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Northeast Iowa Woman Ahead of Her Time: Aase Haugen Herself
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Northeast Iowa Woman Ahead of Her Time: Aase Haugen Herself

History of the Aase Haugen Home: Part 1

A Northeast Iowa Woman Ahead of Her Time: Aase's Story

2014 marked the hundredth anniversary of the construction of the original Aase Haugen Home, which many people in the area still know of as that big old odd place in the country. Did you know that it was the first retirement home built west of the Mississippi River? This was wish of a woman with vision - a woman ahead of her time. Many folks still drive past the home out of curiosity, or perhaps remembering summer days long past, sitting with grandma or grandpa on the big front porch. So here, for the curious, is a little history of the Home, which is truly an historic treasure to Northeast Iowa, beginning with the story of Aase herself.

Aase Haugen, the namesake of the Aase Haugen nursing home in Decorah, has a very interesting story filled with tragedy and blessing. She was the grand-daughter of Gunbjorn Haugen, a wealthy farmer in in Eggedal (Sogn), Sigdahl's Parish, in Norway. Aase's father, Bjorn, had inherited his father's estate, called Nord Haugen. He married Ingeborg Teigen in 1833, purchased two adjoining farms, and became quite wealthy. Aase was born in 1841. At the age of 48, when Aase was 13, Bjorn sold the estate and emigrated to America, crossing the ocean for 3-1/2 months by sailship, and reportedly carrying $2,000 in gold. Aase had some schooling but not much, as girls in Norway were typically not taught writing or math. Can you imagine this adventure for a young girl crowded into open canal boats through the Erie Canal and then the great lakes to Milwaukee, making the last leg of the journey in this strange new land by ox-cart to northeast Iowa?

Tragedy struck when the family reached Lansing, IA, when Ingeborg became sick with cholera and died. Ingeborg had a sister living on the Haugen farm near Decorah who was called for, but due to slow travel by ox and cart, did not reach her before she died. Bjorn purchased land in Madison Township and joined the Little Iowa congregation. In 1863 when a Lutheran Congregation was formed, the family joined it. Because of her mother's death, Aase was expected to take over that role, and one can imagine a life of both constant hard work as well as happiness in her life on the farm. Apparently she walked ten miles to the Washington Prairie church to get confirmation instruction, and was then confirmed by Rev. V. Koren "in the home of Thore Skotland in Calmar Township."

The family farmed for a quarter-century. At some point during that period, Aase became engaged to Ole Baglie but postponed the marriage because of her father's disapproval. Her fiance died not long after. Apparently, Aase wore her engagement ring the rest of her life. Then more sadness came into her life. Between 1879 and 1893, Aase lost all of her immediate family members, including her sister Ragnhild, brother Gunbjorn, brother Gulbrand, then her father, and finally sister Jorand. Aase Haugen inherited a large estate and ended up very wealthy.

It is said that although she was very active in church and community, frequently finding joy in giving generous donations to the needy and to the church (including $1,650 for a pipe organ for Decorah Lutheran Church), that Aase keenly felt the loneliness of being the sole survivor of all her family, and that this was her inspiration for her vision of a home where the elderly could live more happily within the friendship of a close community. "Kindhearted" Aase felt she had "more wealth than I can ever use," and found happiness as well as feeling an obligation in helping others and the church.

When she found out she had cancer and her time was near, she turned to her pastor and advisor, Rev. Otto E. Schmidt, for assistance. She made a will leaving all her property to the United Norwegian Lutheran Church for the purpose of "establishing and maintaining a home for aged people" to be named after the generous lady herself. It was probably unusual in those days for a woman (no less a humble immigrant farmer) to have amassed wealth and to be able to provide something so grand, unique, and special. Her accomplishment seems extraordinary considering how rare that a woman of that time would have the power and the means to have such a vision and to be able to make it a reality.

In 1912 the church board voted to build the home on the Aase Haugen farm near Decorah. Aase Haugen died in 1910 at age 69 and is buried at a beautiful small cemetery, Union Prairie, on Highway 52 between Decorah and Calmar, where perhaps it was thought that she could look west out over the valley of her beloved Haugen land and home. While the home moved in the 1970's into the town of Decorah, the original grand Home still exists, and is a historical treasure for northeast Iowa.

In Part two, you will hear the fascinating story of the building and early operation of the home, where residents were active participants in their livelihood there, in a much different kind of "old-folks" home experience than we typically know of today - one that perhaps we can imagine as an example for a new vision for the future.

Credits: All information attributed to the booklet, "A Historical Sketch of the Aase Haugen Home Twenty-Fifth Anniversary," June 30, 1940, prepared by the Board of Directors of the Home at that time, including the Rev. O. Glesne, Mr. K.O. Eittreim, Mr. W. B. Ingvoldstad, Rev. T. A. Hoff, and Mr. Henry Loven, which are names that some will know. The Norwegian Lutheran Church of America is also named on the cover.

Photo by Amy Chicos

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