After 80 years area family ends their annual family reunion

Sarah Bunich
St. James Plaindealer
First photo first Madson family reunion photo from 8/31/1941 and last family photo taken 7/11/2021.

A long-standing tradition for the descendants of Herman and Martha Madson, early Norwegian settlers in Fieldon Township of Watonwan County, has come to an end as of Sunday, July 11th, 2021. 

As Herman, Martha and their two young sons sailed from Norway to America in 1861, they had no idea that 160 years later seven generations would originate from their humble beginnings in this new country.  After settling on the southern prairies of Minnesota they added five more children to their family, one of them being my Great-grandfather Carl Madson who married his next door neighbors’ Norwegian daughter, Sarah Anderson, in 1886. 

Carl and Sarah made their home in Rosendale Township of Watonwan County, just west of Fieldon, continuing life on a farm.  Over a twenty-three year period of time they had twelve children with their first child succumbing to diphtheria.  She was only 3 months old and is buried next to her grandparents Herman and Martha near Hanska.  Despite this premature loss, Carl and Sarah were blessed with six more daughters and five sons who survived and thrived through their childhood years and beyond. Census records indicate that the Madson family was anchored in a community of farm families where parents and children were knit together through their shared livelihoods, church attendance, and sparse leisure time.  Farming was done by hand or by horse, homemaking was accomplished without modern conveniences, and a simple picnic offered a chance to sit and rest. 

Though Viola and Olive (Ollie), two of the remaining eleven children, never married, their nine siblings - Hilda, Della, Alfred, Florence, Harvey, Harold, Clarence (Kelly), Adolph (Pat) and Julia - were married over a twenty year span, and thus began the next generation of thirty-two cousins starting in 1920. There were twelve grandchildren for Carl and Sarah to welcome into the family before Sarah died at age 64 in 1930.  Eighteen more grandchildren were added to the family tree before Carl died 14 years later at age 78, with the last two of the third generation born in 1945.

The majority of the Madson siblings established their homes in southern Minnesota while Ollie, Alfred, Harvey and Julia ventured further from home for employment reasons, with two of them returning to the area years later to be closer to family.  It is evident from old black and white photos that as Carl and Sarah’s family expanded, gathering together at each other’s homes was a family affair and an important social occasion.

Sometime in 1941, a decision was made to have a Madson Family Reunion on August 31st at Minneopa State Park, Mankato. Thirty-eight family members across three generations attended.  At their meeting, a discussion resulted in a vote to make the Madson Reunion an annual event on the second Sunday in July with the potluck picnic served at noon sharp following the singing of ‘Be Present at Our Table Lord’. 

This day marked the start of an official family tradition. A business meeting was added to the afternoon of picnicking and visiting, with family members voted into positions of President, Vice President, Secretary-Treasurer and Historian. Each office held responsibilities for the subsequent reunion, such as reserving a picnic shelter, taking attendance and minutes, collecting donations, purchasing flowers for Carl and Sarah’s gravesite at Mt. Hope Cemetery, St. James, buying the customary vanilla ice cream and cones, and requesting and writing up family news, or ‘history’ as it was called, to be shared at the next year’s reunion.  It became evident as the years went by that this tradition was well-established and highly regarded as an opportunity to connect with

family in the midst of their busy lives.  Attendance averaged seventy-five during the 1960’s and 70’s when the third generation of cousins, Carl and Sarah’s grandchildren, was raising their families.           

Over the years, reunions have been held at a variety of locations - as far north as Wilson Park in St. Cloud, south to Sylvan and Gomsrud Parks in Fairmont, west to Butterfield’s Voss Park and east to Mankato’s Minneopa and Sibley Parks.  From 1971 - 1981 a favorite picnic spot was Watona Park in Madelia with its swimming pool being an attraction for the fourth generation - Carl and Sarah’s great-grandchildren - of which there were eighty-six.  Hanska’s City Park was a site for several reunions in the 1990’s, until the appeal of the air conditioned Hanska Community Center was unanimously voted on for 15 years in a row.  The 75th reunion in 2015 was the last time family gathered in Hanska, which according to Madson history records, is where Herman and Martha first homesteaded in 1861 on what is now the middle of the town.

Societal changes and employment opportunities in the past fifty years resulted in almost half of Carl and Sarah’s thirty-two grandchildren moving and working elsewhere in the United States.  That trend has continued with the following three generations, establishing family members around the country from Maine to California, Alaska to Texas, and Washington to Florida.  Therefore, reunion attendance has notably decreased in the past forty years, except for surges in 1990 and 2010 for the 50th and 70th reunions.  A record number of one hundred seventeen attendees was present for the 50th. By 2017, with only twenty gathered on July 9th, conversation turned toward future reunions. Was this to be the last reunion or should the goal be a milestone eighty?

It was voted to go for the eightieth in 2020, only for it to be postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic.

With hosting eighty reunions comes a sense of achievement for the Madson clan, knowing that this tradition has reaped the benefits of face-to-face connections, shared memories. . . and plenty of favorite main dishes and desserts from good cooks in the family. An unofficial documentation of these reunions and family history resides in binders filled with photos, handwritten or typed pages of secretary’s minutes and family news.  After years of research by cousins Marcia, Jean, Janis and Terry, a genealogical record of Herman and Martha’s descendants was organized and published for families to purchase in 2006.  This was a tremendous gift of information preserved for present and future generations.

This tradition of reunions represents a commitment to family and the ongoing generations of Madson descendants. . . as one after another they have traversed across time from the 1800’s, through the 1900’s and into the 21st century.  The Madsons have now launched into the 7th generation of offspring since the arrival of Herman and Martha, with roots that extend back to Norway where this family tree originally began.

First Lutheran Church, St. James, was the venue for the final Madson Family Reunion on Sunday, July 11th.  Seven branches of the Carl and Sarah Madson family were represented with a total of fifty-three in attendance and ten joining us from Florida, Kentucky, and Texas via a zoom link. Those present traveled via car, motorhome or plane from Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin.  Half of our clan were Minnesotans coming from Alexandria, Garden City, Lake Crystal, Mankato, Maple Grove, Minneapolis, Monticello, St. James, St. Paul, and Winthrop.  Our afternoon together ended with the singing of an old hymn called 'God Be With You till We Meet Again'.