Martin and Ellen Pedersen Family History
This is the story of our parents, Martin and Ellen Pedersen, who emigrated from Denmark to Saskatchewan in 1927. Their story is one of hardship, of commitment to a better life, and of a family bound by strong ties of love and support for each other.
Our father, Martin Lassen Pedersen was born April 3, 1895, to Peter and Johanne (Lassen) Pedersen. He had two sisters and one brother. They lived in a fine, 200 year old home on the family farm in North Jutland only four kilometres from the west coast of Denmark. His father was a community leader and his mother was described as a well respected lady. She was related to a famous Danish artist; art and literature were very much a part of home life. Martin completed the standard six years of education where he excelled in the maths and sciences. Following this, he probably had some agricultural training. Rather than taking over the family farm as would have been customary for the eldest son, he worked on large estate farms where he climbed his way up to farm foreman, a position in which he gloried. But eager for a challenge, in 1921 Martin bought his own farm about 30 kilometres away from his paternal home. Unfortunately, these were poor economic times and life certainly wasn’t easy but Martin was always an independent man. He had a marvellous sense of humour which helped himself and those around him through difficult times.
Our mother, Ellen Margarethe Hee was born on February 12, 1895, to Paul and Marianne (Finnerup) Hee. She was a middle child of twelve children who was raised near the city of Aarhus on the east coast of Jutland, Denmark. The Hees were a wealthy family whose success came primarily through business. They lived on a beautiful farm complete with servants, many farm workers, gardeners, and private teachers. Ellen had a wonderful rich childhood. She was brought up to appreciate art, literature, drama and ballet and she excelled in literature and language. Her brothers and sisters were all very adventuresome and they spread out into such countries and Thailand, France, Argentina, South Africa, Malaysia, and Canada. Ellen had planned to begin her own travels by accepting a governess position in England but World War I forced the cancellation of her trip. However, not long after this disappointment, she met the young man who would become her husband.
Martin and Ellen were married on June 8, 1923. Their first child, Borge was born in 1924 and the birth of Ingrid followed in 1925. Not long after, disaster struck the lives of the young family. In the fall of 1926, the barn caught fire due to a spark from a threshing machine. As is common in Denmark, the home and the farm buildings were arranged in a square formation so the fire quickly spread through all the buildings. Fortunately, no one was injured; however, little could be salvaged with the exception of a few valuables and pictures. Insurance wasn’t sufficient to compensate for the disaster and the economic conditions in the country still looked less than ideal. So the decision was made to immigrate to Canada where conditions looked more promising.
Martin arrived in Canada in May of 1927. Trains met the many boatloads of immigrants in Halifax with transfers in Montreal to transport them to their destinations. Still uncertain of his destination, Martin stopped in Winnipeg where he was able to seek advice. After hearing of various possible locations, he chose to settle in the Melfort, Saskatchewan area. This area even resembled his native land and the fertile farmland looked to be a great opportunity to make a reasonable living. He wrote to his wife about his plans in the new country.
Ellen and their two young children, Borge and Ingrid, set out in 1927 for Canada, arriving in Canada in October of 1927. However, since her birth six months earlier, their youngest daughter, Vebeka was critically ill and it would have been impossible for her to make the long journey. Consequently, she had to remain in hospital in Denmark while her mother and the two older children set out for Canada. What a difficult decision this must have been for our parents.
Ellen’s brother, Tage, was a ship mate on their ship; so Ellen had the company of her brother during the voyage. She had also hired a girl, also immigrating to Canada, to look after the children. However, the young girl got seasick on the first day and wasn’t much help if looking after Borge and Ingrid.
Vebeke was nursed to health by her mother’s sisters in Denmark and was brought to Canada in the summer of 1931 by a friend of the family who was going to work in Canwood, Saskatchewan.
Upon his arrival, Martin found employment with a Danish farmer in the Whittome area. Their first home in the Whittome district was with the Walter Nygaards. Mrs. Nygaard had passed away; there were a number of children. Ellen helped with the household and Martin worked as the hired man.
He met many other men and women from Denmark which helped immensely in adjusting to the new life. Eager for a new challenge, Martin would attend hearings in the town courthouse in order to familiarize himself with the English language. He later helped teach his family who despite their initial hesitance eventually mastered the language beautifully.
In 1931 a small farm 2 miles west of Melfort was rented. This was home for about eight years. These were the depression years in which crops were poor and profits were meagre. Certainly those years were very difficult as the work seemed unending. There was seldom money for anything more than the barest necessities. This type of lifestyle must have been especially difficult for our mother whose present situation contrasted so sharply with the lavish life she once knew. She came from a country where there was electricity and from a lifestyle that had many amenities. But she was always remarkably strong, supportive, loving, and able to hold the family together even in the toughest times. She was a wonderful cook and seamstress and did beautiful embroidery. She was able to make something out of nothing. It was largely due to her strong religious conviction that she was able to maintain such strength.
An employer of Martin who had a profound influence on his life was Mr. Alex MacEwan. Martin showed cattle for Mr. MacEwan at agricultural fairs. Alex’s son, Grant MacEwan, became very close to Martin and Grant grew to become his mentor. Grant was a writer, University Professor, Mayor of Calgary, and Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. Probably it was through him that Martin derived his keen interest in politics and world affairs.
It must have been very difficult for our parents immigrating to Canada; they overcame the homesickness for their home and family in Denmark. They must have had questions in their own minds about leaving their home country. They had no relatives close by and the English language was new to not only our parents, but to the older children as well. Even the system of measurement was new; in Denmark they used the metric system. It was to be many years before Canada adopted the metric system. Thankfully, there were other Danish people living in the area who became their friends, becoming what was to be their extended family. They enjoyed the Danish Christmas celebration on Boxing Day evening at the Orange Hall (on top of Woods Hardware) in Melfort. How the children looked forward to that time! As did their parents, for it was a time of togetherness for everyone. There was always a huge Christmas tree decorated with paper roses and paper chains, and real candles in little holders. The children admired this tree every year. After supper, everyone joined hands, some times two and three circles of people, and would sing in Danish “Now we shall have Christmas again”. Those simple things made life so very special.
Another special tradition with the Danish friends was to go to Perch Lake in the summer. Everyone got into the back of a two ton truck that left Melfort on a Sunday morning and went off to the lake for the day – a happy reprieve after the long days of hard work. What a happy time for our parents, singing all the old songs they remembered from Denmark along the way.
The “Dirty Thirties” were hard on everyone. Many horses suffered from sleeping sickness and died. Our parents had an ice house and people brought their horses to them, brought on a stone boat. Some just came for blocks of ice. The children would put chunks of ice in a gunny sack and then pound it so it was crushed. Then they tied the sack around the head of the horse.
During the 1930’s, many men rode the rails. Our family lived west of Melfort, near to the railroad tracks. The train would stop at the crossing on the road and the men would disembark there rather than go into the town. They were sure the farmers would have some food, including Mother who sometimes fed up to eight men at one time – often a meal of porridge or fried potatoes and eggs in lieu of pay. The men would stook grain or split wood or do whatever was required of them for something to eat.
The family would often go in the wagon to pick berries, mostly Saskatoons. Dad would sometimes buy gum for the children so that they wouldn’t eat too many berries, or ask them to sing or whistle so they didn’t eat too many. Berries were precious – they were the fruit for the winter.
One story, both sad and funny, is remembered by the children. The Danes always had goose for Christmas Eve. So Dad traded one of their turkeys for a goose. Mother stuffed it with dried apples and prunes and as it was roasting, all that could be smelled was the prunes and apples. When they started to carve the goose, it smelled of stink weed. So the cats and dogs got a good feed and the family had salt pork for supper. Salt pork never tasted so good. It was not only the Christmas goose, often the milk tasted of stinkweed.
There were always Danish bachelors who worked in the area and they would walk for miles to have a traditional Danish Christmas supper with the Pedersens, becoming surrogate uncles to the children.
There are happy memories of swimming in the gravel pit near Melfort, and of skating on the slough. Having only one pair of skates meant that whoever ran the fastest to get them (usually Gunnar) was the one who got to go skating first.
Not only were our parents learning a new language, but as children, our knowledge of English was limited when we started school. The pronunciation of our Danish names often proved difficult for our teachers, who insisted that our names be more “English”. Although easier for the teacher and classmates, we relinquished an important aspect of our heritage.
In 1938 the lease to this farm was lost, resulting in a move to a small three room house on the edge of the town of Melfort. The family kept a cow, pigs, and chickens. The children didn’t have far to walk to school. In 1941, Martin, Vebeke, and Gunnar moved to a farm (the Kyle place) west of Star City. The next year, they moved to a farm ½ mile east of the Kyle place (the Lowe place) and Gunnar, Bert, and Vebeke lived there and kept livestock. Gunnar and Vebeke went to school in Star City. During the winter they lived at the Quinnel place, which was further west, but close by and the younger children attended the McAllister School. The following year, they all moved to the Lowe place, which became their final farm home. This farm was chosen as there were barns on the farm, and so a dairy could be established. Then all the children, except Ingrid, attended school in Star City. Ingrid remained in Melfort, working for her room and board, so that she could attend high school there.
As children, we had many responsibilities on the farm. The boys all worked in the fields and with the cattle. The girls were taught home skills such as cooking, sewing, and gardening but we also helped with the cattle and in the field during harvest. The girls were allowed to leave the work in the field at 5:00 in the afternoon; not to go home and rest but to milk 16 cows. There were no electric milking machines in those days and the girls might have preferred to stay in the field. The children also milked the cows before going to school in the morning. The milk was sold to Co-op Creamery in Melfort and was an important source of income for the family.
Despite many hardships, we all agree that we weren’t poor but rather rich – rich in the ways that counted. Danish relatives often sent us books, clothing, and toys yet the fact remained that as children we never knew the closeness of extended family, such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles. As a result, our large immediate family was very close. In addition, neighbours and Danish friends became very special to us. One child in particular remembers looking out longingly to what her mother had explained as neighbours “What a warm, beautiful, delicious word – neighbours. There were so special – almost relatives”. This was truly a warm, helpful community and it was because of this closeness and support from both inside and outside the family unit that the Pedersens enjoyed a very satisfying life even in the face of great hardships.
During the late 1920’s and 1930’s, mother’s sisters in Denmark always sent a Christmas parcel; its arrival was much anticipated. The parcel included knitted items of clothing (including long black knitted stockings which were not particularly liked by the girls), small gifts for the children, Danish chocolates, and cigars for Dad. This tradition continued until the Second World War when it was our family who sent parcels of coffee, sugar lumps, and other items to Denmark where those items were rationed. It was an example of families helping each other out in times of need, no matter how great the distance between them.
Martin and Ellen had ten children:
Borge (Bert) – April 3, 1924
Ingrid – May 27, 1925 – October 27, 1992
Vebeke (Vipsen) – March 28, 1927
Gunnar – July 28, 1928 – September 1, 2004
Johanna – July 13, 1929
Elsa – September 6, 1930
Knut Erik (Erik) – February 22, 1933 – 1975
Maria – November 26, 1934
Paul – April, 1936, deceased as an infant
Hans Christian (Chris) – June 26, 1939
We were brought up in a strict but loving Christian home where many of the Danish traditions were retained. Since Dad loved sports and was very athletic he taught us gymnastics, track and field, swimming, and baseball and encouraged us to participate in all sports. The boys were especially encouraged to play hockey as this was considered important as a truly “Canadian” part of life. In particular, our parents stressed the value of education; this is evidenced by the children who went on to further their education past high school.
Dad and Mother made three trips back to Denmark. On their first trip in the 1960’s, they sailed from New York and landed in Copenhagen harbour on the Christmas boat. What a thrill to see their brothers and sisters whom they had not seen for forty years. They were there for six months and enjoyed many outings with relatives and old friends and enjoyed meeting the younger generation of relatives. They made two other trips home to Denmark, the last one in 1976. In 1955 they moved into Star City and the eldest son, Bert, took over the family farm and dairy.
During their time in Star City they enjoyed the company of neighbours, tending to their garden, and visits with children and grandchildren. Dad loved politics and world events. He was always up for a game of checkers with his grandchildren, a game which he always won regardless of the attempts of the grandchildren. There were many hours spent at the local establishment for a drink with his cronies, discussing the events of the day. Regardless of whatever adversity he might be facing, when asked how he was, his reply always was “couldn’t be any better”.
Mother was involved in the Star City United Church, enjoyed visiting with neighbours, could make something out of nothing, and lovingly tended her garden and flowers. She instilled the Danish traditions in the lives of her children and grandchildren, along with her love of nature and geography. She will be remembered for her philosophy of “when there is room in the heart there is room in the house”. Her quiet and gentle ways, along with her interest and knowledge about the world around her, remain with all of us.
Many of the Danish traditions carried on, especially at Christmas. First came the Danish baking, with Pepparkakor – “brown cookies” or “glass cookies” as they were called by the grandchildren, along with Klienger cookies and matelbrod. The family celebrated Christmas Eve, with the meal always consisting of traditional cooked red cabbage and the very special rice pudding for dessert. Whoever got the whole almond hidden in the pudding was in for a prize (sometimes the privilege of doing dishes). Every Christmas Eve, mother read the Christmas story from the Bible after supper for as long as she was able. For other special occasions, Danish Apple Cake was the favoured dessert and was always made and served by our mother.
It was with great sadness that first Mother and then Dad were forced to leave their home in Star City and move to Nirvana care home in Melfort. Mother passed away on May 18, 1983, only a few weeks before their 60th wedding anniversary. Dad later moved to Parkland Regional Care Centre in Melfort. His 90th birthday was a grand celebration on April 3, 1985. He passed away on October 9, 1986. Both are buried in the Star City cemetery, on a hill that overlooks the family farm.
The strength to overcome many hardships instilled in each of their children a strong sense of Danish traditions and heritage, a love of the farm and land, and the desire to give back to the community, wherever they lived or in whatever profession they chose. They maintain their strong sense of family, of caring for each other, to this day. And many of Martins and Ellen’s children and grandchildren were fortunate to visit Denmark; to visit with relatives there, and see the homeland that held such a special place in their hearts.
Borge (Bert) (Beulah/deceased; Edith) attended the School of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan and then returned to the family farm, running a dairy operation and a grain farm for many years. He was active in the Dairy Producers Co-operative and in the Star City community. Bert and Beulah had four children; Rodger, Richard (deceased), Ralph, and Robin. Bert and Edith continued to live on the family farm until the spring of 2008, when they moved to Melfort.
Ingrid (Jim Alexander/deceased) became a teacher, receiving her Bachelor of Education from the University of Saskatchewan. She travelled extensively, speaking five languages. Her first teaching jobs were in rural Saskatchewan schools. She also taught in France at an Air Force Base and then spent most of her teaching career in Calgary. In Calgary, she also taught English to Vietnamese people. Ingrid made many trips to Denmark, maintaining the family connections. She passed away from cancer on October 27, 1992. She was a special aunt to her nieces and nephews.
Vebeke (Vip) (Arlie Helstrom) worked as a telephone operator and store clerk, both in Star City and Toronto, prior to her marriage. She and Arlie remained in the Star City community on the Helstrom family farm and were active in many community activities. They had four children; Karen, Daryl, Terry, and Bonnie. Many of the Pedersen grandchildren spent time in the summer at the Helstrom farm. Vipsen provided loving care for our parents during their last years in their home.
Gunnar (Agnes Hentges) graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with a Bachelor of Science in Dairy Science in 1952 and began a successful career, becoming General Manager of Dairy Producers Co-operative in Regina. He played a major role in the growth and modernization of the dairy industry in Saskatchewan. After retirement, he formed a consulting company and travelled considerably with the company. He and Agnes then moved to Kamloops, British Columbia, and continued the consulting company until ill health forced him to close the company. He passed away on September 1, 2004. Gunnar was posthumously inducted into the Saskatchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame on August 5, 2007, an honour which would have made his parents proud. Gunnar and Agnes have one son, Leigh.
Johanna (Norm MacLeod/deceased) as the spouse of a bank manager, lived in many communities in Saskatchewan, always helping her children to settle in and adjust and being involved in the community. She later managed a kitchen boutique in Regina, where she still resides. Jo shared mother’s talents; being a wonderful cook and seamstress and enjoying her garden and flowers. Jo and Norm had four children; Sheryl, Chris, Kevin (deceased) and Debbie.
Elsa (Henry Bonli/divorced; Keith Ziegler) took her Registered Nurse training at Saskatoon City Hospital and worked at the Melfort hospital prior to her marriage. She worked with Bonli Interiors in Saskatoon for many years, and then returned to nursing at Sherbrooke Nursing Home. Elsa, too, shared mother’s enjoyment of flowers and plants and talents in cooking and decorating. Elsa and Keith live in Saskatoon. Elsa and Henry have two children; Scott and Jane.
Knut Erik (Erik) (Marcie Couteur) became a flight mechanic for the Royal Canadian Air Force, being posted to Trenton, Ontario; Gimli, Manitoba; Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan; and Summerside, Prince Edward Island. Upon retirement, he began working for a private air line flying out of Florida. He was tragically killed in 1975 when the plane he was flying in exploded near Bogata, Columbia. Erik and Marcie have four children; Paul, Carl, David, and John.
Maria (Ken Sproule) also trained at Saskatoon City Hospital as a Registered Nurse. After graduation, she began nursing in Red Deer, Alberta. As the spouse of a pharmacist and drug store owner, and a lover of golf, she led a busy life in Red Deer. Maria also returned to nursing, working in a nursing home where her cheerful disposition and sense of humour brightened the days of the residents. Ken and Maria enjoy a winter home in Arizona. They have three children; Lorinda, Greg, and Pamela.
Chris (Grace Balfour) completed his high school in Saskatoon, and trained as an electrician at Moose Jaw Technical Institute. He began his own business in Regina. Chris and Grace moved to an acreage on the outskirts of Regina, where they built a stable and riding arena. They board horses and are very active in the horse community. Chris and Grace have two children; Brad and Trent.
In 1982, the Martin Pedersen Scholarship was established at the University of Saskatchewan College of Agriculture through a $10,000 donation by Martin. Additional contributions have since been made by family members and the scholarship is now known as the Martin Pedersen and Family Scholarship Fund. The scholarship is open to graduate or undergraduate students in Agriculture with preference to students pursuing studies in Food Science (Dairy Technologies), Animal Science, or Soil Science. Through the establishment and maintenance of this fund, the Pedersen family honours the commitment of Martin and Ellen’s to agriculture, to education and learning, and to the province of Saskatchewan continues.
The challenges and hardships faced by our parents taught us the value of hard work and appreciation for the land and agriculture. In addition, we learned to appreciate the things we have, to treasure our history, and above all to be a loving and supportive family. Martin and Ellen’s legacy lives on in their grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren.