Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Velkommen til Otto Evenson's Cafe

 Meet my paternal grandparents, Otto Evenson & Henrietta Quinnell Evenson, both of Norwegian descent. Henrietta's parents emigrated from Norway to Iowa, and Henrietta was born in Iowa City in 1881.

Otto, his brothers, and their wives.  Otto and Henrietta are the couple in the middle.

Otto was born in 1870 on a farm near Toten, Norway. Several of his brothers had already come to the U.S., so at age 15 he left his home country, arriving in the U.S. in 1885. At first Otto tried farming or working in sawmills, but five years after he married Henrietta he started a restaurant in Spring Grove.

Otto married Henrietta in 1898

Spring Grove, Minnesota, was the first Norwegian settlement in Minnesota, located in the beautiful southeast corner of the state. Otto's establishment moved between several buildings over his 40+ years in business, the photo below pictures an early one. That's Otto in a bowler hat on the left. 

Below is a later picture, probably in a different building. You can see Henrietta in her apron, and Otto beside her. They sold candy and tobacco and other small items in the front, had a soda fountain in the middle, and tables farther back. Otto sold so much Wrigley's gum that he won two chairs and a cocoa set. 

The restaurant was open all day every day from 1904 until 1945. It became a home away from home, not just to Otto and family, but to many in the community.  Townsfolk would come in for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie, notice a loose button on a coat or shirt, and ask for a needle and thread to sew the button. And sometimes, having been supplied with needle and thread, the person might even complain that the needle was the wrong size for the task at hand.

Here's a blurb from Spring Grove: Minnesota's First Norwegian Settlement by Chad Muller:

My grandpa liked to be generous. During the depression, Otto wanted to serve a good meal for a little as possible. He offered a blue plate special of roast beef, potatoes and gravy, peas, and a scoop of ice cream for dessert. The charge was 5¢... over the years it went up to 25¢. 
Otto also had a sense of humor. When my dad, Emil, was a student at Luther College, in Decorah, IA, he would bring friends back to dinner at the restaurant. Otto would get out all the hats he could find (I assume both men's and women's) and put them on one after another, improvising a persona with each one and causing much hilarity.  The teachers in town often ate at Otto's, and he once got them laughing so hard that a teacher had to step outside and catch her breath before coming back to finish her meal. 
One of my brothers, being a small child at the time, was fascinated by a cigar lighter in the restaurant. If you bought a cigar, you could light it and smoke it right there! 
He remembers the Midland Jump Spark Cigar Lighter. The spark would be fascinating. 
I can't say the same for the cigar smoke.

My older siblings remember eating at the restaurant. It seems that grandparents were known for spoiling even then. Pies and ice creams were shared liberally, and jack knives were given to the boys, perhaps even before the boys were old enough for them.  

Grandpa was proud of his restaurant and the hospitality shown there. He and his family worked hard to provide good meals in a clean and inviting atmosphere. As his family grew up they all helped in the restaurant. Even when his own children got jobs of their own, he would call them at their jobs to say that he needed them at the restaurant. I don't know how that turned out, but I do know that these photos make me wish I could have seen it myself. 

I'll share more stories about Otto, Henrietta and the restaurant in days to come. Please stop back for more...


  1. I wish I could have eaten there!

  2. Karen, you paint a wonderful picture of family life in the olden days. Your story has the flavor of Little house on the prairie days in the city. Keep on writing.