Holding On To History: Norwegian immigrant remembers first century in Duluth

Published: Sep. 12, 2023 at 10:23 AM CDT
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DULUTH, MN. (Northern News Now) - Lilly Haldorsen taught herself to paint while suffering from insomnia. This is her painting of the ocean liner that brought her from Norway to America - in 1923. Lilly is 106 years old. The change from Norwegian village life to the bustle of Duluth was a bolt of culture shock.

“My oldest brother was only eight and he was jumping up and down and saying we’re in America, look how big America is - he thought Duluth was America.” said Lilly.

Now that Lilly has spent her first century in Duluth, she took time last week to talk about historic events she has witnessed. Her tenth birthday in 1927 was passed with a brother watching the Leif Erikson Viking ship sail into Duluth.

“Some man lifted my brother and I up on the edge of the pier and hung onto us so we could see and wave at the sailors - my mother would have been shocked if she had seen how close we were to the water.” said LIlly.

Lilly says the poverty of the Great Depression was shocking in the Northland. She and her mother shared one coat.

“So if we were going out anyplace special we would say are you wearing the coat or am I?” said Haldorsen with a laugh.

Lilly married Karl Haldorsen when she was 16. A blind eye kept him stateside during World War Two and working in the shipyards. That’s where Lilly saw the famed Dionne Quintuplets launch five ships in May, 1943.

“They just stood there quietly and they were so well behaved.” said Lilly.

In 1963, Lilly happened to see a VIP on Superior Street at the Hotel Duluth.

“Which was a new hotel by the way and out came the President, that was exciting!” said Halvorsen.

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated two months later. Husband Karl passed away more than 30 years ago but friends like John Pickar love hearing her stories.

“A lot of the youth of nowadays can learn a lot from talking to people like Lilly.” said Pickar.

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