This is a guest post by Anne Schroeder, great-granddaughter of Nils Olsen, one of the original settlers in the Conejo Valley in the 1890s.
Wednesday, January 26th, the community unveiled a monument commemorating the original Norwegian pioneers who built the Norwegian Grade. My great-grandfather, Nils Olsen and his sons Nick and Oscar are in the picture that is part of the monument. The picture was taken by Nil’s wife during the ten years it took them and their Norwegian neighbors to build it, from 1901-1911, working in the slack time between crops and harvest. The picture shows them with hoes and shovels. Off-camera was a horse-drawn blade and $60 worth of dynamite donated by the county.
The Olsen family is proud to be part of the monument, a group-effort that includes Ventura County, Cal Lutheran, Sons of Norway and the Pederson and Olsen families. Thirty five Olsen family members came from all over California to honor the men and boys who built the grade.
For three generations we didn’t realize the story was important, so as children we kept it to ourselves, afraid that our friends would think we were boasting—or worse, lying. After all, tractors and graders built grades, not a half-dozen men and a barefoot waterboy.
Today, Ventura County residents know the story of the grade and its restoration; even the hand-forged hoe that was pulled out of the earth by a grader. In the photo that graces the monument, my great-grandfather is holding that same hoe, down to the slight burl on the limb-handle. It is physical proof of a story that we thought would disappear into the distant past as has happened in so many communities. Fortunately, VC understands that the privilege of having participated in a community’s founding years creates obligation to share.
My mother, Jean Olsen Thompson, is 83, the oldest living relative of the Olsen family, and almost the oldest Borchard descendant. She has stories of her parents meeting on the first day of school at Timber School when fourth-grade Norwegian Oscar paused in a game of tag to pick up Theresa, a cute little Irish-German first grader he and his friends had knocked down.
Author Anne Schroeder cutting the cake.I was the oldest daughter in a family line that stretches back on the Conejo for five generations, most of us named Theresa. My decision to create a word quilt of our family’s farm history in Southern California resulted in a thin blue book that honors my grandparents on both sides, and the Norwegian Colony.
Branches on the Conejo: Leaving the Soil After Five Generations is the social history of Western European immigrants who became Conejo farmers, became families, clans, a village, and how those villagers supported each other until 1957, when land values rose, the farmers began moving away and the families split.
I’m amused that the book retails at online out-of-print book sites for $75, especially because I still have a few cases left in my garage. Amazon and Ventura County museums will carry copies until they’re gone.
Gerry Olsen and my aunt, Mary Rydberg Olsen have been generous in sharing information and photos of the early Conejo history. Gerry was on the Norwegian Grade monument committee, and spoke at the dedication. He retains the hoe that his grandfather forged over 100 years ago, and one day it will undoubtedly be placed in the Stagecoach Inn Museum with many of his family’s artifacts because he understands that it belongs to everyone.
Sharing was the way the Norwegian Colony survived. It’s the way families became a village, and the way the village grew to become a city that honors its past—sharing knowledge and history. Nils Olsen and the other Norwegians would be proud.