September 8th……….“WHO WAS ONE OF THE FIRST DOCTORS WHO PRACTICED MEDICINE IN YOUR SOUTHERN MINNESOTA BOYHOOD HOMETOWN OF KIESTER??”
A vanquished, yet virulent last blast of a late Nordic winter’s wind careened down the streets of Christiania, Norway. The year was 1888 as the timid season of spring was trying to get a foothold of warmth around the harbor of this grand city in the land of the Vikings.
In their native Norwegian tongue, Hans Urstad called out to his eighteen year old son, Oscar, to close the front door to their business as the brisk winds were upsetting some of the gentler merchandise in their store window displays.
Eighteen years earlier, on December 24th of 1870, the Urstad family not only called out “Gledelig Jul” (Merry Christmas)!!!….but also gave a loving welcome to their handsome baby son, Oscar Herman Urstad.
As was true in most Norwegian households, Oscar’s mother, Thrine, was the queen of the kitchen when it came to creating the aromatic delights of tasty enjoyments like lefse and kringla. Young Oscar would gleefully ask his mother to pack these treats as desserts, along with other food, in his lunch box. With a full head of little boy “steam”, he energetically trotted down the city’s streets to Osterhaus Gate 22 and the Borger School where knowledge was dispensed in his early days of learning.
Now, at the age of 18, an exuberant wanderlust had captured young Oscar’s imagination as he heard stories of America and her grand opportunities for anyone who was ambitious and energetic enough to work hard to make their dream come true in this new land called the United States. America was calling and this young Scandinavian answered, “YES!!” 😉
One can only wonder what may have been coursing through Oscar’s young, eighteen year old heart as he boarded a ship in Christiania’s harbor for the first leg of his journey to America. Possibly, these poetic words may have been his own………“I took my meager luggage to the dock, From where I’d soon depart. But leaving all my loved ones, Nearly broke my Norwegian heart! And as my ship moved from the shore, Floating slowly to the bay, I was seeing my last glimpses, Of my native land, Norway.
I looked intently, Towards the shore, In my mind the picture preserved. T’was etched into my memory, The sight that I observed. The last thing I remembered, As here now I can tell, Was the sight of those white handkerchiefs, That waved a last farewell!!!”
Tearful as it was to part with his beloved family and his native Norway, Oscar’s youth and positivity towards his new adventure propelled him onward in this first leg of his journey to America.
Docking in the port of Liverpool, England, Oscar disembarked from his first ship and got his ticket purchased for passage aboard a four-masted, twin-funneled steam/sailing ship called the “USS Alaska” which was owned by the “Guion Shipping Lines”. Without a doubt, while on his voyage, the late March and early April Atlantic seas must’ve tested Oscar’s sea-legs and stomach along the watery way.
Any oceanic suffering that may have been inflicted on Oscar in his journey to America was well worth it when, on the sunlit morning of April 16th, 1888, “Lady Liberty” greeted our young Norwegian lad as the “Alaska” steamed into the harbor of New York City in Oscar’s new land of America!!!
What an amazing metropolis lay before him. This gigantic city of street cars and overhead rail systems along with telegraph wires and spidering power lines crisscrossed the air above him for as far as the eye could see. Once Oscar had drunk in the sights and sounds of this immense city, it was then that this young Norwegian had achieved the next goal in his saga and bought himself a ticket on a train bound for the State of Iowa and eventually love.
At a whistle stop in Mitchell County, Iowa, it’s possible that Oscar heard other Norwegians chatting at the train station. That was good enough for this young man to plant his roots working for a Norwegian farmer nearby for the next couple years. There he was on their expansive, rolling farmlands that were the very opposite of the sky-high mountains in Oscar’s native homeland of Norway.
From 1890 to 1892, another door had opened in Wisconsin as a store clerk and then love brought Oscar back to Winnebago County, Iowa. A grand young lady had entered Oscar’s life as he joined in marriage to Thonette “Nettie” Lee on May 22nd of 1895.
It was while working at a drug store in Lake Mills, Iowa that Oscar had the inspiration and aspiration to focus the rest of his life in becoming and serving his fellow man as a doctor. With the loving blessing and support of his young wife, Oscar traveled, in 1896, to receive his medical training at the “Central College of Physicians and Surgeons” in Indianapolis, Indiana.
What better scenario could there be for a new doctor than to be drawn to a new town. Kiester, Minnesota hailed her birth in the year of 1900….the same year Dr. Urstad received his degree in medicine. Kiester saw the Urstad family build a handsome, two story home for their enjoyment and residence. The Urstad’s new hometown received her name in honor of the well-respected Senator, Judge and Attorney by the name of Jacob Armel Kiester.
Dr. Urstad, and his dear wife, Nettie, came to love this brand new farming community that had sprung up next to railroad tracks of the Central & Northwest Railroad.
This close-knit town, made up of mostly Scandinavian folk, were reciprocal in their love to the Urstad family as well. So much so was this familial love for their doctor, that they urged and called him to serve as one of the town’s first mayors for several years. Dr. Urstad, in turn, saw to it that this young village grew to be progressive and business friendly under his administration.
With his Norwegian enterprise and determination, Dr. Urstad saw to the construction and completion of Kiester’s very first hospital in the year of 1913. How modern and how comforting it must’ve been for farm families who lived in the untold miles around this village to know that you could receive the most modern medical care of the day in this new facility located to the north end of Main Street.
What love and compassion dwelt within the heart of this naturalized citizen of America who’s Norwegian roots still flavored every aspect of his daily life here in this new land he called home.
The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, once said, “The only thing consistent in life is change”. In the year 1920, after two decades of faithful medical care to the families of the Kiester area, it was time for that change in the life of Dr. Urstad and his family.
In 1921, just a year after starting his medical practice in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Dr. Urstad came down with Encephalitis Lethargica. After he managed to recover from this illness, it was suggested that a milder climate may be better for his overall health.
Stanwood, Washington became home for the Urstad family and he began another practice in that fine community until a heart attack, in 1927, brought this fine, upstanding man, doctor and civil leader to the end of his days here on earth.
The Urstad family had worshipped at “Our Saviour Lutheran Church” over the years in Stanwood, so it was fitting that this former Son of Norway be laid to rest in the earth of his new country. Both America and Norway could be proud of the enterprise and abilities, coupled with love and compassion that brought this fine young doctor to the boyhood town of this Norwegian Farmer’s Son.
At the conclusion of this story, I’d like to take the opportunity to honor another Norwegian gentleman. Mr. Robert Ledreu Johnson (December 14th, 1923 – January 2nd, 2017) who was better known by his playful stage name of “Uncle Torvald”. Robert, along with his cohort in laughter, Red Stangland, toured the entire Midwest over many years and appeared at as many Scandinavian festivals as possible to tell Norwegian jokes and sing silly Norwegian songs. In my story above, I paraphrased an excerpt from a poem he wrote called, “White Handkerchiefs”.