Olaus and Olava Vestbo, Norwegian Settlers

The Westbo homestead

The first photo is the house Olaus and Olava Vestbo that they built on what became known as Westbo Road, Puyallup, Washington. The house was a pretty, white three story Victorian farmhouse. However, when we finally saw this same house in 1989 on a trip west to see the family, it sure looked different. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, Arthur L. Westbo (1907-1995), the last of Olaus and Olava Vestbo’s children to live in the home, disgusted with the high cost of heating a three story house, decided to take matters into his own hands, Westbo style. He simply removed the 2nd and 3rd floors, turning the old homestead into a one story bungalow.

Copyright 1989 Warren Westbo

The Westbo patriarch in America, Olaus Wullum Bjornsen Vestbo (1860-1940) was born on Vestbo Farm, on the island of Finnoy, near Stavanger, Norway to Bjorn Hilsson Vestbo and Gunhilda Olsdattir Berge. Affectionately known as “the Little Herring” the 6’4″ Norwegian left home in his early teens to find adventure working for the Norwegian Merchant Marine. After 10 years of life at sea, living on land looked better and better. Olaus returned to Stavanger marrying Bertha Olava Roaldso Larson (1859-1936) in 1882. Olava, as she was better known, was born in nearby Roaldsoy to Lars Stenson and Guri Hendricksdottar. The couple emigrated the following year sailing to the Port of New York in April 1883 and traveling by land to settle in the new town of Mitchell, Davison County, Territory of Dakota (now South Dakota) the following year. The growing family remained in Davison County for 17 years. On May 17, 1883, Olaus Vestbo filed his First Papers for Immigration in Davison County, Territory of Dakota. South Dakota did not become a state until 1899.  On November 5, 1892 he became a naturalized citizen of the USA. Source: US Naturalization record provided by South Dakota Genealogy Society, Pierre, SD.  At least 8 of their 11 children were born in South Dakota. Olaus must have become restless again around 1899-1900 as the family packed up and moved west again, this time to the Tacoma area of Washington where the remaining 3 children were born.

Olaus was a deeply religious man and was a member of the First Norwegian Lutheran Church (South 12th and I Streets, Tacoma, WA), which was founded to serve the Scandinavian community.  In the parishioner list of 1925, four of the Vestbo family are listed as members.

Vestbo, Mrs. Bertha Olava Puyallup, Wash., R. 3.
Vestbo, Ruth G. W. Puyallup, Wash., R. 3.
Vestbo, O. W. Puyallup, Wash., R. 3.
Vestbo, Arthur L. Puyallup, Wash., R. 3.

Over the years Olaus wrote a long memoir in his native Nynorsk language.  His great-great-grandson is in the process of transcribing the memoir in to digital format. He calls it Finnoybu: Memoirs of a Norse Sailor. The original manuscript and it’s 1960 translation into English may be in the hands of the Pacific Lutheran University’s Archives Scandinavian Immigrant Experience Collection.

A newspaper clipping, retained online by the Tacoma Public Library, dated 10/6/1935 includes a photo of Olaus and the inscription:  “Above are shown O. Westbo and a model Viking ship which he completed carving last week out of Philippine mahogany, at his home near Riverside in the Puyallup valley. It is a model of the type of ships used by the famous explorer, Lief Ericsson, and it will be shown at the Leif Ericsson celebration in Normanna Hall on Friday evening. Westbo now 78, was for years at sea before coming to the U.S. He lived in South Dakota for 17 years before coming to the Puyallup valley in 1899. He is the father of 11 children, nine of whom are living.” See photo at: Tacoma Public Library. (We don’t have rights to the photo unfortunately.)

In the only ensemble photo we have of the Vestbo family, Olaus and Olava strike a formal pose with 10 of their children. In the photo Gaidy and Gunda wearing identical outfits seem to lean into each other. Bessie and William wear the sailor attire so popular for young children at the time. The older boys, like their father, are wearing their good Sunday suits. In the midst of this large family Bernhard, the oldest at about 20 years of age here, seems to stand somewhat aloof and set back from the others, while the youngest two have their hands on their father and Olaga leans into her mother. Everyone else is stiff and formal, probably told to stand still and hold their breath for the picture. The photo is most likely taken in a photographer’s studio in Tacoma between 1904 and 1907. The youngest son, Arthur L. Westbo (1907-1995) inheritor of the house, had not been born yet.

From left to right, top row: Gunda (1891-after 1963),  Gaidy (1886-1961), Bernhardt (1885-1955), Ella (1888-d unknown). Middle row:  Bessie (1892-d unknown), Leonard A. (1890-1969),  Olaus and Olava,  Ruth (1894-1960). Bottom row: William O. (1901-1957), Harvey George (1904-1963), Olaga M.(1898-d unknown).

Copyright 2012 Warren Westbo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s