Lee County Illinois
Part of American History and Genealogy Project

Norwegians in Lee County, Illinois

The Norwegians have done much to develop the resources of Lee comity and to bring the price of land to its present generous proportions. A strip of country in the east end of the county and extending over into DeKalb county, is so very largely settled by Norwegians that one may say it is owned by Norwegians. This strip is about ten miles long by about five miles wide and takes in Willow Creek, some of Reynolds and some of Ogle County on the north, and part of Milan to the east, in DeKalb County.

These hardy, industrious and ambitious people are said to settle always on nothing but the very best of land. In Lee County, that is true literally. The lands held by them in this county are of the very best and with their splendid improvements, command the highest prices.

The Norwegians are good homebuilders and without a single exception they are secure in the enjoyment of comfortable fortunes.

Most of them emigrated from Hardanger, in Norway. They learn the language readily, and while they love to cling to the mother tongue, they speak it only at home or when together.

Realizing that the younger generation may soon forget the old home ways and tongue, three years ago, a Hardanger society was formed of all the Hardangers in America. The first meeting was held at Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The second was held in Iowa and this year, the meeting was held at Lee in this county. From coast to coast almost, the loyal Hardangers flocked to Lee to visit for two days and depart for another year. Over 1,500 Hardangers met at Lee and they were housed and fed bountifully after the old home customs by the hospitable citizens of Lee and vicinity. This meeting was the most interesting of old country meetings I ever have attended. Norwegian dishes were served; beautiful Norwegian songs were sung; folklore stories were repeated and a banquet was served at which speeches were made.

This notable gathering at Lee was held Wednesday and Thursday, September 17 and 18, 1913, and long will it be remembered.

The first Norwegian to come to Lee county, was Ommen Hillison, Americanized from Amund Helgeson, a Hardanger who left Norway in the year 1835. Like so many of his hardy countrymen, he was a sailor. Arrived on these shores, he made a few coastwise trips aboard ship, in fact until the year 1837.

Iq that year he walked from New York to Chicago with the avowed purpose of taking up land which he had heard was to be thrown open to settlement and sale, very soon. At Chicago, he heard of a little Norwegian settlement in LaSalle County on the banks of the Fox River, now known as Norway. To this point he walked.

On the way along the road he was overtaken by a team in which several men were seated, going out to enter land as they stated. When they overtook Mr. Hillison, they invited him to get in and ride, which he did at once with the expression of many thanks.

But it took no time at all to discover that the men in the wagon were members of a gang of desperadoes, and that so soon as the first auspicious moment should arrive they proposed to rob him. He attempted to get out but between protestations, and almost force, he was prevented. Biding his time patiently, the moment arrived at last when he found himself enabled to jump out. Throwing off the mask, the men tried to catch him, but he escaped and duly reached the Norway settlement.

In that year, 1837, the Inlet settlement was enjoying a boom notwithstanding the panicky times everywhere present in financial matters. The land was reputed to be of the very best and but little of it had been taken up and ''deeded.'' As a matter of fact when he reached ''The Inlet,'' not an acre of the country had been thrown into market, but it was expected to come in any day.

Mr. Hillison walked to Bradford Township. Almost the first piece of land he looked at, pleased him, and conformably with custom, he proceeded to hedge it about with evidences of a claim, which were respected in those days.

To get some more money, he worked for the settlers in the vicinity for wages which would raise a laugh to repeat at this point, until by saving every penny, he felt himself able to go ahead to make his first crop and abide its harvest.

His first evidence of establishing a claim was to erect a sod house on the quarter section which he enjoyed as his home until his death in the year 1854. Subsequently he erected a frame house nearby which by reason of its elevation was a sort of landmark for the traveler for great distances around.

This house attracted a family named Reinhart, then passing Melugin's Grove further east on the Chicago road and the father drove to it and passed the night with Ommen.

One member of that family, Miss Catherine E. Reinhart, attracted the eye of the young bachelor, and subsequently they were married. In 1850, Henry W. Hillison, was born of that marriage, the first Norwegian child to be born in Lee County. Mr. Hillison lives today not far from the original homestead. And that homestead is situated just across the road, north from the home farm of Reinhart Aschenbrenner, another son of Mrs. Hillison, by a subsequent marriage, and Reinhart Aschenbrenner owns the same old homestead today, one of the best pieces of land in Bradford town-ship and in Lee County.

Ommen 's glowing accounts written back home attracted other Hardanger friends, especially those from Sofjorden, and they began coming to this country, invariably reaching Ommen 's house as an objective point. From ones and twos the numbers increased, in each instance, the Hillison home receiving and directing the strangers into new homes and as the sequel proved, very profitable ones. Not one of them left Lee County, and thus in course of time, Lee County, and later, the village of Lee became the focal point for the Hardanger emigrant and from Lee the younger generation went out into Iowa, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Minnesota until their number now is legion. Lee is regarded with almost as much veneration as the mother country.

Among the party first to come to Lee County, were Lars Larson Risetter, the richest man in the county, when in 1907, he died, Lars Helgeson (Hillison) Maakestad, Helge Helgesen, Ingeborg Helgesdatter, a sister of the last named who married Lars Olson Espe, Lars Olson Espe, Sjur Arneson Bly, Torgels Knudson Maakestad, Lars Larson Bly and Gertrude Helgestadder Lonning.

From New York city, this little colony went up the river to Albany in the year 1847; by rail they went on to Buffalo; by lake they continued on to Chicago where Ommen Hillison met them and brought them direct to his house in Bradford Township, and an ox team from Chicago was the mode of transportation. They stopped over at Norway.

Subsequently Bly returned to Chicago. Ingeborg returned for awhile to Norway, but subsequently she rejoined the Lee County colony.

From the home of Ommen, these young men scattered, some to go to Sublette Township; Lars Larson Risetter was among the number, others to Lee Center Township and so on, to any place not far away, to work and earn money with which to take up land. The first ambition was to become a landholder and a home builder. In making the trip from Norway, Lars Larson Risetter became the second Norwegian to enter Lee County and he truly was a remarkable man. With his first money he bought land and built a log cabin on it. This was in Bradford Township. Later he sold the place to a German who had come to join the thrifty class of emigrants who had began to settle in Bradford, and he removed over to the East End country, Alto Township, to which point he has been followed by almost every Norwegian of Lee County and now Lee is the center of the colony.

With every dollar Risetter got, he bought land, the very best land in the world. At his death he was buried at the Norwegian Lutheran church a mile and a half southwest of Lee. His estate footed up almost three quarters of a million of dollars.

His two sons live at present in Beloit, Wisconsin, but very soon they expect to return to Lee.

Espe who came over with Lars Larson Risetter was a carpenter, and soon after his marriage, he built a frame house, the second to be built by a Norwegian in Lee County.

Lars Larson Risetter's log cabin was the third house to be built by a Norwegian. It was a log cabin and was built in a single day.

The first Norwegian to settle in Willow Creek was Amund Hillison Lonning, the second son of Helge and Ingeleif Amundson, who was born at South Bergen, Stift, Norway, June 20, 1821. At home his first year's wage was five dollars and clothing. He went to work in Sublette Township where Lars Larson Risetter's brother-in-law was working, and he entered the employ of Thomas Fessenden at $11 per month. In 1852 he bought for $200 the north-east quarter of section 15 in Willow Creek Township, but still hired out for five years after that. In 1855 he began improving his land. In 1857 he married Ingeborg Larson Maland, who in 1855 had emigrated to Sublette. On June 25, 1896, he died. Mrs. Hillison (Lonning) died Dec. 16, 1866.

On the same ship with Mr. Hillison (Lonning) last mentioned; there came to America, two splendid young Norwegians, named Ole Vasvig and Omman Hill. These two young men took land north of Franklin on what subsequently became known as ''Norwegian Hill,'' by reason of the tragedy which befell the young men. They lived together in a log cabin. Under the bed they kept their little hoard in a box.

One night men broke into the house and with their own axe killed both the young men in a shockingly brutal fashion. Indications pointed out that one was killed while asleep, but the other awakening and trying to defend himself was struck down dead at last

Several arrests were made for this shocking murder, along about 1854, but nothing ever came of them. The box was fingered by the bandits, as their bloody finger prints disclosed, but so far as could be ascertained, none of its contents had been taken.

The records which have been preserved show the emigration from Norway to Lee County to have been as follows:

In 1851, Haldor Nelson Borland, Jacob Olson Rogde, living at Lee today, Haakon L. Risetter, brother of Lars Larson Risetter, Agatha Oldsdatter Espe, sister to L. O. Espe.

In 1854 there arrived Amund O. Kragsvig, Wiglik P. Pederson Akre, Helge Pederson Maakestad, Johannes Pederson, Agatha Maakestad, Jacob Pederson Blye, Helge Blye, Elsa Pedersdatter Blye, Christopher C. Kvalnes (Qualnes).

In 1856 there came Sjur Qualnes, Jens C. Qualnes, Martha Qualnes, Brita Olsdatter Kvaestad, John Johnson Maakestad and Christian Sexe.

In 1857 came Elias O. Espe, Peter O. Espe, Thomas Helgeson Lonning and wife, Synva, Amund Sexe, Halsdur G. Maakestad, Viking Gosendal and Einar Winterton.

In 1858 came Ingeborg Olsdatter Eide, Einar Einarson Buer and wife, Johanna, Lars Salomonson Risetter and wife, Ragnilda, Sven Isberg, Einar Vasvig, Margretha Sandven, Ormond O. Lonning and wife, Christie, Hans Strand.

.In 1859 came, Ingebrigt Qualnes, Gyrie Qualnes, Sigri Qualnes, Christopher Ingebrigtson Qualnes, Gynie Qualnes and wife, nee Rogde, and Peder Tjoflaat and family. In 1860 came Nels Peder Maakestad.

In 1864 came Ole J. Prestegaard, now one of the richest men in the county, Lars Pederson Maakestad, Jacob Opheim, Arne Opheim, Lars Aga, Ole Aga, Daniel Wignes and Viking Winterton.

In 1865 came Peder P. Hill and Kleng Osmondson.

In 1866 came Conrad Knudson, Peder O. Hill.

But when I come down later, space forbids further details. Those hardy old pioneers, coming from a country teeming with roses, have made the east end of Lee County blossom as the rose indeed. Most of them are gone now, but the children, who still occupy the old homesteads, keep up the pretty old home customs in their home life.

The Norwegians of Lee County are a very temperate, religious people. Both Willow Creek and Alto are dry towns notwithstanding the fact there are two villages in Willow Creek, Lee and Scarboro. Nearly every Norwegian has a beautiful voice and the settlement is musical morning, noon and night.

Off a mile and a half to the southwest, they have built a beautiful church. Just to indicate the musical tendency, in this church, out in the country, a $1,800 pipe organ has been installed. Just now too, the choir consists of fifteen voices; four sopranos, three altos, four tenors, four bass voices.

The cemetery is close at hand and clustered around the church so dearly loved in life, the men and the women who took this country as a wilderness and brought it into a wealthy community, are lying. One noticeable feature of this cemetery is the exquisite care taken of it and the respect shown the memory of the dead by the erection of so many handsome monuments.

Over to the northwest, another Norwegian Lutheran church has been built, and like the other to the southwest, it is crowded with worshippers every Sunday. Eight voices compose the choir in this beautiful church.

Another very noticeable feature of this Norwegian settlement is making itself felt and that is the universal custom of sending all the children to school, then to the college or the university. In one family, I found three sons, all college professors, one in Harvard, one at Northwestern, Evanston, and the other at another noted college which for the moment I have forgotten.

The bank at Lee is owned largely by the Norwegians around the place; they control it. Its cashier, Mr. F. A. Bach, told me that they held a majority of its stock. It was organized so late as Nov. 34, 1903. Now its deposits are above $200,000.

At the present moment, Lee is under village government. Mr. S. M. Maakestad is the mayor and a very efficient one too. The aldermen are Barney Jacobsen, George Beels, Sr., Marshall Edwards, L. A. Plant, Oliver Halsne and Robert G. Nowe. The treasurer is F. A. Bach and the clerk is Kinnie A. Ostewig, who has contributed much about the history of the east end of Lee County for this book.

The merchants largely are Norwegians and they enjoy a wonderful prosperity.

Lee believes in municipal ownership to a large extent. The village owns its own water plant and it has the very best of fire protection. Hydrants have been placed all over the city limits and a village fire department, of which Henry Eide is chief, has kept the damage done by fires down to a trifle ever since the system was installed.

In the year 1902 the place was visited by a devastating fire; it burned down the best part of the town. But with characteristic spirit the merchants replaced those burned, with splendid new brick buildings, and today Lee owns the best buildings of any of the smaller villages in Lee County.

It has a splendid electric light service, day and night up to mid-night. Every inch of town lot space has a neat cement walk in front of it. The streets are kept with exquisite cleanliness.

One unusual condition exists in Lee, the county line runs right through the middle of the main street so that the west and larger part of the place is in Lee County and the eastern part is in DeKalb County. And for all these commendable conditions, the Norwegians of Lee County are to be thanked.

In this day of the motor car, Lee is nothing behind. There are 150 machines tributary to Lee and Lee contains the largest garage and machine shops for repairing autos, in the county. Its proprietor, Swan Ostewig, draws trade in welding and vulcanizing, from a distance of thirty miles.

I have taken considerable space to mention the village of Lee, because it is an unusual place, surrounded by an unusual people.

There are of course some big farmers, Americans and Germans, notably, J. M. Herrmann, a director of the bank at Lee, but the Norwegian very large preponderates in the east end of Lee County.

Lee County History


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