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February 28, 1991



By Wayne A. Guyant


            The other day I came across a news item in the Waupaca County Post from October 1921 that drew my attention.  It stated that Chris Oyen had received word of the death of his brother, Olaf Henry Oyen, that occurred at his home in Forest Hills, Long Island, NY, on October 23, 1921, at the age of 38.  The cause of death was by a cerebral hemorrhage.

            Olaf Henry Oyen was born in Christiania, Norway, November 28, 1882.  His parents immigrated to the United States and to Waupaca when he was only two years old.  He attended Waupaca schools during his boyhood and showed a great aptitude for descriptive writing and had a fondness for hunting, fishing and travel.

            At the age of 16 he left Waupaca and went to Chicago, there, for the next two years, he was employed by the Swift Packing Company.  He had in the meantime written some short stories that attracted the attention of the Chicago Tribune and he was hired as a reporter for its Sunday section.

            The farther that I read the article the more intrigued I became about the author, Olaf Henry Oyen.

            I knew that Mrs. Gayhart (Henrietta) Sannes, who lives out on Otto Road between Sheridan and Amherst, is a daughter of Chris Oyen, and would be a niece of Olaf Henry Oyen.  I gave her a call one evening to see if she had any history of her uncle.  Well, I hit the jackpot.  She told me that she had a history written by his wife several years ago, and that she was coming to Waupaca the next day and would bring me a copy of it.

            Olaf Henry Oyen always went by the name Henry, perhaps to save the confusion of being mistaken for his father, whose name was also Olaf Oyen.  From this point on, I will follow her story as closely as space will allow.  You may note some discrepancies, but they do not alter the life of the author, Henry Oyen.

            Olaf Henry Oyen was born in Christiania, Norway, November 28, 1882.  He was a son of Olaf and Henrietta (Johannason) Oyen, Olaf, the father, had previously come to America and to Waupaca to prepare a home for his little family that remained in Norway.

            When only a year old, little Henry Oyen came to Waupaca with his mother, an older sister, Bertha, and a brother, Karl.  Olaf Oyen, the father, was like all of the other Norwegians who settled here among the hills and lakes that reminded them so much of their homeland.  Olaf was a farmer and sold produce wholesale.  The farmers of those days were a close-knit bunch, they helped each other build their homes, put in the crops, and fished and hunted together. Henrietta Oyen took her children to church twice every Sunday.  The family was happy in this new land. Karl was always sickly and passed away December 5, 1888, at the age of 13.  Two other sons blessed their home.  Christopher J. (Chris) was born in 1884, and the baby of the family, Norman Morris, was born in 1888.

            Skating on the Chain o’ Lakes and exploring the woods with his brothers, Henry developed a love for the great out-of-doors, which never left him.  Tragedy struck in 1889, when Henry was only six years old.  His father suddenly died and money became scarce for the family.  After a few lean years the widow decided to move to Chicago, where she had hoped that the children would have a better chance in life.  In Chicago, hard times continued and often there was nothing on the table but oatmeal.  Henry worked at any job that he could find. Here in Chicago, Henry went to night school and spent as much time as possible in the public library, not only to read, but to keep warm.

            As he grew older he tried professional baseball for one season.  He next got a job as a bookkeeper with the Swift Packing Company; it was while here that he wrote a short story about an educated Indian, who went primitive under strain, and the story was published by “Century.”  It was on the strength of this story that Henry was hired as a reporter for the Sunday section of ht Chicago Tribune.  But, what Henry really wanted was to be able to save $2,000 on which to go to New York City and become a novelist.  Finally, a well-known publishing house, Doubleday-Page, accepted his first novel and “Joey the Dreamer,” a story about a boy from the slums of Chicago, was published.  They promised to take occasional articles for their magazine “The World Work.”  Although the $2,000 was never saved, one spring day, at the age of 27, after five good yeas on the Tribune, Henry took the train for New York City.

            Henry’s mother, with the rest of the family returned to Waupaca to live.

            Oscar Caesare, a cartoonist friend from Chicago, who was on a New York newspaper, was living in a room facing Washington Square.  It was here that Henry settled in a small room facing the park, the room furnished only with an iron bed, a pitcher and bowl and a straight chair with a hole in the cane seat.

            The landlady was a German-Swiss widow and would often say, “If only dese lodgers did nefer open the windows, no dust vould come in.”

            The first summer Henry wrote articles for “The World Work.”  Soon afterwards Henry left for Waupaca where his mother was dying from cancer.  Henrietta, his mother, passed away November 17, 1911, in Chicago.  After the death of his mother, Henry Oyen returned to Washington Square in New York City. He was still determined to make a name for himself as a fiction writer. He often had said, “I’d rather starve writing stories than to make a million at anything else.”

            The going was tough.  “The World Work” had stopped publication, and his stories were being returned.  One day in January somebody stole his overcoat and he did not have money enough to buy another.  He was now living in a cheaper room, heated only by a smoking oil stove.  He soon learned that, when hungry, it was better to stay in bed, that he felt it less; also that peanuts and chocolate bars were cheap and filling.

            There was a young lady rooming in the same house who was working on a newspaper, and she suggested that she cook dinner every night in a chafing dish on her fireplace.  Henry paid her 37¢ per night.  It really came to more than that, but she had taken a liking to him.  Whenever he sold a story, he would generally celebrate by getting a shoeshine, a store shave, and buy some oranges, then he and the lady would take a bus ride up Fifth Avenue, or a 5¢ round trip ferry ride to Staten Island.  One snowy night they walked to the Battery on the Bay, from here they could see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island which was the port of entry into the United States.  As Henry gazed over the water he was trying to imagine what it was like here when his mother came to this same spot, met by his father, and himself an infant in her arms.

            Toward spring, one year after his return to New York, so many of his stories had been returned that he wrote his brothers asking for a loan to come back to Waupaca.  Here he moved in with his two unmarried brothers in a cottage on Otter Lake, which in happier days he had bought for his mother.

            (From our dining room window on Otter Lake Drive we can se the general area where the cottage stood).

            It was the only cottage on the lake.  Here living was cheap.  Here they could fish and game was abundant.  Here Henry used to stand looking out of the window and wonder how to mend his fortune. Here Henry had the inspiration to write a novel, “The Snow Burner.”  It was about a man of wonderful powers, against a background of those beloved Wisconsin woods.  “Adventure Magazine” bought his works at once and asked for more.  Henry wrote the “Snow Burner Pays,” which “Adventure” also like, and that was the end of hard times for Henry Oyen.

            Henry turned to writing novels.  The first two, “The Man Trail” and “Gaston Olaf,” both tales of the woods, were published by “Adventure Magazine” and were later published in book form, as was “The Snow Burner.”

            “The Snow Burner” and “The Man Trail” were made into moving pictures by Essanay, a Chicago company.  “Gaston Olaf” was filled by Metro, a forerunner of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer.  There appeared a billing for the Lyric Theatre in Waupaca, dated June 1, 1916:  “Waupaca boy stories are dramatized. Henry Oyen, author of “the Man Trail,” will be shown at the Lyric Theatre.”

            The history of the Lyric Theatre will be a story in itself, but the location of this building is now the location of Uni-Travel, 104 North Main Street.

            “Adventure Magazine” had asked its readers to vote for the author whom they like best.  Henry Oyen won this contest by a large majority.

            Henry Oyen was married by this time – you guessed it – it was to the young lady who had so graciously cooked for him at Washington Square.  He did not like New York particularly, but it was the literary center of the country.

            Henry changed over to a larger publication, “Country Gentlemen.”  His next novel, “Big Flat,” also about Wisconsin, came out in the “Country Gentleman.”

            A pattern was established, a new novel almost every year, which was published by the “Country Gentleman” and was later published as a book by Doran, who after a few years merged with Doubleday and Company.  The actual writing of a book took him only six months, during which time he sort of went into seclusion, then loafed around the next six months searching for ideas.

            The editor of the “Country Gentleman” asked Henry to dramatize for them in his novels various activities in different parts of the country.  They sent him to the Mississippi Valley for “The Plunder,” to Louisiana for “Twister Trails,” and to the Texas oil fields for his last novel “Tarrant of Tinspout.”  Henry did not live long enough to proofread this last novel.  He left his widow, Sara, and small son, Henry Jr., a sister, Bertha Moosler, who was a widow of L. A. Moosler of Evansville, Ill.  Bertha was born in 1879, and passed away January 25, 1945. Norman M was born July 2, 1888, and passed away February 28, 1952.  He was a Navy veteran in World War I.

            Henry’s body was brought back to Waupaca and was laid to rest in the family plot, along with his parents, Olaf and Henrietta Oyen, his sister, Bertha Moosler, and brothers Karl and Norman.

            His other brother, Chris Oyen, who married Charlotte H. Anderson, died in 1960. Both he and his wife are buried in the Salem  (Old Swede) Cemetery in the Town of Farmington, Waupaca County.  Henrietta, Mrs. Gayhard Sannes, was born in the old Oyen home, which is now the property of the Richard Studleys, on the corner of Otter Drive and Highway 54.  This house is due for destruction in the near future to make way for the Highway 54 expansion.