Musician, farmer, writer, and world traveler,
Nehemias was born 28 March 1868 at Follinglo Farm, four miles north of
Story City, third of the eight children of Ole Andreas Larson Tjernagel
and his wife Martha Karina, both natives of Norway. In 1873 Nehemias
began his education at the Sheldall School, officially District No. 1,
Scott Township, Hamilton County. A teacher, W. A Wier, taught the
Tjernagel children to play a reed organ. Another, Hans Dahle, taught
four part singing.
(With permission from his estate, this is a summary of
Neelak Serawlook Tjernagel's Nehemias Tjernagel: An Affectionate
Biography (1976), with additional insights by Peter Tjernagel Harstad)
Nehemias was barely in his teens when three Tjernagel and four
Henderson boys organized the Riverside Orchestra. He played both cornet
and clarinet. In 1886 the boys purchased their obsolete school for use
as a practice room. They engaged the services, successively, of a
professional musician from Norway, Anton Pederson, and of a composer
and editor of church music, John Dahle. The boys delighted audiences
throughout Iowa as The Riverside Band.
In 1886 Nehemias enrolled at the Iowa Agricultural College at Ames
where he studied piano under Anna Gaff, a graduate of the Leipzig
Conservatory of Music, and played solo clarinet in the college band.
One evening the college president brought his flute to Nehemias' room
for a jam session. When Miss Gaff heard that lack of money would
prevent Nehemias from returning for the next term she offered him free
organ lessons. However, the time had come to go to work.
Nehemias could save little toward his dream of studying in Leipzig on
his salary as cashier in his brother Lewis' Story City bank, a position
he held for three years. Meanwhile, he studied organ and choral music
and published two of his most popular pieces, the Story City Overture
and the Daily News Waltz.
Next, he worked briefly for a publishing company in Minneapolis where
he also played in a band. When his brother established the L. J.
Tjernagel Livestock Commission Co. in Chicago, Nehemias served as
bookkeeper and studied clarinet at the Chicago Musical College. It
pleased him to hear a performance of his Story City Overture at the
In 1892 Nehemias contracted typhoid fever. By mistake, he drank a dose
of carbolic acid which "permanently deranged" his colon. A prior case
of scarlet fever left his eyes intolerant of artificial light. A nephew
put it charitably; he lived thereafter "in an attitude of reliance on
others for the provision of the basic needs of his life."
He refused to abandon his dream and in June 1892 boarded a ship for
Europe. The young composer and performer on "almost every orchestral
instrument" planned to visit Norway, a magazine reported, then proceed
to Leipzig for three years of study.
Nehemias lost focus for his aspirations. For more than a year he
wandered through Norway and Sweden worrying about his health. Then the
Panic of 1893 dried up his support from home. He wintered in Berlin and
arrived in Leipzig 9 May 1894. Eight piano lessons at the Royal
Conservatory constituted his formal study there. Nehemias pawned his
clarinet to travel extensively in Europe. Ordered home, he proceeded
via Greece, Palestine, Egypt, and Italy before buying a steerage ticket
to the United States aboard the S. S. Suevia. The captain took pity and
invited him to bunk and eat with the officers. Nehemias responded by
composing the Suevia Waltz. He arrived at Follinglo Farm in time to
record his occupation as "musician" in the 1895 Iowa census.
A gentle, loquacious, unconventional, and often sickly soul, Nehemias
made friends readily. If conversation did not cut through political,
class, or gender barriers his music usually could. Lifelong, he walked
long distances. He absorbed detail. He crossed paths with "greats" at
home and abroad and held his own in the presence of maestros, opera
divas, theologians, and political leaders. However, he could not earn a
living as a musician in rural Iowa.
Nehemias attempted to capitalize on his travels by offering lectures
spiced with Sciopticon views of sites he had visited in the Holy Land.
The lecture circuit proved too strenuous. "It hurt," when a younger
brother suggested that he put on overalls, "not the overalls, but the
idea of giving up . . . music, and now this."
In 1897 Nehemias joined his brothers Peder and Martin in taking over
the farm from their parents. This unlikely partnership made Follinglo a
model farm and a Mecca for visitors including Nehemias' musical
friends. He never married but experienced the warmth of family life in
the household of his brother Peder and wife Jennie. Nieces and nephews
affectionately called him "Unko." In this setting the bachelor farmer
never learned to operate modern farm machinery or to drive an
automobile. He kept records and attended to such chores as his
precarious health would allow. The care of farrowing sows became his
Nehemias' greatest public recognition and his most cherished
composition came when he no longer considered himself a professional
musician. He crossed the Atlantic on the Lusitania early in 1910 and wa
s present at Christiania (now Oslo) when Theodore Roosevelt received
the Nobel peace prize. Thus on 5 May a "skinny Iowa farmer in
thread-bare coat, bowler hat, and rubbers" stood attentively while the
royal band struck up Sousa's Stars and Stripes followed by The
Roosevelt Overture by "N. Tjernagel."
The humble Iowan received ample, if not lavish recognition on his
second trip to Norway. While there, word arrived from Follinglo Farm
that his little niece Madit had died suddenly. Grief-stricken, "Unko"
composed and published a beautiful song, Lille Madit (Little Margaret),
which concert singer Carsten Woll recorded for Columbia Records. This
treasure is still performed as is some of Nehemias' sacred music.
In 1911 Nehemias organized an American tour of 50 concerts for the
Norwegian organist, pianist, composer, and teacher Eivind Alnaes.
Follinglo Farm served as the base of operations. When the tour was over
Nehemias settled down to four decades of farm routine.
Lifelong, Nehemias found time to read and write. Travels abroad
provided material for numerous articles and three books, two of which
went into second editions. He addressed a wide range of topics in
newspapers, farm journals, Lutheran periodicals, and historical
magazines. As he aged, his mind and his Oliver typewriter turned
frequently to the pioneer period of central Iowa history. The Story
City Herald and The Palimpsest published dozens of his historical
pieces; eight more appeared in The Annals of Iowa between 1951 and
1955. Nehemias anthologized his music in a 62-page portfolio presented
to a niece in 1944. His last book was an anthology, Contributions
to Church Periodicals (Story City, 1955).
Nehemias died peacefully at Follinglo Farm on Norway's national
holiday, 17 May 1958, and was buried at Mumrelund Cemetery nearby.