Generously donated by Mathilda Lee’s granddaughter Barbara Lee Greenfeldt, we have received hundreds of pages worth of letters, articles, transcripts, histories, and other documents from the life of Mathilda Glasrud Lee and her family. They span roughly a century and a half, from the mid-1800s to the early 2000s. Many of these served as the source material for Robert E. A. Lee’s biography of his mother, Mathilda’s Journey. We digitized these primary sources at a high resolution and are now making them available to anyone who would like to see the original documents, including scores of letters written in Mathilda’s own hand.
As Robert Lee puts it in the preface of his book, “Mathilda [went] from farm girl into womanhood as a teen-age teacher, a young bride of an enterprising horseman (her emotional opposite), a mother of five daughters and two sons, an activist in educational, church, and community affairs in small-town America, a brave battler against the Great Depression’s assault on human dignity, and a worried mom during World War II with part of her family actively engaging the enemy. We find Mathilda accepting new challenges in the post-war era–opportunities where she was needed and where she could make a difference. And, as the years pulled her into temporary and transient grandmother-in-residence roles in the homes of her children, she flew around the country from north to south and from east to west. Stories about her accumulated wherever she landed.” Find her full story in his book (available at the Heritage Center), and see the primary sources he drew from below.
The documents have been broken up by time frame and organized chronologically; further details on organization can be found at the bottom of this page. Due to the fact that they were scanned at a high resolution, the files are large and may take longer to load; please be patient. In a few cases, we did not have access to the original document and had to copy in a lower quality scan, but most documents are scanned from the originals.
Collections, 1800s to early 1900s
This first collection spans the largest amount of time, containing documents and letters referring to events from the mid 1800’s through 1899. It spans from histories of the Glasrud family’s arrival in America to the beginnings of teenage Mathilda Glasrud’s courtship with her beau Knute Lee. It also includes a publication from the Decorah Institute, a post 8th grade program Mathilda attended, written shortly after the death of the institute’s founder.
This collection includes the 1900s and 1910s, the height of Mathilda’s courtship with Knute. In it, the salutation of her letters changes from “My Dear Friend” to “My Dear Husband”, punctuated by wedding announcements for their marriage on September 1, 1906. It also includes papers from her time as a school teacher, such as her teaching certificate from 1901 and a list of her students from 1905.
This collection includes many of Robert Lee’s notes with abbreviated versions of pertinent news articles from this decade, a wedding guestlist, and a history of Kristian Glasrud written in 1920. It also contains Knute Lee’s volunteer firefighter certification, and the newspaper notes mention a few fires that happened in Spring Grove around that time which he may perhaps have had a hand in fighting.
The volume of documents increases around this time, so collections are broken into shorter time periods to keep the size manageable. This first portion of the 30’s consists of a notebook containing Mathilda’s notes mostly from keeping records for the Red Cross, a continuation of newspaper highlights, and a few letters.
This segment of the 30’s collection includes several articles on Spring Grove church history written by Mathilda Lee. It also contains a second notebook, this one featuring dated daily notes and short diary entries. The notebook had several receipts tucked into a pocket in the back, which are also scanned and included.
This is a full 70-page local history book co-authored by Mathilda Lee. It includes much information regarding and many photos of church organizations over the years in Spring Grove, particularly women’s organizations. This copy is annotated, perhaps by Mathilda.
This section covers the death of Mathilda’s husband Knute (I) Lee on October 21, 1939. It includes documents such as a copy of his life insurance policy and letters with her son Knute (II) “Bill” Lee in which his father’s death is discussed. A transcription of several entries from Mathilda’s diary can also be found here, the original of which appeared in the 33-35 collection (the diary itself was filed in 1935 as that is the first date in it, but the entries here transcribed begin in 1939). Additionally, there are many letters to her son from before Knute I’s death, and a history by Mathilda of her mother, Sigrid Qualey Glasrud.
Collections, 1940s through 1950s
The bulk of the letters we have are from the 40s, and so these will be broken into the shortest time periods, some consisting of nearly a hundred pages’ worth of letters over the course of a few months. This first section is composed of letters between Mathilda and her sons William and Robert Lee, as well as letters from her daughters Barbara Lee Gilbertson and Naomi Lee Hysell.
This collection includes many of Mathilda’s wartime letters with her sons. Among these are programs from churches Bill attended while traveling for his training to be a Naval Aviator, which he sent his mother. There is also an invitation for a special candlelight service for members of the armed forces and a news article on the state of the war*. Additionally, it contains a local history piece called “Who’s Who in Minnesota” by Mathilda Lee.
*Do note that this news article may contain potentially offensive and/or disturbing images.
Mathilda Lee wrote many letters to her children in the height of the second World War, resulting in this all-letter collection.
This collection of letters spans the end of the war in Europe. On May 7 (during Germany’s surrender, the day before VE Day), she writes “I guess the war is definitely over in Germany… Nobody seems to know what has become of Hitler”. It also includes a handful of relevant news articles and a high school graduation program.
These letters include one written on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan and Mathilda Lee’s reflections on it. In another letter, she expresses her relief that her sons survived the war. There is also a news article on a heroic rescue William Lee carried out during the war. As talk of war subsides, this collection turns to post-war letters, closing out the 40s.
This collection includes a handwritten draft of the history of the St. John’s Ladies’ Aid and a later typewritten draft thereof, an article on Mathilda’s brother Christian’s golden anniversary (for which all members of the original 1901 wedding party were still alive), and several letters from a travelling Mathilda to “her friends back in the Middle West”, as well as quite a few more to her children. It also includes a transcript of an interview with Mathilda done by her son Robert.
Collections, 1960s through 1980s
Now a grandmother crossing 80 years old, Mathilda continues to correspond with her children. This section also contains an obituary for her older brother Christian and an announcement of a showing of a film produced by her son Robert about Christianity “behind the Iron Curtain”, as well as another interview transcript with conversation between Mathilda and Robert.
This section contains many letters from Bill to his mother from his adventures as a Lutheran minister. In one, he mentions counseling a woman whose husband had a hit put out on him by the mafia. It also includes the stories from the life of Mathilda’s grandfather Peter Qualey, including the beheading of a woman convicted of murder which Mathilda’s grandfather witnessed. Additionally, there is a letter from Mathilda’s grandson detailing a few different flights she might take to get to his wedding.
Mathilda celebrates her 90th birthday in this section, which features tributes to her from family members and a newspaper article on her. It also includes more letters with her children (and between them, particularly Bill and Bob) and an obituary for her younger brother William C. Glasrud. A good photo of Mathilda from this time can be found on page 46.
These are the last letters Mathilda wrote before her death in July 1978. Her handwriting grows shaky but is still generally legible. There is also a news article in 1975 recounting a Lee family reunion, and a reprise of Mathilda’s journal from the 30’s in 1975, at which point she directed her son Robert to write a few things down in it for her.
This section begins with the program from Mathilda’s funeral and her obituary, followed by other documents surrounding her death such as a thank you from her children to the funeral attendees. One letter from Knute Bill Lee mentions that he has “compiled these few papers perhaps as a beginning of what hopefully might culminate in some future records and remembrances of our mother and father,” which might be said to mark the origin of this archive. Other obituaries in this collection include one for Mathilda’s younger brother and one for her son-in-law. There is also a transcript of an interview between Robert Lee and his sister Barbara, as well as one with Mathilda’s niece Sigrid Ike Vaaler.
In this last section, Robert Lee’s research for his biography of his mother kicks into full swing. There are transcripts of his interviews with his siblings and cousins, notes on family tombstones, and correspondences with local historical societies as he sought to gather more information on his family’s history. Following the book’s publication in 2000, there are reviews and emails regarding it. The research also includes a printout of an article by Carlton C. Qualey entitled “A Typical Norwegian Settlement: Spring Grove, Minnesota”, which was available on St. Olaf College’s website.
Tips for Reading & Notes on Organization
~from the editor~
- If you’re just looking to read letters from Mathilda, the 1940’s are a good place to start. If you prefer letters from her son Bill (the second most prolific letter writer in this collection), the 1967-71 section is a highlight.
- Most items are placed chronologically by the time of the events they describe, though others, such as histories written by Mathilda Lee, are placed by when they were written and/or published.
- In a few cases, multiple versions of the same document have been included in the interest of maximum legibility.
- When available, an image of the front of the envelope precedes the letter it contained, and the back of the envelope marks the end of the letter (though the back of the envelope was only scanned if it had markings).
- When scanning newspapers, I scanned everything, front and back, even if only part of it was relevant to the Lees’ story, in interest of greater preservation. Full newspaper pages are scanned left to right top and then left to right bottom.
- If you would like to see the working organizational notes I took while sorting through these documents, you can see my chronological list here, which can function as a rough sort of table of contents.
- If you have any further questions, comments, or suggestions regarding the organization and/or contents of this archive, you may contact us at email@example.com.