Her mother died when she was 8, and her father took his own life behind the family’s Norwegian farmhouse. But it was her disdain for goats more than anything else that prompted Kari Kirkeeide to leave that farm and trade Nordfjord for Nordeast.
“Da truth is I just couldn’t milk another goat,” she told her grandson in 1969, through a lilting Norwegian accent. By then, she’d been known for more than 60 years as Carrie Thorson, her married and Americanized name.
Now, nearly 50 years after she died in 1974 at 95, her life story has been captured in a book compiled and published by that grandson, Paul Arneson. Aptly titled “I Couldn’t Milk Another Goat,” it’s available on Amazon.
“I hated tending the goats when I was a girl. They wiggled and fidgeted and jumped and bellowed a weird noise. It was like a wrestling match for me to get a full pail of milk,” she writes. She fondly remembered her early days in Norway, she adds, “but it would have been better without the damn goats.”
Her 1903 immigration journey to Minnesota, at age 24, was far from unique. Within two years of her arrival, the state boasted roughly a quarter-million Norwegian émigrés — and nearly one in five lived in Minneapolis.
Thorson began writing her memoir when she was 90 on McKinley Street in northeast Minneapolis, the last of nine Northeast homes she lived in from 1903 to 1971.
After writing nearly 10 pages, she quit; it was too hard for her to get everything down in English. Despite more than 70 years in Minnesota, she still wrote shopping lists in Norwegian, according to Arneson, 74, a longtime U.S. Air Force colonel who lives near Washington, D.C. But his grandmother didn’t want to burden descendants with translating her story.
Don’t worry, Arneson told her. He began taping interviews with her, taking notes and scouring her journal, chock full of newspaper clippings and photos. They worked together for nearly five years before she died in 1974. Now retired, Arneson finally dusted off the project.
“Until recently I don’t think I truly appreciated the gift Carrie Thorson had given me in our talks,” he writes in the book’s preface. “Her memory for events was amazing. It took me several years to realize just how revealing she had been.”
Arneson urges people to “document stuff” before their elders die. “They’ll say they can’t do it or no one will care what happened back in Norway,” he said, “but that leaves relatives short-sheeted.”
Take, for example, his grandmother’s pre-immigration job as a hotel chambermaid, before her 10-day voyage in 1903 on the S.S. Ivernia from Liverpool to New York.
Kari left the farm at 19 in 1897 with her younger sister, Bertha, to live and work as maids at the plush Alexandra Hotel in her home village of Nordfjord. German Kaiser Wilhelm II would sail his yacht there and stay at the hotel, where Kari often cleaned his room.
“He was always a gentleman and talked to us girls like a common fellow,” she writes. “I got to see him in the mornings when his mustache wasn’t perfectly greased to a fine point.”
She met someone else at the hotel in 1898, an inn carpenter named Rasmus Hogrenning. “It didn’t take long to decide we were meant for each other and that we both wanted to go to Minnesota,” she writes.
Rasmus went ahead of her to find work in Minneapolis. He changed his name to Thorson and launched a 40-year career with the Washburn Crosby Co. (later General Mills), eventually becoming head millwright.
She joined him four years later. Their 56-year marriage produced five children, one of whom died as a baby. Carrie outlived Rasmus and three more of their children.
“I lost Rasmus one summer afternoon when he went to the backyard to rest after helping me with the laundry,” she writes. “I walked outside later with a glass of lemonade for him and he had passed away in his lawn chair. I miss him every day.”
The book includes many such bittersweet moments and enough of Thorson’s trademark candor to keep readers surprised. For example, as she gears up to detail life during the Great Depression, she gets personal.
“I’m usually more private than this, but this is my story so let me mention a word describing how 1929 started. Menopause,” she writes. “As if 1929 didn’t bring enough issues to contend with, I got ‘it.’ Like so many women who went through the ‘change of life’ back in the early days, I was ... addicted to Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Tonic.” The book includes an ad she had clipped with a woman avowing that the tonic helped with her “nerves and other bad feelings.”
“Rasmus had to suffer through Prohibition, but I had Lydia Pinkham,” she writes.
The book is written mostly for family members, but Carrie Thorson makes it a worthwhile pandemic read.
“Grandma Thorson,” Arneson said, “was one real tough cookie.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.