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March 16, 2014

Bee Investigator: More history on mystery of how Modesto's Norwegian Avenue got its name

We still don’t know how the street got its name, but memories of Norwegian Avenue bring out history of town and farming roots. And there’s a chuckle or two along the way.

We were going to head out to Highway 99 this week, but some folks gave me more information after last week’s column on the origin of the Norwegian Avenue name, so we’re going back there to sit a spell.

Nope. Still don’t know the real reason the street got its name.

After the column was published last week, one online commenter said his parents were close friends with Hurley and Thelma Couchman, who used to own and lease a big stretch of land, including where McHenry Village now sits. One street near Norwegian is named David after one of the Couchman’s sons, said the commenter, adding that his parents had told him the Couchmans were of Norwegian descent and were the ones who named the avenue.

Hurley Couchman died last month. I called David, who helps farm his family’s land west of town, but he was at a Modesto Irrigation District meeting about this year’s water allotments. His wife, Mary, said she would ask the family’s 95-year-old matriarch, Thelma, about the matter. She called me the next day and said that no, the Couchman family didn’t name the street.

But I also heard from Eleanor Currie, an 85-year-old woman whose family owned the Hiatt Ranch. That’s the acreage I wrote about last week on the north side of Norwegian Avenue that eventually was subdivided in 1952 by Frank and Mary Francek. Turns out the Franceks bought the land from Eleanor’s mother after her father died.

“Our home was on Floyd Avenue,” she said. “I’m the last of eight children.”

She’s not only the youngest – she’s the only one still alive, she said. She has fond memories of growing up “in the country” north of town.

“I remember at the back of our ranch, which was toward town, toward (what is now) McHenry Village, was a little lane called Norwegian. There was only one ranch house along that area. Between us and that ranch house were just peaches and grapes and fields of alfalfa, and a little ditch that I learned to swim in. It was all very, very farm and no commercial, no traffic. In fact, I could lay down on the middle of Floyd Avenue, which didn’t have any sidewalks. I would lay on my tummy and look toward McHenry for my dad to come home from work.”

Eleanor said she remembers seeing in the distance the two-story home on Norwegian.

“My sister, who was five years older than I was, had a friend who lived in that house,” Eleanor said. “Their name was Swanson. I imagine that’s a Norwegian name. She’d go visit that girlfriend of hers, tramping through the fields, and her friend’s name was Nettie Swanson.”

After her dad died, Eleanor said, her mother was forced to sell the family farm, and she ended up selling it to the Franceks. Eleanor was married by that time and doesn’t “remember all the details,” but said her mother ended up living on Norwegian Avenue for a time.

Eleanor said her family’s original home, “a big, seven-bedroom home, was moved over to Blue Gum Avenue many, many years later. I remember seeing it going down Briggsmore Avenue.” That was in the early 1960s. She said she was driving her 8-year-old daughter to a piano lesson and as she passed the slow-moving transport, she looked in the rearview mirror and said, “That’s my old front porch.”

She has one more Norwegian Avenue story. Eleanor said her first husband, Walter C. “Bud” LaCore, and other men from Centenary United Methodist Church made the bricks to build their church on the corner of Norwegian and McHenry avenues. The bricks, she said, “were designed by a man who had been a missionary in South America and knew how the Indians there made their bricks. We first built the parsonage and we held services there until we got the church done.”

And here’s where the story entwines back to the beginning of this column: “They made the bricks on the Couchmans’ property. They didn’t belong to the church, but they offered their property, and they had water and sand along the Tuolumne River.” Yes, the same Couchmans who didn’t name Norwegian, but helped make bricks for a church there.

“I don’t know if you’re interested in this, but I’m the last one of my family, and after I’m gone, it’s water going down the drain,” Eleanor said. “I’ve always been here (in Modesto).”

In fact, she said, two years after her first husband died in 1985, she married her second husband, Dick Currie. His first wife had recently died. “We were all Modesto Class of ’47,” Eleanor said. “I dated Dick before I dated Bud, and then I didn’t see my second husband for 50 years, when he called me up and asked if he could take me to our 50th high school reunion. Isn’t that something?”

It certainly is.

One last note: One Norwegian Avenue resident, Andy Moe, wrote to say, “About 50 years ago, Mr. Briggs told me this story: There was a young widow of the McHenry extended family. She was courted and then married a Norwegian guy. If you wanted to meet the new groom, go out on McHenry Avenue and when you see a coffee pot on a post, that’s where they live.”

Of course, you surely know – and as Marge Goslin, a Norwegian herself, noted when she had her photo for last week’s column taken on the corner of Norwegian and Coffee – Norwegians love their coffee. It’s a good yarn, Andy. Maybe that coffee pot was on the corner of McHenry and the lane that became known as Norwegian? It’s as good an answer as any.

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