Chicago Cemetery Visits: The O.A. Thorp Story

O.A. Thorp monument, Mount Olive Cemetery, Chicago.

One trip I try to make when I’m back in Chicago is to the cemeteries where my mom and dad and their families are buried.

My dad’s family cemetery, by which I mean the place where his parents and most of his mother’s family, the Sieversons, are interred, is Mount Olive, on Narragansett Avenue between Irving Park and Addison on the Northwest Side.

As kids, we were dragged out there for the occasional funeral. I only remember one in any detail: on a Saturday afternoon in September 1975 when Grandma Brekke was buried. I don’t recall that my father, whom I think was pretty stricken, stopped to take in the other family graves in the vicinity: His grandparents, Theodore and Maren Sieverson, for instance, or the several children surrounding them, or his Reque uncles and cousins, or the Helmuths or Simonsens or anyone else. Instead, we left the cemetery for a lunch at my grandmother’s church, Hauge Lutheran.

My siblings and I began visiting the cemeteries on our own — voluntarily — after our mom died in August 2003, followed by her last surviving sibling, our Uncle Bill, who died just four months later. My dad wanted to visit the cemeteries in the wake of those passings, for one thing, and we’d go with him. The two deaths so close together were so shocking in their suddenness that for me, I think going out to the cemetery when I was in town was a way to help process the grief. It also led us to find and visit all the family graves we had never seen before.

The inscription: ‘Christ my hope.’ Sjur was a Lutheran minister who died of the effects of Parkinson’s disease in 1932. Otilia was a devout young Lutheran woman who met him at her church when he was finishing his ministerial training.

Anyway. I made my rounds last week, and yes, everyone was pretty much where I left them. Mount Olive was predominantly a Scandinavian cemetery until the last few decades, and it’s filled with graves of Norwegians and Swedes and probably some stray Danes whose families came to the city in the 19th century. The place hasn’t gone wild, but the years are catching up with those old Scandinavian sections, with lots of markers askew or tumbled down. There are a few that have markers stamped with the words “perpetual care.” My grandparents’ stone, which is rather unique in its simplicity, is still straight.

On this trip, I took a few pictures around the various grave sites, then drove toward the entrance, my next destination being my mom’s family cemetery on the far South Side. On the way out, though, I passed the inescapably phallic monument pictured at the top of the post. I must have passed it at least a dozen times in the past, but it had never registered. Maybe the light was just right this time.

The stone, which is 15 or 20 feet high, bears the name “O.A. Thorp.” Not a household name, at least where I live. Here’s what I can piece together:

Ole Anton Thorp was born in the town of Eidsberg, south of Oslo — then Christiania — in 1856. He emigrated to the United States and arrived in Chicago in 1880, where he started an import-export business.

The moment that made him a public figure arrived in 1892.

A promoter of all things Norwegian, including trade, Thorp had puzzled over a way to bring goods directly from Norway to Chicago, thus skipping the British and East Coast ports where they’d normally be handled at great expense. His solution was to charter a small freighter and bring his cargo up the St. Lawrence River and through the various canals connecting that waterway to the Great Lakes and Chicago.

The ship, the Wergeland, left Bergen with a cargo of salt herring and cod liver oil in early April. It made the crossing to the St. Lawrence without difficulty. But the canals of the era were so shallow that the steamer had to be unloaded before it passed through, then reloaded at the other end, a process that was repeated several times.

The Wergeland made it to Chicago on May 26, six weeks after leaving Norway, and was greeted as the first steam cargo vessel to make the voyage from Europe to the city.

Part of the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean’s report on the arrival of the Wergeland, published May 27, 1892.

So that was Thorp’s major claim to fame. A writeup on important Chicagoans done shortly afterward declared Thorp “has during the last decade done more for the development of trade between Norway and the United States than any other man in the West, and possibly more than anybody on this side of the ocean.”

He chartered steamers to make the journey again in 1893 and 1894, but then the venture seemed to fizzle. A magazine article a few years later — “Chicago Our Newest Seaport” in the May 1901 number of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly — suggested that the nature of the cargo was part of the problem:

“… With each succeeding venture (Thorp) found it more and more difficult to dispose of a whole cargo of dried fish and cod liver oil at one time, especially in summer. In winter it might, perhaps, have been easier; but in winter navigation was closed, and it was impossible for his steamers to reach Chicago. Norway had little but fish and oil to send us … “

Thorp remained active in business, civic, and Norwegian American affairs in the city. He was one of the organizers of the campaign to commission a statue of Leif Erikson that was erected in Humboldt Park in 1901. He was appointed to the city’s school board in 1902; in the photo accompanying the appointment announcement in the Chicago Tribune, he looks vaguely like the accused Haymarket bombers of 1886.

How is Thorp remembered today? Hardly at all, though there’s a school named after him just a few blocks from Mount Olive Cemetery. And then there’s the giant O.A. Thorp shaft, rising amid the graves of less notable Norse folk.

In the individual graves around the monument, there are two markers with dates in January 1905.

One is for O.A. himself, who died Jan. 25, reportedly after surgery for an abdominal abscess. The other grave is for his daughter, Sara Olive Elizabeth, who died at age 14 on Jan. 5. The death notice in the Tribune says she passed at 4 in the afternoon at the family home in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.



Just remembering: It was two years ago today that our dad passed on. I’m not sure a day goes by that I don’t have some thought of him (and yes, of our mom, too — she died in August 2003, and it’s hard to believe it’s been that long).

Here’s a reading for them, two lifelong Chicagoans: Carl Sandburg’s “Passers-By,” from “Chicago Poems” (1916):

Out of your many faces
Flash memories to me
Now at the day end
Away from the sidewalks
Where your shoe soles traveled
And your voices rose and blent
To form the city’s afternoon roar
Hindering an old silence.

I remember lean ones among you,
Throats in the clutch of a hope,
Lips written over with strivings,
Mouths that kiss only for love.
Records of great wishes slept with,
Held long
And prayed and toiled for…

Written on
Your mouths
And your throats
I read them
When you passed by.


July 30-1922.jpeg

Dad passed away a year ago today. I miss him, as I know the whole family does. I miss his presence, his grasp of the past, his intelligence, his curiosity, his generosity, his sense of fun. And of course there are a million questions I wish I could have asked about his life, about what he went through as a son, a father and husband, as a man. There’s a lot about him I have never understood and have spent countless hours examining, wondering at, and puzzling over. He was not an easy guy to sound out about what he’d gone through in his life.

The picture above is one from the archives. That’s Dad, Stephen Daniel Brekke, in the arms of his grandfather, Theodore Sieverson. The picture is dated July 30, 1922, and they’re standing outside the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Alvarado, Minnesota (the church, no longer standing, is out of the frame to the right; the brick building in the left distance is the town’s public school, which is still standing, though no longer used as a school). My father’s father, Sjur Brekke, was pastor there. Grandpa Sieverson was a carpenter from a town just outside Frederikstad, Norway, who with his wife, Maren Olesdatter, and six children emigrated to the United States in 1884. Dad’s mom, Otilia, was the first of five children Theodore and Maren had in Chicago.

April 11, 1953


Sixty years ago today: My future mom and dad smooch in full view of their wedding party at the Windermere Hotel, down on the South Side near the Museum of Science and Industry and the University of Chicago. The Windermere: My mom’s family, the Hogans, had a history there. I believe my mom’s parents, Edward Daniel Hogan and Anne Louise O’Malley, had their wedding reception there, back around 1925. My Uncle Dick’s ordination party was held there in 1965. I think I read that the U of C owns it now and has converted it to a residence for students.

Anyway, the picture: It’s one of a couple of color snapshots I’ve seen of the event. There are lots of formal black-and-white wedding pictures, too, showing the wedding party and important family members in various configurations. To me, Dad looks nervous in most of those pictures and Mom looks something I interpret as close to ecstatic. My dad’s mother, Otilia Sieverson Brekke, a Norwegian Lutheran, shows a steady lack of warmth for the proceedings. After all, she’d been forced to endure attendance at the Hogans’ Irish Catholic parish, St. Kilian’s, at 87th and May streets.

On the left margin of this picture is Dad’s friend (and best man?) John Lacognata, a fellow musician. I know he and my dad and another guy–who was the other guy?–once drove out to the West Coast from Chicago in a Hudson my dad had bought. I remember Dad showing slides of that trip, complete with a shot showing the car with water bags slung across the front to aid the crossing of one of the Southern California deserts.

On the right of the picture is a woman named Kay, whose last name I can’t remember, but whom I think went to Loretto High School with Mom; they would have graduated about 1947. Kay and her husband, Norbert–again, I don’t recall a last name–lived out in the south suburbs when we were growing up there; I remember visiting them and not getting along with their kids.

In the center of the picture: Mary Alice Hogan and Stephen Daniel Brekke. She was all of 23; he was 31. What were they thinking? I never talked to them much about their courtship, and uncharacteristically, Mom didn’t give me the inside story during some long, wandering, late-night talk. My Dad volunteered after Mom died in 2003 that it was she who asked him out on their first date when they were both working at the Chicago Land Clearance Commission. They went to Schrafft’s downtown. There was also the story of how Steve took Mary on a date to Uno’s, the original location at Ohio and Wabash. Mary Alice reportedly told Steve she’d never been to Uno’s, a pizzeria that allowed patrons to scrawl their names on the walls. Anyway, they get there and are seated. On the wall adjacent to their table, “Mary Alice Hogan” is written in red lipstick. I don’t know how Mary Alice explained that.

Anyway, there they are: Norwegian minister’s son and the daughter of an Irish-American bank clerk and schoolteacher, getting ready to set sail into joys and sorrows unimaginable, right after they cut the cake.

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Stephen D. Brekke and Stephen D. Brekke, Jr., 1955.
Stephen D. Brekke and Stephen D. Brekke, Jr., 1955.

That’s me and my dad and namesake, Stephen Daniel Brekke, back in 1955, when I was about a year or so old and he was 33 or 34. He was not a bad-looking guy, and he could rock a bow tie, as the young people say today. When my parents had this picture developed, they saw something they hadn’t noticed before — that something was amiss with my eyes. They took me to an ophthalmologist, and I was in glasses by the age of 18 months. But that’s another story.

Today’s story is that Dad died about 5 this afternoon, Chicago time. My sister, Ann, and my brothers, John and Chris, were with him when he went. Some of his grandkids had just visited. Chris’s wife, Patty, was there. A Lutheran minister, a fellow Norwegian-American, came in to say a prayer. John says his passing was as quiet, as peaceful, and as gentle as it could have been.

If this were a news story, we’d want to be getting to the cause of death. I think I hit upon the right description the other day: the weight of his ninety-plus years finally bore down on him. He’d had pneumonia. And emphysema. And crippling arthritis that virtually froze his knee joints and robbed him of his mobility. And a form of dementia that denied him the ability to communicate freely. And finally, congestive heart failure. Ann’s husband, Dan–the two of them were my dad’s primary caretakers for the last three years or so of his life and his main lifeline since our mom died nine years ago–reminded me that my dad never complained.

And he didn’t. If you asked him if he was in pain or uncomfortable, he’d come out with some formulation like, “I can’t say that I am.” It wasn’t until a month or so ago that Ann asked him if he was hurting after suffering an arm abrasion and he said, “I hurt all over.”

Bye, Pop. We miss you already. But we’re glad you’re not hurting any longer.

Pop: 89


Flew to Chicago today. The proximate cause: my dad’s 89th birthday today. Also, I haven’t checked in here since April. Too long, though I very skillfully missed the heat. It had been around 90 all week. Today when I arrived it was a blustery 65 or so–very similar to the conditions that have obtained much of the summer in Berkeley. I feel right at home.

One surprise upon greeting Dad when I arrived: He’s decided after all this time to let his hair grow. Me, I sport his former buzzed style. He actually has a nice head of hair going there–much more appealing than anything I’ve been able to grow in a while.

Anyway, I’m here. Dad: Happy birthday.

Pop: The Legend Continues

My sister Ann called from Chicago this morning, and just hearing her so early meant there was news, maybe bad news, about my dad.

In the middle of the night, he had chest pains. Not wanting to disturb anyone — neither Ann, who lives three blocks away and would have been at his place in a split second if he called; nor neighbors; nor paramedics — he climbed the stairs from his apartment, walked out to his car, and drove himself halfway across the city to the hospital where his doctor practices and presented himself at the emergency room. Ann was quick to say he was OK and reminded me that a few years ago he had chest pains and they turned out to be unrelated to any heart problem. So I was relieved and resigned myself to waiting to hear what the hospital tests showed.

Ann called back late in the afternoon. She and my brother Chris had spent the day at the hospital with Dad. The tests showed a 75 percent blockage in one heart artery, and the cardiac people did an immediate angioplasty (ran a little balloon through a blood vessel in his groin up to the heart to clear out the blockage). “Technically, they say he did have a minor heart attack,” Ann said. The procedure he had was not pain free, and he was pretty much immobilized afterwards and put on what sounded like a host of drugs — blood thinners and sedatives and godknowswhatall.

So let’s roll the tape back to this morning. Here’s my dad, six weeks after his 84th birthday. He sits up in the middle of the night with chest pains. And does what, again? Drives himself to the hospital. Halfway across the city. And not to be dismissive of fine Illinois metropoli like Rockford, Springfield and Rantoul, but this is not Rockford, Springfield or Rantoul he was driving halfway across, but Chicago, city of broad shoulders and big dimensions. What an adventure. I wish I’d been there to see the looks in the ER when he strolled in.

“He’s getting no end of grief from everyone who hears about the drive,” Ann said. He’s probably loving it, too. It just proves it’s never too late to add to the legend. If Mom was taking this in from some after-life bleacher seats — she’d prefer those to the boxes, though she’d like the boxes just fine — I’m sure she got a kick out out of my dad’s pluck.

September 3, 1921

In 1921, September 3 fell on a Saturday. On that day:

A son, Stephen Daniel, is born to the Rev. Sjur and Otilia (Sieverson) Brekke in Warren, Minnesota, the seat of Marshall County. I’d love to know what the Rev. Brekke’s sermon was the next day to his congregation at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Alvarado, 11 miles west of Warren.


Henry Bellmon, future governor and U.S. senator from Oklahoma, is born near Tonkawa, Oklahoma.

St. Johnsville, New York, police officer David Bennett Hill is struck by a hit-and-run driver and killed.

Photographer Ruth Orkin born in Boston.

The Cincinnati Reds beat the visiting Chicago Cubs, 4-0, at Crosley Field (so what’s new?). The White Sox fall to the St. Louis Browns, 5-0, at Comiskey Park. The game marks the final appearance of Browns pitcher Joe DeBerry, 24, just a year after making his big-league debut.

Florence M. Foos, 19, marries Fred D. Erni in Bison, Kansas. They had been married nearly 65 years when she died on April 3, 1986.

The population of the world: Roughly 1.86 billion (today: 6.46 billion). Of the United States: 105 million (today: 297 million). Of Marshall County, Minnesota: 19,443 (2000 census: 10,155).

Film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle drives from Los Angeles to San Francisco to party with friends. By the end of the Labor Day weekend, he’d be a suspect in a murder case — a scandal that all but ended his career.

The September 3 Saturday Evening Post features an article called “The Uses of Calamity” by journalist and early press critic Will Irwin (I haven’t found the text).

In Binghamton, New York, Erma Mae Bryan, 24, marries Herman Otto Wunderlich, 42, who had refused to wed until his mother had passed away.

In the September 3 issue of the British medical journal, The Lancet, Dr. R.W. Burkitt notes that powdered rhubarb has proven effective in treating acute dysentery.

Robert Staughton Lynd marries Helen Merrill. Their son, Staughton Lynd, becomes a noted conscientious objector.

In the 16th Davis Cup tennis tournament, the United States defeats Japan, 5-0.

Ernest Hemingway married Hadley Richardson (it didn’t last).

The Arkansas City (Kansas) Daily Traveler reports: “John Peters, for fifteen years a resident of the little town of Ashton, in Sumner county, west of here, has located in Arkansas City and will in the future make his home in the best city in Kansas. … He has purchased the grocery store of A. L. Bendure, located at 426 North A Street, and he will take charge of the business there next Monday morning.”

Lightning strikes the Lower Coverdale, New Brunswick, Methodist Church.

Happy Birthday, Pop

Hey, it’s my dad’s birthday.

He was born up in Marshall County, Minnesota, the same year that Warren Harding became president of the United States. Who’d ever have thought we’d get a president who’d make Harding look so harmless? But enough of the politics. Although Dad was born in Warren, the county seat and where the closest hospital is, Dad’s parents (Sjur Ingebretsson Brekke and Otilia Sieversen Brekke) lived in Alvarado, where my grandfather was pastor of the Lutheran parish from about 1917 through 1925 (he had at least one other congregation he served, too, at a rural church called Kongsvinger).

The area had a certain ethnic flavor: Alvarado was half Swedish, half Norwegian back then, and started out in the late 19th century with two different congregations. Services at Kongsvinger were said in Norwegian exclusively up through the 1930s. From Alvarado, the family moved to Chicago, where Sjur had attended seminary (on the site of Wrigley Field) after arriving in the United States in 1893, age 17, and where my grandmother’s very large family lived (she was the first child in her family born in the States, in October 1884). In Chicago, my dad became fluent in English (very useful), became a Cubs fan (not so useful), met my mom (indispensable development, from my point of view), played for the Chicago Bears (tuba, in the marching band they used to have perform; I’ve been working that line for decades), worked at Spiegel’s when it really was Spiegel’s, raised a big, challenging family of his own, and has generally been a remarkable, interesting, fun guy to be around.

OK, that’s it. Happy birthday, Dad!