My Family’s Story

By Jennie Janac

1-      The Beginning

     Brothers Olaf and Martinus Aagaard arrived in the United States from Christiania (now Oslo), Norway in 1875.  Stone masons by trade, they soon found work in Rhode Island.  During the centennial celebration of Independence Day in 1876, Olaf found an advertising insert in a local newspaper, upon which was printed the Declaration of Independence.  He kept that insert, and it has been passed down through the generations as a reminder of why he and Martinus left the old country for a new life here in America.

     After a couple of years assimilating and learning the language, they set out for the west to begin building their dream.  They arrived in New Mexico in early 1877, and spent a few months working; Olaf in the building trades, and Martinus as a bookkeeper.  Deciding that the desert Southwest was not to their liking, they aimed their newly-purchased wagon and team in the direction of the Pacific Northwest.  They stopped to work on farms and ranches along the way, and learned the logging trade in the forests of Northern California and Southern Oregon.  They learned and worked every aspect of the business, from the felling of the huge trees with axe and misery whip, to the shipping of the finished lumber by sea and by land.

     The Aagaard boys arrived in Portland, Oregon in March of 1880.  Martinus found work as a bookkeeper, and Olaf as a teamster.  However, after a few short months, both men felt the need to leave the city.  In June, they found their Eden across the Columbia River.  Olaf filed a land claim on 160 acres of old growth forest near the small town of LaCenter, Washington.  They soon purchased a drag saw, and set about the business of building a house and barns.  The small, 2-story house was built upon a foundation of 4-foot thick hand-hewn, old growth cedar logs.  That foundation remained in place until the mid-1990’s.  A well was dug, tapping the Artesian springs in the hillside.  During this time, the brothers became acquainted with other local families.  One family, the Sorensen’s, were immigrants from Norway as well.  Olaf began courting the eldest daughter, Alma, and they were married in September 1880.

     The winter of 1880 was spent removing stumps and clearing the land to prepare it for spring planting.  It was hard, heavy labor, with the short winter days being stretched out by lantern light morning and evening.  Martinus had purchased two additional teams of horses, so that they could avoid over-working or injuring the animals.  This consideration for well-being was not taken by Olaf or Martinus, however— only stopping to rest on Sunday, the Lord’s Day.

     At Christmas time in 1880, Olaf set out in a snowstorm to town to retrieve Alma’s Christmas gift from the Post Office in LaCenter.  The 10-mile round trip took him almost 3 days to complete.  The gift, a large china platter, was a small bit of luxury in a world of tin plates. This same platter entered its 137th year of holiday service this year.  That fall, Alma’s wedding anniversary present arrived; a 12-place setting of china and silver, shipped ‘round the Horn from Europe in a steamer trunk.

     Olaf started a lumber business in the spring of 1881, called the Aagaard Lumber Company.  He began with one sawmill at the homestead, and within 10 years he had established mills, lumber claims and mining claims in several locations in Oregon and southwest Washington.  He also built loading platforms and docks in Woodland, Kalama and Glenwood, Washington, as well as Portland, Rainier, and Glendale in Oregon.  Men liked working for Olaf because he treated them with respect.  They in turn respected him because he could draw a misery whip, swing an axe, or set a choker as well as any of them.

     Soon after this, the Aagaard boys’ younger sister, Hannah, emigrated from Norway.  She met and married Alma’s younger brother, Axel Sorensen.  Olaf’s wedding gift to them was the original homestead, Olaf having built a big new house about a mile or two away.

     Martinus and his wife, Annie, had moved to what is now Southeast Portland, where they opened a lumber yard for Olaf’s growing company.  A bit of a “social ruckus” was created when Martinus chose to pay the same wages to all men, regardless of race, as well as charging the same prices to anyone.

     At the turn of the century, four children were born to Axel and Hannah; my uncle Wallace in 1909, my uncle Ralph in 1910, my father Harry in 1912, and my aunt Hazel in 1914.  Olaf took a liking to my father, and he spent a great deal of time during his early years in Olaf’s company.

     My father was twelve when he got his first, “for pay” job, washing dishes at the Summit Grove Inn between LaCenter and Ridgefield.  The Summit Grove Inn is still in existence, and operating. For his fourteenth birthday, Uncle Olaf bought him a Standardbred mare and a rubber-tired buggy (rubber-tired anything was a big deal in those days) for his “commute” to work. 

2.  Hard Times

     In 1929, my father went on a business trip with Olaf to New York City.  There he purchased a diamond ring for my father from Tiffany’s.  The following day, October 24th, the stock market crashed, marking the beginning of the Great Depression.

     The Aagaard’s and the Sorensen’s suffered, as did everyone else in the country.  It seemed the rural people were hit especially hard.  Axel and Hannah, still working the farm, made certain that no one went hungry, and turned away no one who needed a meal; thus, began a tradition that continues today.  In my father’s words, “Never let anyone leave your house tired, hungry, or hopeless”.

     Olaf began selling his holdings – the property, mills and mines.  The shareholders in Aagaard Lumber Company all had their initial investments returned to them, to the penny.  This practice, of course, didn’t leave much for Olaf and Alma.  Olaf defended his actions by saying, “That money wasn’t mine to begin with; it wouldn’t be right to keep it”.

      During the Depression, all of the men sought out what work they could find, often in what logging and lumber camps that were left.  Olaf, at 70 years old, returned to falling trees.  For a time, Olaf and Martinus put their skills as stone masons to work in the CCC program, and helping to build what is now known as the Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway.  Their stone work can still be seen in places from Interstate 84 in the form of the old stone guardrails.

     At home, Axel and Hannah continued to feed anyone who came to their door hungry.  I was taught that even one spoonful of food is priceless to a hungry person; and growing up in my father’s house, wasting food was a nearly unforgivable sin.

     Axel and my father were “horse whisperers”, of sorts, and found their skills in this regard could be bartered for necessities. 

     One possession that Olaf did not sacrifice to the Great Depression was a 1908 Steinway baby grand piano.  Music was such an important thing to my family, in both good times and bad.  That piano remained in the family until the mid-1990’s.  Its ivory keys noted births, deaths, weddings and community gatherings.  It rejoiced at the endings of both World Wars, and brought comfort to a small group of people one October day in 1962, when the world nearly came to an end. 

     It was in the 1930’s that Olaf decided to hire a schoolmarm and build a classroom in part of the barn.  Believing that all children needed at least a basic education, his “barn school” was open to all.  This was in a time when most non-white children were turned away from most traditional schools.  All of Axel and Hannah’s children attended through the 8th grade, with Wally and Hazel going on to graduate from LaCenter High School.

3.  Better Times Ahead

     All three of the Sorensen boys served during World War II; Wally in the Navy aboard the USS Lexington, Ralph in the Army Air Corps in New Zealand and India, and Harry in the Army in Tulagi and Guadal Canal. 

     During the time my father was in Guadal Canal, a bulldozer that had been abandoned by the Japanese was discovered.  He was pressed into service as a cat skinner in order to create serviceable roads.  In one instance, he and his comrades were building a small culvert and bridge.  When a vehicle would come along, work would have to stop, and heavy planks be placed across the ditch.  Towards the end of a long, hot, frustrating day, a Jeep approached.  Annoyed, my father asked, “And just where in the hell do you think you need to go?”.  He then looked up and saw the flags on the Jeep.  He had just asked Admiral Bull Halsey “where the hell” he thought he was going.

     Wally became a postal carrier in LaCenter upon his return from the war.  He did this work up until his retirement in 1972.

     Ralph and Harry built a garage, shop, filling station and store, and opened The Highland Store.  They operated the store until the mid-1950’s.  They then went to work in Alaska on the Alcan Highway; my father as a cat skinner and Ralph as a road grader operator. 

     Ralph took a job as a road grader operator with the Bonneville Power Administration, and later with Clark County Public Works.  The sloping hills of the BPA Ross Complex near Highway 99 in Hazel Dell were graded by him; tied into the seat of the grader with rope.

     Harry began working for the US Forest Service as a fire crew chief, motor pool supervisor, and core driller (he had done work as a core driller for the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam previously), retiring in 1974.

     Over the years, the Sorensen brothers became acquainted with a gentleman by the name of Victor Roslund.  Vic owned and operated the Cedar Creek Grist Mill.  He generated electricity at the mill, and had crafted gauges and instruments to monitor voltages, etc. The housings were made of brass, with ivory faces, and were completely handmade, up to and including the tiny, hand-turned brass screws.

     Victor gave these instruments to Ralph and my father upon his retirement.  They installed a diesel engine from a Dodge truck and a Navy surplus generator in the shop, with a series of belt-drives to power machinery in the shop.  They installed the instruments that Vic had given them on one wall of the shop to monitor electrical output.  It was my job as a kid to keep all of that brass polished, among other things.  My father had me up to my elbows in the solvent tank, washing parts, by the time I was five years old.  I used to spend all day Saturday in the shop with my dad and Uncle Ralph; my mother would then scrub my hands and fingers almost bloody so that I might be presentable for church on Sunday.


     Harry and Ralph were as close as brothers can be their entire lives.  They kept busy with various projects such as restoring vehicles, sawing lumber at their mill on the homestead – or looking for mischief to get into!  They also spent a good deal of time making music.

     Some of my fondest memories of childhood are of making music with these two men.  Ralph could play guitar, stand-up bass, fiddle and banjo; my dad could play piano, trumpet, saxophone, sousaphone and clarinet.  They had not one lesson between the two of them.  They both could also sing, with perfect pitch.  One of the most important gifts my father gave to me was music.

    They were always available to help others, and did a great deal of work for various charities, as well as helping a kid fix up his jalopy or educating the county road crews on how to properly crown a road.

     They were known as pranksters of the first order.  They had restored a 1940 Dodge fire engine; it was a fully functional tender and kept full of water at all times, and at-the-ready if needed.  Ralph had “horse traded” for a surplus air raid siren, which he and dad mounted on the fire truck.  They would both get about half-lit from snorts off of the lil’ brown jug, and crank up the siren, prompting angry phone calls from neighbors for miles around.

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