Weather Forecast

Helen helped Mrs. Ahlgren at her boarding house starting at the age of 12.

Olson settles in Scanlon after Fire of 1918

Email Sign up for Breaking News Alerts
News Cloquet,Minnesota 55720
Pine Journal
(218) 879-2078 customer support
Olson settles in Scanlon after Fire of 1918
Cloquet Minnesota 122 Avenue C 55720

Helen Mattson and Ole Olson were married Jan. 26, 1929, at the start of the Great Depression. The happy couple moved to Scanlon - where Olson's family had settled after the 1918 Fire - and built a house.


Now 99, Helen doesn't actually remember how she first met young Mr. Olson. Ironically, her maternal grandfather had also been christened Ole Olson in Norway, but had changed his name to Olaf Saim (the name of his province) when he immigrated to the United States because he thought there were too many Ole Olsons.

"I would have coffee with my mother-in-law every day," Helen said, adding that her sister, Mushi, also married (James Green) and moved to a house a block away in Scanlon.

In those days, Scanlon (population 400) had a distinctly rural flavor. There were farms, and Helen's mother- and father-in-law had a barn with cows. Today children play soccer on what used to be the Sather pasture. Helen would get their milk from the Sorensons, who lived just up the street. Her son Jack used to walk the Sam Hanson family's cows out Washington Avenue to a pasture.

"People didn't always have land, but they would have a barn and a cow," Helen said.

Then there was the issue of sewer and water.

"Mother would pump water at my uncle's pump house and would carry that across the street for baths, washing clothes, whatever," interjected Helen's daughter, Bev Potswald. "Everyone had an outhouse in the backyard, too."

Helen had some stories to tell about the outhouses - like how certain guys would take her neighbor's outhouse every Halloween and put it in the school-house yard. (The old school was located across from Bethel Lutheran Church. Children would go there through eighth grade, and then transfer to Cloquet High School.)

"I remember when Mrs. Sam a toilet in the house," Helen said. "She wouldn't let her husband use the toilet because she said he would plug it up. So he would go out back to the outhouse. In the winter, he would light toilet paper on fire and drop it down. One winter, he burned the outhouse down doing that."

Potswald remembers the school and the church were at the center of everything that happened in Scanlon.

"When they built the church, the women went down to the river and pulled and carried logs up there to heat water, which they brought from the creek, to do the dishes," Potswald said. "Mother was involved in the Election Board, Bethel Church, lots of things. She did a lot of do-gooder stuff, helping other people. That's what people in Scanlon did."

Scanlon also boasted a newspaper, the "Scanlon Times," a couple of grocery stores and a store owned by Baldy Sather, where people could buy a little bit of everything, including appliances.

When asked about raising three children, Helen said she can remember "how much each child cost."

"I had my oldest boy, Jack, in the hospital," she said. "He cost $65. Beverly was born at home; Mrs. Sireen was the midwife. She charged $25. And David was born in the hospital, but he didn't cost me anything because the government paid for him because his father was in the


Ole had been drafted. She would never see him again.

Helen was widowed at age 34, when her husband's ship sank. He was a machinist mate on an aircraft carrier, daughter Bev explained.

"It was at Iwo Jima," Helen said. "The Japs hit his ship."

Iwo Jima was also the only U.S. Marine battle where the American casualties exceeded the Japanese, although Japanese combat deaths numbered three times that of Americans.

Ole died without ever seeing his youngest son, David, who was eight months old. Bev was 12; her older brother was 15.

Helen never remarried. Heck, she never even went on a date. Too busy, she said.

Helen worked at Northwest Paper for a time after her husband died, but she speaks most fondly of her 10 years at what she calls the "match mill."

"That was the most interesting job," she said. "People should see how matches are made."

Of course, she walked back and forth to work. Everyone did, she said.

Not that the Olson family never had a car. Helen said she and her husband purchased a car not long after they were married.

"I always watched how he drove," she said. "One day I decided I was going to drive and he let me. We were on Highway 61 going into Cloquet and there was a bus coming out of the paper mill. He said, 'Watch it,' as if I couldn't see a bus. It made me so darn mad that I stopped the car and went to the other side. I told him, 'Drive your own damn car.' After that my brother-in-law took me out to the Moorhead Road and had me drive. I was fine after that."

Helen also earned money looking after other people's children, and later even traveled to Wyoming to watch a local family's children after they'd moved there, but still had things to take care of in Scanlon.

For a time, Helen's father, John Mattson, lived with his daughter and her husband and continued to work on the railroad. He drowned. No one saw him fall in, so the "how" of his drowning was never found out.

Potswald remembers how the men dropped dynamite into the river, which made her grandfather's body rise to the top.

"My mother had to identify him," she said, grimly. "He'd been in the water for some time."

Helen lived in the same house on the 800 block of 27th Street in Scanlon from 1929 to 2000, when she moved to an apartment in Cloquet. In 2004, she moved back to Scanlon, to the Suncrest Senior Living Community, where she lived until 2008, bringing her total number of years in Scanlon to 74.

She's been living at Sunnyside Health Care Center in Cloquet since 2008, along with her youngest sister, Mushi. (Mushi's name is really Florence, but she's always gone by the nickname her father gave her as a child. He called Helen "Tootsie" when she was growing up, but the name didn't travel with her when Helen and Ole got married.) The middle sister, Lillian, died of a heart attack when she was only 21, something Helen partially blames on "trouble with her teeth."

Of Helen's three children, Bev and David are still living. She also has eight grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and 17 great-great-grandchildren.

Not bad for a lady pushing 100. Perhaps they'll all be there to sing her "Happy Birthday" come Nov. 2. And wouldn't it be wonderful if she could take a ride down to Dunlap Island, where she lived her earliest years near the taverns, the hotel and at least one "house of ill repute."

She talks about how many things have changed, but the house she grew up in still stands.

"There's many things over on the island," she said. "I hope I can see it yet."

Jana Peterson
(218) 879-1950