In a small Norwegian cemetery on the north edge of Estherville a tombstone has been standing for almost 120 years with the following inscription:
NICHOLAI A. IBSEN
APR. 25, 1888
7 Mos. 14 Days
By strangers honored
And by strangers mourned
The poignant phrase at the bottom of the stone leads to a touching story about the lonely life of a Norwegian immigrant, of small stature and humpbacked, who came to Emmet County without relatives and was befriended by his neighbors.
The name Ibsen brings to the minds of many people Henrik Ibsen, the famous Norwegian playwright who, in the late 1800s was acclaimed “the greatest dramatist since Shakespeare.” Nicholai was Henrik Ibsen’s youngest brother. For Henrik, life brought success and fame; for Nicholai, life brought failure and shame.
Henrik and Nicholai were two of six children, five boys and one girl, born to wealthy upper-class parents, the Knud Ibsens. Knud had been a merchant in Bergen, Norway before moving to Skien, a small seaport town. While son Henrik was working his way up in the theatrical world, Knud gave son Nicholai funds to start a business. The business failed. Again Nicholai was funded by his father and again, his business failed. The shame of bankruptcy led to Nicholai’s disappearance from Norway and his anonymous life in America.
Nicholai, born Sept. 11, 1834, came to the United States about 1870.
In Chicago he sold a gold pocket watch and chain to a pawnbroker; it had been a gift from his sister. He lived in Rock County, Wis., where he herded sheep, and then in Hardin County, where he became acquainted with Tom and Lena Stenersen/Stanerson who were also from Norway. When the Stanersons decided to leave central Iowa and move to northwest Iowa they asked Nicholai if he wanted to accompany them, and he chose to go with them. The Stanersons bought a farm in Ellsworth Township in Emmet County in 1882.
Nicholai found work as a cattle herder and spent his days on his pony watching over farmers’ cattle as they grazed on prairie grasses. When he stayed in the home of one of the farmers, his pay was his room and daily meals. Others paid him a small salary. When children came to get the cattle belonging to their parents, he helped them with separating the cattle.
He spent the winters in the home of the Mikel Berhow family who had Norwegian roots. Mrs. Charles Coon, who was little Sadie Berhow during those snow-bound winters with Nicholai in her home, remembered him as not being very talkative and one who seldom laughed. He was kind and courteous, and always neat and clean. He never wanted to have his picture taken because of his hunchback. He liked to read; his well-worn Bible gave evidence of that.
The Berhows subscribed to an American newspaper that was written in the Norwegian language with news from Norway as well as news about Norwegian immigrants in America. One day the newspaper had a notice in it for “one Nicholai Ibsen” relating the information that his father had died in 1877 and that Nicholai should return to Norway to receive his portion of his father’s estate. When Berhow asked if he had seen it, Nicholai replied yes, but he was not going to answer it. “They have already given me too much. Henrik is a great man in the old country. And me? I’m nothing.”
Nicholai continued to herd cattle. He often spent Sundays visiting with Ole Myhre, who was born in Naes, Hallingdal, Norway. They visited about Henrik and his success. Nicholai showed Ole a letter from his sister urging him to return to Norway and promising to take care of him. Ole urged him to accept her invitation but Nicholai “just smiled a sort of little, twisted smile and answered: ‘I’ll think it over, but I hardly think I will accept.’ He was a proud man, Nicholai.”
Nicholai’s health began to deteriorate and he died on April 25, 1888, while he was living with the Berhows.
Mikel Berhow went to E. I. Sondrol’s store in Estherville on the day Nicholai died and purchased a pair of pants, a shirt, and a pair of socks for Nicholai’s burial clothes. The bill for the clothes amounted to $7.35. His coffin cost $15.
The Norwegian Lutheran church was without a pastor at the time. “We gave him a good funeral,” Ole Myhre said. “Someone read a chapter from the Bible, another said a prayer and there was a hymn. Nicholai was one of us. We buried him with reverence. Among his belongings we found a piece of paper with ‘by strangers honored, by strangers mourned.’ written on it. That was the inscription we carved on his tombstone.”
Myhre wrote a letter to Henrik Ibsen notifying him of his brother’s death, and perhaps asked for information needed for Nicholai’s tombstone. Although the famous brother did not reply personally he had his son, Sigurd, who was in Washington, D.C. with a delegation from Norway, write to Ole asking if Nicholai had enough money to pay for his funeral and other debts. Sigurd may also have forwarded Henrik’s information about Nicholai’s age. Could the noted play writer also have composed the epitaph which was carved at the bottom of Nicholai’s tombstone?
A petition for a probate of Nicholai’s estate dated June 25, 1888, signed by Micheal Berhow stated that Nicholas Ibsen left no will but left the following property: “one mare three years old, one single buggy, one set single harness and forty acres of land in Hamilton County.” An inventory filed in August 1888 appraised the mare at $65, the buggy at $5, and the harness at $5. The 40 acres were sold in 1889 for $250, subject to mortgage and taxes. There was nothing left after debts were paid. The report also said that some heirs of the deceased lived in Norway but Berhow was unable to say who they were or know their addresses.
Nicholai’s fellow countrymen apparently helped him maintain his anonymity. He was not listed in the 1880 Federal Census or in the Iowa State 1885 Census. His name cannot be found in Emmet County death records. The Estherville Lutheran Church has no burial record for him.
Several years after Nicholai’s death Dorothy Latchem Gronstal, who taught literature classes for many years in the Estherville high school, wrote the following poem about the lonely, forgotten, frail, hunchbacked man buried far from his homeland.
Here friends sleep beneath the clouds in peace,
Here, in serene death, all troubles cease.
While musing thus one day, I found a stone
Upon a grave, neglected and unknown.
One line inscribed upon the stone I read
(What story hidden here among the dead?)
“By strangers honored and by strangers mourned.”
A low voice added, “By no flower adorned.”
Lo, quietly nearby, a bright-eyed hunchback stood.
He said, “I herd the cattle beyond yon wood.
You ask, what story here? From memory’s tomb
Like silent ghosts, a thousand pictures loom
Before me, for here Nicholai Ibsen lies
Born brother of great Henrick beneath Norwegian skies.
Two brothers, one a wanderer, one a genius rare.”
This was a dream, I thought, for, no longer there
Without farewell, without a sound, my visitor had gone
Leaving no trace of footsteps upon the silent lawn.
But yesterday I stopped again — I’ll tell you why —
To leave a wreath of flowers for Nicholai.
If anyone would like to leave a flower at Nicholai’s grave this Memorial Day, turn left at the KILR radio station and continue to the Norwegian cemetery on the north side of the road. His tombstone is in the northwest corner of that cemetery. It is in the first row east from the gravel road running north and south, the second tombstone from the north fence.
Sources: Des Moines Sunday Register, Magazine Section, Dec. 12, 1926; Norden, May 1933; The Iowan, March, 1958; Estherville Daily News, Nov. 2, 1971; Norway Times, Mar 8, 1984; Sons of Norway Viking Magazine, Nov. 1988; Undated personal record by B. L. Wick titled “A Relative of Ibsen who Died a Resident of Iowa.”