7/25/11 - immigrants in america

In today's excerpt - at the turn of the twentieth century, a time of the greatest inward migration in American history, Ole and Hannah Didriksen and their small, destitute Norwegian family migrated to bleak, oil-drenched East Texas to seek riches from the new oil boom. Their as-yet-unborn daughter, later known to the world as Babe Didrikson, was to become one of the most acclaimed athletes in American history. But not before the Didriksens endured more poverty in America, and suffered the same mixture of hope and heartbreak suffered by millions of immigrants before and since:

"In January 1901, a gusher of oil erupted from the earth three miles south of Beaumont, Texas. Within a week, a black lake stretched over an area more than three hundred acres across. The Lucas Gusher, produced by the prick of a nearly worthless patch of land known as Spindletop, was soon churning out 100,000 bar­rels of oil a day.

"Practically overnight, everything—and everyone—in East Texas changed. Old cattlemen became oil wildcatters, and refineries were built on top of lumberyards. Beaumont started hustling. It seemed as if everywhere you looked, new drill holes, followed by new pipelines, were being carved out of the ground. Men and women who used to shuffle lazily along the streets began rushing everywhere, perspiring furiously in the scorching heat. No more dawdling—there was a boom to catch.

"Nothing moved faster than the price of land. A man who could not get $150 for a small chunk of scrubland back in 1898 sold it for $20,000 after the gusher. Fifteen minutes later, the buyer of the same piece of scrubland turned around and sold it for $50,000. It was crazy money, made crazier in just the time it took to change your overalls.

"In 1905, when Ole Nickolene Didriksen stepped off a Norwegian tanker docked at Port Arthur, just west of the Texas-Louisiana border, he explored the cluster of new towns busily pursuing the big oil hustle. He listened eagerly to the locals chattering about fresh oil and fast money. He soaked up the humid air, imagining that the warmth would allow his three small children—Ole Jr., Dora, and Esther—to spend most of their time outdoors. ('Get plenty of exercise,' Ole would tell his children, 'and keep your bowels clear.') Like the rest of the people in this newly minted patch of East Texas, Ole rushed toward a new and better life. Everything he saw was irresistible. East Texas was about as far from Oslo as you could get, but it did not take long for Ole to see that this was the perfect place to start over.

"The nation's immigration rules required him to live and work in the United States for three years before his family could join him, so the Didriksen family stayed behind in Oslo. Ole began working as an odd­jobs carpenter based at the port. ... Within days of setting up shop at the port, Ole considered himself blessed. After work and on weekends, he built a sturdy wooden house for his family on a small patch of land on Seventh Street, in a develop­ment of homes owned by Gulf Oil. ... Beneath an eave, extending from the front porch, Ole put a metal flagpole, and each morning he unfurled the Stars and Stripes in the breeze. 'I'm a Nor­wegian,' he liked to say, 'but nobody's a prouder American than I am.'

"By the summer of 1908, Ole Didriksen was making enough money to support his family—barely. His wife, Hannah, and his three chil­dren arrived in Port Arthur on a muggy August afternoon. Hannah shielded her eyes from the hazy sun and looked suspiciously at the oil tankers belching fumes and the black oil rigs poking the big Texas sky. She smelled the stench of petroleum and listened to the gears grum­bling inside the enormous refineries. Standing on the dock, surrounded by her children, her husband, and half a dozen travel cases, Hannah began to cry.

"My Momma, she told me that she couldn't believe what she seen—­nothin' but oil, oil, oil, and she just couldn't stand it,' Babe's sister Lillie recalled years later. 'My Momma, she cried and cried and cried to think she had left beautiful, beautiful ol' Norway for this.' "


Don Van Natta Jr.


Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias


Little, Brown and Company


Copyright 2011 by Don Van Natta Jr.


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment