John L. Sorenson
the digital document vault
website launched » 10.11.12
[ this is a work in progress ]
copyright © 2013 
early memories aviation experiences high school my missions houses my work transport marrying helen retreats my father church service early experiences 1 my health early experiences 2 music transoceanic voyaging biography      art portfolio reminiscing random events

My Father

Curt has asked me to devote one of my reminiscences to my father. That is not easy. My memories are neither fresh nor strong. As I have said before, my dad always seemed to me an old man. Not only “seemed,” he was an old man. He was 49 when I was born and was prematurely aged by poor health. He always seemed to me like today’s 65 or 70. He was born in St. Charles, Bear Lake area (at the time it was thought to be in “Utah,” but the border was only surveyed later and the settlement, then inhabited for only ten years, turned out to be on the Idaho side of the line). His parents were immigrants from Scandinavia, his father from Aarhus, northern Denmark, and his mother from across Kattegat strait in Malmo at the extreme southern tip of Sweden. I do not know how the parents met, but it seems likely that it was in this country. Both were part of the LDS immigration movement of the 1850s-1860s. (They were probably “sent” by Brigham Young to newly-settled Bear Lake country soon after their arrival. Incidentally Grandfather Sorenson adopted—or was assigned by immigration bureaucrats in NY—the name spelled with an “on” that was typical of Swedes rather than Danish “en.”) As you can imagine Henry (“Hen”) grew up in a rough-and-ready frontier atmosphere in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He had no more education than resulted from three years of elementary schooling. (He described his schooling as “enough that I could sign my name and write what had to be written, and I also learned to cipher (do arithmetic) some.” That limitation was unfortunate because in later years he manifested substantial though undeveloped intellectual capacity. I know nothing directly about his early years. His parents were John (Jorgen) Sorenson (he was born while Napoleon was still alive!) and Benedicta Osterlind. He was the third of five children. (Grandfather Sorenson married a second time after his first wife died; one half-brother issued from that marriage, Lawrence, who living in Logan in adulthood.) Dad was ten when his mother died. His sister Emily was then 16. Since the mother had been an invalid for some years before, Emily already was managing the home, including carrying water from the creek for domestic use and doing the wash on a scrubbing board (until she was 20 and married). He surely worked at basic farming tasks; his father grew potatoes “on shares,” that is on someone else’s land, but most agriculture in Bear Lake consisted of haying and cattle care, which is about all the cold climate allowed—they were lucky to get two months of “summer”). Dad worked sometimes for his father (who was considered to be relatively “well off”) putting up hay and running cattle on the mountains to the west of St. Charles during the summer, and eventually selling them to cattle buyers in Montpelier from where they were shipped out via the railroad. Dad also worked for other farmers/ranchers in the north end of Bear Lake valley. In the winter they took teams and wagons on snow runners across the lake to the east shore to cut firewood (ice was two to three feet thick on the lake). I heard my mother comment on the handsome team of horses and buggy dad sported in their courting days. They were married in 1901, I believe, at the county courthouse in Montpelier, ID. After my two oldest sisters (Ruby and LaVell) had reached toddlerhood (1907) my folks moved to the Blackfoot, Idaho, area (“Kimball”, five miles north), and took up farming on 100 acres. The capital for the purchase came partly from Henry’s father and partly from his brother John P., who had become a schoolteacher in Logan. Because of personal (family) problems John had to back out of the partnership after a year. Dad worked very hard at farming but developed a severe ulcer, medical treatment for which cost so much (and his ability to labor was so limited) that he had to give the farm up. They moved to Logan (implicitly John continued to provide financial help) until medical treatment improved Dad’s condition enough that they could move to Smithfield. There they purchased the 2.5 acre lot (on the southeast corner of Center Street and Second East) on which they lived for the rest of Dad’s life. A little later he sold one-plus acre on the east to the Timmons family. The place they bought had a two-room log cabin on it where they lived with their three girls (Stella was born in Blackfoot). Slowly they planted fruit trees and constructed a small barn and sheds to house a cow, pig and chickens. These, along with an extensive garden, took care of a majority of their subsistence needs, supplemented by such occasional employment as was available in Smithfield (they never owned a car; to go to Logan, seven miles away, was a trip that required planning.) My brother Curtis was born in 1911. In 1916-17 Dad leased some land west of town which he planted to sugar beets and raised a bumper crop. Thanks to World War I’s high price for sugar, they made enough money on that crop to build (Dad did most of the work) a sizable addition on the east side of the old cabin, including an indoor bathroom. That was the house I grew up in. Randall was born in 1920. I was born in 1924. But by that time the girls (Ruby was 21 years older than me) were working away from home or getting married, so the house was not so crowded any more. Through the relatively prosperous 1920s Dad was able to work occasionally (including a year or two as sexton of the city cemetery) and managed to keep body and soul together thanks to our home-grown resources. LaVell became a school teacher and Ruby worked in Logan and Ogden. The small amounts of supplemental cash they contributed helped considerable, I am sure. But starting in 1929 the bottom began to fall out of the economy. (My mother’s brother “Eph”—Ephraim—lost his savings in the failure of a savings and loan outfit after the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929 and killed himself.) At some time also in the late 1920s or early 1930s my mother had serious medical problems (I never learned what) that incapacitated her for a significant time and led to relatively large (hundreds of dollars) medical bills. Dad’s health was not robust either. (He chewed tobacco all his adult life.) This was the period (teen-age years) that I remember best, although I’ve tried to forget much about them. During the Great Depression years, I can’t imagine how we could have survived without various government relief programs. Dad for years worked on WPA (Works Progress Administration) make-work projects (flood control, curb-and-gutter construction, sidewalks, etc.) under auspices of the Roosevelt administration (vilified by the equivalent of the Tea Partiers for Spending Us Into Debt). Thank goodness. (Unfortunately on one such job a trench collapsed on him and broke his leg; he couldn’t work for at least a year and doctor bills were left up to the family and doctor’s charity.) It ought to be obvious that my recollection of my father is not of a very warm human being. It is impossible for me to think of him in relation to the modern concept of “a role model.” I recall only a single time when he picked me up and carried me (walking back from visiting mother’s nephew a few blocks away), let alone receiving a hug. He was mostly withdrawn—he would frequently go outside to “look after the cow” or such, but really just to get away from facing uncomfortable responsibilities he could do nothing about. I never once engaged him in a serious conversation, in fact the possibility never even occurred to me. Although hanging around occasionally when acquaintances—mostly old Bear Lakers—would pay visits, I heard some of his (somewhat narrow) opinions; he could think clearly enough. I very much doubt that he ever read a book, although he did read an occasional newspaper. Yet through it all I was broadly sympathetic to his situation. He had got himself into dilemmas he could not resolve. With no education and no social network to lend useful assistance (because of his tobacco habit he was not involved in the Church until late in his life when he would attend Sunday School to hear a particularly alert and sympathetic teacher, but he was never “against” it), and in a small, rather parochial town with limited opportunities to advance, he was simply stuck with making do with what came to hand. I have said before that he was “a peasant.” I mean no disrespect for him or peasants by that. He and they alike simply played the hand that was dealt them. But to his credit he learned over time that his children had to get educated to escape the traps he found himself in. I cannot say that I learned much from Dad, certainly not about how to deal with family. That was all new territory for me in relation to my own family, and no doubt I made blunders in that regard as I explored the unknown territory of raising kids. But my father hung in there and did the best he could given the limitations under which he labored. I think there is a lesson for all of us in that.
Reminiscenses by John L. Sorenson