‘We all liked Saranac Lake very good’

Several of these residents of Spear Cottage were Norwegian sailors. Lars Kyrkebo is seated front, left. (Photo courtesy Einar Kirkebo)

This Thanksgiving season, I am grateful for the stories that surround me here at the museum. Stories are good company. They remind us of what matters, help us appreciate what we have, and sometimes they also make us smile.

A letter in our collection does all of those things. It is from Hjalmar Berentsen of Norway, addressed to Mark Carson, owner of Mark’s Bar in downtown Saranac Lake. Mark’s Bar wasn’t a fancy place, but it was a good neighborhood hangout, the kind of place where, as they say, everybody knows your name, even if your name is pretty much unpronounceable unless you speak Norwegian.

Before he came to Saranac Lake, Hjalmar was a cook on the ship D/S Bris. In April of 1942, his boat was en route to Brazil from Baltimore, carrying a cargo of asphalt and flour, when it was sunk by a German U-boat. The crew floated at sea for 14 days. Finally, five miles from the North Carolina coast, Hjalmar and 19 surviving crew mates were rescued.

Having endured that terrible ordeal, Hjalmar was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a common hazard of the seafaring life. Like hundreds of other tubercular Norwegian sailors, unable to return home during the Nazi occupation, Hjalmar was sent to Saranac Lake for treatment.

We don’t know a lot about Hjalmar Berentsen, but we know he was a big man. His name shows up on a list of donations from the Social Welfare Committee for Norwegian Seamen in America in New York as a recipient of three items delivered to him at Leonard Cottage: “Barber Strop, Woolen cap to sleep in, and Bathrobe (Very Large).”

We have quite a few photos of unidentified Norwegian sailors in our collection, and I wonder which strapping young man might be Hjalmar. They must have stirred up some trouble in the village. Like other TB patients, the sailors didn’t spend all their time on cure porches. When feeling up to it, they went out and had fun, mixing into community life at a time when many Saranac Lake boys were off at war. When the Norwegians returned home, they must have left more than one broken heart behind. When he wasn’t on the cure porch, Hjalmar’s favorite spot was Mark’s bar. Here’s what he wrote in his letter from Norway:

“Hi Mark. How are you, your wife, and every body else? Bet, you are surprised, there come a letter, allway from Norway to you. Well, as you know, how thing is in this world now. Nothing could surprise, any body no more. Aboard the ship, on our way too Norway, we did talk a lot about Saranac, and all those nice places, there is in that city. I did told the boys, I would send a card or a little note too you, and they all told me right then, too give you theyr best regards. We all hope we will be back there some time. You see Mark, we all liked Saranac very good. I think your Bar room, was the one we liked best of them all. Hope you don’t mind me saying so. How is all the nice ladys there use too go in your place. Say ‘skaal’ too all of them from us Norwegian.”

It’s a letter from across the ocean, from over half a century ago, from a man who saw his share of trouble in life, enough to appreciate what matters. Thanks for writing, Hjalmar Berensten. We like Saranac Lake very good too.

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In memory of Natalie Leduc, who did so much to preserve the story of the Norwegian sailors in Saranac Lake. Amy Catania is the executive director of Historic Saranac Lake.


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