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Nehemias Tjernagel


(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)

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.

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 Chicago Armory.

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 specialty.

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.





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