Sauda, Norway – a Baltzersen’s history lesson

In the northernmost region of the south-western county of Rogaland, Norway lies Sauda. Neither particularly famous nor infamous, there’s evidence of a society in this area dating back to the last ice age.

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Why do we care? Because Sauda was the home of Grandma Baltzersen. That’s right; a brief road trip from Rob’s hometown Stavanger is where this whole adventure started. We thought it deserved some celebrated history, especially as cinnamon buns are hardly the only things to emigrate from this quaint corner of the world.

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Liv Baltzersen on the right end of the 2nd row

Like many other rural places around Europe during the 19th century, Sauda experienced an emigration wave that took its citizens to the big cities, and quite a few overseas to America. Many of the migrators later came back to their home, after earning enough money in the Newfoundland to start their farm, business, whatever their ambitions may have been.

However things really started to shake a few years into the 20th century: from a small rural farming community grew an industry: half a century before Norway was associated with oil, American investors saw the potential for an energy industry in the country, and Sauda was a primary target. In 1915, Union Carbide Corp. established an industrial melting plant in Sauda, parallel to rich investors from Stavanger buying up land from farmers in the area – legend has it they were ripped off and missed out on large sums, considering potential value of the land.

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In 1923, the plant was trial-tested. The local populous remained sceptical, even as 1000 tonnes of ore from a Norwegian mine and coal from England were delivered. Starting with 80 employees, the production soon expanded exponentially, and today it’s the area’s second largest source of employment, only beaten in numbers by the local government’s employee roster.

As if this sudden global-industrial influx wasn’t enough – local government demanded that the proprietors of the melting plant ensure housing for their employers. Their answer to this was to build an entirely new town site in Sauda. Åbøbyen – also known as The American Town, was modelled after American town site engineering, with a distinct class system built in to the infrastructure: lower working class at the bottom nearest the industrial plant itself, management in the middle and the executives reigned in the finest, highest streets.

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God only knows how anyone agreed to this arrangement; the class distinction remained strong through the 1960’s, until someone finally made public knowledge of the fact that the working classes living nearest the plant were under a severe health risk. In fact, pneumonia tore through Sauda for several years, although doctors never “confirmed” that it might have been a result of the thick, poisonous yellow smoke that would linger in the air on warm summer days, often covering large districts of the area.

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Dirty tricks indeed, but all towns have their demons. To be fair, the industry has allowed Sauda to blossom over the last century, going from a rural community to a Norwegian city of commerce, culture and industry. Generational plans for the city’s development were made; some of them never came to fruition and some seem more like maniacal pipe dreams. However Sauda’s development has not stagnated: it has seen unprecedented growth and development since the 1980’s.

Exactly how or why Sauda was the victim of a globalised invasion of industry and commerce, while the rest of Norway slept peacefully (until they hit oil), is anyone’s guess. Still, by the 1960’s the melting plant employed over 1300 people, and the local government’s economy has steadily found strength after a considerable amount of nose-diving. Today Sauda has a strong economy, and aims to be the top region in the country for athletics and leisure sport; offering ski slopes (and a jump),  gymnastics and sports centres of all sorts, with organised classes, teams and societies.

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Grandma Liv Esther Baltzersen was born in 1923, the same year as the trial-tests of the new plant. Her childhood must have been surrounded by the chaos of local and global forces meeting under odd circumstances in an exciting industry. It may seem like another world now; indeed it was another century – however friendly reminders of our roots sometimes come in the most unexpected forms.

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We recently received a parcel at the Baltzersen’s office – one Eva Bendiksen from Sauda remembers a Liv Esther Baltzersen embroidering tea towels for her with Eva’s family initial: B.

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Having been considered too fine to use for dirty pots and pans, they’ve seen no use in decades. As only the kindest of souls would, Eva’s sent the tea towels our way, so that the embroidered B’s can bring some new meaning to a very old and dear gesture.

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Eva’s only request is that we do not dirty the tea towels with greasy kitchen pans, but treat them with the respect they carry. Fear not, Eva: these will remain well-preserved artefacts of an old story we’d do well not to forget.

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One Response to Sauda, Norway – a Baltzersen’s history lesson

  1. Simon Burdis says:

    Hope to be able to visit you sometime in Harrogate. Interested in where your family came from: I have travelled through Sauda a few times during my many visits to the Camphill (Steiner) village community – Hogganvik Landsby down the road towards Vikedal. I worked there voluntarily as a student over forty years ago – thought it was wonderful and kept going back in my holidays.
    Best wishes
    Simon

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