Photo: Mabel Tennefoss
Caption: Mabel Tennefosss, left, in 1917
When Suzanne Slegel was a child, she often asked her mother about her grandparents. The answers were almost always the same, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.” Sometimes she would tell Suzanne things out of the blue about her upbringing at the Lutheran Children’s Home of the South, but she couldn’t fill in the blanks about her parents, Norwegian immigrants who settled in Minnesota and moved to Norfolk County in the late 1800s.
After her mother, Mabel, died in 1984, Suzanne was given a cedar chest full of photographs that her mother had taken at the Home. A neighbor familiar with the Salem area who could identify some of the photographs and a visit with a cousin who had valuable information about the family gave her a toehold to launch a journey that would take her to Roanoke, Montana and Norway and points in between. Through research and the help of LFS, she created a notebook of remembrances, anecdotes, documents and photographs that evokes the life of her mother and her siblings at the Home between 1908 and 1919.
The story of the Tennefoss family is sadly typical of the time. Suzanne’s grandmother, Mary Anne Tennefoss, died of TB in 1904, and for almost five years, their father, Carl, kept the five children together until he, too, fell ill with TB. Knowing that death was imminent, Carl wanted his children to remain together and worked through First Lutheran Church of Norfolk to have them accepted to the Home. The oldest brother, Joseph, 13, deemed old enough to work, stayed behind with relatives.
In August 1908, Carl brought his children by train to the Home. Even though he did not live to see them again, his efforts to keep the family together paid off. Except for Joseph, who died of TB at the age of 21, the children remained close and looked after one another. Mabel’s brother Carl, the third oldest, remained at the Home until he was 19 so that he could be near his younger sisters. After joining the Navy, Carl paid for Mabel’s nursing school. When Mabel graduated from nursing school she in turn put her sister Ruth through secretarial school. Older brother Thomas, who had repeatedly run away to be with his Joseph, was allowed at age 17 to remain with brother Joseph, with whom he worked as a farmer.
A highlight of her journey into family history brought Suzanne to the mountain farm in Norway where her grandfather was born and where family members still live. She also has visited her mother’s relatives in Montana, who believed that the entire Tennefoss family had died of TB after moving east.
Suzanne has given a copy of the history of her mother’s years at the Children’s Home to LFS for its archive room. She also plans to write more in depth about her research into the family’s Norwegian roots. “It has been an incredible journey,” said Suzanne. “I only wish that my mother were alive to know her family.”