming suit.

26:40 Later, Grandpa went to live with you and your family in Illinois denti later in life. You got cancer and he couldn't deal annoy to live with my parents fortunately beat the cancer and he had several good years with my parents in, Illinois.

27:00 He didn't have his gardeners Workshop anymore. But he shared my parents special interest in watching the many species of birds that they could, you know, observe for that house on 710 Eldridge.

27:10 I do remember those how Grandpa enjoyed sitting in his launch here in the front yard and wearing those bowl the wine shirts. He quickly became a favorite of his new, Illinois Neighbors in life Oaks Ranch.

27:24 Just like his neighbors Minneapolis. They enjoyed his warm is good humor is stories is general interest in talking laughing with him.

27:34 What were some of those stories said he would tell the neighbors was early time in Norway?

27:43 When I remember how it, did you get up at 4 a.m. To go to the church to start the fire.

27:49 This is the church would be warm for everyone when the church service started and another stories shared was Hollywood used to snow ski to school in Norway.

28:00 I don't remember all the stories of his travels. Oh boy.

28:04 Among the People John entertain with his stories were his nieces and nephews. He would fly out to California to visit them and they all look forward to these visits from their Uncle John.

28:16 Who was in John Grandpa, you know it was in his eighties, but you know Dorothy how you remember we went to visit her recently and reduce them at the time to her friends out there including Angie Dickinson.

28:33 Who I had met you before it came from calling, North Dakota.

28:36 Grandpa John and she is well and she always insisted on seeing him on his visits to California.

28:45 And you know after seeing Angie he now had even more stories to tell in his own modest and humorous way about his encounters with his famous Hollywood star.

28:56 I remembered another story. He'd like to tell he got this one from one of his trips to California, but you see while he was waiting for a flight to depart from Chicago. He saw a bunch of people gathering around a guy. You didn't recognize in the airport and this guy had a big cigar and was giving autograph

29:15 Ramp approach them with a piece of paper. He was going to get his autograph and this may I ask Grandpa if he had a match it was grandpa will replied that he didn't smoke.

29:27 I didn't ask for these smoke the man replied. I asked if you had a match everybody left at the airport.

29:41 People thought this guy was pretty funny told Dorothy and showed him the autograph. You got only man. Did he learn from Dorothy that the guy he had spoken with was Bill Cosby?

29:54 What else do you remember about your grandpa?

29:57 Let me see. Oh, yeah, I remember grandpa had one bad habit. He Chew Tobacco. My mother didn't like his chewing tobacco. She even tried to place restrictions on his chewing when he lived there in, Illinois.

30:12 Later when Grandpa moved to Oregon to live with his other daughter Jeanette. He's the only appreciate the much more relaxed approach to Jeanette took with him and is chewing and we would all laugh about that later.

30:26 You see my engine that was a nurse and by then she was living alone and she enjoyed having her dad live with her in the final years of his life.

30:37 John Ludwick Jeanette until he passed away just sort of his 96 birthday in June of 1987.

30:46 Why you know Jerry I just loved to ask Grandpa questions me. Okay, like you're asking me questions.

30:52 You share with me how things have changed since he grew up.

30:57 And boy things have changed a lot from those early days in Norway in the late 80s.

31:03 He went from relying on horses to pull the buggies in the plows in his youth.

31:09 Remember taking that boat to come to America.

31:13 Cooperating the steam-driven tomorrow Thrasher or trash or I should say like he said and then he driving oil truck in his early years in North Dakota and later. He takes Jets. He flies on a jet to California to Florida to see his family and casually down Illinois. Usually though he drove to see us.

31:36 Yeah, Grandpa seen many changes as long life and he took them all in stride.

31:43 He was funny wasn't he he he sure was the character until the end.

31:51 Grants and Joe told me about a grandpa hit a bottle of brandy and Joe is coming to visit his mom grab food. Take out the bottle of brandy and two shot glasses and then say to Joe let's have a little pull.

32:05 It was a great out of Stacey fill each one of them just one and only one shot of a glass of Brandy.

32:12 And I do remember granddaughter, Maryland Siri not Grandpa at the age of ninety flew to Florida to visit.

32:20 They all went to the beach to feed the seagulls.

32:23 Grandpa would entertain the young children by putting pieces of bread on top of his hat and let the seagull fly down and eat off the top of his head boy. That kids love that.

32:34 Bottom line people just love Grandpa's humor. I remember once a nurse, headed. She said

32:41 John I'd like to put you in my pocket and take you home with me.

32:47 You really loved your Grandpa didn't you?

32:55 Give me John Mel B was a great man and a wonderful grandfather.

33:01 Through these stories. I guess we hope that all of you are listening got a chance to relive the life of this great man and get some sense of his hopes his dreams his values in the way. He conducted his life.

33:19 All of which laid the foundation for his two daughters and his twelve grandchildren.

33:24 I hope you agree that John Mel B was a good example of that foundational generation from which we have all benefited.

33:32 Grandpa

33:34 If you're listening, all of us grandkids want to tell you that you're in our hearts and always will be.