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Saga Of Matias Johannessen Fjellhaugen
(in Norway)

Matias (1812 - 1889) was an older brother of Jens Johannessen Fjellhaugen (1830 - 1903). These incidents were related by Matias Johannessen Fjellhaugen to his young friend, T. G. Thomsen, of McGrath, Minnesota and published by the latter in Visergutten, October 21, 1937 and January 27, 1938. This article, including the Hardanger dialect used by Matias, was translated by Daniel Dvergsdal of Jølster, Norway, during his year of instruction in Norse at the University of Wisconsin following one year of similar instruction at Parkland Lutheran College at Parkland, Washington.

High up in the mountains from the Matrefjord in Sunnhordaland, Norway, lie the two farms, Bjodnabolet (the bear's den) and Fjellhaugen (the mountain hill). I know not exact locality, but the distance down to Matre is one or two Norwegian miles and a bit longer to Omvikdalen (the Omvik valley) in Kvinnherad. (One Norwegian mile is equivalent to seven U.S. miles.) The Blue River (Blå elven) originates at the great glacier of folgefonni and runs between these two farms, swift and cold. The growing season is short so that oats often freeze, but barely ripens almost every year. The mountain grass grows rapidly in the long summer days, lush and tall. The mountain pastures are extensive. The two farms form a kingdom unto themselves.

Matias often told me the old legend of Folgedalen (the Folge valley) of how, because of the ungodliness of the people, it became covered with snow and ice-bound by a glacier. According to Matias, furniture was found under the ice, in confirmation of this legend.

Matias was born on June 24, 1812. He grew up in the mountains and became an excellent skier. It is also said that he was a good violinist. I know little about youth, except that he left home as a youngster. For a time he and another man owned a small ship with which they carried freight among the nearest fjords. Once on their way home from Bergen with a cargo of salt, a mountain cyclone upset the ship. The main hatch was blown off, permitting the water to pour into the hull. The two men barely had time to get into the jolly-boat before the ship sank. Thus ended the seafaring of Matias.

Matias married a daughter of Anders Søretræ, and became a crofter at the farm, Einstabøvold, in Valestrand, in the parish of Stord. My grandfather, who at that time was owner of this farm, was an enlightening and enterprising man. He operated a stone quarry employing many men. From him Matias learned carpentry wheel making, which later proved to be most useful. Matias was unusually skilful with his hands.

Matias A Mail Carrier

In those days before steamships, the mail was carried over land on back; only at a few places was it ferried across the fjords. As a postmaster, my grandfather employed Matias to carry the mail between Eidsvåg and Mølstrevåg, a distance of four Norwegian miles. As a rule, the mail was heavy for one man. In the wintertime, during the herring fishing, two men were required to carry the mail.

Once the well-known Colonel Krogh from Hogganvik in Ryfylke, grandfather of the late Professor Rasmus R. Anderson of Madison, Wisconsin, was visiting with my grandfather when Matias came to pick up the mail. Mr. Krogh noticed that there were several money orders in the mailbag, which lay open. "Are you not afraid of being robbed?" he asked. "No, I am not afraid," answered Matias. "I carry a pistol." "Let's see," said Krogh. Matias pulled from his pocket an old muzzle-loading pistol, a property of the postal authorities, neatly wrapped in cloth. ' Do you think a robber would wait for you to remove those wrappings? When was it last loaded?" asked Krogh. "Well, I carry it in my hand without wrappers when I travel through the forest at Sveio," answered Matias.

That his travels were not always without risk is shown by the following episode, which took place one day during the spring floods. The roads passed close by the farm, Lokna, in Sveio. As customary, Matias entered the kitchen door, threw the mailbag on the floor, and went over to the water bucket on a nearby bench for a drink of water. Only children were at home. When Matias asked where the grown-ups were, the children replied that no others were home. "But two strangers are waiting for you." They said. " They have waited for quite awhile." "Where are they now?" Matias asked. "They went outside just a little while ago," the children replied. Matias became suspicious and looked around. The door to the living room was open. Through the door and window he saw two tramps walking around the house. Matias seized the mailbag and threw it over his back.

While the two tramps walked around the house, Matias ran through the opposite door. "The river ran through and uninviting just below the house. I jumped in with the tramps behind me," Matias said. "There was no bridge, just a few big rocks, and these were invisible. I crossed the river. It almost carried me away, but I got over all right. As I turned to look back there stood the men, threatening me from the other side. They were afraid to ford the river. I travelled quickly to Mølstrevåg. These two tramps had also been seen there, but caused no alarm since, so many tramps travelled about during the fishing season. A search was made for the men but they managed to escape."

One year a man named Erik from eastern Norway came to the farm for employment. He was a good worker but a suspicious character. The farm people did not like him. My grandfather regarded him only as a good worker, and discounted the common impression as nonsense. During the winter my grandfather employed Erik to help Matias carry the mail, much to Matias' disliking. Where the distance between farms was as far Matias forced Erik to walk ahead.

After a while Erik left and joined company with a certain Håkon Gloppen from Fitjar. Håkon carried quite a sum of money, which Erik had seen. When they came to Korsfjorden, Håkon lay down to sleep and left the navigation to Erik and a companion boy. By sitting near Håkon, Erik tried to steal the billfold from Håkon's breast pocket but Håkon awoke and grabbed the culprit. A fight for life or death ensued, but with the help of the boy, Håkon succeeded in throwing Erik into the sea where he was drowned. Mr. Gloppen informed the authorities and action was taken. The story became a sensation in the district, but at the trial Mr. Gloppen was acquitted since it was evident that he had acted in self-defence. The judge learned that Erik was a notorious criminal who had been sought for a long time. Erik received a just reward for his ill doings. (My mother used to travel as a cook with the circuit judge and his assistants. She told me that there was a great crowd and much excitement in the courthouse at Engesund in Fitjar on the day the case was tried.)

Farming At Fjellhaugen

Matias told the following story about his experiences at Fjellhaugen: Once in my childhood we had a very late spring. It was long past the proper time for spring work and sowing. Down by the fjord spring work had started, but up in the mountains at Fjellhaugen winter still persisted. The snow lay cold and heavy over the mountain wilds and a cold northeastern wind blew daily. The harvest of hay would be lost unless a sudden change in the weather occurred.

One Sunday the owner of Bjodnebole came over to see us. He and my father sat talking about many things but mostly about the prospects for spring and the shortage of fodder. When Bjodnebole was about to leave we accompanied him. Looking up to the mountains, father said, "It looks as if we shall neither sow nor reap in the mountains this year." After putting on his skis and when about to leave, he suddenly exclaimed, "There are clouds in the sky which I have not seen for a long time, that means a change in the weather, according to signs." Yes, I see them too," said father, "the wind has decreased and the weather seems milder." "Let's hope so," they both said upon parting. Before nightfall a gust of wind came from the southwest and in the morning warm rain fell in torrents. Soon the brooks and rivers were filled with gushing water. Before the week was over not a single trace of snow remained on the pasture and fields. The weather suddenly changed to warm sunshine and summer heat. We started the spring work in a double hurry since it was far beyond the proper time. Although we had no hope of getting ripened grain, it could still be used for fodder.

One day as we were working our harvest a long file of people came walking towards the farm, men and women with lunch bags and with spades on their shoulders. We recognized them as people from the community of Matre. They had finished their own spring work and realizing our plight had come to help. The spring work was completed in a hurry. That summer was exceptionally warm, and the crop of grain was extraordinary. Everyone thought the grain was imported.

Life at Fjellhaugen was toilsome, requiring the bearing of heavy packs on the backs up from the fjord, and long trips to town. Then came the endless toil of gathering grass from the mountain pastures to store fodder for the large stock of cattle through the long winter season. Haying often lasted far into the fall. In the winter we had to lug hay home on a hand drawn sled. In many places horses could not be used. In the summer we had to run over mountains and valleys to look after the great numbers of cattle, sheep and goats which were sent up there to graze. The strenuous life in the fresh mountain air developed strong bodies and resilient muscles like unto acrobats.

I knew Matias only as an old man of seventy, but even then he was as lively in his movements as a young man. You never saw Old Matias walk. He was always "running, running," the neighbors used to say. He had the spring, light movements, and hardiness of a mountain farmer.

Matias said, "The only kind of trousers which I had until I was over twenty years old, except when going to town or to church, were a pair of sheepskins with the wool turned inside. These were good in both summer and winter."

This life was primitive, but still we must take our hats off to the old, they had steel in their arms with an endurance and willpower, which is lacking in our days with all the laborsaving devices.

A Hauge Revival

Matias related the following story from his youth. I regret that I cannot recall the names of places and persons. This story gives an impression of a period of struggling religious ideas, which Norway experienced at that time. After the visit of Hans Nielsen Hauge to Western Norway, religious revivals followed in many places. Many came to a living faith in and fellowship with God, among them a young man from the inner fjords. He was a living witness of his Saviour among his associates and neighbors.

Matias related, "Once at a big wedding, I think it was at Matre, this young man was one of the guests, a relative, if I remember correctly. As usual on such occasions, after church services and dinner, in the evening the guests sat chatting about one thing and another while the beer went around.

For a long time the boy sat quite and silent, but at last he stood up and sang a hymn with the following stanzas: "Any dog is less objectionable than the person who lies and slanders his neighbor." When the hymn was finished, the boy advanced and thanked the host, hostess, and bridal couple for their hospitality. In spite of all the protests and invitations to stay, he went home alone over the mountain that same night. But silence fell on the house after he left. Everyone sat in his own thoughts. Here was such a serious and kind boy. He died a few years later. It seems that such persons never grow old," Matias added.

Hulder Stories

I shall close my memoirs with an incident, which will amuse sceptics. I heard it from my mother, and it was often told by my uncle mechanic, Hans Jacob Olsen, born and raised on the farm, Einstabøvold, in Valestrand, Sunnhordaland. He later lived in Stavanger. In his later days he started a factory for making clothespins in Vormestrand, Ryfylke. He was born in 1832 and died in Stavanger at the age of 92. There are many Ryfylke emigrants in America who knew him. My uncle was both a well-informed and thoughtful man who could be accused of superstition such as we find among ordinary country folks of that period. He had many strange experiences and believed there was much between heaven and earth which mortals know nothing about. I possess a great part of his posthumous paper, and among them the following story.

How many are there today who believe in hulders (people living under the ground)? Little belief exists today in these underground people dwelling in the Norwegian mountains. I shall record what happened to me in my childhood events, which still remain clear in my memory.

In Sunnhordaland, high p in the mountain pastures, there is a farm called Fjellhaugen. This farm was well known to me through my father's crofter, Matias. He was born and raised on this farm and could tell many things from his childhood days when he wandered the mountains and valleys.

His father and mother passed away early. (Johannes Johannessen Vedvig Fjellhaugen (1778 - ) and Anna Matiasdatter (1775 - 1816) were his parents.) His sister, Martha, was left a widow with three children. The eldest of these, Anna, was an exceptionally pretty girl. One evening in the spring, when the cattle were turned out to pasture, this girl went in search of a missing cow. As darkness fell, the girl did not return. A search was made. She was found lying unconscious on a little hill. Upon restoring her to consciousness, she was urged to come home, but this she was unwilling to do. She wished to stay on the hill. Here she had heard fascinating music. The music had put her into such a state of ecstasy that it was necessary to use force in bringing her home. In an unguarded moment she disappeared again. Once again they went to the hill to bring her home by force.

When asked to explain her strange behavior, she said that in her search for the cow she came to the hill and heard wonderful music coming from the inside of the hill. Next she felt as if something was pressing on her shoulders and she slumped down. With this explanation it was imagined that she had been bewitched by the hill-people. Lest she be spellbound by these hulders, the girl was closely watched. Fjellhaugen is a lonely farm; at times there were no people here other than the girl, her mother, and the two younger children. It became necessary to get someone to watch over the girl. A message was sent to our crofter, Matias. He went to Fjellhaugen at once, and from him I later learned the entire story.

Matias was a reliable and sensible man. He first thought the girl was suffering from hallucinations following a period of illness. Matias watched her carefully so that it became impossible for her to return to the hill although she tried many times.

One day the best cow was missing. They found it standing on the same hill; apparently bewitched, just as the girl had been, and just as unwilling to leave. The next day the cow was there again, pawing the ground. From then on the cow had to be watched, for it also wanted only to be on the hill.

Early one morning as one of the younger girls was sitting by the window, she suddenly burst out: "Oh, mother, I see a big ugly man outside." Matias ran outside and saw a tall man dressed in grey clothes walking down the slope. There had been a little snowfall during the night, which often happens late in the spring so high up in the mountains. Matias followed the track, which led to the hill mentioned, and here it disappeared. Matias took an exact measure of the footprint. It proved to be much larger than the footprint of an ordinary human being and broader in comparison with its length.

Under these circumstances, Matias found it best to leave and take the girl with him for her safety. But by no means did she want to go; all her desires were fixed on the hill. Matias told me that when he finally got her into the boat, she jumped into the water, so bewitched was she by these underground people.

When Matias returned to Einstabøvold all were attracted by this beautiful and innocent girl. It was agreed that she should stay with my parents. There she remained the whole summer. My brother and I were very curious to learn from the girl her experiences. Although we did everything to win her confidence, we got nowhere. She said, "What I have seen and heard you will not believe; therefore, it is best to keep it to myself."

She stayed with father the whole summer. She was hardworking, kind, and loved by all. There was something dreamy about her. She was not as lively as other girls of her age. That summer I left home and in the fall the girl returned to her mother. I had no opportunity to learn more about her.

Matias told me many years later that the girl improved, but never fully recovered. She died young. He also told me that the wow had to be butchered; it was impossible to keep it away from the hill.

While telling hulder-stories, I will relate what happened in my home. A person who is born in the country doesn't easily forget the experiences of his childhood. In the spring, when the cattle are turned out to pasture for the first time, cowbells can be heard over the hillsides and one really knows that the longed-for spring has finally come. These impressions do not belong exclusively to humans, but also to the holders who at this time ventured forth with much gaiety.

Up in the mountain, above my fathers farm there lay a wooded ridge called Haugsgjersveten. One morning, Serina, our neighbor's daughter, was driving cattle to the mountains. Coming up towards Haugsgjersveten she saw something which both scared and puzzled her. Up on the hillside she saw a fine herd of cattle, cows and oxen, running at full speed. On the back of one oxen sat a hulderman. With one hand he held on to a horn and with the other he held a "lur". Finally they all disappeared into the forest. According to old sayings, Haugsgjersveten is supposed to be a home of the hulders.

As a small boy, one Sunday, I was with a group of boys in Haugsgjersveten, picking blueberries. When we all had our vessels filled, we started on our way home. Walking down the path, we suddenly discovered a man and a girl walking in the same direction about twenty paces ahead of us. Both were dressed in grey clother, the man in a "round coat" and a red stocking cap; the girl in a short skirt and a grey cap fastened tightly to her head. We all saw them at the same time. After a few minutes they suddenly disappeared without any noticeable sidewise movement. We ran in all direction to discover who they were, but had disappeared into the ground. When we came home we told what we had seen, but little attention was paid to us kids.

A Wolf Hunt

In the forties, people all over Norway were much bothered by wolves. They came like a plague. There were many stories about the wolf-years. In northern Norway these wolves were thought to have come as an invasion from Siberia. The wolves were so aggressive as to endanger people traveling on lonely roads. In Valestrand the wolves ravaged sheep and goats. In spite of constant vigilance great losses occurred. A big-wolf-chase was organized. Matias took part in this. He told me that at Tittelsnes a big crown of men assembled and from there went south with shouting, crying, and shooting. The entire population was called upon for guard duty day and night. They ran south toward Eie where the peninsula is the narrowest and the marksmen were posted. From here the Sveio people took up the chase and continued into the mountain wilds. Valestrand got rid of the wolves forever. The state supplied the gunpowder for the chase. The remainder was stored in the old Valestrand church, where it lay until the church was torn down in 1875. A nice gunpowder storage!

Nimrods of today may laugh at chasing animals instead of hunting them. Today, one is safe hunting wolves with modern repeater rifle, which kills at a distance of a mile or so. But to shoot a wolf with an old fashioned muzzle-loaded-flint-gun with its smooth bore required that the animal be at close range. When in the decisive moment the gun would fail, the fight had to be ended with a knife. In such a situation "courage would be sitting down in the shoeheels." Many a hunter carried scars from his battles with bears and there are many stories about rescue from the claws of wolves.

If these stories are of interest to the emigrants from the fjords at home, my aim is fulfilled. With the best wishes for the New Year to the editor and readers of the paper.


Written by
Tolleif George Thomsen
from "Saga from Western Norway"

Compiled by
Carolyn Thomsen Mutchler

With written permission from Carolyn Thomsen Mutchler

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