With this old photograph in my hand I have set myself a task: how much information can I find in Norwegian online archives based on what the photo tells me? – Join me in playing history detective. Will we find the world of Ole Johan and his wooden barn?
DigitaltMuseum is Norway’s digital photo museum and the home of more than 2 million photographs. This is where I found the historical snapshot and the first clues. In the frame, we see an old barn and a man.
The old barn speaks of hardship, perseverance, and survival. Taken in 1932, the photo comes with the following information:
Place: Nyås farm, Dalsbygda, Os, Hedmark. | Person: Ole Johan Nyaas. | The barn was in use between 1865 and 1922. | The building material is birch. | On the ground to the left is moss.
One thing to note: Nyås and Nyaas are just two ways of spelling the same name.
Where do we begin?
Confirming a name and a location is often the best starting point. I often prefer to begin with the Norwegian burial database of Slekt og data. Here we might find the year of birth – and additional clues, like for example the name of a spouse.
The Slekt og data index is not complete, but it is quite comprehensive for burials in the 20th century Norway.
I start with the surname Nyås, county Hedmark, and municipality Os – but I find no Ole Johan. But when using the spelling Nyaas we have a match.
The name of the cemetery is Dalsbygda, and the Ole Johan Nyaas buried here was born 10 June 1881 and died 24 October 1967. With him, we find Ane Marie, Erling, Marta Bergljot and Johan Magnar. Judging by their years of birth, they are probably his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, and his grandson.
Being born in 1881 means that Ole Johan was 51 in 1932, something that seems plausible judging by the man in the photo.
Now we go looking for the birth record
To look for Ole Johan’s birth record, I go to Norway’s public digital archive, digitalarkivet.no.
And yet again we are in luck. In the scanned versions of the birth records for Os, we find Ole Johan – born 10 June 1881. The birth date matches the burial record and here we find the name of his parents, Ole and Eli Johanne.
At the time of his birth, the family lived on a small farm entity not too far from Nyaas, Langen. They only rented accommodation there – as indicated by the father’s title: innerst.
An innerst – or inderst – is a man whose family lives in rented lodgings, but with a separate household.
The building and the objects
Before we dig deeper into the archives, let us take a closer look at the photo itself.
The building is small and may be from a smallholding with few resources – or – built in the initial stages of a newly cleared farm; potentially as a home for both people and domestic animals.
There is a distinct difference between the left and right side of the building. My guess is that the left section is made of birch – but the right of pine or Norway spruce.
I am not sure, but it may be a chimney that we see top right. Old Norwegian barns did not typically have a fireplace, but it did occur. A chimney may indicate that people also lived in this building at some point.
Back in the day, it was common for older children and servants to sleep in the barn, usually in the hayloft above the animals where it would be warmer.
The building material
The left section shows us why birch was not the first-choice building material for the old Norwegian log houses. The trunks are both thin and uneven.
Pine or Norway spruce were the preferred options, preferably pine.
Pine and spruce had a longer, wider, and more even trunk. Well prepared and well-maintained pine houses could last for a thousand years.
My guess is that the section on the right was an older building moved here from a different location and that the left part is added on, using locally available building material.
The top layer of the roof is turf. This is nature’s own insulation and protection material. Underneath is a layer of bark from the birch tree, keeping the water out.
Hayloft and cowshed
The left section was probably used for the storage of hay. Likewise, the top part on the right.
The domestic animals lived bottom right. What looks like a square opening in the wall may be a hatch used when mucking out the shed.
The moss on the left
On smaller farms – or on farms at higher altitudes – having enough hay to last the whole winter was often a struggle. Therefore, the farmer mixed in moss and leaves from the outfields to make the animal feed last longer.
The farmer often stored the moss – and sometimes the hay – in the outfields until he could bring it back to the farm during the winter, using a horse and a sleigh.
On the ground, just to the right of Ole Johan’s leg, is a simple broomstick – used for sweeping.
Next to the broomstick is a twig basket – kølfat – used for collecting moss in the forests and mountains – and other tasks.
To the right of the door, on the ground, are two wooden milk or water buckets.
It is a bit difficult to see what is hanging on the wooden peg to the right of the door. One item may be a wooden stick – often used when herding the cattle or the sheep.
Now back to the archives
The next logical place to look for more clues is the 1910 Norwegian census. Per 2018, this is the latest census to be made public, and you find it on digitalarkivet.no.
I start my search by (1) adding his first names: Ole Johan – and then (2) the location: Østlandet (region), Hedmark (county) and Os (municipality).
Initially, I drop the surname, as patronymic second names – for example, Olson – which means son of Ole – were still the norm.
And voilà we are in luck – we have a match:
Johan Olson, born 1881 in Tolga, living at Nyaas, occupation is «farmer’s son». He lives with his father Ole Olson born 1846, his mother, Eli Johannesdatter b. 1852, his wife Marie Olausdatter b. 1881, his children (1) Olav Ole b. 1903, (2) Oddmund b. 1904, (3) Einar b. 1906, (4) Elfrida b. 1907, (5) John b. 1909, (6) Erling b. 1910 – and his siblings: (a) Thea b. 1888, (b) Ole Iver b. 1893, (c) John b. 1893.
Both the name of his wife, Marie, and the name of child number 6, Erling, fit with the burial records. It is also interesting to note that the census lists Ole Johan as Johan only. This indicates that Johan was his everyday name.
From the record, we also find the farm’s property identification number – gårdsnummer 123 and bruksnummer 22.
There is one confusing issue: our information lists both Os and Tolga as the place of residence. By searching the internet for Os in Hedmark, we find the explanation: Os was originally part of Tolga but became a separate municipality in 1926.
Finding the farm on the map
The interactive property map of Norway is an exciting and tangible tool which can be found on seeiendom.no
This map shows current Norwegian property data, but it still gives a great overview of the old farm structures.
To find the Nyås farm, we need the following information: municipality number – gårdsnummer/bruksnummer.
We already have the latter two, and we find the current id number for the municipality of Os – 0441 – in this Wikipedia article. The full property id is then 0441-123/22.
The website seeiendom.no is sadly in Norwegian only, but by adding this number combination to the search field, we see the property marked in yellow on the map.
You can also find the property’s location in Google maps by typing in «Nyås, Dalsbygda, Os, Hedmark» in the search field.
By searching a bit more on DigitaltMuseum, I also found a photo of Ole Johan himself and an aerial photo of the farm.
And now to the magic of the local history book
Norway’s digital archives are invaluable to everyone who goes looking for family and history clues. But the most significant gift of them all are the many local history books written throughout the 20th century.
It can be argued that the old Norwegian farming society faded out and disappeared after the Second World War. The industrial society took hold, and the old ways evaporated at an alarming rate.
Luckily, thousands of local historians knew something had to be done, lest centuries’ worth of knowledge was to disappear for good.
A significant portion of the old farming communities formed local history committees. They set out to document the stories told by the elder locals who still remembered. Oral history – mixed with old written sources – resulted in hundreds of books; recording community history, customs, and family lines.
Today, these books are of immense value – and we are in luck; a local history book does exist for the district of Os.
The book – bygda og folket – was originally published in 1943, but was updated in 1999 by Jon Ola Gjermundsen. It is available in the Norwegian National Library and on their website nb.no, sadly in Norwegian and for Norwegian IP addresses only. But for those of you looking for your own Norwegian roots: check in with the many excellent and very helpful Norwegian genealogists on social media.
Recommended read: The old Norway | and its last army of storytellers
Now let us take a look at what the book tells us about the Nyås farm.
We start with the community – Dalsbygda
The municipality is Os and the subsection where we find the Nyås farm is called Dalsbygda.
If we go back far enough, before the Viking Age, there was just one farm here. As the population expanded, the farm split into several entities – and later into even more farm units.
Today, Dalsbygda has a population of around 600 people.
For nearly a thousand years, pilgrims passed through this area on their way to St Olav’s Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. The old pilgrim paths are in use even today.
In the late Middle Ages, there were 6 farms scattered across this landscape, and they form the base of the core farm structure that we see today. These farms were: Berg, Vangen, Breen, Nordgarden, Østgarden and Henningsmoen.
Nyås is a reasonably new farm entity and is part of what was the original Berg farm.
Utilising nature’s own resources
Because of the altitude, the farms in Os and Dalsbygda are best suited for animal husbandry; animals such as cows, sheep, and goats.
Every summer – to fully utilise the available resources – the farmers sent the animals to the simple summer dairy farms in the surrounding mountains.
Recommended read: The old Norwegian farm | the tradition of summer pasture
Clearing the land
Today, the original Berg farm consists of several farm units. All units were cleared and built with the help of simple tools and much labour.
The landscape was full of trees, stones, and rocks and it must have taken years to prepare the lush, grassy fields that we see today.
It was in 1865 that a man called Ola Eriksen Nystu started to clear the land at Nyås. He wanted to make a home for his daughter Marit Olsdatter and her husband, Knut Knutsen.
Building houses on the farm
The dating of the barn in our photo – 1865 – fits with what we see in the local history book – and it was probably the first building here.
In the old Norwegian farming society, it was common to buy old buildings and move them. This could well be the case for the right section of the old barn. From the aerial photo, we see that birch is the primary type of tree in the surrounding forest; something that explains the use of birch on the left.
From the book, we see that new owners took over the Nyås farm in 1884, and they were Ole Johan’s parents: Ola and Eli Johanne.
Ole Johan’s family
Ola and Eli Johanne continued to expand the farm in size.
They had 8 children:
- Ole Johan b. 1881
- Olava b. 1883
- Marit b. 1885
- Thea b. 1888
- Johanna b. 1890
- Ole Iver b. 1893, twin
- John b. 1893, twin
- Oddvar Johannes b. 1896
Ole Johan married Ane Marie Olausdatter Hernessve in 1903.
In addition to being a farmer, Ole Johan was a keen carpenter and a blacksmith. He made sleighs, wagons, and other tools for people in the community. He went by the name kjevsmeden – the left-handed blacksmith.
Ole Johan and Ane Marie had no less than 14 children:
- Olav b. 1903
- Oddmund b. 1904
- Einar b. 1906
- Anna Elfrida b. 1907
- John b. 1909
- Erling b. 1910, took over the farm
- Jorulv Arvid b. 1912
- Knut Magnus b. 1913
- Arnljot b. 1916
- Karstein b. 1919, twin
- Trygve b. 1919, twin
- Oddvar Johannes b. 1923
- Egil b. 1924 – died 1924
- Eldbjørg b. 1925
Bringing 14 children into the world says something about the strength of these people. I see from the local history book that the children had good jobs and made a good life for themselves. Several of them moved to the capital Oslo and prospered there. And the baby daughter, Eldbjørg, married a Hugh McCracken and together they ran the Ravensbourne Hotel in Shanklin, on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England.
How many animals at Nyås
In 1875, ten years after they first started clearing the farm, there were 3 cows and 3 sheep on the farm.
Nyås in 1943
In the book Norske Gardsbruk from 1943 – also found on nb.no – I found the following farm status:
The owner is Erling Nyaas, son of Ole Johan. He took over in 1938. The main house dates back to 1868 and it was further improved in 1927. Other buildings are: (1) a summer cottage from 1890, (2) a combined stable and sheep shed from 1912 – and (3) a larger barn with a cowshed from 1918. In 1943, the farm also had a stabbur – storehouse – and a forge. Of domestic animals, the farm had 2 horses, 12 cows, 1 pig, 12 sheep and 8 chickens.
Norske Gardsbruk does not mention the old barn, and it may well have been demolished by then.
Conclusion – where one photo can lead us
Just by searching Norwegian public sources for an hour or two, this is what I managed to find. There is of course more. And still there will be people who remember Ole Johan and his wife Ane Marie, who died in 1975.
During the course of almost 80 years and a couple of generations, Nyås went from being a wild and ancient natural landscape to being a reasonably sized Norwegian farm.
The world that Ole Johan lived and thrived in, was the kind of environment that many of the Norwegian emigrants to North America also came from.
We often think of the immigrants to the New World when talking about the clearing of new land and homesteading. The fact is that the Norwegians brought with them this knowledge from their old homeland – and thus continued a way of life that had lasted for thousands of years.
To link the old world with the new, I leave you with the local history book’s list of those who emigrated from the Berg farms in the 1800s and early 1900s. Their descendants may well be related to Ole Johan – and now they know where they came from.
Those who emigrated from the Berg farms
Jon born (b.) 1883 – emigrated (em.) 1907
Marit b. 1799 em. 1853 | Ole Iver b. 1832. | Ola Jonsen b. 1829 emigrated in 1899 with his wife Elia Embretsdatter b. 1824 – and their children Marit b. 1851 em. 1883, Jon b. 1853 em. 1881, Embret b. 1857 em. 1879, Ola b. 1863 em. 1882, and Erik b. 1863 em. 1899.
Nils Pålsen b. 1826 and his wife Marit Toresdatter b. 1833 and their children: Pål b. 1857, Tore b. 1859, Jens b. 1861, Ingrid b. 1864, Ola and Mali – twins b. 1867 – all emigrated in 1870.
Tollev Mattisen b. 1842 and his wife Marit Ivarsdatter b. 1850 and their children Iver and Lars b. 1884 – all emigrated in 1904. Ingeborg, triplet sister died in 1896.
Ola Mikkelsen b. 1819 and his wife Olava Jonsdatter b. 1818 and their children Barbro b. 1853, Mikkel b. 1860, Johanna b. 1863 – all emigrated in 1870. Sisters Barbro and Johanna died in Norway.
Siblings Ola b. 1868 em. 1893, Olaf b. b. 1874 em. 1896, Esten b. 1877 em. 1898.
Siblings Johannes b. 1869 em. 1893, Anne b. 1872 em. 1897, Dortea b. 1875, Johanna b. 1880 em. 1904, Esten b. 1884 em. 1903.
Ola b. 1863 em. 1887
Mikkel Amundsen b. 1856 em. 1883
Main sources: «Bygda og folket» volume 1 by Jon Ola Gjermundsen – published by Os kommune 1999. | digitaltmuseum.no | slektogdata.no | digitalarkivet.no
Main photo: Old barn and cowshed used 1865-1922. Ole Johan Nyaas is the man in the picture. Nyås, Dalsbygda, Os, Hedmark. | Photo: unknown – digitaltmuseum.no MINØ.025659 – Public domain.