Sanpete Tales


Sanpete Tales: Humorous Folklore from Central Utah

Nontraditional pioneer stories based on the simultaneously dark and funny folklore traditions of Utah’s Scandinavian immigrants.

October, 1999

SKU: 1-56085-127-9 Categories: , Tags: , Author: William Jenson AdamsProduct ID: 1482


Tucked away in old trunks, desks, and bookcases in countless homes are stories of the pioneers who made the American West what it is today. These journals tend to be terse, matter-of-fact (“Our son John died last night of inflammation of the bowels. Buried near Fort Bridger.”), the kind of simple honesty that led to this collection. The author remembers the guilty pleasure he felt when first reading this journal entry: “Sharpened ax this morning. Wife died this afternoon.” A sad moment, but amusing in the unintended irony that rivals the best remembered J. Golden Kimball tales. Sometimes the humor is less subtle, such as when a forgetful Danish bishop finally said at a wedding, “I now pronounce you fadder und modder.”

These are not traditional pioneer stories. Rather, they are the collected folk humor of the Scandinavian immigrants of Sanpete County, Utah. They provide a peek at the humanity of the people who helped build the West, as if a comedian were cast in the lead in John Wayne’s place. The tales are straightforward and simple, loaded with broad, earthy humor and topped with dry wit.

Edgar M. Jenson first assembled Sanpete Tales: Humorous Folklore from Central Utah in hand-written and -illustrated form for his three daughters. He was well known in the Sanpete area for his love for these stories and his success at collecting them. He died in 1958.

William Jenson Adams, Ph.D., Indiana University, an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at Kansas State University, is a grandson of E. M. Jenson. He finished authoring Sanpete Tales: Humorous Folklore from Central Utah after his grandfather’s death.

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7 reviews for Sanpete Tales

  1. Journal of the West

    Humor is the lubricant of life. These tales from central Utah reflect both the Mormon church background and the Scandinavian origins of some of the residents. Enjoyable reading and a chuckle generator.

  2. Utah Historical Quarterly

    In 1930 Edgar M. Jenson, the author’s grandfather, began writing down the impudent folk tales told by the Scandinavian settlers of Sanpete County. An example: “When Doc Olstein was called in to see Requel Nielsen’s wife, who was very ill, he made a very careful examination, but finally shook his head and said, ‘Requel, I am worried. I yoost don’t like your wife’s looks at all.’ ‘Vell, i neffer like dem either,’ answered Requel, ‘but she surely haf been a faithful vife oond modder’” (57).

    Although these stories had entertained and united the community for decades, by 1930 the old tradition of storytelling was dying out, and the then-current generation of Sanpeters was mostly ashamed of the dialect and situations in these tales. Though many disliked the way the stories made the settlers look unsophisticated, Jenson loved the stories, and he wanted his children to know them.

    Lucky for us. The hand-typed, hand-illustrated volumes he left for his posterity have been compiled and abridged into this volume. Besides making us laugh, the dry humor in this collection helps us to enjoy the people—the “tough-bodied, warm-hearted, sly-humored” (xx) Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes who passed them around.

  3. Journal of Mormon History

    Sanpete County’s Scandinavian population, perhaps Utah’s most distinctive ethnic group for its first century, has also produced a legendary body of folk humor focused on tough endurance, hyperbolic descriptions of gender roles, deliberate obtuseness about higher culture, and carefully calculated subversions of the alien English language. Edgar M. Jenson, the author’s maternal grandfather, died in 1958, leaving three typed and hand-illustrated compilations of these “droll stories,” one for each of his daughters. He never published any of them, out of consideration for the privacy of the third-generation descendants of those pioneers and also as a sensitive recognition that dialect stories seemed “demeaning” and “old-fashioned.” William Jenson Adams’s decision to publish them reflects the new “fierce loyalty” of Sanpete descendants to their “ethnic heritage” (vii).

    Adams’s introduction also supplies a history of Scandinavian Mormon migration to Utah, settlement history, the folk explanations for the folktales themselves, and a bibliographic discussion of other efforts to collect these tales. The preface his grandfather prepared for his holograph collection is also included.

    But the core of the book is “Eddie Miller’s” 232 tales and sayings of Philosopher Pete and sixteen Danish-style caricatures (Miller taught art at Brigham Young University). Here are three samples:

    Stake President Canute Peterson prayed devoutly for the general authorities of the Church “dat dey may be true oond virtuous from time to time.” (45)

    Philosopher Pete says: “Marriage entitles vomen to de protection of strong men vat can steady de stepladder for dem vile dey vitevash de kitchen ceiling.” (63)

    Aunt Stene had a flock of fine Plymouth Rock hens. Their eggs were normally dark shelled, but one day Uncle Neils Peter brought in an egg with peculiar white markings all over it. Uncle Neils, thrilled with their hieroglyphic appearance, was sure it must be some sort of message from on high and urged that they send the egg to Salt Lake City for translation. “Remember de writings on de wall at Belshazzer’s Feast, Stene,” he counseled.

    Stene was not impressed. “Neils Peter,” she announced firmly, “you can believe vat you vant to believe, but I for von don’t tink de Lord sends messages to us t’roo de hind end of a chicken.” (55-56).

  4. Tamara Wahlquist, Latter-day Messenger

    Any Scandinavians or lovers of Scandinavians would enjoy this little volume of Central Utah folklore. At first it is hard to get the knack of the dialogue, but once you read a few of the stories outloud to yourself, and get the dialect conquered, the tales are quite amusing.

    These stories were collected over a long period of time; told and retold. The printing of them now allows us to see ourselves in some of the stories. It’s good to laugh at ourselves and see the humor in day to day activities. This is a highly enjoyable book which would make a great gift to anyone you know who will enjoy seeing their own foibles in these stories and be able to laugh at themselves.

  5. Molly Kingan, Update Magazine

    ‘Der vas von ting Villiam Adams vas vorried about. He vanted to preserve his family’s heritage. ‘Dis vas an admirable endeavor, in anyvon’s book, but dat book dat he wrote vas vunny, too.

    In his new book, “Sanpete Tales: Humorous Folklore from Central Utah,” Adams preserves the dialect and heritage of an entire group of immigrants from American history.

    The book, published by Signature Books of Salt Lake City, is a collection of stories gathered by his grandfather Edgar Jenson. The book compiles the humorous tales of the Scandinavian immigrants of Utah. The stories begin around the 1840s with the Mormon trek and continue through the next 80 years until the Great Depression.

    Adams, an associate professor in the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications, teaches a variety of journalism classes including Research Methods for graduate and undergraduate students. He also teaches broadcast history and photography courses. He has received awards for his own photojournalism in addition to two Excellence in Teaching awards from K-State. He also has a life outside Kedzie Hall that includes an interest in preserving storytelling.

    “Storytelling is beginning to revive again. It had died out for anumber of years. Hopefully, this is part of that trend,” Adams said. “Stories are commentary on a society, and that still works.”

    Many people had tried to capture the Sanpete tales without much success, but Jenson changed this. He decided to collect these stories when he began “realizing he too would soon be an ancestor.” Because the third generation of Utah Scandinavian immigrants feared being embarrassed by the tales, Adams said the stories began to be lost. But three years ago his family decided the time to share the stories with the world had come.

    “Well, the first through the third generations have all passed away and the fourth and fifth aren’t looking too healthy,” Adams said.

    The perfect author for this book, Adams has a background in writing textbooks dealing with programming, public relations and promotions. He also has his personal memories of his grandfather’s tales.

    “My grandfather collected all these stories. I’ve grown up knowing them,” Adams said. “With the Utah centennial coming up (in 1996), the family decided to make them into a book.”

    Jenson died when Adams was young, but Adams was not left without memories of him. Jenson left behind recordings of himself telling the Sanpete tales aloud with the authentic dialect of the settlers. He also left three volumes, one for each of his daughters. Within these volumes are hand-illustrated, Danish-style caricatures Jenson drew to accent the stories. In addition, Jenson had numerous notes and journals, which Adams worked with to compile the book over a two-and-a-half-year period.

    “The reworking of the stories took me about a year,” Adams said. “Then I spent about a year and a half working with the publishers.”

    Adams streamlined the commentary, removed titles for the stories and standardized the punctuation and spelling of dialect words.

    Adams said that for some time, these tales were the biggest dontation to Utah humor. He illustrated this in the book through the tales.

    “My favorite story is probably one of the funeral stories,” Adams recalled. “The one about Falsebottom Peterson’s eulogy.”

    Each of the townspeople had humorous nicknames. Falsebottom received his name after he was found stuffing luxury goods into his trousers during inspections at Ellis Island. Adams explained that once a name was chosen it was hard to lose.

    The story, like many others, finds humor in the slip-ups that happen when immigrants come to a new country, with a new language and culture.

    “Carried away by his eulogy, Simon Coffeepot leaned forward on the pulpit and said ‘Ve don’t need to vorry none about Brodder Falsebottom. He vas a good man, a kind man, if not an honest von.’ Then, pointing to his casket, with tears in his eyes he sobbed, ‘Dis han’t Brodder Peterson vat is in de coffin. Dis only de shell of Brodder Peterson. De nut has gone to de Great Behind.”

    Adams’ book doesn’t just show the humor of the tales as seen above, but his pride in his heritage. He combines both in his dedication.

    “To Dad and Mom and their fellow townspeople, whose Sanpete humor furnished fun from the shoe leather up and renovated the soul.”

  6. Glenn M. Busset, Manhattan Mercury

    Well, no, not all the Scandinavian emigrants to America ended up in Wisconsin, Michigan, North and South Dakota and Lindsborg. Quite a few found their new homes in an entirely different location, on the Western frontier. None however could have been more surprised than those who landed in Sanpete County, Utah south of Salt Lake City. This isn’t a book about Mormonism, although that is the mechanism that got these Swedes, Danes and Norwegians to Utah.

    These so-called ‘droll stories’ represent how Scandinavian immigrants to Utah in the 1850s entertained themselves. Their new life was a hard one—adjusting to a raw, new country, a new language and a new church. They accepted these new hardships by making light of them, poking fun at society and each other. Eventually these waggish stories, told in the familiar vernacular, became the central feature of entertainment by which settlers greeted each other.

    These stories represent part of the heritage of pioneers who had little else to cheer them. Writer Adams explains it this way,

    “Life was hard and humor was one of the few defenses the people had against grievances. I marvel at how people today love to lecture about how much better things were in the ‘good old days.’ Some people who worry endlessly about automobile pollution can’t imagine the effect of hundreds of horses on city streets, open sewage systems, drinking water from irrigation ditches and cooking over coal fires.”

    He further explains the people and why he concluded to collect some of these folk stories before they became lost:

    The stories are not heroic, or poetic, or romantic; to me they are funny. The Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes at the center of the tales were a tough-bodied, warm-hearted, sly-humored lot, who turned their ironic eyes on themselves and each other. The result was a collection of stories loaded with broad, earthy humor and topped with dry wit.

    …humor is the most difficult thing to achieve, and it is even more difficult when writing in dialect and for those who are unacquainted with the characters or the ways of the people concerned.
    Fortunate are those among us senior types who grew up in a community that had old grandpa and grandma Swenson, Hansen, Nelson, whatever—just off the boat, as we used to say—who spoke slowly, with a sober face but a twinkle in their blue eyes. They often substituted w for v (vell), y for j (by yiminy) and using d for the English th (dat). As the author’s grandfather explained it, “Dere are yust some sounds that I don’t believe the Good Lord meant Scandinavians to say.”

    When I went along eagerly with my veterinarian father to the second generation Norwegian farms in our community, I always hoped that the old grandfather (Nybroe, Rasmussen, Lampe, et al) would talk to my father about, ‘Ven ve first comed to Kansas.’ On the way home, I would get a more distinct clarification from dad.

    But, enough of these warm up explanations—what we really need are some of the stories that were exchanged as the old timers gathered on the Wise Bench at the post office.

    Here we can sample the Sanpete tales, and they are more enjoyable when you read them with the proper Scandinavian accent, and with a proper sober face.

    Remembering the tendency to apply seemingly irrelevant nicknames the author’s explanation for the need for nicknames is a choice part of the introduction:

    …The patronymic situation led to the one Sanpete tale that everyone knows: The bishop calls on “Brother Petersen” to give the closing prayer in sacrament meeting. Half of the men in the congregation stand up. “Oh,” he explains, “I mean Brother Peter Peterson.” Two men sit down.
    Now that we are ready to get into what is a real page-turner, here are a few just (yust) to warm you up:

    Stena Threecorner was one of the nastiest personalities in old Fort Ephraim, always fighting with her neighbors and vilifying people generally. When she died, it was practically impossible to get anyone to speak at the funeral. Finally False Bottom Peterson was persuaded to be the speaker. After the prayer and the opening song which was: “Nay, Speak No Ill,” Brother Peterson began: “Vell, broders and sisters, der is von ting I can say in Sister Stena’s favor. She vas not alvays as mean as she vas most of de time.”

    He said, “Peter Brewsern, can you see anyting gud in running two such men for mayor of Fort Ephraim?”
    Brewsern answered,”Ya, at least only von of dem can be elected.”

    Chris Ole was brought into bishop’s court charged with assault and battery for hitting Ole Thompson, a Swede, with a brick.

    After the usual preliminaries, the bishop inquired: “Brodder Ole, vhy did you hit dis man?”

    “Bishop,” Chris replied, “he called me a damn Danish rascal.”

    “Vell, you are von, aren’t you?” asked the bishop.

    “Maybe so,” said Chris, “but suppose somebody should call you a damn Danish rascal; vouldn’t you hit him?”

    “But I’m not von,” answered the bishop.

    “No, not a Danish von,” replied Chris, “but suppose somebody called you de kind of a damn rascal you is; vouldn’t you hit him?”

    William Jenson Adams is Associate Professor of Communications at Kansas State University. His grandfather Edgar M. Jenson first collected these tales of the Sanpete pioneers.

    The only story that appears to be missing from this excellent anthology is how Sanpete County got its name.

    You tink mebbe dats gonna be in annuder book sometimes, heh?

  7. Carma Wadley, Deseret News

    Sanpete County was settled largely by Scandinavian converts to the LDS Church (77 percent of the population of the valley by 1880; 94 percent of Fort Ephraim). Leaving their homes and coming to a place that was not only frontier but also where a new language was spoken and a different culture was developing proved challenging, but the good folk had their faith—and a sense of humor—to see them through. They needed both.
    And over the years, some great stories have been told and retold about those early settlers.

    A number of them were compiled by Edgar M. Jenson, who, when he died in 1958, left copies to his three children with the instructions that they not be published until everyone mentioned had also died—just in case there were any sensitivities. So now, William Jenson Adams, a grandson, has put together a collection of tales, drawn from those original compilations.

    Because so many people had the same names—the Peter Petersons and Jens Jensons, for example—almost everyone had a nickname: Shingle Pete, Salt Peter, Wheat Sack Olsen, False Bottom Peterson (and of course, every name had a story). Edgar Jenson himself was known as Eddie Miller (because his father ran a gristmill), and all these names add to the fun as you share the faith and foibles of these good folk.

    The stories are told with a Scandinavian dialect, which takes a bit of getting into, and which might raise a red flag in these politically correct times, until you realize that there is nothing mean-spirited in the collection. The intent is not to make fun but to share loving insight, along with a laugh or two. And that it does.

    You find yourself wishing you knew people like Faithful Andrew and Philosopher Pete, who could find a worthy lesson in pretty much anything. You kind of envy people who grew up in a town that had a “wise bench” in front of the Post Office, where people could sit and ponder life’s meaning.

    There’s a lot of wit in this slim volume—but some fine wisdom, too.

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