My name is Abel Magnus Paulsen. I was born, November 6, 1884, in Sommerset, Vaagan Parish in Lofoten, Norway. My father was Paul Andreas Paulsen and my mother was Karen Mikkelborg Ellingsen.
Sommerset is a small, isolated place with three farms located on the west side of Oksfiorden, about ten miles from the Oksfiorden inlet at the large Vestfjorden and about thirty three miles northeast of Kabelvaag, the headquarters of the Vaagan Parish. It is about 230 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
At this latitude the sun sets below the southern horizon about the 23rd of November and remains hidden in the South until about January 20th, when it comes briefly into view. Each day the sun remains a little longer until it shines twenty four hours a day beginning on May 24th, and it never sets until late July. This is the land of the midnight sun.
Sommerset had never been settled until 1879, when my parents established their home there. My father, a few years earlier in company with his older brother, Johan Erik, had contracted to purchase the land from Iver Riise Storfjeld for the price of 1,200.00 Kroner ($300.00 American money). They decided to build their homes there and farm the place together. Sommerset is a beautiful place to look at from the fjord -- one sloping hillside above the other, profusely covered with native grasses and wild flowers beginning at the shoreline and extending up the mountainside. A roaring creek flows down the mountainside about fifty feet south of our home. This creek is the south borderline of the property, and the Tortenbak Creek, which is about three blocks away, is the north border. The west boundary was the top of the mountain approximately three miles from the fjord. A somewhat level area, 300 feet above the sea, was selected for the building of the two homes and barns. A square yard 100 feet by 100 feet was made with the two homes forty feet apart facing one another across the yard. Father's house was nearest to the creek, facing north. The barns and haylofts were built about 100 feet further up the hill to the west.
The banks of the deep fjord are very steep -- at about 100 feet from the shore it is from 100 to 150 feet deep. There is no harbor at Sommerset. The nearest anchoring place is about one mile south in Kalvhaupollen. The next anchoring place is about two miles north in Hamnes. There are no roads along the fjord. The country is very rough. Even now (in 1963) there are no roads of any kind, only trails between the farms. All traffic between the neighbors is done by boats.
A heavy East wind is prevalent, especially during the winter months. It can stir up quite heavy waves which beat against the west shore of the three and one-half mile wide fjord. Not even a small rowboat can be left anchored overnight. The first thing the family did, therefore, was mine out of the rocks a slanting incline which extended from the higher ground down to the low tide mark. Then they took birch logs and bolted them down on the rocks crosswise every few feet so that the boats could be pulled up without touching the rocks. The small rowboats were very light; even so, it took at least two men to pull them up. When the tide was low and the East wind was blowing, you needed all the help available to get the boat on safe ground before it was demolished.
My father was born and grew up in Hamnes, Lodingens Parish. When he was twenty one years old he met and married mother, who was at that time thirty years of age. They both had gone to public school and were able to read, write, and do simple arithmetic. That was about the extent of their formal education.
My father came from a long family of fishermen. He was a good sailor and was highly respected as an excellent "hovedsmand" (fishing crew leader). His profession, however, gave no prospect of riches. If a person made enough to make a humble living and pay all his obligations he did very well.
My parents were married in Lodingen, Norway in 1875. The first four years they made their home with his parents at Hamnes. During this four year period, father spent the winters fishing cod and the summers hauling logs and lumber from the district of Vefsen, about 500 miles south, for the two new houses. A small twenty five foot boat with no deck was used for hauling freight (This type of boat was used only in the North country). My father and his three brothers were all very good with carpentry tools, so by united effort the new homes were completed and my parents with their daughter, Anna, moved to their new home at Sommerset in the Fall of 1879.
Father and mother had six children. Anna Maria, born on January 12, 1878, was the only one born at Hamnes in Lodingen Parish in Norland, Norway. The rest of us were born in Sommerset, Vaagan Parish, Lofoten, Norway. Erling Kristian was born April 5,1880; Paul Ingvald was born May 31,1882; Abel Magnus was born November 6,1884; Marie Sofie was born July 20,1886; and Ingrid Marie Amalie was born June 8,1888.
The earliest incident I can remember was when I was about four years old. Father had made my first pair of skiis and I was trying them out on the second day of Christmas, (December 26). I also remember, from that same year a Christmas dance at our home. My aunt Hansine, her husband, Karl Jensen from Hamnes, and uncle Martin from Storfjeld with his two little girls were there. The smallest one, Helga, was five. We played and had a happy time together.
Our Religious Life
My parents belonged to the Lutheran state church. Bible History and the Lutheran Catechism are compulsory subjects in the public grade schools of Norway so the family was raised in the Lutheran faith. Still my parents were not greatly interested in religion. I can not remember that we as a family ever prayed together. However, every Christmas morning and New Year's morning while father lived, he always brought out the Lutheran Book of Sermons and read aloud the day's sermon to the family. We all had to sit still and be attentive during the reading, a hardship to us boys. We wanted to be out skiing, but it was not allowed on the first day of Christmas. We had to stay in the house all day. There was no visiting or playing on the birthday of Christ, the holiest day in the year.
The Christmas Season
In Northern Norway we have two days of Christmas and two days of New Year celebration. As I mentioned, the first day of Christmas was kept holy and solemn. However, on the second day of Christmas and in the afternoon of New Year's day and the second day of New Year, we visited friends, went skiing and had dances. In fact, amusement and sports are the main concern during the Christmas season. No one thinks about work until after the New Year.
When I was between two and three years old, I had what could well have been a fatal accident. Father was returning from along trip. His boat was coming up the fjord in a heavy but favorable wind. The older members of the family recognized the sails at a great distance and the children were overjoyed. Mother claimed that we all went wild and were running over tables and benches. Mother had just lifted a pan of hot milk from the stove. One of the children happened to tip the boiling milk over my right arm branding me for life with heavy scars.
A Close Call
Uncle Johan Erik had a boy about my age named Harold. We were great friends and always played together. When I was about six years old, on a sunny day late in March, we decided to take a walk to Bjornvika, about six blocks away. Ordinarily we would make the trip on skiis, but the snow was so hard that we decided to walk on its crust. In Bjornvika there was a small cove with a white sandy bottom. At low tide one could find many sea shells there. We wanted these sea shells to play with. Our search went fine. We found many shells and filled up our caps before the tide started to come in. Before going home, however, we took a walk out over a huge rock boulder and we saw some beautiful shells laying on the white sand right at its base. Due to the angle of the bright sun on the water, the shells appeared within easy reach from the bottom of the rock, so I decided to climb down and reach the shell with my hand. I had no trouble going down but the water was much deeper than it looked. I slipped and fell in over my head. When I tried to climb up I found it was impossible; the rock was too steep, and the seaweeds were very slippery.
My partner, Harold, stood on top of the rock laughing at my situation. I was floundering in the deep water and trying to hang on to the seaweeds on the steep rock. I decided then that if I wanted to get on land again I would have to do it myself without any help from Harold. By hanging on to the seaweeds, I worked myself about 200 feet around the rock to a point where I could get ashore.
I can still remember how angry I was at Harold for laughing at my predicament. I grabbed my dry shell-filled cap, put it on my head, and let the shells fall all over the rocks. I had no interest in seashells just then, and I started to walk home. My heavy wet clothing made walking difficult. At times, I would break through the crusted snow, which slowed me down. Harold made it home a few minutes ahead of me and when my mother asked about me he answered, "Oh he fell in the sea," which gave her a real scare until she saw me coming over the hill.
Away to School
I was seven years old when I had my first experience of living away from home and mother. I spent three weeks in school at a place called "Fagerbakken." Fagerbakken is approximately eight miles from Sommerset, two hours rowing time in good weather for two men in a small rowboat. There were no roads, no buses, no motorboats, and no telephones at Sommerset in 1892. There were four of us away at school: myself, my brother Paul, who was nine, and two cousins, Iver, who was nine, and Harold, who was seven.
We lived in Nausvika, about a block from the school room (which was in the home of Mr. Danielsen) and stayed at the home of Mr. Jeremias. We slept on the floor in the attic of his small log cabin. We brought most of the food with us from home, and Mrs. Jeremias did the cooking.
Mr. Jeremias did not have the use of his legs, probably because of polio when he was a young man; still, he never gave up his occupation of fishing. The seat of his pants was covered with heavy shoe leather and every morning he would push himself on his seat a distance of about 200 feet from the house down to his boat. Then he would row out to the fishing grounds. Just how he managed to get in and out of the boat I never learned, but, I will never forget this unusual man with his terrible handicap and determination to go on. The teacher and the school room experiences are beyond my memory, though I probably learned a few letters from the alphabet.
Up until about 1890, the public schools in these sparsely settled fjords were carried on in private homes. Small groups would meet for about three weeks at a time for schooling. Three or four periods of school would be held during the year with the teacher moving back and forth between the different districts. At the time I was to start in school, the great cry in the land was for school houses and more schooling.
Where the school should be built for our district was a real problem. The spot finally selected was Punsletta, which was eight miles from our home. Over one half of the families in our district (our folks included) refused to send their children so far away across the fjord. For four years we didn't spend a single day in school. I was eleven before I learned to read. In the summer of 1895, my father hired a wonderful teacher named Optander Ottesen, from Vesteraalen, to come teach at our farm. He was able to get financial cooperation from some of our neighbors who sent their children to study with us. The neighbors were Sivert from Bjornvika who sent one girl, Uncle Martin from Storfjeld who sent one girl, Uncle Jonah had five boys, and in our home there were three boys and one girl. This made a total of eleven students. Ottesen came in the Fall of 1895. It was amazing to see the amount of interest and enthusiasm he was able to stimulate in each of us that first fall season. He also came to our home for a number of weeks the next summer, and we found him not only a wonderful teacher but also a splendid swimmer. Mr. Ottesen loved his pupils and we loved him. He lived at our home but conducted school mainly in Uncle Johan's living room.
After about five years our neighborhood gave up the schoolhouse fight. A compromise was agreed upon. The small children were to be taught at Storfjeld, which was one mile from our home, and the larger children would be sent to the schoolhouse at Punsletta. Of course, it was too far to commute except on weekends, and then, only if our parents had time to come and get us and row us back by Sunday night. We lived at the schoolhouse and brought food from home, which the matron prepared and served. The teacher also had his room and board at the school. The school year, however, remained only ten or twelve weeks long, just as it had been in private homes.
In the early part of May, 1895, my father took a strenuous trip on skiis from Kvankjosen over the mountains to Kongsmarka and back again (about four hours each way). He returned home with a terrible cold on the lungs and a heavy cough. After about a month of severe coughing, his lungs broke and a great deal of blood came up as he coughed. A doctor was sent for from Kabelvaag, which was thirty-five miles away. The doctor gave us hope and ordered, "No work, stay in bed, and absolute quiet." He also gave father some medicine.
Father continued, however, to cough blood off and on, and on a later trip that same summer the doctor told us that father had tuberculosis of the lungs. At that time, to tell a man he had tuberculosis was like telling him that death was all he could hope for. Father lived on for three years, but he coughed a great deal, was weak, and could not work or take part in the fishing activities. The result was a great hardship on the family.
We had a small farm with two to three milk cows and five or six sheep. Usually we would sell from 1000 to 2000 pounds of potatoes a year. Between all of us in the family we managed to do the farm work: caring for the animals, digging the peat (our fuel for cooking and heating) early in May and spreading it out to dry for fuel next winter, spreading the manure and planting the potatoes in late May or June. In late July we had the hay to cut, hang on wires to dry and get into the hayloft. The dry peat had to be put into the shed. In September the potatoes had to be dug and stored in the cellar. Throughout the summer we had to pull all the weeds out of the potato patch, bring home dry wood from the surrounding hills for summer fuel, every morning after milking drive the cows from the summer corral to the mountains, and every evening find the cows and bring them home for milking. The milking was done by mother and Anna, our older sister. Gathering the summer fuel and driving the cows was usually done by my cousin Harold and myself. In the late summer and early fall all of us gathered lingenberries, blueberries, raspberries, and cloudberries from the mountainsides close by. These berries were mainly used for juices and preserves for the winter.
Usually the winter started in October with heavy snowstorms. By November we had a lot of snow, and we were busy in the mountains cutting birch trees and bringing them home on sleds for winter wood to supplement the peat. Another winter activity we as growing boys engaged in was trapping ptarmigan. Ptarmigan belong to the chicken family and are about the size of a pheasant. They change color with the seasons of the year -- being brown in the summer and white in the winter. They feed on birch tree kernels. In my opinion the meat of these ptarmigan is the most delicious meat I have ever tasted.
Among the fishing people in the North at that time, it was customary every winter to take the boys between 13 and 15 years old along on the fishing expedition to do the cooking and other chores on the lodging boat in the harbor while the men went in smaller open boats to the cod banks to do the fishing. My older brothers Erling and Paul had some of this experience with their uncles Martin, Karl and Johan. However, when I was 13, because of father's sickness, I had to stay at home to help mother. There was wood to cut and water to carry for the cows and sheep, and also for our kitchen use, as well as other chores. Our water supply was the creek that flowed at the side of our yard. To get the water was no easy task in the wintertime with from 4 to 8 feet of snow on the ground. We first had to shovel the path from the barn to the creek which was about 75 feet, then shovel the snow out of the pit that led down to the water, and then cut a hole in the ice and repair the stepping ledges out of the pit to the cleared path. The same process had to be repeated from the house to the creek before we could carry the water for domestic use from a second pit. These were nearly always filled in with fresh snow blown in during the night.
During the Winter and Spring of 1898, father continued to lose the fight against lung tuberculosis, and he passed away on May 4th, 1898. All of the family were at his bedside when he passed away. He was then only 44 years of age; mother was then 53. Our older sister Anna was 20, Erling 18, Paul 16, I was 13 and Ingrid almost 10. We buried father at the church graveyard at Digermulen.
Erling and Paul were then almost fully grown and very strong. At age 16 they did a man's work and on fishing trips received a man's share of the profit from the catch. I was rather small for my age and did not grow much before I was 14 or 15 years of age. As a family we always worked together on the farm and fishing. All the proceeds went into the family larder. We all thought a lot of each other, and I can not remember any time that any of us refused to do the work that needed to be done.
At the time of father's death, we were in very poor financial conditions. We owed several merchants a total of 2000 crowns ($ 500.00). In addition the farm had not been paid for, and Iver Riese Storffeld still held the deed to the land.
The creditors took actions against the estate and everything was sold at auction -- the cows, sheep, fishing equipment, tools, a boat and our furniture. However, through the financial guarantee of mother's kindly cousin, Andreas Falk, our older brother Erling was able to bid on the equipment, tools, and furniture that was absolutely needed to carry on farming and fishing.
On the day of the auction I was at school at Punsletta but learned on my return home that Erling had bought back most of the items needed for us to carry on as a family. Iver Riese was mostly interested in the interest not in the capital, so it was easy to arrange terms with him.
In the Winter of 1898 I was old enough to go as cook with somebody in the cod fishing season, but mother decided it would be much better for me to stay at home and help her with the daily chores during the long and hard winter. So I stayed home and probably made just as much money trapping and hunting ptarmigans as if I had gone on the fishing trip, besides being able to help mother.
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