OurLife: Fridley home holds a lifetime of good memories

By Sue Webber

Contributing writer

In a “birth order” photo that’s a favorite of the entire Swanson family, members are (from right to left): Art, Norma, Denise, Ken, Dave, Johnnie, Jerry and Gary. (Submitted photo)
In a “birth order” photo that’s a favorite of the entire Swanson family, members are (from right to left): Art, Norma, Denise, Ken, Dave, Johnnie, Jerry and Gary. (Submitted photo)

Norma Swanson is living in her “forever house” in Fridley, a home that has seen six children come and go, survived a devastating tornado and now is a gathering place for grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She and her husband, Arthur, moved into the house in 1959.

After dating for four years, the couple was married when Norma was 19. They cut their honeymoon short to be on hand for the grand opening of Theisen’s Market in Fridley, owned by Norma’s father. Art became the manager, and the store later became Art’s Superette.

Norma said her father’s philosophy was “if you do business in Fridley, you ought to live in Fridley.” So he moved the family to the city before establishing his grocery store in Fridley.

The Swanson’s first child and only daughter was born a year after they married. The couple subsequently had five sons, a set of twin boys among them.

“We had our babysitter first, Denise,” Norma said. “The kids had a wonderful childhood growing up in Fridley. They are all graduates of Fridley High School.”

The family’s house was built by D. J. Kranz.

“This whole area was part of the Clover Leaf C. A. Nelson Farms property,” Norma said. “My dad, John L. Theisen, Sr. and Walter ‘Wally’ Gronholm, [who was part of the Nelson family], were good friends and the two of them were going to build on Rice Creek: Wally, on the site that is now the Baptist Church on University and Rice Creek, and Dad on our lot. Unfortunately, Wally died suddenly and Dad lost interest in building. He offered our lot to my brother first, who turned it down, so he then offered it to Art and me.”

The house plans were given to the Swansons by Art Christenson, one of the early Fridley entrepreneurs, Norma said. “A similar house exists on the 200 block of Rice Creek Terrace- across University from us,” she said.

The Swanson home was sturdy enough to come through the famed tornado on May 6, 1965, when one of every four homes in Fridley was damaged or destroyed.

“We all huddled in our walkout basement and said prayers like crazy,” Norma said. “The doll furniture was flying. Our house had lots of broken glass. A statue of St. Francis in the backyard was sucked out into the front yard, but it wasn’t damaged. Our shingles weren’t damaged.”

But she recalls the family living like campers after the tornado. They were without power, with two babies still in diapers.

“We had a stove and were able to cook without power for quite a while, until someone brought us a generator,” Norma said.

At her dad’s grocery store at University and Mississippi avenues, meanwhile, people sought safety in the meat cooler, which was without power, Norma said.

Life continued to evolve after that.

“This has been such a fun community,” Norma said. “It’s beautiful here. I can’t believe this area is so close to downtown.”

She recalls participating in the Fridley Dancers, her children skating on the creek in the winter time, and progressive parties in the neighborhood. She was a Girl Scout leader for a time and recalls the troop making buddy burners: an empty tuna can filled with wax, placed under an empty upside down three-pound coffee can with holes in the side. Eggs and bacon were fried on top, she said.

One neighbor who lived next door before moving five years ago, used to bake with Norma. “We used to have krumkake and rosette parties,” Norma said. “We rotated houses.”

Norma recalls summoning her children to come home from play when they were young by using an athletic whistle. “I’d blow it three times, pause, and then blow it three more times,” she said.

Art’s store closed when the Red Owl opened, Norma said. From there he became a top salesman at Art Goebel Ford for 23 years. He also enjoyed camping, golf, cribbage, working with the Minneapolis Sierra Club and the Fridley Council of the Knights of Columbus.

The six Swanson children have produced 11 grandchildren, plus 13 great-grandchildren. One of the Swanson children lives across the creek from where he grew up; others live in Elk River, Osseo, White Bear Lake and Nashwauk.

Norma has no plans to leave her “forever house.”

“Everything I need is on the first floor, thanks to good thinking,” she said. “All the fixtures are white. We added a deck, but we still have the original windows. It’s been a really good house.”

In the meantime, Norma, 83, still puts out “Grandma Norma’s News,” a family newsletter that originated 25 years ago. It was published monthly at first; now it comes out every other month, containing news of family birthdays, jokes and other information.

“The kids write columns for it,” she said. “And now the grandkids are starting to write columns. I made booklets for kids of the newsletters.”

Norma is a member of the Fridley Historical Society, and was a charter member of the Church of St. William in Fridley.

The ourLife writers and editors can be reached at [email protected]