The Formative Years - Child to Young Adult: 1914-1933

Birth of Norman Borlaug

On March 25, 1914 Norman Ernest Borlaug was born in his grandfather’s farmhouse to Henry and Clara (Vaala) Borlaug. The farm was located in northeastern Iowa near the Norwegian-American hamlet of Saude and in the New Oregon Township of Howard County (of which Cresco is the county seat).  Norman is a descendant of the Borlaug, Vaala, Swenumson, and Landsverk families who immigrated to the United States from Norway in the mid-1800s. After some moving about, the families eventually settled on farms near Saude. Norman will be raised on a non-mechanized, subsistence farm (no cars, trucks or electricity).

Growing Up-Learning Life Lessons 

Norman was a high-energy boy with a twinkle in his eye. He is endowed with great curiosity and a sense of independence. He always has to know how things worked. Naturally introverted, he enjoys time by himself investigating woodlots and streams. Life on the farm is austere and parents are perpetually busy farming. At this time, Norman's grandfather Nels was 'retired' but helps around the farm when possible. Norman is grandfather's 'shadow', following him about and absorbing everything. He helps his grandfather feed chickens, collect eggs, pull weeds in the garden and do chores that a child can manage. He is being raised by both generations of Borlaugs. He is taught to be dutiful, organized, polite and respectful of others. These traits he adopts and maintains throughout his life.

In 1919, at the age of five, Norman begins attending a one-room school, the New Oregon Rural School Number 8. It is a mile and a half walk from grandparents’ home. During his first winter while walking with other children home from school during a snowstorm he could not keep up and falls down exhausted. His older cousin Sina Borlaug literally pulls him from the snow bank and helps him home.

Norman witnesses the terrible and deadly influenza pandemic that sweeps the world and finds its way to rural Iowa. Some family friends die and others are quarantined in their homes. He helps his mother carry pots of hot soup and food to isolated farmhouses. Food is left on the porch because no human contact is allowed, the influenza virus is too easily spread. Norman absorbs the lessons learned from this terrible pandemic.

Norm's father, Henry,  often reads to his children on cold winter nights. Norman is never without stimulation and new ideas. Then in 1921 a baby sister, Helen, is born on the farm but dies almost immediately. As Norman ponders the baby's death his grandfather Nels picks up fishing poles and takes him fishing. Fishing with his grandfather provides a diversion from grief. Norm learns that grief on a working farm is best met with a stoic attitude --- farm life continues.

In 1922, at age 8, his father acquires farmland adjacent to grandfather’s farm. Norman begins regularly doing farm chores with his father before and after school, on weekends and summers. In the morning, he feeds chickens, separates cream from milk, hauls skim milk to the pigs and lights the kitchen stove. He works with draft horses and takes care of animals. All energy on the farm comes from muscle power, either horses or humans. No tractor arrived on the farm until Norm was 15 years. Electricity arrives much later.

High School-A Family Decision 

Norm's family decides to send him to high school in Cresco. They act on the advice of Norm's 7th grade teacher, Sina Borlaug. She states that Norm might not become a great scholar but he has great promise and he has grit. Sina was the same cousin who had rescued him from a snowbank nine years earlier. The rural economy falters and hard times come to farms. Cash crop revenues were barely enough to support the family. With Norm in high school his father has to shoulder the full work load.

High School Days 

Cresco High School is 14 miles from the Borlaug farm; there are no rural school buses. In good weather one of the boys from a neighboring farm has access to a Model T Ford sedan and takes Norman and others to and from school. They leave at 7am and return at 4 pm to help with chores. There is no time for extracurricular activities like football. Later, Norman lives with a family in Cresco; living with “town folks” expands his world beyond the farm. Coming from a 12 student one-room school to a school with 300 students was a shock. Nevertheless, he is pleased that he can now participate in athletics. He was small in size but becomes a football player (a 145 lb. guard). He was the team captain his senior year.

To stay in shape during the winter, he participated in wrestling with his friend Ervin Upton. In their junior year, a new high school principal and wrestling coach, Mr. David Bartelma, arrives. He had been on the 1924 Olympic Wrestling Squad in Paris. Bartelma is enthusiastic and intense. He uses peer pressure and psychology to get the best out of every student athlete. He preaches – “Give It Your Best Shot”, “Believe You Can Do It”, “Face Adversity Squarely”, and “Be Confident”. Bartelma says that if you do those things you will find answers when problems arise. Norman absorbs and internalizes this, he applies these simple lessons to his life. Norman had a skin infection and cannot compete his junior year. His senior year he is healthy and places 3rd at 145 lb. in the Iowa State Wrestling Tournament.

His Vocational Agriculture teacher, Mr. Harry Shroder, had a profound effect on Norman. Shroder is an advocate for restoring soils by amending them with nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) salts. These provide maximum plant nutrition from depleted soils. Norman was raised to believe that northern Iowa soils were the very best on God’s earth. Shroder set up an experimental plot on the edge of town. Norman and fellow students planted corn in unamended soil and in soil amended with various concentrations of N,P and K. At the end of the season “God’s best soil” yielded 25 bushels per acre while some of the amended plots yielded 50 bushels per acre. It was a lesson Norman never forgot. These lessons blended with his grandfather Nel’s admonitions to – “Do Good Deeds”, “Think for Yourself” , and “Fill Your Head Now to Fill Your Belly Later” – all were deeply etched in Norman’s character.

After Graduation- A Year of Hard Work and Opportunities 

After graduating, Norman worked for a year on his father's and neighboring farms to earn and save up money. He also runs a trapline, harvesting muskrats and the occasional mink pelts that he sends to Saint Louis. In the spring of 1933 several colleges were holding a wrestling tournament in Cresco. Norman was allowed to compete as an "unattached" contestant. Hardened by farm work and fueled by the desire to prove himself, he advances but in the finals he loses in overtime to a champion caliber wrestler from Iowa State Teachers College at Cedar Falls. After the match, the coach from Iowa State Teachers College tells Norm he should enroll in the fall and that he would find him a job.

Going to Minnesota 

Norman's grandfather Nels encourages him to go to college. Norm intends to make the most of the opportunity. However, late in the summer, two weeks before leaving for Iowa State Teachers College, George Champlin drives to the Borlaug farm to talk with Norman. Champlin was older than Norm and had played football for Cresco High. He is now a star running back for the University of Minnesota. Champlin asks if Norman would like to ride up to Minnesota and have a tryout for the University of Minnesota freshman football team.

The new Minnesota coach Bernie Bierman is building a national championship caliber team. Champlin says that Erv Upton, Norm's friend is going and there is a place to live and jobs to be had in Minnesota. Norm says that he was going to Iowa State Teachers College. Champlin countered that by pointing out that if Norm came to Minnesota and didn't like it he could return and enroll at Iowa State Teachers College. Norman sensed that Minnesota offered the greater opportunity. He had a grand sum of $50, and his grandfather Nels gave him $11. His father offered to match the $61 but Norman wanted his father’s money to go toward educating his sisters, Plama and Charlotte. Norman said he could work and pay his own way but his sisters could not. Non-resident tuition was $25 a quarter and rent was $5 a month at Minnesota.

Norm had enough money to enroll. He would find a job to feed himself and live his dream of going to college. He is fresh off the farm, and never having been outside Iowa, joins Erv Upton and pile into George Champlin's two seat roadster. They take turns riding in the rumble seat. Thus begins a life-changing adventure in Minnesota.