Budstikken, May 1975
In this year 1975, America celebrates the sesquicentennial of Norwegian immigration to America as it was begun in 1825 under the leadership of Cleng Person who led many of his countrymen to colonize America.
But the Valdres lived farther inland than the people led by Person, and mass immigration from there did not begin for two decades when Valdres had its own Cleng Person in the person of Stefan Olsen "Kubakke" Helle. There are isolated instances of Valdres folk arriving earlier but it was in 1846 that Stefan went to America accompanied by his brother Ole.
Stefan and Ole Helle arrived at Milwaukee and at first went northward to Port Washington3 Wisconsin. But it was not long before Stefan went to Manitowoc county and scouted land in Cato and Manitowoc townships, purchasing land there. He was the first Valdres and the first Norwegian to own land in the county and has been called the father of the settlement around Valders, Wisconsin. Andrew Veblen, writing in 1905, stated that more Valdres families got their mail through the Valders post office than through any other post office in America.
In 1847 the Helles were followed by Thomas Anderson Veblen and his wife Kari Bunde. Veblen had carpentered with Stefan and they were close friends so it is not strange that he followed his co-worker. Also coming at this time were Knut Bunde and his wife Ingeborg Gulliksdtr Riste. These six were all born and reared in Hurum sogn, Vang. Knute Toresen Døvre and his wife Synnev Aabol and Ole Hendriksen Hippe and family as well as Mons Anderson also came in 1847.
In 1848 Stefan returned to Valdres where he spread the word of the opportunities in America. And when he returned to America that same year he had a group of about 15 families along including his brother Thomas from Vang, Juul Olsen Gullhaug (Høyme) from West Slidre, Knut Syverson Aaberg, North Aurdal; Anders and Ole Olsen Aabol, Skrautval and Ole Olsen Oppen (Opheim) from Ulnes.
Stefan returned to Valdres again and returned to America in 1852 with a group of Valdres recruits, 134 in all, including his mother and his fiancee, Marit Nilsdtr Fylken. It was this group which was on the steamer "Atlantic" on Lake Erie when it was deliberately rammed by the rival ship "Ogdensburg". Over half of the Valdres, including Stefan's mother, lost their lives.
Arriving in Wisconsin Stefan and his fiancée were married by Pastor J. A. Ottesen. Stefan Olsen "Kubakke" Helle now became the American citizen Stephen Olsen in the way so many immigrants Americanized their names, but he was commonly cal1ed Stefan Kubakke by his contemporaries, Kubakke indicating the farm from which he had come.
Stephen was born in 1818 to Ole Thomasen Skreberget and Marit Stephansdtr and died in 1892. His wife, Marit Nilsdtr Fylken was born in 1828 and died in 1904. According to Stephen's notations in his "huspostil" they had seven children of whom two died in infancy.
Stephen had fulfilled his military obligations in Norway and had become a capable carpenter before emigration. He continued this trade in the Manitowoc county area but after some years turned to milling. He first attempted to use wind power but found this impractical so turned to waterpower. His first water-powered mill was at Champlin, but in 1861 he built "Stephen's Mill" in Cato township. His first dam went out with a flood, but was rebuilt stronger than before. The mill burned, but it too was rebuilt together with a wood spinning and weaving establishment
Stephan was a quite but gifted man. He was a tireless, courageous leader to whom everyone looked for help and advice – a man worthy of his title "Father of the Valdres settlement."
The Valdres folk were served by two main churches, Gjerpen and Valders and Stephen was one of the men who signed the first call letter. The Valders church is one of the most unusual pioneer churches in America. It was of octagonal shape and built of logs. It was begun in March, l853 but work lagged and it was not completed immediately. Summertime church services were held there, however, though it had no roof or floor.
The mass migration from Valdres which was started by Stephen Olsen was to result in a movement of historical proportions.
Valdres was over-populated in the middle of the 19th century. Farms had been divided and sub-divided to make room for adult sons and their families until the scarce acreage was unable to support the increasing population. The area had been plagued by unseasonal weather, too, which had caused near crop failures. These were the factors which urged the Valdres to seek their fortunes in America. An Anders ved Leira was said to have come to America in 1834 or 1835 and a few others came during the next decade but it was Stephen's first-hand reports that caused a flood of immigration from Valdres which probably peaked in the late 1850's or 1860's.
Norway was second only to Ireland in the proportion of its population to immigrate to America and few areas of Norway contributed as large a percentage of its population to the movement as did Valdres. The eastern part of the United States was well settled by the time the Valdres arrived in America. Thus they continued on westward until they reached the open land of Wisconsin. They probably felt at home here, too, among the lakes and forests and in a northern climate mindful of Norway.
The town of Valders never became a large city. But it and the surrounding area were to be the temporary home of countless Valdres immigrants who stopped there before moving westward to western Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota or the Dakotas where later Valdres settlements were established in areas where there was yet land available for homesteading or for a low price.
To Stefan Olsen "Kubakke" Helle must go the credit for inaugurating mass immigration from Valdres and for being the father of Valders, Wisconsin.
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