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Curt and Marion Knutson: Norwegian Christmas baking and “talking Norwegian”

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX —  Curt and Marion Knutson are lifelong — or mostly lifelong for Marion — residents of Colfax area.

Both have a Norwegian heritage. And both remember one-room schools, Christmas programs,  Norwegian Christmas baking and “talking Norwegian.”

Curt, who was born in Barron County, grew up on several farms, including a farm by Blairmore School north of state Highway 64 not far from Ridgeland, several farms around the Colfax area, and a farm near Norton west of Colfax.

Marion grew up and went to grade school in the Twin Valley area in the Town of Grant north of Colfax.

Both of them graduated from Colfax High School.

“We knew each other in 4-H. And we went to the same church (Holden). We’ve known each for a long time,” Marion said.

“At the country school, we’d go sliding at the noon hour. Some of us had skis. I had a sled,” she recalled.

“Dad would walk us to school in the mornings because it was so cold,” Curt said.

Curt and Marion both remember Christmas programs at church and at school. And they remember memorizing their speaking parts and the Christmas songs.

“We had quite a few different programs at school and at church. And there were treats!” Curt said.

“We filled the house for those Christmas programs. It was fun,” Marion said.

“It was always a huge Christmas tree at church. And different people would donate them. Then the whole church would smell good. And then there’d be the potluck afterwards,” Marion said.

Great Depression

Marion was born in 1937, and Curt was born in 1929. Although the Great Depression was easing by the time Marion was a youngster, the country’s economic condition shaped both of their childhoods.

“I remember that (when I was growing up), we didn’t get much for presents. But that didn’t matter. We’d get one or two presents,” Marion recalled.

“We didn’t get much, either. There were eight kids in the family. And Dad was working for the WPA. They didn’t have much to work with. Back then, you could get welfare supplies. Every two weeks you could get supplies. Powdered milk and things like that,” Curt said.

WPA was the Works Progress Administration, which was renamed in 1939 to the Work Projects Administration. The WPA was part of the New Deal that employed unemployed men to construct public works projects, such as public buildings and roads.

The New Deal was a series of programs, some enacted as law and some through presidential executive orders, intended to help pull the country out of the Great Depression.

“Times were tough back then. I remember getting a doll for Christmas,” Marion said.

“You were lucky you got one,” Curt replied.

Marion says she does not remember what her brothers, Gaylon and Earl Gotliebson, received for Christmas gifts. There were three older children in Marion’s family, followed by a space of a few years, and then three younger children: Ruth, Sharon and Stanley.  All three of Marion’s younger siblings live in North Carolina. Gaylon and Marion live in Colfax, and Earl is in Eau Claire.

“There’s not too many left in Curt’s family. He’s lost quite a few of his siblings. It’s just Arlene, Wally and Curt now,” Marion said.

“Dad walked from out by Norton to work on the WPA,” Curt said.

The Norton church is six miles west of Colfax.

“Curt’s dad would walk them to school, too, and then in the afternoon, he’d tell them to start back, and he’d meet them,” Marion said.

“He wanted to know that we got to school where it was warm. There was someone who started the fire in the school early,” Curt said.

“Someone had to start the fire in the morning, but the teacher would have to go down during the day and add to the stove,” Marion said.

Talking Norwegian

Marion’s grandparents and great-grandparents were immigrants from Norway.

Curt says he is not sure if his great-grandparents were immigrants.

“I remember Grandma and Grandpa very well. But I don’t remember their parents. We lived around Norton for quite a while. Grandma lived with us for quite a while. She spoke English. She could talk Norwegian to the folks, too,” Curt recalled.

“If they didn’t want us kids to know, they’d talk Norwegian. Then we’d have to guess what they were talking about. We learned enough so we knew what they were talking about. They couldn’t keep secrets from us. I could make out what they were talking about. They’d talk Norwegian, but they didn’t think us kids understood any of it. But we did. They’d talk a lot in Norwegian. We found out things they didn’t want us to know. Then they figured that out, and they would speak more in English because they knew they couldn’t hide it anyway,” he said with a laugh.

Curt was the next to the youngest in his family.

Norwegian Baking

Curt and Marion also recalled the Norwegian baking that would be done prior to Christmas.

“We were Norwegian, so of course you had to do the lefse, krumkake, and fattigman, and sandbakkels, and rosettes. It’s all a lot of work. I found that out on my own, and I quit after a while,” Marion said, laughing.

“People would come to visit, and they’d say, ‘what do you do with this? What do you do with these sandbakkels? They’re kind of good, but if you put some pudding in them, or some ice cream, they’d be sooooo much better.’ Except that’s not what it is,” Marion said.

Although many readers of the Messenger know what they are, for those who do not, sandbakkels are a Norwegian cookie baked in a fluted tin that sort of looks like an individual muffin cup. The dough is pressed onto the inside of the tin, and after they are baked, the sandbakkels are removed from the tin.

Mr. Turner

“I had Turner for quite a while (in grade school),” Curt recalled.

This was while Curt attended school at Norton.

“Can you imagine Mr. Turner teaching grade school?” Marion asked.

Leon Turner is well known by many Colfax residents as a history teacher at Colfax High School.

“There were two brothers that were hard (for teachers) to get along with (at the country school). Curt always tells that (Mr. Turner) would take each one by the nape of the neck and put them up against the wall,” Marion said.

“He had control. The teacher we had before couldn’t handle them at all. They just sassed her back. When Turner got there, that was a different story. He was a big man,” Curt said.

“Out at Norton, the school was by the railroad tracks, and we had 34 kids. Those big boys thought they could buffalo him. Just once is all it took,” Curt said.

“That was pretty hard for a country school teacher, having the whole range of grades. But I think we learned a lot, too, because you’d do your work, but when you got done, then you were listening to the other lessons,” Marion said.

“We had a woman teacher (at first), and those big boys had no respect for her. She just couldn’t stand it. Turner came from by Downsville. Us little kids always listened. We didn’t want to lose our recess!” Curt said.

“We had orders from home that if we didn’t behave at school, we’d get it at home, too,” he said.


Curt and Marion were married in 1975.

Marion was widowed at the age of 29 with three children. Her husband came down with walking pneumonia, and it affected his kidneys.

“We lived in Ripon at the time. Then Mom and Dad said we needed to move closer. So I sold the house, and we moved back (to Colfax). And the rest is history, as they say,” Marion said.

Back then

“There is such a difference today in things like appliances,” Marion said.

“Like the washing machines we have now. Then we had a wringer washer with two tubs. You rinsed in one tub and had some bluing in another tub. Then you had to hang them on the line. And there was no indoor bathroom,” she said.

“It was pretty cold in the winter time. You didn’t sit there very long (in the outhouse)!” Curt said.

“Times are a lot better now than they were then,” Marion said.

“My family had seven boys and one girl,” Curt said.

Curt’s sister left home early, Marion noted.

“She went to work for Austin Ripley — you know, Ripley’s Believe It or Not. She went to school from there, too,” Marion said.

“Arlene worked for them for quite a while,” Curt said.

Austin Ripley was known for “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” and also was famous for his Minute Mysteries. The Minute Mysteries were published in 100 newspapers around the nation, and teachers liked to use the short stories to help students improve their thinking and reading skills.

Ripley lived in a house overlooking upper Tainter Lake and was a recovering alcoholic who had moved to Wisconsin in the 1930s.

Austin Ripley is known, too, for founding Guest House, a treatment center for Roman Catholic clergy.