At 90, Carol Hagebak Olson is losing her eyesight. But one image remains clear in her memory: It hangs over the computer in the guest room of her apartment in the western Minnesota town of Madison, surrounded by other family pictures.
The photo shows Olson’s great-great-grandmother, Beret Olsdatter Hagebak, stoically sitting on a rock in front of her sod shanty in Lac qui Parle County. An overturned kettle is perched on the roof; a cat, its ears frozen off, guards the door. A scarf covers Hagebak’s own apparently big ears (more on that later).
“She had to be a very strong woman — emotionally and physically,” Olson says. “And resilient.”
Hagebak spent 31 of her 93 years in that soddy out on the prairie, 140 miles west of Minneapolis. Her photo has been widely published in books and newspapers, and copies are preserved at the Minnesota Historical Society and the Lac qui Parle History Center in Madison. Google her name and the image pops up.
“The picture of her sitting in front of the sod house has been reprinted many times, but I don’t know if her story has been told,” said Barb Redepenning, curator of the museum.
Thanks to a file at the museum, and exhaustive research by some of Hagebak’s 250-plus living descendants around the world, it’s possible to retell the story of the gritty woman behind the ubiquitous photograph.
A pipe-smoking midwife, rural doctor of sorts and pioneer postal clerk, Beret Olsdatter Svinaas was born Feb. 22, 1810, in Selbu, Norway. She adopted the name Beret Hagebak in the United States.
She didn’t emigrate to the New World until she was 57, sailing with her husband, John Haldorson, four of their children and a couple of grandchildren to Quebec on the ship Neptunus before the overland trek to Brooklyn Center, Minn.
That was in 1867 — 150 years ago.
“At an age when most women took to their rocking chairs, Beret put on her shawl and sailed to America,” according to one collection of Scandinavian immigrant stories.
After five years on the outskirts of what would become Minneapolis, Beret and John staked a 160-acre claim in Cerro Gordo Township in Lac qui Parle County, about 7 miles east of Madison.
“They had bigger dreams than working for wages and living in town,” according to one biography in the Madison museum’s file. “Open land [lay] to the west — rich, fruitful acres that could be homesteaded and won by courage and hard work.”
They built the sod shanty in 1872, one of thousands of such homes dotting the prairie.
“With little affordable timber available for construction, home builders turned to the dense growth of wild grasses beneath their feet,” Jack El-Hai wrote in Architecture Minnesota magazine.
Hot summers and frigid winters dried the grass into so-called prairie bricks, El-Hai explained, which settlers stacked to form the walls of their new house.
John and Beret had 10 children in all, one of whom died in childhood. John, a tanner called “Leather Breeches” for making sturdy clothes from hides, died in 1885.
Although dates of Beret’s photo range from 1870 to 1896, it was likely snapped in the late 1880s, according to great-great-granddaughter Floie Vane, 79, a retired chemist in Seattle who has spearheaded the family’s genealogy research.
That digging even uncovered the photographer, Hugh Chalmers, who like many passersby stopped at the sod shanty on his way west.
“Her home … built on a slight rise on an otherwise interminably flat landscape, served as a most convenient rest and watering stop for travelers,” according to Micki Buer’s 1995 book on Lac qui Parle County history, “Prairie Chronicles.”
Buer writes that Hagebak was “held in high regard by her neighbors” after years of tending to the sick in the area. She smoked a pipe, believing it would ward off disease, and her sod house served as an early post office.
“By means of a horse, a rider delivered mail to Widow Hagebak and her neighbors,” Buer writes. “Beret’s neighbors always knew of the mail’s arrival when seeing a flag fluttering in the prairie breeze that she raised from the roof. …
“Undoubtedly a woman of rare capability,” Buer adds, “she served the early settlers as doctor, midwife, personal counselor, as well as always being prairie wife and mother.”
Hagebak died on July 7, 1903, at 93, after spending a third of her life in the sod house. She’s buried in the Borgund Lutheran Church Cemetery, “just a few miles from the land which she and her family homesteaded with such indomitable faith and fortitude,” Buer writes.
As for her big ears, we turn to another descendant, Beaumont Hagebak, a psychologist who lives in Georgia. He told the family history in a wedding speech for a younger generation, theorizing about the clan’s characteristically big ears.
“Look around you — have you ever seen such ears?” he asked wedding guests in a speech preserved in the file. He chalked the ears up to Darwinism and survival of the fittest.
“Hagebak family groups were very large and there was not always enough food to go around,” Beaumont said. “Hagebaks with small ears did not hear the dinner bell, and, as a result, they died out leaving only the large-eared Hagebaks.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.