Anders and Agnette (Lien) Roberg

by David Johnson

Anders Roberg was born 11 October 1855 on the farm Rodberg, Innviken, Nordfjord, Norway to Svend Arneson Rodberg and Synneve Arnesdatter Rodberg. They had three other sons of whom we know (Arne, Mathias and Martin) and a daughter Ingeborg. This information has been confirmed by Mr. Egil Iversen working through records in the Statsarkivet; Arsfadvei 22; Bergen, Norway 5009.

Anders arrived in New York in 1875 then made his way west to Crawford County, Wisconsin. It was here that he filed his Declaration of Intent paperwork for citizenship. Though we do not know this for sure, it would seem likely that 20 year old Anders emigrated to this country in the company of one of his siblings as three of them eventually made their way to America while neither of his parents left Norway.

Anders did not remain long in Wisconsin but traveled farther west to Filmore County, Minnesota where a large concentration of Norwegian immigrants were located. A 1930 newspaper profile of Anders Roberg explained the move from Wisconsin to Minnesota by stating ‘the opportunities of frontier regions were lacking there.” It was here in Minnesota that Anders met and married Agnette Lien Martins on 3 December 1878 at Rushford. Agnette Lien (daughter of Evans and Karen Lien) was born 30 November 1844 in Norway, probably in or near Christiania. By 1871 she had married and in that year gave birth to a son, Emil Martin. Exactly when her husband died is unknown at this time. However, upon her 1878 arrival in New York she made her way west to Minnesota with Emil. As a young widow with a seven year old child, it is not at all surprising that she quickly married Anders Roberg once in Minnesota. The eleven year difference in their ages and the short duration of any courtship were nothing unusual among 19th century pioneers. A recent book by historian Cathy Luchetti, I Do! Courtship, Love and Marriage on the American Frontier, draws heavily from pioneer diaries and journals to demonstrate the “utilitarian” aspect of marriage for these people. Practically speaking, Anders was fortunate to be able to marry when and where he did simply because on average men outnumbered women 16:1 on the frontier. Yet, Agnette too was fortunate because as a 34 year old single mother she would have desperately been in need of a husband for economic reasons if nothing else. It is somewhat foolish and sentimental on our part to look at the marriage of these two people, or any other of our 19th century ancestors, as a love match. A passionate love-at-first-sight style of romance, while possible and certainly true in some cases, may well have been the exception rather than the norm. As Luchetti said, “People had to survive first and have fun second. They didn’t worry about whether they were madly in love, they just worked for survival. The spark of love that just happened to be there at first between couples was fanned by a lifetime of working side by side.”

Regardless of passion, by May of 1879 Anders, Agnette and young Emil were literally traveling in a “covered” wagon pulled by oxen and headed for the Newman Grove area of Nebraska. The arduous trip took a little over a month and even 50 years later Anders remembered the difficulties of the trail well enough to offer a detailed synopsis of the journey.

Settling in the Midland precinct of Boone county, Anders first built a sod house for his family. Later, when firmly established financially, Anders built a frame house upon the site. Anders wasted no time in filing for a homestead claim on this 160 acre property and in 1887 he made a final payment of four dollars. The paperwork showing full title and ownership for the property arrived from the federal Land Office in Neligh in November of 1889. About the same tie (1884) Anders received his formal citizenship papers in which he renounced “forever all allegiance to any foreign Prince, Potentate, State or Sovereignty whatsoever…” but in particular Norway’s King Karl the 15th.

By the time of the 1885 Nebraska state census, Anders and Agnette were the parents of four children, Emil age 14, Severin age 5, Sophie age 4 and Sena 1 year. The agricultural supplement with this census offers us a glimpse of the type of farm Anders maintained over a century ago. Like many others of the time, Anders was likely caught in something of a “Catch-22”. Though his farm comprised 160 acres, only 19 were put into crops (8 acres of oats, 6 of indian corn, 5 of wheat). The rest was undeveloped or used as pasture for his livestock which included 2 horses, 12 cattle, 20 hogs and 11 chickens. If Anders could afford to use some of the new mechanical improvements recent to agriculture at the time, he would have been able to increase production and thereby his profits. Of course, if one was unable to afford to buy/rent the machinery necessary it was pointless to try putting more land under the plow. This is underscored by the fact that his farm was valued at $1600 and the value of all farm equipment on the premises totaled only $100. Finally, livestock seems to have been one of his primary sources of income. His livestock was valued at $620 and the cattle themselves provided another $320 for the year. Consider also that eight of his nineteen acres placed under the plow were devoted to oats, a crop primarily used as a feed for cattle and horses.

The next documentation we have of Anders and family is from the 1900 federal census. Still residing in Midland precinct of Boone county, little has changed within the family. His two grown sons still live at home (Severin and Emil) as does his youngest daughter, Sena (listed as attending school). Only Sophie is gone from the home though not too far at that. She lived in the Newman Grove home of Mons Knudson as a domestic servant. As mentioned elsewhere in this history, this was not at all an uncommon situation in 18th and 19th century America. This type of job allowed a young person a little of the freedom of being out on their own while still maintaining something resembling “in loco parentis” supervision by the employer. This type of job usually was short-lived as it was seen as a kind of bridge or transition between adolescence and marriage or the financial independence necessary to establish one’s own household.

Over the ensuing years soon after the 1900 census Anders children began to move out on their own. Sena married Charles Johnson in 1903, Sophie married Carl Wilson in 1907 and Severin married as well around this time. Unfortunately for Anders, Agnette and Sena in particular, her marriage to Charles Johnson ended tragically when he was struck and killed by a train in 1908. The 1908 story from the Madison County Reporter spared few of the grisly details and is included in full in this history. One macabre joke told by a Roberg descendant years later was that after the train(s) did their damage to his body “only the mustache was left.” This dark piece of humor was not far from the truth as the paper stated that Johnson was “crushed, mutilated, disfigured beyond recognition” and that the remains were collected “in a basket.” I mention this tragedy in particular because of its affect (I suspect) upon Sena. At 24 years of age she was a widow and mother of two young girls, Clara and Esther. This was the beginning of a long, strange journey for Sena that ultimately found her at odds even with her parents.

For several years after her husband’s death Sena and her two young daughters resided with her parents. Perhaps she resented the demands of her new situation in life and found living again under her parents roof unbearable. Maybe she just didn’t want the “responsibilities” of single motherhood that were thrust so unexpectedly upon her. We’ll never know. As her niece, Martha Anderson, put it so succinctly in her reminiscences many years later, “Sena took the wrong road in life.” As late as the 1910 census she still lived with Anders and Agnette but already her litigation adventures were under way.

Whether reasonable or not, after Charles’ death on 5 October 1908, Sena began to look elsewhere than her former spouse for blame in his death. On 28 October 1909 Sena filed a petition in the District Court for Boone County asking for $10,000 damages as settlement in her husband’s death. Her suit was brought against several saloon owners, Gus Arns of Newman Grove, W.E. and A.T. Pinney of Oakdale, and the Lion Bonding and Surety Corp. which insured these businesses as required by state law when operating under a liquor license.

Sena’s petition stated that Arns sold Charles “intoxicating liquors” which rendered him unable to “exercise proper judgment.” Johnson then traveled to Oakdale (some thirty miles to the north of Newman Grove) at some point during the day and did the same in the saloon of the Pinneys. After the local newspapers’ initial speculation about Johnson’s death as a possible murder, the general concensus [sic] seemed to be that Charles died when, in a drunken condition, he tried to hop a freight train back to the south, apparently slipped and then was killed beneath the wheels of the train.

How to judge Sena’s lawsuit is a question of personal values. One the one had, it might be said that no one but Johnson was responsible as he killed himself through his own carelessness after consuming far too much alcohol. Perhaps this is the more traditional/conservative philosophy that places the greatest premium on individual responsibility. On the other hand, it might be argued (as Sena clearly was) that the saloon owners had some responsibility as well it selling alcohol to somehow already legally intoxicated as Johnson surely was by the time he left either saloon. Call this the more modern interpretation which calls for a kind of social responsibility on the part of those who dispense alcohol for their patrons well-being once they leave the premises. At any rate the documentation does not show a final judgment in the case, however, I believe that Sena may have won or settled for some damages in this suit (though far short of the $10,000 asked for) as will be mentioned later.

As Charles died intestate a probate court was necessary to finalize his estate. On 11 June 1910, Anders Roberg (Administrator of Chas. Johnson’s estate) filed for a final account on the estate of his son-in-law. The judge assigned $619 from the estate to be paid Sena. The family homestead of 160 acres was legally portioned into thirds among Sena and her two daughters with SEna however retaining the “right of homestead.” The mortgage on the property was still approximately $3000 so either Anders himself or perhaps his stepson Emil Martin worked the land for Sena. Or the land may have been leased out for farming to someone else.

What occurs next was the beginning of a long running and acrimonious disagreement between Sena and her father. On 31 October 1910 Sena was granted legal guardianship of both her deceased husband’s estate and that of her two daughters. Several months later in January 1911 Sena collected $685 that belonged to the two “minors” so that she could ostensibly buy a house for the three of them in Newman Grove as she was interested in selling the 160 acre homestead. [footnote:] It may well be that the $685 was a settlement paid to the two minors as a result of Sena’s suit brought against the saloon owners and the Bond Co. After obtaining the money, however, Sena did not purchase a home but instead turned over the cash to H. E. Fisher whom she soon after married. By 14 May 1912 the probate court was warning Sena that her remoal as guardian of both the estate and her children was imminent if she could not satisfactorily explain her actions. Besides obviously squandering the money which she told the court she intended to purchase a home for the girls with, Sena was also being accused of “grossly neglecting” her children and engaging in “grossly immoral conduct.” Exactly what the latter refers to is not stated explicitly so we are left to our imagination.

Evidently Sena made no reply to the charges or her reply was unsatisfactory because in July 1912 guardianship of her children was awarded to Rev. G. Hendricksen. The evidently was a temporary situation as by December guardianship now rested with A. R. Bruland. By October of this same year her father Anders was paying the mortgage, interest and taxes (totaling $750) on Sena and the girls’ property. AT some point during the year 1912 Sena left the vicinity and was absent for the better part of three years. In that year Sena’s girls were approximately four and three years old.

There is a lull in the legal proceedings until 1915 when Sena returned tot he Newman Grove area at least briefly. Evidently her marriage to Mr. Fisher did not last too long as she is listed as Sena Evans in court documents for that year and her husband is described as a “traveling showman.” Evidently, Sena and her husband returned tot he area long enough to rent out the property for $500 cash for the year 1915, collect this money and leave again. Evidently this was too much for her father to take as on 6 April 1915 Anders was granted guardianship of the two children. [footnote:] Even though Anders was granted guardianship the children [sic], I believe the children continued to live with the Brulands. Perhaps Anders guardianship was on advice of his attorney in regard to the dispute over the property.

In his petition to the court Anders requested that a lien of $685 plus 7% interest be paced on Sena’s interest in the property. He further stated that though he did not wish to have the property sold he agreed to do so if the court determined this as the best way to solve the dispute and sever Sena’s interest financial interests from those of her children. Sena’s answering dispute was filed in Faribault County, Minnesota in June of that year. Her attorney claimed Anders’s petition “insufficient” to stop Sena’s partition and sale of the land. She further claimed that her children had been kept away from her by the several guardians and cited her “ignorance” of her rights in the premises as part of her explanation for her dubious handling of money in the matter.

Evidently the court saw only one way out of all this squabbling so on 3 August 1915 the court ordered the land to be sold. It sold for $12,800 to George Gutru at public auction on 7 September 1915. The rest of the story is somewhat incomplete and certainly confusing. There is no mention of the dispersal of the money after paying off the balance of the mortgage yet in 1916 the wrangling was still going on. Evidently Sena sold her interest in the estate to her lawyer on 12 February 1916 and then filed for a dismissal of the legal actions going on six days later. The next month Anders claimed in his affidavit that this was an illegal dodge on the part of his daughter to avoid repaying him for the expenses of the property (maintenance, taxes, et. al.) and care of the children. As there are no other documents from this unfortunate episode in our possession we do not know what, if anything, became of all this. In the end several things do seem clear. That for whatever her reasons, Sena Roberg mishandled her husband’s estate, misappropriated funds intended for her children and through her long absence lost any maternal rights to her children. Ultimately Sena and her family were so alienated from one another, that it appears she did not even attend her mother’s funeral in 1919.

Finally in regard to all this, let me say that I hope the reader doesn’t feel i have spent too much time on this unpleasant issue solely because of any personal preference for taking us all through a “rollin the mud” like some freelance tabloid reporter. Actually, I have long been interested in Sena Roberg when as a youngster of about twelve I heard of the “mysterious” disappearance of my great-grandmother Sophie’s sister. Both my father and his mother vaguely recalled that she (Sena) had gone to Omaha for an operation or medical treatment of sorts, only to disappear without a trace and never be heard from again. Keep in mind, neither of these individuals had ever met Sena and yet when one is twelve years old stories such as this make a powerful and lasting impression. As much as anything, my interest in pursuing this woman’s story stems more from trying to determine whether there was genuinely a murder or kidnap victim in our family tree than any desire to air the familial dirty laundry in public.

And as for Anders…well, the time period from 1908 to 1919 certainly must have been difficult for him. After his wife Agnette’s death in 1919 following a protracted battle with cancer, Anders retired to town (Newman Grove). For a number of years he lived in a rooming house in town and for at least several years his stepson Emil Martin resided in the same building. The family farm was passed on to his son, Severin who later resided near Bradish, Nebraska. It was here that Anders lived in later years when he was unable to care for himself independently before moving into the “old people’s home” as it was described in his newspaper obituary for his last nine months of his life. He died at the age of 88 leaving behind all of his children save Sena who supposedly preceded him in death, 19 grandchildren and 25 great grandchildren.

Finally, we have included in this history of the family some photographs that show the Roberg homestead [footnote:] The land on which the house sits today is owned by Jake Froistad and his sister Helga. Jake served as a pallbearer at Anders’s funeral in 1943. Jake remembered Anders quite well when questioned about him in 1992. He recalled a “retired” Anders as a very personable and polite man who liked to sit on a bench along the street downtown in Newman Grove just to see what was happening among the townfolks. He also remembered the apples from the fine orchard that Anders kept on his property. both “then” and now. It was admittedly a humbling sensation for me to stand on the same ground, walk through the same house that Anders lived in for so many years and experience it firsthand as only a long abandoned building after previously seeing it so well-kept and full of life in the old photographs. Walking through the empty rooms with their bare walls did not prevent me from seeing the place in my mind’s eye as it once was. One cannot help but almost physically “feel” the passage of time and its effects when wandering over the grounds of the old home place of the Robergs knowing that this is all a part of the natural way of things. Just as one generation gives way to another, this old house, having served its purpose, seems almost to be dissolving back into the surrounding prairie, to be reclaimed by the land that exacted so much toil and tears from its inhabitants. Perhaps Carl Sandburg expressed it best when he said, “I am the grass, let me work.”