From Small Beginnings

MAURITZ MARTINSEN SUNDT, founder of the company that bears his name, was born in Gjovik, Norway, on October 3, 1863, and grew up on the family farm near Eina, which is south of Gjovik. The farm is on a point of land on the east coast of Lake Mjosa, about 70 miles due north of the capitol city of Oslo, and has been in the Sundt family for 400 years. Lake Mjosa is Norway’s largest lake and is extremely deep, one of the deepest lakes in all of Europe.

From Farmer to Ship’s Carpenter

Norway has always been a hard place to earn a living off the land because less than five percent of the entire country is arable. The rest is mountains covered with snow, ice and rocks. Nothing has been written about the Sundt farm’s crops but it likely was a subsistence farm, meaning everything the family raised was consumed by the family and livestock. What is known, though, is that M.M. Sundt left home very early in life. It was about 1877, when he was 12 or 13, that he left home to join the Norwegian Merchant Marine. He apparently sailed first as a cabin boy, but he was ambitious and within a short time was appointed ship’s carpenter when the ship’s regular carpenter died. For the next four years he sailed aboard windjammers on the North and Baltic Seas, transporting freight between England and Leningrad and ports between.

When he felt sufficiently trained, like so many Norwegians before and since, he decided to go to America. In 19th century Scandinavia, America was the place for young people. This was especially true of Norwegians because of the limited farmland available. The Northern European custom of the family farm going to the first-born son prevailed, and all subsequent sons had to strike out on their own while their sisters were expected to marry well. The first Norwegians in North America dated back to the Vikings, who apparently paid frequent visits to North America long before Columbus received the discovery credit. For whatever reason or reasons, the New World did not resonate with Northern Europeans.

Norwegians Seek New Lives in America

But this changed after the close of the American Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of the westward expansion, thanks in part to the completion of the Erie Canal in 1862. This 363-mile waterway ran from Albany, New York, to Lake Erie and quickly became the route of choice for immigrants. Norwegians in particular went as far west as the Great Lakes would take them, which meant present-day Minnesota and Wisconsin. This surge in immigration from Norway was brought about in part by the shortage of land in Norway, and in part by heavy promotion by agents, newspapers, and early settlers writing the folks back home about the extremely cheap land and the personal freedoms of the New World. It wasn’t only inexpensive land that attracted Norwegian men to the U.S.; the iron mines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and in Wisconsin needed workers as well and, by Norwegian standards, the pay was excellent. Many Norwegians came to work in mines in order to save enough money to buy land and the equipment to farm it. By way of illustration, wages for laborers in Norway were $40 to $50 a year, while men doing the same work in the U.S. were paid $4 to $5 a day. In other words, they could earn more in two weeks than they could in a year in Norway. Even with the obvious inflation factors added to the formula, the differences in wages were significant.

Sundt and Steamship Crew Stranded in Ice

For M.M. Sundt, the route of his immigration was not an easy one. He left Oslo on March 4, 1881, aboard the steamship Kelso bound for Hull, England, where he would transfer to another ship bound for America. But the Kelso encountered ice about 50 miles from the mouth of Oslofjorden, the fjord from Oslo to the open ocean. Quickly the Kelso was trapped in the ice and couldn’t move in any direction. Radio had not yet been invented so help could not be summoned. Unfortunately the Kelso stocked only enough food for five days, and on the fourth day of its entrapment, the captain asked for 14 volunteers to go with the first mate and five crew members to cross the ice on foot and bring back food. They were about nine miles from the coastal town of Kragero and would have to drag a lifeboat across the ice until they reached open water. M.M. Sundt, aged 17 and small of stature – no more than 5-foot-4 – was one of the volunteers.

The 20 men in the rescue party left the Kelso at about two o’clock in the afternoon into the face of a blowing, blinding snowstorm. It took them 12 hours to reach the shore and all were on the edge of complete exhaustion. While the men huddled beneath the lifeboat, the mate went to Kragero to telegraph Oslo for help. They took the lifeboat to Kragero and loaded it with food and prepared to return to the ship.

But the next day the ice pack shifted and began drifting eastward and soon the Kelso was no longer visible. The men sat on the beach for the next three days, until a rescue ship arrived from Oslo and took them aboard. The rescue ship then went in search of the Kelso, but could not find her. Finally they put in at Langesund and learned that the Kelso had made it to Kristiansand, about 80 miles further down the coast, where it picked up the necessary supplies and continued on to Hull, England. The rescue ship headed south to Oslo, and all men in the ill-fated rescue party were given free room and board until the next ship came. But as Sundt said in a letter to an uncle, he had no change of clothes for three weeks.

Nor did he have his beloved box of tools. When Sundt began working as a ship’s carpenter, he built a wooden box for his tools, which he always carried with him. Fortunately, the belongings of the men who volunteered to go for help were placed in storage until men and material would be reunited. It was likely the only time M.M. Sundt was separated from his tools. Today the tool box, restored to its original appearance, resides in a place of honor in the lobby of the Sundt Construction’s headquarters building in Tempe, Arizona.

New Home in Wisconsin

When Sundt was reunited with his clothing and tools, he took another ship, the S.S. Angelo, from Hull to New York and arrived in Wisconsin sometime in the late spring or early summer of 1881. Getting from New York to central Wisconsin was quite a chore in those pre- railroad days. First, travelers had to take a steamboat up the Hudson River to Albany, New York, where the 370-mile Erie Canal began. There they went aboard a barge towed by draft animals – horses or oxen – and spent weeks moving steadily westward. Once they arrived at Lake Erie, they transferred to lake steamboats and continued through the chain of the Great Lakes to Lake Michigan, if they were going to Wisconsin, or on westward to Lake Superior if they were going to Minnesota. Sundt had chosen Wisconsin because he had relatives there. It wasn’t long after his arrival that he became established as an excellent carpenter, mainly building barns.

In a letter home mailed the next year, in 1882, he said he had been steadily employed in and around Cambridge, Wisconsin, but that he intended to go to school, even though he believed the cost of living was quite high. Three years later, on August 8, 1885, he married Berthe Maria Kjolseth, a Cambridge girl. They immediately started a family and soon had two children.

Sometime after his arrival in Wisconsin, the story goes, he grew so tired of hearing his name mispronounced that he changed it from the original Sund by adding a “t” to the end. It could easily be true for two reasons: Sund is a common name in Norway, and M.M. Sundt was a man who took action when he felt the occasion required it.

Sundt’s health wasn’t good because he suffered from asthma, and the heavy humidity of the Midwest took a severe toll on his stamina. Clearly they had to move to a drier climate. They chose Manitou, Colorado, which apparently is the town now known as Manitou Springs, on the Northwestern outskirts of Colorado Springs. Here their third child was born, and very soon afterward, Berthe Sundt died. She was bitten by a tick carrying Mountain Fever germs, for which there was no cure at that time.

Devastated by the loss, Sundt took her body home to Wisconsin for burial in the family plot in Cambridge. Sundt left their three small children — Cora, Bertha and son Joseph — with his late wife’s family and returned to Colorado to become established before bringing the children down again.