An Immigrant’s Centennial

Henry Vang, at age 17. He sat for a formal photo to send back to family in Norway to let them know he was doing well in America.

One of my favorite pastimes is fishing, as most readers know, after reading my fishing stories much of the last 21 years.

My love of fishing connects to a centennial of sorts. 100 years ago this month a Norwegian teenager survived a stormy Atlantic voyage and, on April 30, 1917, passed through Ellis Island in New York City. He was just 17 years old, and his immigration to America added one more strand to the complex fabric of the millions who came to this promised land in search of a better life.

The teenager, Henry Vang, was my father, and his story is similar to the stories of millions of other immigrants. He was among the younger children of a big family struggling to survive on a tiny farm. His dream was to own his own farm, and through the 1920s, his life was defined by incessant work. He worked as a farm laborer and a lumberjack. He did highway construction, and even construction in New York City. I once had a conversation with someone who remembered Dad as a young man and he described him as, “The nearest thing there was to perpetual motion.” Whatever he did, it was to build up that nest egg he needed to start farming.

He also loved to go fishing, and he’d often joke that fishing was a reason he came to America. He grew up in an area with famous Atlantic salmon rivers but, he’d add, “The fishing rights were owned by the king of England.” I wouldn’t be sure about England’s monarch owning Dad’s local waters, though wealthy and privileged Brits, potential cast members of Downton Abbey, did, indeed, control many of Norway’s trout and salmon streams.

There were no salmon in the waters of southern Minnesota, where he finally settled, but there were rivers, streams and lakes and an inexpensive fishing license was the only hoop to jump through before wetting a line.

He had older siblings who had immigrated a decade earlier, so he had family in the area and an entry into what we sometimes call the “Lutefisk Ghetto,” which included the descendants of earlier Norwegian immigrants who came in the 1860s, including my mother, who was born in 1905.

A bump along the way was the Great Depression, when the bank where he had his life savings folded. Nevertheless, he persisted. In 1932, the Norwegian bachelor farmer married the spinster piano teacher, and they managed to rent a farm where, in 1936, my older brother was born. They later moved to another farm, where I was born in 1939. A couple years later, having barely survived the Depression years, they managed to buy a small farm. It worked well for them. The war economy of the 1940s improved farm incomes, and they paid off the mortgage ahead of time.

Over the years, Dad won awards for conservation practices. He was an inveterate reader of farm magazines, and loved to try new techniques. He was proud to be a naturalized U.S. citizen and he was proud that I had a career in the United States government.

He died almost 30 years ago, appropriately, for an old farmer, in October 1987; just as fall corn harvest was starting.

While on my mother’s side, my American roots go back over 150 years, I’m also proud to be the son of an immigrant, and thus a first generation American.

When politicians threaten our public lands and public waters, I think of my dad’s love of fishing and our precious birthright of public lands and waters and our right to use and enjoy them.

When I hear politicians rail against immigration, I reflect back on my father’s story and my great, great grandparents’ stories, and how similar they were to those of the Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews, Mexicans, Vietnamese, Kurds and others who come to these shores with nothing but dreams and a will to work. Further, my heart breaks when some immigrants flee the U.S., seeking asylum in Canada.

We are a nation of immigrants and that’s a precious heritage.

2 thoughts on “An Immigrant’s Centennial

  1. Obviously we come from similar backgrounds Paul. My parents didn’t immigrate but grandparents on both sides came across from Norway in the mid to late 1800’s.

    My maternal grandfather lived with us until he died in 1949 as a still quite active 90 yr. old. My wife and I had the pleasure of visiting the home he left behind. It’s about 160 yrs. old now and quite a unique house with hand carved entry posts on each side of the steps leading to the porch.

    It had to be hard to leave as it overlooked a beautiful lake from a mountain meadow in Telemark.

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