Nordic Heritage Museum Vanishing Generation Interview with Harold Nilsen

  • By Peggy Sturdivant
  • Posted 9/23/2004
  • Essay 5761
See Additional Media

Peggy Sturdivant talked with Harold Nilsen (b. 1917) on May 10, 2000. This interview is part of the Vanishing Generation Oral History Project of Seattle's Nordic Heritage Museum. Harold, of Norwegian heritage, owned and ran Nilsen's Fine Foods in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard. For his grand opening in 1951, he advertised giving away a "live baby." His cousin, in her nurses' uniform, handed the winner a live baby... pig. He describes the different markets in Ballard in the 1950s and the general evolution of grocery store amenities, conventions, and technologies, for example, Nilsen's had one of Seattle's first automatic doors.

It is May 10th, of the year 2000, and I am in the home of Mr. Harold Nilsen. My name is Peggy Sturdivant, and I'm here with the Ballard Oral History Project. Let's just jump right in, in terms of I know you have a lot of background in the grocery business. Were your parents in it as well, or --

No, my father was a commercial fisherman, and we moved to Seattle in 1928, kind of at the beginning of the Depression. So, in the 1930s, I was -- oh, I was, let's see, I was born in 1917, so I was about 13. And I was a P-I [Post-Intelligencer] carrier from 65th to 85th and from Third to Eighth Northwest, big route.

Ah, so you lived right in Ballard, when you moved up?


And when did your parent emigrate?

In 1914, my father, and my mother in 1915.

Oh, okay. Okay. So, they'd been in the country for a bit. So you were a P.I. carrier.

And then, I got a job at the neighborhood Safeway store that had no delivery service. So I had a wagon, and I delivered to some of the women that couldn't carry it home.

Ah, now, is that --

I got a dollar for the first day that I worked on a Saturday.

Wow. Is that a Safeway -- where was that located?

It's on Northwest 75th and Sixth Northwest.

Oh, okay.

I've got some notes on some of that, like that. I don't know whether that would --

Great. Great. So, at that time --

So, I worked there until I -- and then Franklin D. Roosevelt came into office, and no more child labor. You had to be 16. So, I got fired, or laid off.

Uh-huh. Were you still able to do your P.I. route, or did you come back to that?

I probably did. Yeah, I went back to it. And then, when I was 16, I went to work for Safeway. And when I graduated from Ballard High School, I got a full-time job at Queen Anne Hill for a couple of years. Then, I became a Safeway manager on 105th and Greenwood. Then, on Christmas Eve in 1940, I became manager of a new store on 71st and Greenwood. And I had 12 people working for me, and only one man, all the rest women, because it was the war years.

Oh, yes.

But I still was a 1-A and was going to get drafted. So I had to quit, which I shouldn't have, because I flunked the exam and became --

Oh, so you quit first --

And became floor captain.


So then I decided that I would do something else and didn't go back to Safeway; which I certainly could have. So, in 19 -- I went fishing with my brother-in-law, tuna fishing, and then I found a little grocery store to buy at 75th and 32nd Northwest on Sunset Hill.

So was it an existing grocery?

Just a little "mom and pop"

Uh-huh. Mr. Nilsen has some old photographs here. He is now showing me a picture of the location at 75th and 32nd Northwest. So this is what it looked like right when you had first bought it?

It still looks like that, only it's a duplex.

A duplex, yes. Yeah, I know that location quite well. It was called Nilsen's Fine Foods.

Uh-huh. See, we were real busy. There's several trucks for a little store like that. Doesn't exist anymore.

No. Yeah. The picture that he is showing me shows quite a convergence of delivery trucks.

I -- when I bought it --

(Continuing) -- the Hygrade Dairy and Kraft Cottage Cheese and Standby Foods, which are all ... being delivered. And this is circa 1947 in the photograph that he's showing me.

(Continuing) -- then I hauled everything to the garbage dump at Interbay, where the golf course is now, and got everything new.

Got every -- oh, so you, when you --

(Continuing) -- in the little store.

(Continuing) -- re-did the store. But this is when it was still Foodliner before you totally remodeled and became --

Oh, this is way before that.

Way before. Okay.

Twelve years before that.


So, then, I had a very rich customer, who was a retired lumberman from Juneau, Alaska, that lived on that lookout, you know, on 75th and 34th?

Right. Across where the --

He used to come in and --

(Continuing) -- where the roses are.

(Continuing) -- see how my wife and I worked. He said, "You should have a new store." I says, "Well, I know I should, but I don't have any money." So, he says, "Well, you find a location and I will help you." So I found a location on 63rd and 32nd Northwest, it was a vacant lot, and bought it. And he gave me all the money I needed. Just made me take out a big insurance policy.


And so, we broke ground in 1950, and 1951, on April 5th, we opened the new store.

A grand opening. He's handing me a photograph of his --

And that's what I don't -- that's what I don't have, though.

This is from the Ballard News, and it's one of his -- it's announcing the grand opening. And it's a full spread ad with all the -- the prices and the variety, and the "three big days, prizes, refreshments, fun for the entire family". I take it that was quite an event.

It really was, because we gave away a new live baby.

A baby?

At the opening.

I didn't know they were allowed to give away live babies. He's now showing me a page from the Pacific Northwest Grocer and Meat Dealer Magazine

And they had an emcee. The live baby turned out to be a baby pig. And who was the winner of this live baby?

Oh, I don't remember that; that's 49 years ago.

Did they take it with them?

My cousin, who had just come from Norway, was a nurse, and she gave it away in her uniform and everything.

Oh, very official.

So it created quite a --

Uh-huh. So who --

So that's all -- we gave away a TV set or something else besides that.

Uh-huh. Now, you were working the store. Was your wife working --

Day and night.

(Continuing) -- there as well?

Oh, yeah, three daughters, too.

So the whole, the family was always --

Yeah, it was a family affair. Sometimes the daughters worked till midnight on a Friday to get ready for Saturday. But the uniqueness of our opening the store at that particular time, there was no self-service meat. It was illegal in --

You know, that's something that I certainly don't know about.

Of course not.

So tell us a little bit more about it.

Well, it was illegal in the Northwest -- San Francisco was the --

You had to go to a butcher --

(Continuing) -- self-service meat --

(Continuing) -- would be the way it had to be?

Yeah, you'd have to wait for him to cut it up, and wrap it up, and put the price on it and take it up to the check stand. Then, they came out and said that they were going to have self-service meat in the state of Washington. So, I called up Mr. Massert, who was the chairman of that department, and I asked him: "I don't know what to do. I'm opening up my store in April, and this is going to become law in February. What do I do?" He says, "Well, I'm positive it's going
to" because I had to know what kind of fixtures.


The old obsolete, or the new self-service. So, he said he was positive it was going to pass, so I chanced it and bought self-service fixtures. And so we were all set to be the first one in the Northwest that had self-service meat. And then, the Van dekamp Bakery went along with me, and I was the first one to have a Van dekamp Bakery in the store.

I noticed that little windmill sign in one of the photos that you gave me.

And then, we were -- it was unheard of, too, to step on the rubber mat as you came into the store, and the door opened.

Oh, my --

Nobody had ever heard of anything like that.

Now, how did you come up with all these things?

The right time, I guess, the right place.


Of course, I had plenty of experience, you know, with Safeway, and then --

Uh-hum. But you were ahead of even Safeway in those things.

Yeah, yeah. And then, you know where that secondhand place is behind Kitchen 'n' Things, now?


That was A&P Supermarket.

Oh, really?

You probably haven't heard of that. That was the biggest chain in the United States.

Well, actually, where I grew up on the East Coast, we still -- we still have A&P. And you're right, many of the first locations were A&Ps.

Yeah. Well, that was my competition.


Safeway had a much smaller store than they have now. So, I took a lot of business away from them, 'cause I met all the prices. My meat market manager and I went down there every single week and checked all their prices to be sure we were the same or less.

Oh, really? And did they quickly follow suit on the self-service meat?

Oh, much later.

Oh, later.

Yeah. They weren't prepared for it, you know. Being a chain, they had to do what Chicago or New York, wherever their offices told them what to do. But then, I hurt them so bad that their business dropped off so much. They're the one that built the new store where QFC is now.


That was an A&P.


Of course, that hurt me for awhile, being a big new store like that. But then, they still -- volume dropped off, so they sold, to QFC.

I see.

No more A&Ps.

Yeah, I haven't seen them on this coast.


Well, it must have been just very exciting. How did people respond to the self-service meat?

Well, we were the guinea pig, of course. And, wouldn't you know, in those days, they used cellophane. And then the meat wrapper had a hot iron where she wrapped it and sealed it with that. We were unlucky enough to get a bum batch about a week later --

The cellophane?

(Continuing) -- that had a medicinal smell to it, and we had to make all of it good. But they made it good to me, too. So, it was unfortunate that it happened when it did.

At the grand opening?

Well, no, it was a week after, I think.


Yeah. So, anyway, that's the story on that. But now, of course, it's -- we weren't even open on evenings. We just were open from 8 to 6, and only at night on one day a week, Friday. Now it's seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Well, not all of them. You know?

Oh, I think so. Do you know of anybody? Well --

Well, not the mom and pop ones.

(Continuing) -- some of them might close at 11. Right. Close at 11.

Yeah. Yeah. But you're right. It's very different, isn't it?


So, tell me a little bit about, you know, since you were the grocer, you know, in the -- especially the Sunset Hill neighborhood, what were your customers like? I mean, lots of immigrants?

Just -- a lot of them, because with that name, Nilsen, you know, that's a dead giveaway, see. And that's when they were really coming from Norway and, thank goodness, with my wife being the checker, she understood. We both speak Norwegian fluently. And the hardest part for the Norwegian was spices, 'cause there's no correlation at all between the name of something in Norway and here. So, we -- even to this day, we talk to people that remember coming in to our store in the 1950s and asking what spices -- like, oh, cloves, and stuff that like, you know, nellik spiker in Norwegian. No garlic, you know, in there.

Did you carry mostly things that you found in America? You weren't all trying to provide specialties from Norway?

Oh, yes. We had a lot of them.

Oh, you did.

There was a company that had all the specialties. Like now, it's that Johnson's in Ballard?


In those days it was Flakstad & Company. And we carried all the Norwegian stuff they had. Yup, and special section for it, so they didn't have to look for it.

Oh, I see. And how about -- I take it, you spoke Norwegian, but did you get Swedes and Finns in as well?

Oh, sure. Yes.

I mean, you were the grocer.

Definitely, you're right. I grew up in Astoria, Oregon, with a Finnish family next to us. Hilkka Warss. Oh, I used to talk a little bit of Finnish in those days.

Oh, okay.

If you have never been in Astoria, the Finns live in one part of town and the Norwegians live the upper town. Upper town is the fishermen and the Finns were the loggers.

Oh, I see. Now, did you find similar kind of distinctions in Ballard in terms of people living in neighborhoods, or was it more mixed?

Oh, I think it was definitely mixed. Lot of fishermen in Ballard, of course. Halibut was a big thing in those days. During the Depression, we had four fishermen living with us to make ends meet in the 30s. We had seven barrels of fish in our garage, six days a week, fish.

Wow. How did you meet your wife?

Well, that was funny that you asked that. I was just asked that the other day. In 1938, I was working for Safeway and I bought a brand new Chevrolet. And I went down to show it to some very good friends of ours. And she was there. That was the beginning. That was 62 years ago.


We're going to have our 59th wedding anniversary coming up.

Well, congratulations.

Yeah. Thank you. 

And so, then, you were able to -- when you started your own store, she was -- joined you in the grocery?

When I was the Safeway manager, one fella had quit, and he had bought a mom and pop and he was just a dry cleaner truck. He says, "Gosh, with your experience, you should get back into the grocery business." So, I said, "Well, maybe." He said, "Just call the Carnation Dairy, and their salesman will find one for you." So that's how I got on 32nd Northwest and 75th, the first one.

The first one. Uh-hum. And what happened to the gentleman who set you up in the bigger one? Did that -- did he stay in touch?

Oh, yeah, he was a very kind man. He saw that we just had this little tiny delivery truck --

Oh, okay. He was looking for --

No, it's not in that --

(Continuing) -- in the pictures. You did deliveries as well?

Oh, yes, we had credit and delivery, yes.

Oh, really.

Yeah, I didn't realize.

Credit and delivery.

I don't know if you've heard of Mr. McAbee.

Oh, yes.

Have you? He was our best customer, 'cause he used to have Mayor Devin for dinner. And that meant a lot of groceries went out of our little store.


So, I knew both of them well, because they lived on --

So, there was that -- now the Mayor of Seattle? Or --

Yeah, Mayor Devin. William Devin.

Ok. Okay.


Okay. So he would do some entertaining.

Mr. McAbee, you know, built Lockhaven.

Yes. Yeah.

Now we're getting kind of off the subject. I'll never forget the big snow of 1949.

Oh, well, you know, I was going to ask you about --

Yeah, my delivery boy didn't come home till 7:30 at night. They were stuck in the snow delivering down in North Beach.

Oh, really. There's a lot of hills in North Beach. So you said this gentleman who helped you, he saw that you had a very small delivery van.

He was a retired lumberman owned the Juneau Spruce Lumber Company. And he retired and lived in the biggest house on 34th overlooking the Sound. He used to come in and saw how hard we worked and that we didn't have a car, we just had a little Ford delivery truck.

Just a little pickup.

Yeah, a little pickup. And the girls would sit in the apple -- orange crates. They were wooden in those days. And that was our transportation. He says, "Nilson," he says, "how about if I give you my Packard, and I'll just take it all out in groceries." So we did.


Yeah. I forget what the dollar figure was, but it was a custom 1947 Packard. That was probably in about '49.

But still, it was young.

And he's the one that said we should have a new store.

He sounds like he really valued having you close by.

I was -- I was probably a 35-year-old, and all the pallbearers when he died were high 70s.

Uh-huh. Huh.

Yeah. He was a kind man.

He sounds very kind. So he stayed in touch. So you got the new -- the pretty new Packard.


And then were you able to --

Yeah, it was about two or three years old.

Uh-hum. So then you were able to expand. And did you do a lot of -- I mean, you had people who wanted deliveries every day. Was that something you had somebody doing full time?

Oh, a full-time delivery boy. Well, not full time, afternoons and the Saturdays. We were closed Sundays, of course.

And then, was your home within walking distance?

73rd and Dibble, do you know where that is?


Yeah. That was our home. We lived there from 1930 till 1955, when we built our new home in Blue Ridge. Our dream home, I should say, in Blue Ridge.

And your daughters went to which school?

They went to Whittier and Ballard High School, and Marcus Whitman and University --

Oh, yeah.

(Continuing)-- and University of Washington; all three.

And they stayed right in town.

Yep, they now live in Kirkland and Brier.

Oh, not in Ballard, but they're they're close by.

Yep, they are.

Well, tell me a little bit more about, you know, the things that stand out. Like you mentioned the snow of 1949. Were there particular events?

Yes. And then there was the earthquake, too. When was the Alaska earthquake? I've forgotten.

I have a little chart --

I think it was 1964, but I'm not sure.

I believe it was '64.

I don't think I mentioned it in my notes.

Yeah, I have a few, I have here a --

But anyway, it shook the shelves pretty much.

Yes, earthquake in April 1965.

'65. Yeah.

Right. So did you have much damage? Stuff fall off the shelves?

No, just breakage.

But your building was sound.

Yeah. This is how it looked at the grand opening, the new one.

He's showing me a picture of the -- when he -- yeah, tell us a little bit about -- you mentioned before we started taping, about going from the food -- well, this is the Food Liner, and maybe you can tell us a little bit about becoming Food Town.

So here he has some pictures, the photographs show the parking lot is full.

Fifty-year-old cars.

Fifty-year-old cars. And there are banners strung all along the side.

I was the first one to have these speedy checkouts where the customer unloaded the groceries, and then we had this little thing on it at our hip. We just touched it and the table went around, and they unloaded the groceries. They said it would never work. The customer won't do it. I had four boxboys for three check stands, they were so fast.


And, lo and behold, that's what they have now. That's what the Safeway, right down here on 85th and 15th has right now, speedy checkouts turntable. Customer unloads the groceries.

Wow. Uh-hum. Now who were you working with in terms of these things being so innovative, you know, for anywhere? Were there manufacturing companies or --


(Continuing) -- suppliers who wanted you to try the latest?

McCray's was our biggest refrigeration company at that time. And they came up with -- after the -- I -- see, in 1951, there was only peas and carrots and frozen orange juice is about all there was in frozen foods. So I only had eight feet, or something like that. Well, then, in 1959, it came with all -- all of this is frozen food, the whole length of the store.

Right. Mr. Nilsen is showing me is what looks like a very long aisle. I can't even guess, you know, maybe 30 to 40 feet long, that is all the kind of self-service frozen food that you find in modern stores now but was clearly unheard of until then.

Right. Uh-hum. And this is the dairy case, which was new, and this is the produce department, which was new.

And the pictures he's showing me, they're really remarkably, you know, like what you see in the stores now. That one is dated April 5th, 1951, from the grand opening.

And this is just some of my promotions. This is the first self-service Van dekamp Bakery where we took in the money, and hit it on a certain key, and then we paid Van dekamp. Very unusual in those days.

So, was Van dekamps local?

Oh, no. There were in California and all over.

No. They were in a national -- okay. Yeah. They were not --

It was new that they came in the supermarket. They were separately -- you probably remember the one, that place on the corner, at the foot of Queen Anne Hill?


That was their biggest store. This is a promotion I had where, I can't remember where I got that, but it's supposed to be a streetcar.

Oh, yeah. What he's showing is it's in front of his Food Liner store, and it is a City of San Francisco, like a trolley car.

We drove all over Ballard in front of all of the chain stores.

Oh, so you were able to drive it around.

I was driving it --

He had -- oh, you were driving -- on the side, he has like a little advertisement, a banner that says: "Come to Nilsen's Food Liner Gay Nineties Festival. 7 to 9 p.m., Seattle's lowest food prices." So that was another part of your advertising.

Uh-huh. Yeah. And this was my head assistant and this was my vegetable man, as you can see. That's my daughter, one of them.

Uh-hum. One of the daughters. This is a more -- the photo he's showing me now is a more close-up photo of himself and -- what is your outfit? Sort of like a special driver --

Streetcar conductor.

Streetcar conductor.


How very official.

Then we had a big dance in the back parking lot. A band from the carrier Midway from Bremerton furnished the music, and the produce company furnished the flatbed truck for them to sit on. Mannings served the coffee, and Van dekamp the cookies and stuff like that. We had a big square dance in the back parking lot.

Uh-hum. Wow. It sounds like you had quite a few parties, you know, a lot of celebrations there.

Yeah, we did. Always something going.

Uh-huh. And his last photo is when it had become Food Town.

Yeah. We gave away a car full of groceries. Every time the salesman came in, he had to put something in the car.

Every time a salesman -- oh, so it was like your delivery -- you mean, people who were bringing --

Yeah, like bread companies, cookie companies. In those days, it wasn't like it is now, the warehouse handles everything. We had a separate drug company, a separate produce, a separate bakery --

I see. So would people be coming pretty much every day? Some people once a week? But stocking the store?

Yeah, yeah.

Now, how many people did you have working for you?

Oh, you know that I can't remember that.


Yeah. Lots always.

People beyond the family, too.

Yeah. Some of my box boys, you know, they were Ballard High School football players, you know. One of them now is a major -- retired major in the Army, and one of them was a lawyer, and I've lost track of them. That was fun having them. If they did well on the football squad, I'd give them a steak, or something like that.

Ah. So you were very tied to the community.


And were your parents still -- were they living in the neighborhood as well?

My mother died when she was 46 years old, 1938. Yeah, breast cancer, yeah.

So that was -- that was pretty -- right around the time you had moved to Ballard.

Yeah, it was. No, 1938 -- we moved to Ballard in 1928.

Oh, sorry. You had been there ten years.

Uh-hum. So, then, do you want to know how I got into the travel business?

Well, sure. So how long were you in the grocery business?

Until 1962. Then I sold it to a father-in-law who wanted his son-in-law -- I shouldn't get into religion, but he was a very good grocery man, and he would have done very well. But he made a stop at a tavern on his way home too often. And he got busted. And she, who knew nothing about the grocery business, and her cousin tried to run the store. By that time, I was in the travel business big, and I had 65 Ballard Elks in Honolulu. And the phone ran at 8:15 in the morning, and Judy Grubbs, who was the owner, says, "Harold, we're filing bankruptcy Saturday night. What do you want to do about it?" I says, "Whoa. I can't do anything right now. You keep the store open until I can get there. And I don't know when I can," because there was only one airline flying to Hawaii at that time.

So, when I did come back, then I just bought their inventory. She thought I was going to pay all their past debts, but I didn't have to do that, 'cause I owned the building, too. So, we took it over again. I added a couple of new help and had a big ad in the Ballard News that the Nilsens are back, and then six weeks, we had all our business back. And we sold it for the second time in 1967 'cause I was very much involved in the travel business at that time.

Uh-hum. So tell me about you know sort of leaving the first time. Did you just -- were you ready for a change?

Oh, definitely. Definitely. Yeah. I was a Husky fan. We had Husky season tickets since 19 -- early 1950s, all the games. But I always said if the Huskies went to the Rose Bowl that we would go. Well, the 1959 Huskies were that great team that went to the Rose Bowl, so, of course, I go to the travel agent on 80th and 15th Northwest, Dave Whittleson. And they took care of everything. A package deal: Beverly Wiltshire Hotel, then the parade and the game. So, when we came back, we went back to the travel agent to tell them that's a good job he did. Oh, no. First he said, "Why don't you go some place beyond that, you've got the time. Just go to Mexico or something." I said, "Well there's no reason why we can't." So he fixed up a personalized trip to Mexico, where we drove from -- oh, where do you land down there -- Mexico City, Cuernavaca --


(Continuing) -- and those places. And got up in Acapulco, and everything was just perfect. So when we came back, I told him what a great job he did. Pretty appreciated. And he said, or I said, "Gee." He told me he didn't like the boss very well. I said, "Well, why don't you get a place of your own. Can't you do that?" He says, "Well, I don't have any money." So, this is kind of a turnaround for my grocery guy did for me. And, I says, "Well, if you find a good location, maybe I can help you." Well, it wasn't very long afterwards, he called me and said, "Harold, how would you like to go to Hawaii for $50?" So, we met, and he had found this place up on Capitol Hill.

Uh-huh. Oh, so it was on Capitol Hill?

Capitol Hill, yeah.

Was he from Ballard himself?

No, he wasn't. He was from Capitol Hill. So, then, I started -- well, actually, when I sold the store in 1962, I had a charter flight to Norway.

Uh-hum. Had you done much traveling, you know, while you were first getting in the grocery?

I hadn't been, no. I went to Hawaii in 1954, with the -- and the next year with the two daughters. So, then, things were rolling pretty good. Stayed in the travel business, mostly as a tour guide.

Oh, really.

I've taken 1,471 people around the world.

Around the world.

I just counted them. I have all the records. Yeah. Been to China twice, and Singapore, Tahiti --

So that made sort of a change, 'cause it sounds like you stayed pretty close to Ballard during the grocery years.

Oh, yeah. Made up for it later on. So, in 1988, we sold Holiday House. We were big, became two more partners in it on the other end of town. So, then I was going to retire, but then the fellow on 65th and 8th Northwest talked me into taking more groups. So I did, 'cause we had a captive audience. Didn't even have to advertise, really. So, 1996 was the last trip to the Caribbean. Cruise ship. So . . .

Wow. That does encompass a lot of variety.

Yeah. This was in the Grocer's Magazine. I was still in the grocery ...

Globe-trotting, he has a clipping that says: "Globe-trotting Grocer Now Guides Travelers." Oh. So, now, you --

Well, and this is our -- then we had that little tiny place for our -- it's just a one-man operation. And business got to be so good, that we expanded to this place and named it Holiday House Travel Service. And this building is a mansion built -- it's on Harvard Avenue and Olive Way.

Oh, yes.

It's still there. It was built by a millionaire lumberman. It's a beautiful place.

Yeah, he has a clipping that he's showing me here that's of the Holiday House Travel, which was on Broadway in a mansion was built in 1902.

And we grew from 1 employee to 22 full time.

So, you were successful yet again in your new business. Mr. Nilsen has quite a few interesting clippings. He's telling me that he and his wife are preparing to --

There's all our employees.

(Continuing) -- move. He has a postcard that he is showing me from his -- from the Holiday House Travel Service, which was, indeed -- it looks like it was located in a very beautiful mansion there.

Uh-hum. And this is just some of them that I have saved. 1963.

1963 is a photo, "Hawaii with the Nilsens."

I thought I had 100 people one time.

Now, would your wife travel with you as well?



Well, sometimes, we were offered some freebies that she couldn't go. Only travel agents. Lot of these are the --

So, tell me a little bit about -- obviously, you had an association with the Ballard Elks.

Oh, yes. I'm a life member. And I am Sons of Norways, Leif Erikson Lodge, 63 years.


That's how I got the three charters.

Oh, I see.

To Norway.

So, did you -- uhm, I'm doing my math here, but did you join the Elks when -- when you were in the grocery business?

Yeah. I think I was -- yeah.

And where would they meet in those days?

Where did they meet?


Right in the old brick building, right on Leary Way there, by -- below pretty close to where the fire was? It's Olympic Health Club now, I think.

That was where.

And they should have stayed there.

But you moved with them. So that was their location for a long time?

Yeah, they should have stayed there because that was beautiful. They got that place at a bargain, but it was built with the idea that we'd have 3,500 members, and I think we're below 800 now.

So, when you joined, about how many members were there?

The Ballard Elks?


Oh, probably 2,000.


Eighteen hundred, I think.

And was that -- at that point, were there a lot of, you know, first and second generation immigrants?

Oh, sure, everything. Yeah. There you see them. Of course, they're all in their ...

Their Hawaiian gear. Yeah.

Yeah. The Hawaiian gear.

He has a picture here from 1967, which is "Northwest welcomes Ballard Elks to Hawaii."

Yeah. (Inaudible) airline at the time.

Continental Airlines. Let's see. You had another picture from Hawaii with the Ballard Elks. I'm not so familiar, you know, with something like the Ballard Elks, but how -- clearly it played a strong role in the community.


Was it mostly Ballard business people?

A lot of them, but they didn't have to be business people. Just someone looking for a good time.

They could just live there.

And, but, you know, they were a victim of television.

That's kind of what happened to the meetings?


So you used to meet weekly?

Yeah. Used to meet every Thursday. And I don't know why they changed it to Tuesday. That seemed to be the downfall.

That was the downfall, huh?


And you used to do -- would this be like an annual trip, or --

Well, sometimes I took two and three a year, but not always to Hawaii, but I went there 72 times.

My goodness.

Yeah. So, I think we've pretty much seen all of it. That was our business cards.

Well, it sounds like, from the time that you first moved to Ballard, you were pretty busy. Do you -- what did you do to have fun? Can you tell us about some of your memories of more --

Used to golf right there.

Oh, he's pointing out across the field, which is the Soundview Park, up near the Olympic Blue Ridge (sic) --

But it was the Olympic Golf Course, the most beautiful course in Seattle.

You know, I hadn't realized that that was a golf course, but now that you look at it from your view up here, you can see it.

It was beautiful. Right up on top of the hill there, supposed to be the highest point in Seattle, believe it or not.

Really. Mr. Nilsen ...

When we built this building --

(Continuing) -- is -- he lives here in a building that he helped build --

With two partners.

With two partners. Okay? And the name is Soundview --


Soundview West. And it looks to the due west, out over Blue Ridge and sort of towards the --

Olympic Manor. This is overlooking --

(Continuing) -- overlooking the Olympics. Yeah. And it's just -- you can see the corner here on Marcus Whitman School. So, actually, you didn't -- tell me about where that -- is that while you were in the travel business that you also got into doing --


Did you develop any other buildings or residences?

No. No, I just knew the contractor very well. He was a meat market -- worked in my Safeway store as a meat market operator in 1940.

Oh, I see.

And then he became a contractor. And this used to be Frontier Lanes Bowling Alley.


In December of 1978, we had that fantastic, the hardest rainstorm in Seattle history, and the building collapsed.

Flat roof.

At ten after 5:00. It was bowling alley and a nightclub, As You Like It.

Were there -- were there anyone inside?

No, it was just 10 after 5:00, before the bowlers had come, and there was nobody injured.

That's good. So it was completely wrecked.

Destroyed, yes. I have pictures of it. I don't want to bore you with that -- those.

So, then, how did you get to the idea to then do a residence here?

Here? Well, it was pretty simple. Mr. Lindquist was the contractor, a builder, and I was probably the one that paid the bills mostly, 'cause I'm not a builder, but I had a lot of ideas. And this idea's all my wife and I -- the architect had this as being the master bedroom. That's kind of stupid, isn't it, when you've got that view out there? So we changed it.

You had a lot of input.


So how about when you -- did you have brothers or sisters?

Just one sister. She lives nine inches underneath me. Third floor.

So you went to school, you know, together?

Yeah. Went to a -- yeah. She's a Ballard High grad, too. She bought our house on 73rd and Dibble when we built our dream house in Blue Ridge.

Oh, I see, yeah.

That same man, by the way, that helped me in the grocery store, I found out that that lot was for sale in Blue Ridge at the same time, and it was $8,000, which was unheard of in those days. He says, "Ah, go ahead and buy it," he says. "I'll take care of it. Put it at the end of the contract." So we got that 90-foot lot in Blue Ridge.


Ninety feet wide and 145 deep. There's only two lots in Blue Ridge that are 90 feet wide.

My goodness. So you built your dream home there. And how long were you there --

Yeah. It was "Seattle Times Home of the Month."

Really. How exciting. And how long were you there?

We were there for 20 years. Yeah. And all three daughters were gone, so we were rattling around in 4900 square feet by ourselves.

So, anyway, so you were saying that you used to golf here?

I learned to golf right there. I used to go with the assistant manager of that -- it was the National Bank of Commerce then in Ballard. It's US Bank now. He said, "You got your clubs with you?" I said, "Yeah, they're in my trunk." He said, "Let's go." Something like 3:30.

You kept your clubs in the trunk.


And in terms of, you know, memories, you know, going even farther back, did you used to go like to the Syttende Mai Parade and that sort of thing, or were you --

Always go to those. Yeah. Seen every one of them. In fact, I have a picture in there talking to the King of Norway.

Oh, really.

Yeah. King Harald.

I can remember when he was --

Three years ago.

(Continuing) --here, yeah. So you've been to every parade?

I'm positive of that. Except the one where it rained cats and dogs.

It does something different every year, doesn't it?

I didn't tell you why we came to Seattle from Astoria.

Why, no.

When I was born with asthma, I think, and the school that I went to was -- we had to walk down a steep hill and come up, of course. And I had asthma so bad I couldn't even make it up the hill. In fact, I didn't sleep in the bedroom, I slept in the living room chair. I wheezed so loud, and there was no cure or anything for it in those days. And I had pneumonia three times by the time I was nine years old. So the doctor told my dad they'd better get me out of Astoria and move like to Yakima for its drier climate. I mean, you're talking in 1927 and 1928 when there wasn't much medicine around. So they thought we'd try Seattle first, 'cause he was a fisherman. And my asthma left me. We went down to Astoria for a visit the relatives the next year. "Call the doctor." Three years in a row we did that. "Call the doctor." But then we stayed away for awhile, and since then, I've outgrown it.

That's wonderful.

Isn't that unusual?

It is, it is very unusual.

Yeah. Really. That's why I was rejected from the Army, when they found an old scar on my lung. But it never bothered me.

That's remarkable. So you moved here and your health immediately improved. And how did your family like it?

Seattle? Oh, it's a big upgrade from Astoria. That's a very damp city. Always fog and lots of lots of rain. But it was a beautiful picturesque city. We went down there every other year and still have relatives down there.

Did you have other relatives who lived here?

In Seattle? Oh, a lot of them. Yeah. The fishermen came to Seattle from Norway in those days. Halibut fishermen in those days.

Yeah, you said there was a lot of halibut.

I remember them coming, and the people that we lived with temporarily came in with 75,000 pounds of halibut. They got three cents a pound for the best grade, and one cent a pound for the other. And they went -- each man had to divvy up $75. They went in the hole. Seventy-five dollars per man but turned around and went right back out again. That was the Great Depression of 1930. '29-'30. So . . .

Wow. Well, it certainly sounds like you had some great successes yourself.

My wife went to Webster, which is now the Nordic Heritage Museum.

The Nordic Heritage Museum.


Yeah. So she grew up in Seattle?

In Seattle. Yeah. Folks came here, and relatives came here. You had to have somebody guarantee for you, you know, in those days.


Audio cassette interview of Harold Nilsen by Peggy Sturdivant, May 10, 2000, Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You