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Trygve Trooien: Country Philosopher

Trygve Trooien on the family farm south of Astoria.


Editor’s Note: We were sad to hear that Trygve Trooien passed away Easter Sunday on his farm in Brookings County at the age of 65. We met Trooien in the fall of 2002. We visited his peaceful farm on the shores of Oak Lake and he showed us his incredible collection of overalls. Here’s the story we wrote. It appeared in our November/December 2002 issue.

Trygve Trooien is a country philosopher. There is no better way to describe the 52-year-old bachelor who farms along the east shore of Oak Lake in Brookings County. He is a country philosopher in striped bib overalls who occasionally stages farm fashion shows.

Trooien is good-natured and has a ready smile. He is not talkative, although he'll share his thoughts when prompted. His daily life is a philosophy and that makes him a truer philosopher than those who speak or write a certain way and act another.

Trooien is Thoreau with a Farmall tractor. He is what Thomas Jefferson wanted every man to become, at home and happy on the land.

The name Trooien is as Norwegian as Lutheranism or lutefisk, and Trygve is proud of the heritage. Most people around Hendricks, Minn., which is just a few miles from Oak Lake and the Trooien farm, claim the same ethnicity. Prior to visiting the town, we'd heard that it had only two churches and both were Lutheran. We asked if that was accurate.

"No," replied Trooien. "Hendricks has four churches. Lutheran, Lutheran, Lutheran ... and Methodist." He attends the old Singsaas Lutheran Church near his farm on the South Dakota side of the border.

In this lake country, Minnesotans and South Dakotans socialize and intermarry and sometimes even move their residency from one side of the state line to the other. The Trooien family is well respected here. Trygve is known as a good farmer; he garners further attention from his overalls.

For several generations, bib overalls were the uniform of choice for hard-working farmers and city laborers alike all across America. "They were better suited for doing active, hard work than about anything else you could wear," Trooien said. "I think they are cooler in the summer because they fit looser and you can always unbutton one of the buttons if you want more air circulating."

He grew up wearing overalls and never switched to jeans. "I haven't changed. I'm not going to change," he said.

Trooien's overall models included (from left) Nicole Fitzsimmons, Elizabeth Johnson, Kelly Moe, Katie Telgren, Katie Hunhoff and Sara Johnson.

Just as a man couldn't be expected to farm without a tractor these days, Trooien said he wouldn't farm without his overalls. "If we ever get to where we can't buy them we'll have to start our own factory. Yankton had its own overall factory once. So did Sioux City, Iowa."

He hasn't had to go to that extreme, but the scarcity of overall manufacturers does concern the friendly farmer. He orders Key overalls from Hendricks Hardware now that Lee only makes what might be called designer overalls. "Lewis Drug in Sioux Falls was the last place you could get the Lee work overalls," he said. "I went to all three Lewis Stores and bought every pair that would fit me. I took good care of those last ones. I starched them and ironed them and tried to keep them going."

He also favors Osh Kosh's striped denim work jackets. He knew a mail order company that stocked them, but when the firm dropped them he thought he would have to switch. "A few years later we were sitting over coffee and a guy told me he saw some of those jackets at Country General in Brookings so I thought of an excuse to go to Brookings and by golly they had about 10 of those striped jackets my size on a sales rack for $7 each. I took them all. I was really happy about that deal.

"Then I thought I had heard that Country General in Watertown had the same deliveries as the Brookings store so I thought up an excuse to go to Watertown. Well, they had a rack of them and they were $9 each. I bought every one of them, too, so I've got a full closet of Osh Kosh jackets."

Osh Kosh and Lee were two of many major manufacturers during the heyday of denim work clothes. Other well-known brands included Carhart, Carter's, Key, Liberty, Paul Bunyan, Sears, Tuf Nut and Big Yank.

Three separate companies made overalls called Big Ben. There was Big Ben blue by Blue Bell, Big Ben striped by Wrangler, and Big Ben blue by the V.F. Company. Blues are solid denim. Striped are pinstripe blue on white.

Lee, which has always been Trooien's favorite, sold four styles — stripe high back, stripe low back, blue high back and blue low back. "I grew up wearing blue and striped Key Imperials," he said. "Lee's were the Cadillac." Every overall had a slightly different shape. Lee's were generally considered a trimmer style, and they fit Trooien's 170-pound frame.

Overall designers did try to change with the times, Trooien said. One manufacturer even renamed the plier's pocket as a cell phone holder. But sales continued to lag until a few of the big-name companies like Lee decided to redesign the overall and market it to youth as a trendy casual wear.

Once he realized that work overalls were fading from the store shelves of rural America, Trooien stocked up on Lee's. He also began to collect other styles. His wardrobe now includes 38 different styles representing 26 brand names. He never intended it to grow into a collection. "Whenever I saw an overall I didn't have I bought it just to try it out," he said.

Elizabeth Johnson models a pair of Keys with a handy pliers holder.

"Osh Kosh B'Gosh from Osh Kosh, Wisconsin may be the best known of all the overalls," he said. "Big Smith was known as the big man's overall. They were wide, very wide. If society keeps getting heavier, which is certainly the way we're going, they could make a comeback."

As happens with all collectors, Trooien has become an authority on the subject. He says the guarantees were always interesting. Big Yank promised, for example, that shrinkage would not exceed one percent. The H.D. Lee Company — a giant in the business with 11 factories across the nation — guaranteed that their overalls "must look better, fit better and wear longer or you may have a new pair free or your money back."

Brand names aside, Trooien says there are four basic types of overalls. "You've got your church overalls, you've got your dress overalls, you've got your town overalls, and you've got your work overalls," he explained. A dress overall is for socializing in town, but it would be better than what you might wear to town in the afternoon to get parts or groceries. A town overall doesn't have to be as good as a church overall, but better than a work overall.

Generally, he explained, when overalls were in fashion a man would use his newest pair of overalls for church. When they were slightly worn and faded they could be used for "night business," meaning they were worn to town or to visit the neighbors. When the overall was no longer fit for public use it was worn during the work day.

When the town of Astoria celebrated its centennial in 2000, Trooien produced an Overall Revue, a cross between a fashion show and a historical pageant. He recruited young ladies in the area to model the collection. His brother, Phil, was moderator. A few repeat performances have followed. Trooien said he'll do more in the name of historic preservation of the overall culture if requests don't interfere with farming.

Nothing stops Trooien from tending to his cows and fields. A few years ago, he had some chest pains and the local doctor put him in the hospital. He was a model patient until 6 a.m. the next morning, when he pulled on his Key overalls and went home to milk his 30 Holstein cows. He has never been back to the hospital.

He likes his country life and sees no reason for time away. "I don't enjoy going on vacation. I've been around the world in the Army and I don't care if I never go again. I wasn't that impressed."

The farm by the lake has been in the Trooien family since 1900. "My grandfather bought it after the previous owner was forced to sell it when he mortgaged it for a threshing machine."

His grandfather's big, square white house is still the main residence. Red barns stand to the west, between the road and the lake. More than a dozen tractors, mostly red Farmalls, are parked around the farmstead along with both modern and antique farm equipment.

Oak Lake in eastern Brookings County is a picturesque and peaceful place to live and farm, and an appropriate setting for preserving the overall, part of the fabric of rural America. 


12:19 pm - Wed, April 8 2015
Bernie said:
We will surely miss Trygve. We met him at the suggestion of our good buddy Grant Peterson, the host of the Great Afternoon Smorgasbord radio show in Brookings. We had many good times together. On one occasion, we met Steve Hemmingsen in a Lake Hendricks cafe and argued the merits of lutefisk. Wish I'd had the good sense to record that hour or so. Trygve brought a lot of happiness to people.
08:39 pm - Thu, April 9 2015
Lisa LeVan-Steward said:
A very kind soul......... Rest in peace.
07:00 pm - Thu, May 14 2015
Cindy Fehn said:
Tryg was my first cousin and we were very close considering we were cousins. I really miss him. He never said an unkind word and was a very admirable man.

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