top of page

A new start, after the Christmas fire

Sisters look back at scary Christmas morning blaze


For sisters, Elsie Lindgren and Janice Ramsey of Detroit Lakes, Christmas has long held bittersweet memories. Over time, they wrote their story entitled The Christmas Fire, triggered one time by someone asking them, “When did you get your first telephone?”

Sisters Janice Ramsey and Elsie Lindgren, both of Detroit Lakes, recall their Christmas fire in 1949. Photo by Vivian Sazama

The story was published in 2016 in a hardcover book, School Days and Farm Chores, Tales from the Good Old Days in Northwestern Minnesota, A Treasury of 20th Century Memories, published by Hometown Memories, LLC of Hickory, North Carolina.

The sisters’ grandmother, Elsie Subdahl was born in Telemarken, Norway, in1864, and had emigrated to Minnesota with her father and two brothers in 1884. They settled on a farm in West Valley Township of Marshall County. Five years later, she married Joe Bengston and moved onto their farm in Marsh Grove Township. The couple had 12 children, six of whom died young. One of those six children was the sister’s mother, Adeline.

As a young woman, Adeline went to work at the Warren Hotel, as a kitchen helper and also a maid. “That’s where she learned how to make all kinds of side dishes,” said Jan. Adeline met Gilbert Olson while working at the Hotel and married him at the age of 28. “I guess late bloomers run in our family,” laughed Elsie.

Initially, the Olson’s lived with Elsie’s parents. “They had a big house, and grandmother was not in good health, so they stayed there to help out,” said Elsie. In time, the young couple moved onto a farm near Newfolden, Minn., where they raised sheep. Gilbert also was a professional sheep shearer and traveled around the country. Elsie was born in 1937, and Jan was born six years later.

“We had just a two-room house to start out with,” said Elsie. “Then an old farmhouse nearby was dismantled by mom and dad with help from Jan and I, and was used for framing, and to enlarge our two-room house to have two bedrooms upstairs. In the winter though, we covered the stairway, and Jan and I shared a rollaway bed downstairs in order to save heat.”

The family had a piano a neighbor played during gatherings in the home. “I loved that piano,” said Jan. “I didn’t know how to play it, but I wanted to learn!” The sisters attended a country school nearby. “We didn’t learn music in country school,” she said.

It is here where their Christmas story begins:

The Christmas Fire

The excitement of Christmas pervaded the Olson household in December of 1949. The long-standing tradition had been to spend Christmas Eve with relatives. This year we went to Cousin Bernice’s, where we visited, played games, and opened presents until well after midnight.

Me and my sister (ages 12 and 6) were sleepy and cold, so we went to bed with our long stockings on.

Elsie Lindgren and Janice Ramsey in 1954, five years after the Christmas fire. Contributed photo

Early the next morning, Dad got up and built a fire in the parlor woodstove. Then he went to the barn to milk the cows and tend to the other chores. As he headed back to the house he looked up to see flames shooting out of the chimney. He ran into the house, doused the fire in the stove while shouting to us to get up quickly and dress.

Since we did not have a telephone, dad ran a half mile north to a neighbor who had one. He told us girls to run to a closer neighbor to the south so we would be warm and safe.

In those days, one had to “ring central” and immediately people would pick up their phones to find out who was calling. Many found out then that Gilbert Olson’s house was on fire. Since this was Christmas morning and 25 below zero, volunteer firemen were hard to locate, so there was some delay in their arrival because it was nine miles away from Newfolden. A few neighbors who had “rubber-necked” started arriving to help our parents.

Meanwhile our mother began to carry things out of the house - a rollaway bed filled with bedding, a sewing machine, some clothes, and other items. She was able to take out very heavy items with “super human” strength. Among the things rescued was Janice’s special gift, a “magic-skin” doll, although it did get singed. She still has that doll today, 73 years later.

When the fire truck arrived they realized the house was too far gone and saved the water “in case the wind might turn” and would spread the fire to the barn.

One of the neighbors wanted badly to rescue the piano -- the same piano which he had entertained us many times. The other men had to literally pull him out of the burning house. Its jumbled wire remains in the ashes is still vivid in our memories.

We spent that night and several days at our aunt’s house. I saw my dad cry for the first time. Yes, it was a tragedy and we were homeless, but each Christmas we are reminded to thank God that no lives were lost, and that we had such good neighbors, friends and family.

Our closest neighbor’s house was empty so we were able to (stay there) and care for our livestock easily. The following summer when the neighbors returned we lived in the woodshed until our new house was livable.

Our parents passed away a few years back, Mom at 90 and Dad at 101. Every Christmas we are reminded how blessed we are to have survived all these years later. I think every house we lived in after the fire had to have a telephone, not only for convenience but of necessity.

In the year following the fire, the sisters continued at their country school.

“We had a Christmas program at our school,” said Jan. “At one point we came walking from the coat room holding candles. The girl behind me got so busy looking for her parents that her candle caught my hair on fire. Elsie saw it and rushed over and put it out with her hand!”

Their father went to work in the mines on the Iron Range, first as a drill helper, then as a driller. The sisters and their mom stayed on at the new house and two of their cousins stayed with them to take care of the barn chores.

After a year they moved to Gilbert, Minn., to join their father.

“We lived in the upstairs of a house owned by an Italian lady,” said Jan. “That was our first introduction to garlic and spicy foods!”

The sisters attended school in Gilbert for the few months they lived there and then the family moved into a house in Virginia, Minn.

“That was hard for me,” said Elsie. “I had to start all over again making friends.”

“That was a turning point for me,” said Jan. “It was the first time that I learned music and I loved it! I started singing in church, and sang at Grandmother’s birthday party.”

Jan was to continue her love of music throughout her life. She was part of the quartet Shekinah for many years together with her husband Dave Ramsey, Kim Schnitzer, and Gayle Detert, and still sings duets on occasion at the Hi Mileage Club that meets monthly at the Community Alliance Church in Detroit Lakes.

When Elsie was a senior and Jan was in 6th grade, the family moved back to their farm near Newfolden. After Elsie graduated, she went on to further her education at Moorhead State University (Now Minnesota State - Moorhead) for teaching elementary school. “I got a three year provisional degree and finished my degree in summer school.” Elsie’s first teaching assignment was in Willmar.

Janice (Olson) Ramsey still has her special soft body doll that was charred in the Christmas fire in 1949. Photo by Vivian Sazama

“I didn’t have a car so I started looking for a teaching job along the Soo Line Railroad so I could get home to Newfolden once in a while, and I ended up teaching at Rossman Elementary School in Detroit Lakes. I was there for two years, in 1961-62 and 1962-63. I made $3,600 a year, but that was pretty good back then!”

When Jan graduated from high school, she went on to Concordia College in Moorhead for a year. “It was a lot of money and I couldn’t afford to continue on so I went to work at Singers in Fargo.”

While Elsie was attending summer school at MSUM, she met a student and his wife who thought she should meet someone they knew. A blind double date was set up, but then the couple’s children got sick and the couple couldn’t make it.

“Since it was all set up already, we thought we might as well go on with the date,” said Elsie. It turned out that her date, Andy Lindgren, and Elsie had a lot in common. “Andy worked in Missions. I had been a Camp Counselor at Bible Camps. I had been deeply impacted by our cousin Howard Bjorgaard who had become a born-again Christian. He had come over one day and shared so openly at our supper table his faith in Christ.”

Sadly, Howard died the following spring during a flood. “The flood of 1950 was really bad,” said Elsie.

“The power lines were starting to go down. Howard phoned PKM to alert them of a loose wire and then walked out to meet the linemen. The linemen said later that they saw a blinding flash. Howard had walked into the live wire and was unable to be resuscitated. He was only 27 and left behind a young family. It really impacted the family and neighborhood and a lot of them put their faith in the Lord.”

While Elsie was teaching at the Rossman School she lived in a house on North Summit Street in Detroit Lakes. Jan would come and stay with her at times. There she met a young man, Dave Ramsey. Dave worked at Wilcox Lumber, and several years later joined with his brother to form Ramsey Brothers Carpet Services in Detroit Lakes.

“So here we were, Dave and I lived in Detroit Lakes, and Andy and Jan lived in Fargo! It worked out well though, we’d take turns riding together and saved gas, even though it was only 29 cents a gallon then!” laughed Elsie.

Elsie and Andy got married in July, 1963, and Jan and David in October, 1963. “We were each other’s attendants and were able to wear the same wedding dress, though I modified it a bit,” laughed Jan. In 1964, Jan went to the Detroit Lakes Vo-tech for Sales and Marketing, and over the years did alterations at J.C. Penney’s, Norby’s and at Blandings in the Graystone Building. She also sold vacuum cleaners and made several wedding dresses.

Elsie and Andy moved to Utica, New York to work with Rescue Missions. They also worked in camping ministries throughout the East Coast. Elsie had started working on a Master’s in Special Education through off-campus courses, and continued on at a college in Mansfield, Penn. She started a full time position at a men’s prison in Huntington, PA, teaching GED and special ed classes.

In 1993, the Lindgrens moved back to Detroit Lakes. Elsie taught Adult Education classes through the Pine to Prairie Consortium in Wadena and the couple continued their ministries with Native Americans at Cass Lake, Red Lake, and White Earth reservations. “All together we served 25 years in Native American ministries,” said Elsie.

Jan has three sons, Michael, Jonathan, and Timothy, and eight grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. Elsie has a daughter, Rachel, and a son, Nathan and two grandsons.

Elsie retired in 2007, but was asked to sub for a teacher who was having a baby.

“It was supposed to be for just a few months, but then she decided she wasn’t coming back. They asked me to stay on until they found someone else. I was already drawing retirement so the money I got from subbing I thought I would just put aside. It turned out that Jan had invited Andy and I to go on a tour to Israel in 2010 with a church group from Perham. The money I had set aside was almost to the dollar what we needed in order to go on that trip!”

David passed away in 2006, and Andy passed away in 2018. Jan continues to share her love of music whenever she can. Elsie continues to share the love of Christ through holding bible studies at Park Manor Estates in Detroit Lakes where she lives. The sisters continue to share memories with each other about that Christmas fire in 1949, and how the Lord gave them hope and beauty from tragedy and ashes.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page