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Letter from Jutland: Exploring an immigrant grandfather’s roots

Courtesy of the author
John Juel, the author’s grandfather, at his Midway City Creamery in New Rockford, N.D., in the 1950s.

HORSENS, Denmark — In 1960, when my retired grandfather visited his native Denmark with my grandmother, a newspaper in this coastal city wrote an article about him – the emigrant returning after a successful life in America.

John Juel had trained as a dairyman in Denmark, but found his life’s work running a creamery on the North Dakota prairie. He told the Horsens Folkeblad that he hadn’t necessarily intended to stay in the United States – the paper said he had left “with the hope of quick riches” – but that he found the country to his liking.

“I was quickly able to get work, because Danish dairymen are well respected in America – in many instances they are preferred before others,” he told the newspaper, according to an English translation of the article. “Besides, I got along quite well, and didn’t see any reason to return home.”

The article – rediscovered as my mother, brother, two sisters and I prepared for a trip to Scandinavia – shed a bit of light on my grandfather’s early life and his motivations for coming to America. But it also reminded me, in this era of immigration concern and pending reform, of how much more there is to know about those immigrants in our own family trees.

danish flag
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
The Danish flag pictured at Nyborg, Denmark, flying near the Stoerbaelt, the strait between the Danish islands of Funen and Zealand.

So we set out in late May for a week in Denmark and another in Norway, in search of family ties and, perhaps, some insight into the land of our grandfather’s youth.

A journey into the past

The five of us toured major cities like Copenhagen and Oslo, but also left the beaten path for smaller places where we knew relatives or could trace our roots. In Denmark, that included the towns and villages that spread west from Horsens, the region where my grandfather grew up, the son of a cobbler, in the years before World War I.

To get here, we first boarded a train at Copenhagen Central Station, near the famed Tivoli Gardens. Heading west, we sped across the islands of Zealand and Funen – past rolling dairy farms, villages of red-tiled roofs and brilliant fields of yellow rapeseed, across the magnificent suspension bridge that crosses the Stoerbaelt (the straight between the two islands) – to Odense. Then we continued on to the eastern region of Jutland, the mainland peninsula that stretches into the Skagerrak, the straight between Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

village photo
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
A view of Braedstrup on Denmark’s Jutland peninsula.

From the Horsens depot, where relatives picked us up, we traveled by car through the countryside to the small town of Braedstrup – coming within miles of Korning, the village where my grandfather was born 116 years ago – where we lunched on plates of Smorrebrod (open face sandwiches) and pored over a map of the region at the home of a cousin.

That evening, in the nearby town of Ostbirk, over a meal of venison (accented with bacon) and boiled red potatoes, we dined with four generations of our extended Danish family, discussing topics that ranged from village life to American sports to Scandinavian tax rates to the fanatical popularity of bicycling in Denmark.

Most interestingly, our relatives spoke of “Danish contentment” (surveys routinely place Danes near the top of the list of most satisfied people), a world view that values a sense of place and purpose, that sees life as a journey rather than a competition.

There was only so much we could learn about Grandpa Juel and his times, of course, but we got a flavor of this abundant region and its graceful people. After dinner, as we sampled Danish treats, or looked for a resemblance in a relative’s face, or, driving to the depot, watched the outlines of a church disappear in the twilight, we could at least imagine the early contours of an immigrant grandfather’s life.

An American life

John Juel was just 19 years old when he came to the United States in the fall of 1916 on a steamer named The Frederick VIII that he had boarded in the port of Copenhagen. On Nov. 27, after a journey across the Atlantic, he entered the United States through Ellis Island, the iconic starting point for so many immigrants of the time.

MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
A canal scene at the Nyhavn, a popular waterfront district in Copenhagen, Denmark.

He made his way from New York to Iowa to the Iron Range of Minnesota – at one point working in a factory that made bunk beds – before settling in New Rockford, N.D., where he bought and ran the Midway City Creamery, sat on the school board and lived in the same Central Avenue house with my grandmother, Agnes, for decades.

For years after that 1960 trip, my grandfather continued to subscribe to a Danish-American paper called The Danish Pioneer while my grandmother – in her hybrid Swedish-Danish scrawl – regularly returned letters from his family. But they never made it back to Denmark, seemingly content to be where they were.

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