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Memories About the Rustad (Thoresen) Family


Prof. Michael Rustad

Fred Gooselaw apparently was a superb baseball player who hailed from Humboldt. I wonder how many veterans from Humboldt served in the First World War. General Pershing was a great general and led the U.S. expeditary forces in France and Europe. It was quite a tribute for Fred to have named his son Pershing. I think that Black Jack was General Pershing's nickname.

My grandfather A.H. Rustad, Jr..served under Pershing's command in France in World War I. He was mustered into the U.S. Army in Williston, N.D. and was discharged honorably in 1919. He married my Grandmother Margaret Petersen shortly after the war. Grandpa Rustad grandfather's family lived a 60 Oscar's Gate which was several streets back from the palace in Oslo. Grandpa's father was an architect and master builder. The census in Oslo mentions that Grandpa's family resided in the apartment building at 60 Oscar's Gate and they had several servants. When I visited the apartment building in the summer of 1999 with my daughter, Erica, we were impressed by the aristocratic beauty of the street. Oscarsgate was the most exclusive street and Great Grandpa (Thoresen) Rustad's building was the most beautiful building on the street. 

As a child I had a lithographic photographic of 60 Oscarsgate. It was a magnificient building with beveled windows and a sophisticated corner design. The windows were beautiful and it was a building to be proud of for its architectural features. Our family name was Thoresen and it was not changed until the period of time when they immigrated. When I saw the building in person in 1999, I instantly recognized it and it was quite an emotional moment for me to think of the long path of our family from quasi-aristocratic origins to the sod huts of North Dakota to our generation of Rustads in the new millenium.

Grandpa was not fond of his war exploits but he did like to take out his album of pictures from France. He had a lot of shots of the devastation from the war. By the time the U.S. entered the war, France was in a state of devastation.

The pictures showed buildings with walls missing. Many of the photos were of long since departed American soldiers abroad. He also showed me pictures of some of the comely civilian French girls with the arms around those young American soldiers. There were also pictures of trenches. Trench warfare was a new technology and so were the poisonous gasses. Grandpa told me about how so many suffered from the mustard gas in the trenches. And, he told me about the cold, the rats, and the unglamous aspects of war. As a member of the Engineers, he worked primarily to build and repair bridges. A.H. Rustad, Jr. was just one of hundreds of thousands but he made a positive contribution to the rebuilding of Europe. Grandpa had only been in the U.S. for a few years before he was drafted. By the time he entered the Army, he spoke perfect English without the slightest Norwegian accent. He was very proud to be an American and served very ably. Today, it is easy to forget that it was the United States' entry into the First World War that saved all of the Allied Powers.

After the First World War, Grandpa and Grandma married. Grandpa had some business college training in Minneapolis and first worked on farms owned by ythe family earned through homesteading. The part of this story that is difficult to follow is how does a family fall from the "Higher Circles" (Governing Class) of society to the hard scrabble world of homesteading farmers. Keep in mind that the Williston area where the Rustads settled was quite inhospitable in terms of climate. As compared to Norway, the landscape of Western North Dakota was as barren as an uninhabited planet. The weather in the winter was as brutal as Siberia with temperatures that stayed at 20 degrees below zero for weeks at a time. The summers were stifling and the conditions invariable difficult for raising crops or livestock. It was land that probably was not suitable for human habitation. 

Family stories confirm that my Grandmother Thoresen hated North Dakota. It was the wind that continually whistled across the treeless landscape. The habitat of sod dugouts was as primitive as many homes in Third World Countries.

Remember this is a family that once lived in splendor with servants. The explanation I heard about why the family immigrated to North Dakota was economics. It's the economy stupid! My great grandfather Thoresen lost everything as the economy went south during the first decade of the Twentieth Century. The Rustad fortunes crumbled like a stack of dominos. First, Great Grandfather Thoresen leveraged the financing of the apartment with his other holdings. He built one project and financed it with the proceeds of another. He lost his ski lodge, the farm, and apartment building in one swoop as the bankers called in the loans. Foreclosure and a stagnant Norwegian economy forced the patriarch of the Thoresens to consider the Midwest. The newspapers that I have seen in Norway and Sweden museums confirm that there were advertisements inviting the brave and the free to homestead. 

Great Grandfather Thoresen sailed for America first with several of the older children. Grandpa (A.H. Rustad, Jr.) was one of the younger children and he and his sister and Mother were the last members of the family to emigrate. Each member of the family staked out a plat. Grandpa's brother, Carl Rustad, began a business cutting peat from the countryside and selling it to other immigrants. The history of the hardships of those years are well documented in works such as Karl Rolvaag's Giants of the Earth and many others. 

The connection my family had with the Red River Valley began when Carl and his younger brother, A.H. Rustad, Jr., (my grandfather) moved with their families to N.W. Minnesota. Carl began a store in Noyes and was instrumental in the development of that town. Grandpa Rustad was a well respected resident of Humboldt. He served as an officer of the St. Vincent township and even helped to string the lines for the first telephone exchange. 

Grandpa was in his late 50s when I was born. I remember being the apple of the eye of both sides of my family, the Carrigan and Rustad sides. I was the first grandchild on both sides. Grandpa and Grandma Rustad lived on the farm where I grew up for the first seven years. I have memories of the large wood stove where Grandma cooked her legendary bread. My early memories of Grandpa are that he had huge hands and he was well sculptured from decades of hard work. We had a very special bond from my earliest years. I remember helping him load wood, stack haystacks, and follow him around the barnyard "helping him" with chores. Another memory I have is that he had an outdoor shower rigged up for the summer months. I would love to ride with my Grandmother in the 1935 Ford grain truck (with a crank). 

In 1957, Grandpa and Grandma moved to town and we moved to the farmstead.

My mother changed the farm house decor rather dramatically. The bathroom was refurbished. The outdoor shower was dismantled. The wood stove was dismantled and removed for a range. We in short had a more modern lifestyle on the farm. Still, Grandpa never missed a day on the farm until his final days. Grandpa died while I was in graduate school at the University of Maryland in 1973. Grandma died on July 4, 1964 and the overwhelming sadness of Grandpa at her death is still etched in my mind after these many decades.

During my high school years, I spent as many nights as I could with Grandpa Rustad. We always enjoyed a special rapport and he enjoyed cooking for me. I also enjoyed the freedom of staying with him as well as his company. We had a ritual of always having tea and cornbread with Canadian strawberry jam each evening. We would watch Johnny Carson and then retire. Grandpa never imposed a bed time and so I could study late or just hang out without consequence. I have so many happy memories about those days and I believe that my company helped to stave off the loneliness of Grandpa's loss of his beloved Margaret. I think that I learned very many lessons from Grandpa. First, I learned the value of hard work. I also learned that he was religious and moral without being a person of wore their religiosity as a mark of distinction or exclusions. I would love to stay with him on Sunday mornings and duck out of Mass. Grandpa's form of religion would be to sing Norwegian hymns and have a pleasant conversation. 

I also learned the importance of a good diet from Grandpa. He grew his own grain with a minimum of pesticides which he ground in a mill. Each week he made up to 20 loaves of hearty wheat bread. Grandma and Grandpa made bread together for many years. I also learned a great deal about love and family from both grandparents. I had an unbelievably secure sense of well being because I knew I was loved unconditionally by my grandparents. I think that this core of hard work, good diet, and commitment are essential to a good life.

It has been 30 years since Grandpa's death. However, he has a continuing vitality and influence on my life. I share his Democratic politics and his skepticism about those who accumulate wealth and power for its own sake. Grandpa probably would have been considered a failure as a farmer because of his belief that you should farm more than you can personally care for. The families that flourished or survived followed the "grab law" of farming. Grab as much as you can and by any means. Grandpa's vision of farming on a single quarter of land has not proven sustainable. By the time my father came of age, it was obvious that a quarter of land could not sustain a family with four children. By the time I came of age, I knew that I needed to invest in education. I did not attain great wealth but I did find a profession which suited my personality and interests. The core of my personality and values has not changed. I think that one of the very great shaping forces was the ways that I was shaped by my Grandfather Rustad