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Friday, September 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A door opens to the past

Seattle Times staff reporter

The people behind the possessions


Bernhard Flaaten: 1881-1955

Hanny Flaaten: 1896-1990

Ralph Flaaten: 1927-2003

Estate sale hours

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday

2822 N.W. 73rd St.

The paint is cracked and chipping off the small Ballard house. The yard is a tangle of dandelions and overgrown shrubbery. Inside, the floors creak, and dust covers almost everything.

But this modest two-bedroom house, largely unoccupied for 14 years, holds a treasure. Not a pot of gold or a stash of cash, but the precious evidence and artifacts of ordinary lives from Ballard's Scandinavian roots.

Among the possessions crammed into the 103-year-old house are immigration documents dating to 1907, 80-year-old handmade linens from Norway, calendars from the 1920s and wooden skis with leather strap bindings, a style that predates 1940.

Here, too, is a 1926 earnest-money agreement, written in pencil, confirming the sale of the house for $1,900 — a house that today has an assessed valuation of $270,000.

"This is the first time I've ever come into a house where this was so much information available," said Marianne Forssblad, director of the Nordic Heritage Museum.

Many of the items in the house will be offered at an estate sale this weekend conducted by Karoline Morrison, a self-described "urban archaeologist."

"When I stepped through the front door, it was like going back into the 1940s — or even the 1920s," Morrison said of the home at 2822 N.W. 73rd Street.

Primarily, the story in this house is not about stuff, but about people.

It is the story of Bernhard and Hanny Flaaten, Norwegian immigrants who lived most of their adult lives here, and of their only child, Ralph Flaaten, a 1947 Ballard High School graduate who moved to California in the early 1960s and died in December 2003.

It was Ralph Flaaten's death, and the need to settle his estate, that has opened this house to this weekend's sale, and to the likelihood that some of its possessions and documents will go to the museum.

Bernhard Flaaten, a commercial fishermen, died in 1955. Hanny Flaaten lived to be 93, dying in 1990.

Among their papers is a 1907 certificate from a church in Norway, granting its approval for Bernhard Flaaten to move to the United States. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1915 and purchased the Ballard house in 1926.

The records show he made a brief trip back to Norway in 1920 and that Hanny, 15 years his junior, wrote to him during that visit. In one letter, as Bernhard is preparing to return to the Unites States, she urges him to write to her, saying in Norwegian — translated by Forssblad — "It would give me great joy to hear from you."

Hanny Flaaten moved to the U.S. in 1925, apparently with the marriage already arranged. Folded neatly is a typewritten letter to her from the American Consular Service in Bergen, Norway.

Written in Norwegian, it lists the items she must bring to her immigration hearing, including her birth certificate, two photographs, a medical history, a form showing she has no criminal record and letters from sponsoring friends or relatives in the United States.

The letter sets the time and date for her hearing, and instructs her to bring the application fee: $1.

Records the couple kept through the decades include the 1931 receipt for the blue mohair sofa and armchair, trimmed in black walnut, which still sit in the living room, purchased together for $132 from Grunbaum Bros. Furniture.

"He must have really prospered," Morrison said. "That would have been a tremendous amount of money back then."

Here, too, is paperwork noting that Hanny Flaaten was hired in 1944 in a "classified laborer" job at the U.S. Naval Station in Seattle, a position paying 76 cents an hour.

A niece, Dorothy King, in the Spokane County town of Elk, remembers Hanny Flaaten as "a wonderful, very happy lady who loved working in her garden. She worked into her 90s, doing home care — helping out some people who were younger than she was."

Ralph Flaaten, an aeronautical engineer, visited Seattle several times a year after his mother died, often to participate in events that involved his favorite hobby, flying radio-controlled model airplanes.

He had no children, and died without a will. Probate attorneys in California, where he had a house and investment accounts, are attempting to determine the family's closest relatives and rightful heirs. The Ballard house will go on the market next week.

Meanwhile, attorneys handling the Seattle property have given permission for some of the documents to go to the Nordic Heritage Museum. And Morrison will purchase some items, such as some of the linens, for the museum.

The Flaatens were among thousands of Scandinavians arriving in Ballard in the early part of the 20th Century, Forssblad said. Churches and social organizations — Bernhard Flaaten carried his Sons of Norway card in his wallet — helped new arrivals and provided a safety net for those in need.

The wealth of information kept by the Flaatens, Forssblad said, helps "personalize" the story of Ballard's origins and will be an asset to the museum, which recently began a fund-raising drive to build a new museum on Northwest Market Street.

"Here we see a typical immigrant saga. Someone who came to the United States, went back and found someone in his own country, the woman follows, they get married and they live in the same house most of their lives," Forssblad said. "And the story can be followed because so much of the documentation has been preserved."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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