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Family values: Rushmore native relates history and lessons of rural upbringing in book

AnnMae Johnson's grandparents, Franka and Geerd, are center front in this family photo.1 / 3
"Unsung Heroes" was published through Outskirts Press.2 / 3
AnnMae Johnson, a retired teacher, currently lives in Beaverton, Ore.3 / 3

As a schoolteacher, AnnMae Groenewold Johnson would often tell her students stories about her own upbringing on a farm in southwest Minnesota and even some of the immigrant experience of her grandparents.

“My students couldn’t believe what I talked about when I grew up,” she recalled. “It was hard for them to imagine.”

Wanting to more fully relate the experiences of her youth and impart the values she grew up with along the way, AnnMae decided to write a book. The first edition of “Unsung Heroes: Learning from Those Who Led the Way,” was published in 2000, and she recently put out a second edition.

“It was nice to put it down and share it with others,” she reflected. “I’ve been blessed. Everyone’s been blessed in different ways, and I just wanted to pass on what I knew of my life. I believe we should all give back, not just be receivers, but give back of what we receive.”

Forging the way

AnnaMae’s family story begins with her paternal grandparents, Geerd and Franka, who made the decision to leave Eastfriesland, a German-speaking area close to the Dutch border. AnnMae doesn’t just relay the basic facts of their voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, she imagines what it must have been like for them to leave their homeland and family behind in 1864 to begin a new life in a far-off place and put it into detailed narrative form.

… Geerd and Franka felt they would be able to survive the difficult days ahead. They were filled with excitement. After all, they would soon be seeing America! Following another day of waiting in the harbor, the captain announced that the winds had changed. They would now be able to embark on their trip across the Atlantic. Geerd and Franka then went up the stairs and joined the crowds that packed the open deck. With the rest, they watched and watched until their homeland was only a misty line on the horizon. Then it seemed to hit everyone at once. They were bobbing out on the open sea with just an old wooden ship keeping them afloat. Some cried hysterically, while others, like Franka and Geerd, shouted over and over, “We are on our way to America.”

Geerd and Franka initially settled in Freeport, Ill., which had a large community of German immigrants. They had nine children, the last being AnnMae’s father, Bert, born in 1886. Seeking better opportunities for their large family, they eventually moved to Grundy County, Iowa. It was the promise of fertile farmland at good prices that enticed them to move again to an area along the western Minnesota-Iowa border near Rushmore.

At the age of 23, AnnMae’s maternal grandmother, Karolina “Lena” Ann Benson, decided to leave Sweden in 1898 and join her brother in Nebraska.

Having decided, her next step was to choose what to take with her. She would only take a few things because she planned to return again soon. Homespun clothes, her Bible and other religious books would go into the trunk, along with trinkets and pictures to remind her of home, and some gifts for Nels’ family. She would take some food, too, in order to save money on the voyage. When the trunk was ready, her father printed her name and destination on it: “K.A. Benson Omaha, Neb. North Amerika.” Lena’s thoughts constantly flitted between excitement for what lay ahead and sorrow for what she would leave behind. Parting seemed liked such a final thing. But, unlike Nels, she would return. For now, her mind was made up. She was going to America!”

Soon after her arrival in Nebraska, Lena began doing domestic work for area families. When one family asked her to accompany them while they moved to Minnesota, Lena agreed. There she met her husband-to-be, Hassel, the son of Swedish immigrants. They had two children — Agnes (AnnMae’s mother) and Harry. But Hassel became ill and died, leaving Lena a widow with two young children and a farm to tend.

Besides the accounts of her immigrant grandparents, passed down through the family, AnnMae had some unique records to draw upon for her book. Her father’s oldest brother, Dick, kept a daily diary from 1894 to 1919, relating various aspects of farm life on the prairie of southwest Minnesota. His spelling wasn’t accurate, AnnMae noted, and he usually began each entry with an optimistic weather update.

May 22 Tuesday nice weather it rained a little in the morning and evening and Brother George came back with me and we fixed the hog fence and put the stove upstairs and Anna churned and pulde up the rug and put it on the clothes line to beat it and brother Charley was here at noon, he had to work on the road.

Farm life

AnnMae’s parents, Bert and Agnes, lived miles apart but met at a community social event and decided to get married. Born in 1935, AnnMae was the Groenewolds’ third child, arriving in the midst of the Depression era. A year later, a baby boy made them a family of six during tough economic times.

When my oldest sister was about to start the first grade, our parents decided that we needed to be closer to a school. So in 1937 they bought a farm on the outskirts of Rushmore for $150 an acre, then considered expensive. The house and buildings had been rebuilt after a 1921 tornado.

Life on the farm wasn’t easy, and there were always chores to be done. AnnMae doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of rural life at that time, but she also has a “rich treasure of memories about the good times we had together.”

Having jobs to do most of the time, we turned work into fun. Milk cows, beef cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, chickens and sometimes goats and ducks needed to be fed. When we did get a few moments for play, we created our own entertainment. There was no television to watch nor a telephone to talk on. Neither did we have magazines or books to read. … We loved to climb! We were like squirrels when climbing trees. We often found birds’ nests and for days watched them raise their young. Scaling Grandma Lena's old windmill gave us the feeling of being like birds. … Inside the buildings were beams that stretched between the high rafters both vertically and horizontally that challenged us, especially the ones in the granary. There we would crawl out on the support beams over the oats and corn bins on the two sides and then drop for fun down into the grain.

Additional materials

“Unsung Heroes” doesn’t just focus on AnnMae’s immediate family. She also includes stories from other immigrant families and people from the Rushmore area. One chapter focuses on a conversation with her cousin Ubbe and his wife, Anna, in which they talk about recurring names in the Rushmore region. She also reflects on how the community of Rushmore has changed over the years

To illustrate her account, AnnMae includes family photos as well as her own drawings in order to give the reader a clearer image of how things looked while she was growing up.

Seeking to educate the reader, at the end of each chapter AnnMae points out “four exemplary principles we learn from the experiences of these people.”

“That’s what I added to this book,” she noted about the second edition. “I thought it was important to make it updated. I wanted to be sure to put out the values that can be learned and passed on, values for us today, what we can learn today. We should leave a record of ourselves and our activities, we should support our community, focus on the positive things around us.”

Personal life

After graduating from Worthington High School in 1953, AnnMae worked for two years at Campbell Soup Co., saving up money for college. Through her involvement with the Rural Bible Crusade, she was able to attend Wheaton College in Illinois. She also has a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University. She taught in schools in Wisconsin, California and Minnesota and was an assistant teacher for a time in Cambridge, England.

Now retired, she and husband Bill live in Beaverton, Ore. They have three children and seven grandchildren.

AnnMae still has family in the area: siblings Claribel Grussing, Harlan Groenewold and LeeRoy Groenewold live in Rushmore, and brother Wayne Groenewold is in Sioux Falls, S.D. Her last visit to Rushmore was in December for her sister Darleen’s funeral. Brother Robert is also deceased.

Even though life has taken her to the other side of the country, AnnMae still feels connected to her roots in southwest Minnesota.

“My grandparents, parents, relatives and those in the community where I grew up were thankful and happy people despite the daily hard work and regular hardships they endured. I know, I was there,” she explained. “They are my heroes and continue to be my unsung heroes as I seek to live by the values they believed in. I named my book ‘Unsung Heroes’ hoping the reading of it would give recognition to the kind and helpful people who endured hardship to come to this new land so coming generations, myself included, could know a better life.”

“Unsung Heroes” is available online through Amazon in both paperback and e-book form. For more information, go to:

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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