Hvaler Homecoming

Homecoming Days

Day One

It was especially moving for us to visit Oslo buildings that were my grandfather’s home, school and church 100 years ago. The Gamle Aker Church, dating circa 1100, is one of Norway’s oldest, and its interior was impressive in its medieval appointments and ambiance. Records from my grandfather’s era had already been removed to the state archives and were not available at the church. We signed the guest book, marking our centennial pilgrimage.

By happy coincidence, the Møllergata School, where we visited with classes in session, had set up a model classroom as it would have looked 100 years ago, giving us an unanticipated look into our ancestors’ past.

Day Two

My family visited American ambassador John Doyle Ong’s residence. He invited us to represent the traveling family for an American flag presentation to Knut and Gunn Westgaard, our Norwegian family representatives, for reunion use. The flag had been flown over the US Capitol.

Day Three

We left Oslo by chartered bus for Vesterøy at nearby Hvaler for the homecoming celebration. We were stunned when greeted by over 550 descendants of Torine’s sisters, Andrine and Oline Larsdatter, and her brothers, Hans and Thomas at the Hvaler Community Center Hall. In the center of the room were empty tables reserved for Torine’s descendants: us! We were the entirety of Torine’s section. No one from Torine’s line had lived on Hvaler since she left in 1889.

It was especially rewarding to meet many cousins with whom I had corresponded by e?]mail over four years of planning and trying to build enthusiasm. In my wildest dreams, this much enthusiasm wasn’t expected. I posted a 10-foot wide family tree so everyone could see the relationships. Throughout the event, cousins corrected the tree, adding boxes for missed people, especially young children.

Singers dressed in traditional Norwegian costume treated us to Norwegian folk songs. There was a Hvaler slide presentation and welcoming remarks from many people, including a lengthy welcome by someone I rightly guessed to be a politician. I was accorded the honor of saying a few words on behalf the Americans. I began with the pronouncement: Min kjære familie, vi har kommet hjem (My dear family, we have come home).  In English, I said, “The blood of Hvaler flows through the veins of our children and our children’s children.”

Before leaving the US, we struggled to find a token of appreciation to present our family at Hvaler and finally agreed upon the lapel pins, displaying both Norwegian and American flags.

The Fredrikstad Blad, the local newspaper, devoted page three of its Sunday edition to the reunion and said in addition to our hardy band of 33 Americans, participants came from all parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and one man from Australia.

Day Four

I passed my whole time in Norway without experiencing darkness. Thanks to persisting jet lag and grueling daily schedules, I was usually in bed before the sun went down after 10:30 PM and certainly wasn’t up until well after the three-something daily sunrise.

Sunday morning we attended Hvaler Church, reputed to be Norway’s oldest since they adopted Christianity over 1,000 years ago. Reverend Tore Torkildsen, recalling September 11th events, invited us to the altar and led us in singing America the Beautiful. We were told modern Norwegians are not regular church?]goers but either Hvaler Church or this Sunday was an exception, because there wasn’t an empty pew.

To commemorate our homecoming, we planted a sapling from Westgaard Farm. I called upon our Norwegian cousins to tend to our tree, help it grow and make it strong.

Knut guided us through the churchyard, pointing out family graves. In Norway, graves are leased for 80 years, then reused, unless the lease is renewed. (What happens to old grave markers remains a mystery to me.)  Oline died in 1911; Knut renewed the lease in 1991 and tends the grave. The Bygdebok (church record book) says Torine moved in 1889; we do not know where she died or was buried. Her first husband, Carl, was reportedly lost at sea. So, the sapling is really the only marker for Torine’s family branch.

We took a short boat ride to Rom, a woody, hilly speck of an island where Torine and her Lommeland?]born husband, Carl Hansen, lived and raised their children until he died. The children grew up and all left by 1889.

We were relieved to learn Torine’s farm remains in our extended family. The spot where Torine’s home once stood is a hole in the ground with scattered foundation remnants.

Day Five

Our family line is divided into Karlsens and Carlsens, with cousins from each spelling on the trip. As my grandfather told it, he and his brother Olaf went through an immigration line different from the other brothers in 1902 and wound up being Carlsens rather than Karlsens. The spelling divergence persists in the family even now, 100 years later.


Although I am in a funk that our journey is all over. I look forward to returning in June 2005, when Norway celebrates the centennial of its independence from Sweden. I can hardly wait. Maybe I should work on great grandmother Olava Emilie Johansen’s family.

About the author
Fred Radewagen is a government affairs consultant who lives with his wife Amata in Alexandria, Virginia, where they raised three children. He grew up in the Chicago area and was close to his Norway-born maternal grandfather, William Carlsen.  A graduate of Northwestern University, Fred earned a masters’ degree from Georgetown University.