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The familiar sounds I grew up with, the unloading of the horses, the snorting and pawing, and the cinching of the saddles were all heard that cold blustery day, January 14, 1996. However, someone very important to me was missing from this gathering of horses and riders. It was my father, Sylvan Nelson, who always went from rider to rider with a big smile, shaking hands and making everyone feel welcome.
That day Star, my father’s horse, would be led riderless by, my nephew, Nathan O’Connor on a tribute ride. Joining them on horseback were six members of the Minnesota Cutting Horse Association (MCHA) who solemnly took their pallbearer positions behind the wagon carrying my father’s casket. Family and friends followed the wagon tracks from the village of Newburg the nearly two miles to the Garness Trinity Lutheran Church in rural Mabel. This was Sylvan’s final journey to Garness.
Garness Church named after Garnås, 1868
In early 1868, the "Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Trinity Church of Newburg" was organized. It was built on land owned and donated by my father’s Great-Great Grandparents, Bjørn and Sidsel Garnås, later to become known as the "Garness Church." The church was completed in 1869 at a cost of about $1,023.
The Garness Church sits high on top of a hill catching inclement weather. On July 25, 1901 the original church was struck by lightning and burned. A new brick church was completed the following year for over $5,000. Norway pines planted around the cemetery still stand there today.
The early Sunday worship services were in Norwegian and lasted longer than an hour. Separate seating was a custom for many years, with the women and smaller children on one side of the church and the boys with their fathers on the other.
The Garness Church altar, altar rail and pulpit were made in 1902 by L.A. Lund of Mabel at a cost of $130. The altar painting was by H.N. Gausta who came to Harmony from Norway at age thirteen. He studied and taught art at Luther College as well as studied in Europe. Gausta’s paintings are found in churches all over the northwest.
Prior to building the Garness Church, the early Norwegian Pastors traveled by foot and by horse to serve the settlement. The following history was taken from the cornerstone of the Garness Trinity Church: Pastor Ulrik Vilhelm Koren, from Washington Prairie Church near Decorah, was the first Pastor serving from 1854-1856. In 1857, services were held in the home of Bjørn and Sidsel Garnås and served by Pastor Fritz Christian Clausen from Norway.
The first pioneers brought with them a strong heritage of the Lutheran Church in Norway. The Bible, Hymnbook and Catechism used in their homes were a source of comfort and inspiration as the early settlers experienced the hardships and struggles of pioneer life.
In 1958, the congregation voted to share a parsonage and a pastor with Scheie Lutheran Church to the north. Pastor Mary Waudby presently serves both congregations.
Garnås farm in Norway
In 1833, Bjørn and Sidsel Sata moved from Aal i Hallingdal, Norway to the Garnås farm in Nes i Hallingdal to the south. During the time they lived and owned a small part of the Garnås farm, five more children were born.
Garnås and Garnaas are two ways of spelling the name of the Norwegian farm located high above the Hallingdal valley in Norway (north of Olso). The Norwegian alphabet has three extra letters (æ, ø and å), written in English as (ae, oe and aa), respectively. These three vowels are added after the z in the Norwegian language.
Gårnas immigration to America, 1853
On June 13, 1853, Bjørn and Sidsel Garnås, along with their seven children, Ole, Niels, Hansjorgen, Mari, Engebret, Guri and Kari left Nes i Hallingdal for America. They immigrated to Rock Prairie, WI, and in 1854 settled in Newburg Township. Garnås, the name of the farm they had lived on for 20 years in Norway, became their last name in America.
The Garnås children used their father’s name Bjørnson (Bjørn's son) or Bjørnsdatter (Bjørn's daughter). The direct translation of the Norwegian word Bjørn is "bear". There were so many Garnås offspring that some of the children took the last name Bearson.
Bjørn and Sidsel Garnås, descended from a long line of Norwegian farmers in the northern part of Hallingdal, Norway. They were well documented as "bønder," highly respected farmer/landowners, throughout the 1600's and 1700's in the Aal Bygde Soge (Aal District Saga.)
Homestead on the North Dakota prairie
Engebret (Garnås) Bearson, son of Bjørn and Sidsel, and his wife Gunhild Syversdatter Krosshaug were my Great-Great-Grandparents. After nearly 40 years of married life near Mabel, Engebret and Gunhild sold their farm. They moved first to Dodge Center, MN in 1896 and then to Kermott, ND in 1901, where they filed a homestead claim. It was thought they moved in their advanced age to escape the pain of losing six children in 15 years.
Enbegret’s and Gunhild’s oldest daughter, Sidsel Bearson and her husband Syvert Bårdsgård, also homesteaded on the North Dakota prairie somewhere between 1901 and 1903. Syvert had immigrated from Selbu, Norway. Their daughter, Stella M. (Bårdsgård) Nelson, was born in Bowbells, North Dakota in 1905. When she was three years old, the family returned to Mabel.
Nelson family matriarch
Grandma Stella was the matriarch of our Nelson family. She shared her strong faith in God with her 15 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren. She taught Sunday School at the Garness Church and gave rides to her grandchildren as well as other children in the neighborhood. The hundreds of homemade quilts made by her and her daughter, Glorianne Knox, for Lutheran World Relief were a true labor of love.
Grandma Stella lived at Green Lea Manor Nursing Home in Mabel the last four years of her life, still enjoying her quilt making. On my last visit to see her, she smiled, gently held my hands, and softly spoke "The Lord's Prayer" in Norwegian.
Little did I know that this would be our last visit together as she passed away November 26, 2001 at age 96. Grandma Stella made her final journey to the Garness Church on December 1, 2001 were she was laid to rest near her son, Sylvan Nelson.
My father, Sylvan Nelson, had died of cancer at age 67. He was a well known farmer in the Mabel-Canton area. Dad was a former president of the Mabel Lions Club and a member of the Cattlemens Association. An avid horseback rider since childhood, he was an active member of the MCHA. My mother, Char, still hosts an annual two-day MCHA Show in his memory attended by riders from several states.
In a few days, it will be six years since the team and wagon made its way up the hill from Newburg, bringing dad back to Garness. As I reflect back on the long journey my ancestors made from Norway to Fillmore County, I realize the sacrifices they made and the hardships they endured were not in vain. From housing the traveling pastor, to donating the land, to helping finance the church, they helped to provide a house of worship for generations to come.
Deb Nelson Gourley is a layout editor at the Journal. She was raised SE of Preston, at Amherst, and is writing a book about her Norwegian heritage.
Information about the Garnås descendants in America can be found in The Ancestors and Descendants of Bjørn Olson Sata Garnaas 1798-1868 and Sidsel Nilsdatter Nubgaard 1803-1883, by Oscar Garness. Oscar's book can be found at the Fillmore County Historical Society in Fountain.