Bits of History: A taste of Scandinavian Humor
Emery County Historical Society heard a presentation on Scandinavian Humor of early pioneers who came to Sanpete County and then over to Emery County. Edward Geary entertained the large group of members with a collection of stories about these settlers that came to Utah in the 1850s.
Evelyn Huntsman is the 2012 president, vice president is Susan Brasher, Laurie Ann Larsen as secretary and Dixie Swasey was chosen to be treasurer. Huntsman made a presentation to Dottie Grimes with appreciation for her dedication and service to the historical society.
Geary started his lecture by saying that when he gave this talk at the Scandinavian Festival in Ephraim last May he began with an apology for coming in as an outsider to tell Sanpete people about Sanpete Humor. "As it turns out, what I had to say was news to nearly everyone in the audience. One man could remember his father telling stories. A tradition that was once very vital in that area has now almost passed on from human memory. I am talking about an almost lost art," said Geary.
"The claim that Ephraim was America's funniest town seems to date from the 1930s. That decade of the Great Depression was also a time of awakened interest in the American landscape and regional sub-cultures. There were book series published on American folkways, American trails, American lakes, American rivers. Encouraged and supported by government public-works programs, a multitude of writers, artists, folklorists, historians, and interested citizens worked to collect, catalogue, celebrate, and exploit particular places, occupational groups, and distinctive lifeways. Somehow, out of this cultural ferment, a story spread that there was a town in central Utah where everybody went by a funny nickname and where they regaled one another endlessly with amusing stories told in Scandinavian-accented English.
"Nicknames, frequently an indispensable component of the humor, while not exclusive to Ephraim, were especially prevalent here as were the conditions that generated them. Not only did nine out of 10 Ephraim residents have Scandinavian surnames (most of them derived from -sen/-son patronymics) but the range of given names was also limited. During the 1870s, more than half of the males shared just six names: Jens, Christian, Hans, Niels, Andrew, and Peter. The nicknames that were deployed to distinguish among all of the Jens Jensens and Peter Petersens became established identity tags that could extend through several generations. When Royal Madsen presented a 'roll-call' of 232 nicknames at an Ephraim reunion in Salt Lake City in 1945, there were several instances in which no one in attendance could recall the actual family name of individuals whose nicknames they knew well. There were occupational nicknames, including 'Charlie Welldriver' Iverson, 'Painter' Hansen, 'Hat Steenie,' 'Salt Peter' (who peddled Redmond rock salt, Dixie sorghum, and Castle Valley honey), 'Pete Pigkiller,' 'Chris Dobemaker,' and 'Flying Carpenter' Christensen. Some nicknames derived from physical characteristics: 'Scottie Water-eye,' 'Red Whiskers' Olsen, 'Perty Pete' Larsen (the druggist, who, in the view of his fellow-townsmen, devoted too much attention to his personal grooming.
"The reliance on the nickname for identification is well illustrated by the often-repeated story of the stranger who approached the idlers sitting on the 'wise bench' and asked whether any of them knew Jacob Jensen. No one did.
"The stranger was determined. He said, 'There's got to be a man by that name in this town. I've been told right where he lives. He lives in the South Ward four blocks east of Main Street. Are you sure you don't know Jacob Jensen?' Then Jake Butcher, one of the old-timers, scratched his head and said, 'Hell, that's me.'
"A taste for folk humor apparently dates from the earliest days of the community. The original immigrants dealt with the trials of pioneer life by laughing at them and delighted in making fun of their own and their neighbors' efforts to adapt to a new language and the expectations of Latter-day Saint society. The difficulties of the first generation were seized upon gleefully by their children, who developed a cycle of dialect jokes in which 'they mimicked the strange dialect and malapropisms resulting from their parents' attempts to speak English.' As Lucille Butler notes, 'In almost every household, there was at least one of the younger generation who could, and would, oblige at the drop of a hat with a perfect reproduction of an altercation between father and the bishop, a wedding ceremony, or some neighbor's indiscretion. They knew how to deal out misery.'
"As Ephraim's humorous reputation spread, in the 1930s, scholars from several universities and foundations visited the town in an effort to collect the tales. Most of these efforts ended in failure. As Lucille J. Butler puts it, Ephraimites observe 'an element of true sportsmanship-you can't laugh at the other fellow's grandpa unless you are willing to let him laugh at yours.'
"Petie Bishop threw back his head and mimicked an exchange between a concerned father and his son: 'You know, Lars Peter, I vould not marry dat girl if I vas you, even if de vedding date is already set. I hear she has been displaying her trousseau to half of de boys in Salina.'
"'Hell, Dad, Salina ain't a very big town.'
"This opened the floodgates, and Butler was able to record two hours of stories that evening. She repeated the process at a gathering of former Ephraimites in Salt Lake City and collected a total of 140 stories.
"Pres. Heber J. Grant is giving one of his sermons on the Word of Wisdom, and finally Sister Hansen grows somewhat uncomfortable: 'Vell, Hat Steenie, maybe ve should stop drinking de coffee.'
"'I don't know,' the other replies doubtfully. 'I don't know.'
"'Maybe ve could change to de kind dat has de bad stuff, de caffeine, taken out.' "'I don't know,' says Hat Steenie. 'I tink Pres. Grant vould still say dat is a sin, and if I am going to sin I vould radder sin vit de Hills Brodders.'
"Another of Thomson's stories presents Lead Pencil Peterson praying for rain in a Church meeting during a severe drought. It is interesting to note that folklorists have found versions of this story, in which a folk character attempts to negotiate with God through prayer, in many other regions of the United States. Still, an Ephraim storyteller knew how to give this migrating story a local habitation in Sanpete County:
"'Lord, as you can see if you vill look down upon us, ve haf a very bad drought-de vurst vun dat I can remember. De crops in Cane Walley is already burnt up. Dere is no vater in Gobblefield Ditch; Andrew Kinnikinick's potatoes are vilting right down, so how can he feed his tvelf children? Even Mud Lane is so dried up dat de cows come home vitout mud caked on dere udders. Now Lord, ve do vant you to send us rain. But ve vant it to be a yentle rain-a long, yentle rain. Ve do not vant a cloudburst dat vill bring a flood out of de canyon to put mud and boulders in our gardens and fields. And, Lord, ve do not vant a big hail storm like de vun you sent last year dat knocked all de heads off de veat yost vhen it vas ripening. Ve vant a nice, yentle rain. And, Lord, ve know dat if you vill tink of it, you vill see de reasonableness of vhat ve ask, and how it vill be an advantage to bote us and to you. Because if ve do not get the yentle rain dat vill safe de crops, neither vill you get your tithing.'
"An entire cycle of stories revolves around Bishop Anderson, who presided over the North Ward for a quarter of a century. The good bishop was faithful much loved for his kindness, but he never quite mastered the English language and was frequently caught unaware by events. One classic story has the bishop speaking of his many blessings: 'My brudders and sisters, I vant to bear you my testimony of de goodness of de Lord. He has blessed me abungelegen. Vhen I first come to dis country I vas so poor. I didn't haf a ting. I vas yust as poor as a churchmouse. Und now I haf tree vives, tree cows, tree sows, and a barrel of molasses-und de Lord's had his hand in it.'
"Woodruff Thomson's grandfather, Andrew, served as a counselor to Bishop Anderson. (Andrew Thomson's chief claim to fame is that he snored so loud in church that he woke up the bishop.)
"Woodruff Thomson relates, 'One time after conference or meeting, Bishop Anderson was over at my grandfather's place for dinner. Grandma invited Bishop Anderson to eat with them, and my grandmother was famous for her mustard. There was none of this namby-pamby stuff you get out of the Libby jar. It was just the whole mustard seed ground up, and you mix it with some cream to make a nice cream sauce. And it was, it was really strong. You take a little touch of that and it was about as strong as horseradish. Well, Bishop Anderson apparently didn't know the virtues of Grandma's mustard and so he had a piece of meat and he took a great big gob of mustard and put it on the meat and put it in his mouth and said, 'Oh! O Das, O Lord! Lord, save my eyes.My nose is gone already.'
"One morning the bishop discovered that his bull had broken out of the corral. Seeing some young girls standing on the corner, he approached to ask them whether they had seen it. However, he couldn't bring himself to use the word bull in front of young ladies, so he said, 'Has any vun of you girls seen a big red cow goin' past here?' One of the girls answered, 'No, but a big red bull came 'round the corner a few minutes ago.' 'Yah, yah, dat's her all right.'
"Bishop Anderson was naturally concerned about the morals of his ward members, but also somewhat uncomfortable in approaching a delicate subject. On one occasion, he felt obligated to counsel the young women: 'De report has come to me dat a lot of you liddle girls are running out effry night of de year vit de boys, and you play run-sheep and run-sheep and hide and seek and hide and seek. Now, girls, dat is an innocent liddle game, but unless you are very careful and quit playing run-sheep, run-sheep and hide-seek, hide-seek effry night vit de boys, dere is going to be a lot of liddle lambs running around next spring.'
"Bishop Anderson often became exasperated at the behavior of the boys in his ward. He lamented, 'Vats can ve do vit dem? Here dey are. Dey stand on de corner. Dey drink de hellfire vater, smoke de cigarettes, and holler hurrah. Vat scall ve do vit dem? Scall ve burn dem or scall ve gif dem anodder chance?'
"The traveling salesman, or 'drummer,' presented a notorious threat to small-town morals. One night Bishop Anderson interrupted a church dance and declared, 'Brudders and Sisters, dere are dose among us who are not of us. Dere are drummers in our midst.' He was then seen in earnest conversation with some men in a corner of the hall, after which he stopped the music again to announce, in relieved tones, 'It's all right, Brodders and Sisters. Don't vorry-dey are ZCMI drummers.'
"Among the members of Bishop Anderson's ward was 'Mormon Preacher' Nielson, who had earned his nickname by gathering groups of boys on the street corners for impromptu gospel lessons. In one church talk, Mormon Preacher declared, 'Brudders and Sisters, I know de gospel is true, and if ve liff its principles ve can all be togedder in de Celestial Kingdom. I know dis yust as surely as I know I am going to svat dis fly dat is sitting on de pulpit. Oh, I missed him.' On another occasion, Mormon Preacher was delivering an impassioned discourse on the end of the world: 'Brudders and Sisters, in de last days, vhen de sun is darkened and de stars fall out of de heavens and de moon is turned to blood, vhere vill you be? I tell you vhere I vill be. I vill be vit de ten virgins.'
"The most effective humor often arises from the serious concerns of human existence, the same concerns that can also lead to tragedy. In order to provide for as many Saints as possible, farmland was developed in Sanpete County in excess of the dependable water supply. The spring runoff was usually sufficient, but as the streams dwindled through the summer there were frequent disputes over water rights. Virginia Sorensen's short story 'Where Nothing Is Long Ago' tells of a Sanpete water thief who is killed by an angry neighbor. But humor can be almost as effective, and a good deal safer, as a means of dealing with such threats to the social fabric. One Ephraim resident was brought before the justice of the peace on the complaint of his neighbors: 'Brother Hansen,' said the justice, 'you are accused of stealing water.'
"'Who says so?'
"'Swensen says he was only 50 yards away when you stole that water, and he seen you. Larsen was only 60 yards away and he says he seen you.'
"'Dey are bot liars. Dey vas 200 yards avay vhen I steal dat vater.'
"Asked by the bishop to open a meeting with prayer, one brother took advantage of the opportunity to lay his complaint before the Heavenly Powers. He concluded, '. . . and bless dis congregation, each and every vun. Dat is, every vun except Brodder Christensen. Now I don't mean Brodder Chris Christensen. I mean dat scalivag down on de ditch dat svipes my vater turn and dat is now sitting up dere in de choir.'
"The 'peculiar institution' of plural marriage provided ample material for humor. When one of Ephraim's most prominent polygamists, Soren Peter, passed away, his neighbor Shimmy Soren called on the first wife, Stena, to express his condolences. After assuring her that it was all the will of the Lord and that she would be with Soren in the next world, he took his hat and was about to depart when he asked: 'By de vay, Sister, did Soren leave you very much?'
"'Yah, all too much,' said Stena. 'Nearly effry night he left me for one of de younger vives.'
"During the period known in Mormon history as 'the Raid,' many polygamists went into hiding to avoid arrest. One story tells of a deputy U.S. marshal who had searched in vain for a particular man and finally stepped inside the meetinghouse to rest for a few minutes. The meeting was just concluding, and one of the brethren was pronouncing a lengthy benediction on various and sundry church officials. He concluded, 'And oh, bless Brodder Peterson, and conceal him from his enemies. You know vhich vun I mean. Brodder Peterson who is hiding out in Brodder Yensen's potato cellar.'
"When Lead Pencil Peterson was apprehended by the law officers, he attempted the same ruse employed in ancient times by Abraham.The marshals found him out working in his field and said, 'Are you Brother Peterson?'
"'Well, we've got a warrant for your arrest for having more than one wife.'
"'Oh, dere is some mistake because my second vife, she is my sister.'
"In later years, when someone asked him where he learned to write in such a neat hand, Lead Pencil replied, 'Oh, oh, goot hell, it vas vhen I vas in de pen, in de pen. Ve had it so goot, so goot. I sat right across de table from President George Q. Cannon.'
"William A. Wilson has observed that a major theme of Mormon folklore is 'the great struggle to overcome self. The Mormon church demanded a perfection of its members that few, if any, ever reached. Thus, many of the stories treat humorously the failures of human beings to do what they know to be right.' 'Wheat Sack' Olsen acquired his nickname after the bishop approached him for a donation to the building fund. He replied that he was so broke he could not afford to give even a penny.
"'But, Brother Olsen,' the bishop said, 'you have raised more wheat this year than anyone else in town and sold it at a good price.'
"'Yah, dat's yust de trouble. Yust tink what all of dose wheat sacks cost me.'"
"One of Petie Bishop's best known stories relates a dream-vision of the hereafter, sent as a warning to the sinner to repent: 'I dreamt I vent up to St. Peter, or Yens Peter, vich vun is it now? And he said to me, 'You can't come in here. You go down dere on de left side. You been on dat side all your life.' Vell, I vent down de stairs and opened de door and vent in. You can say vateffer you care to, but if dat vasn't heaven I neffer expect to experience it again. Dere vas effry friend I effer had and not von enemy. Vhat a celebration ve had. I neffer saw time go so qvick. Vhen de red light come on for me to come back up, I neffer vas so sorry I vasn't dead. Of course, it vas a little bit hot down dere, but who cares about de vedder if you can be vit your friends?'
"Word of Wisdom stories abound in Sanpete humor, with a particular emphasis on the difficulty experienced by the Danes in giving up coffee. Two Danish Mormon converts had come from the same village, crossed the ocean on the same ship, and settled, one in Ephraim and the other in Moroni. They visited frequently back and forth, and on each occasion talked of old times over a good cup of coffee. On one visit, the Ephraimite arrived in Moroni during church time and entered the meetinghouse for the remainder of the service. He discovered that his friend was speaking on the assigned topic of the Word of Wisdom. Following the usual denunciations of strong drink, tobacco, and tea, the speaker had just declared, 'I do not drink coffee . . .' when he caught sight of his old friend seated at the back of the hall.
"'Vell,' the speaker conceded, 'I do take a cup of coffee vonce in a vhile. But it don't boil.'
"Petie Bishop borrowed a story from the J. Golden Kimball cycle, telling how the quick-witted church official, staying in the home of the stake president during an assigned visit to Ephraim, awoke on Sunday morning feeling somewhat under the weather.
"So grandmother said, 'Well, Brother Golden, is there anything we can do to help you, to make you feel better?'
"'Well,' he said, 'I tell you, Sister Peterson, I would like a good cup of coffee.' So she made some coffee and served three cups to Brother Kimball and he seemed to perk right up.
"He went to the stake Sunday School convention, and the stake Sunday School president announced, 'Brothers and Sisters, the theme of this convention is the Word of Wisdom. I think it would be a good idea to have a vote and have all those arise who haven't had coffee or tea this morning. Will you please arise.'
"He turned around and Brother Kimball was sitting down. He said, 'Stand up, Brother Golden.'
"'I can count them just as easy sitting down.'
"The perennial battle of the sexes provides another rich source for humor. Sanpete County women were proverbial for their resilience and industriousness in the face of hard times, as reflected in a saying widely repeated in Utah in the early days: 'Every man ought to marry a wife from Sanpete County because whatever happens, she's seen worse.' Occasionally one of these long-suffering women would find herself yoked with a lazy husband. Woodruff Thomson tells of Sister Poulsen, who honored her husband's patriarchal authority: 'Many is de time dat Pol vould vaken me very yently and tell me, 'Dortea, it's time to milk de cows.' And ven I got de chores done he vould meet me at de door yust like a Patriarch and gif me his blessing before I make de breakfast. Ve haf tirteen children. Pol he belief in dat part of de Gospel dat say to multiply and blemish de eart.'
Another story of this relationship, told by Lulu Peterson Sargeant, pushes the satire further: 'And I neffer vill forget de day I vas out pitching hay, and I run de pitchfork yust tru my thumb, and I come in and how dey hurt. And dere vas Papa right in dat rocking chair so handy. He yumped up qvick and grabbed my hand and say, 'Mama, vat is it?' And he said, 'Get de goose oil and a clean rag and pillow slip.' Den he wrapped it up, and oh, he patted my hand and kissed it. He said it vas such a pretty hand.
"'And so I sat down for a little vhile and den I got up and said, 'Vell, Papa, I tink I better go out and finish vit de hay.'
"'And he stands up yust like de patriarch dat he vas. 'No sir, Mama, you don't need to go out today. Dat hay can vait until tomorrow.'
"The counterpart to the oppressed wife with a lazy husband is the beleaguered husband with a nagging wife. Sanpete humor captures this situation in a series of death jokes. A friend who had just returned to Ephraim after an extended absence said to Yappafoot Frandsen, 'I was sorry to learn that you had buried your wife.' 'Vell,' Yappa replied, 've had to. She vas dead.' When Brother Frandsen remarried less than three months after his wife's passing, one of his friends said, 'Vell, Yappa, how is it dat you marry so soon?' And he says, 'Vell, I am not one who holds a grudge.'
"The local undertaker in Ephraim for many years was Otto G. When he first acquired a motor hearse to replace his horse-drawn hearse, he hurried in and said excitedly to his wife, 'Come out. I vant you should be de first vun to ride in de new hearse.' On another occasion, Otto G. remarked to the postmaster, 'I don't vish any harm to anyvun. I only vish business vould pick up a little.'
"This wish was amply rewarded during the Spanish Flu epidemic that followed World War I, leading Otto G. to yet another thought-provoking observation: 'You know, Don, dere are people dying now dat have neffer died before,'" concluded Geary.