A man billed as "the tallest man in the world" was raised in Eddy and Benson counties in North Dakota.
Johan "John" Aasen, reputed to be 8 feet 9 inches tall, found himself in big demand at circuses, fairs, carnivals and promotional events. However, he is most remembered for his appearances in movies starring Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and the Our Gang ensemble. In his first motion picture, "Why Worry," starring Harold Lloyd, Aasen received favorable reviews from most entertainment publications, including Variety, which reported "The big hits are given over to Lloyd and the giant (Aasen)."
Johan Aasen was born March 5, 1890, in Minneapolis to Kristina (Danielsen) Aasen. While most film historians have written that the father was unknown, Johan's sister, Evelyn, wrote that Kristina was married to a man named Alfred Aasen at the time. When Johan was 10 years old, his mother moved to Sheyenne in Eddy County to operate a restaurant. Her family, which consisted of Johan and two younger siblings, lived above the establishment.
In1902, Kristina died and friends tried to help raise the three children. Initially, Johan lived with Tom Eikom in rural Foster County but soon was sent to live with the Anders Bymoen family northeast of New Rockford. Aasen was small for his age and became friends with Lawrence Buck, who was a dwarf; years later they would team up as an entertainment attraction.
In 1907, Gudbrand "Gilbert" Bymoen, Anders' son, moved to Leeds to operate the Gloppen House, which he renamed the Leeds Hotel. Aasen went along to help at the hotel, remaining there for three years before moving back to the farm near New Rockford.
Aasen's account of his early life, which he gave to reporters, was much different. He said he was born in 1900 in Norway, and his paternal grandfather was P.T. Barnum's "Norwegian Giant" (Henrik Brustad/Brunstadt). He claimed his father, who was 7 feet 4 inches tall, died when he was 2, and his mother brought him to America and settled in Sheyenne, N.D. After his mother died, he said he was sent to live at an orphanage in Jamestown "because of embarrassment over his huge size." He ran away twice and this caused authorities to place him in the State Reform School in Mandan. After a second escape there, at 15, he joined a carnival.
In his teens, Aasen began to grow rapidly because of a malfunction of his pituitary gland. He said that by the time he was 15, he stood 6 feet 8. As Aasen's height continued to soar, he realized that he could make some easy money working in carnivals. By 1917, Aasen was employed by the Sells-Floto Circus, which two years earlier had featured Buffalo Bill Cody. Later, in 1917, Aasen became a traveling salesman with the Midway Chemical Co. in St. Paul.
Traveling for an extraordinarily big man was a challenge and Aasen soon quit that job. He went to Minneapolis, where he reunited with his school buddy, Lawrence Buck, at exhibition shows. He then joined Clarence Wortham's traveling carnival and became their highest paid performer. Everything was going well for Aasen until 1922, when Wortham died and the carnival disbanded. Aasen then returned to Minneapolis.
Meanwhile, movie producer Hal Roach was preparing to film "Why Worry." One of the roles was of a giant who assists Harold Lloyd to escape from a foreign prison. When the original giant Roach had signed died, the producer read an article about the enormous shoes a cobbler needed to make for Aasen. Roach met with Aasen in Chicago and hired him on the spot for the role of a man who demonstrated "the simplicity of a child and the faithfulness of a puppy dog."
During the silent era, Aasen teamed up with some of the best comedians in the industry. However, his film work was limited because of his enormous size. Aasen also did promotional work, played the role of the giant in a stage production of "Jack and the Beanstalk," and made appearances with circuses, including Al Barnes, Barnum and Bailey and the Foley Burk Show.
Because of his fame, Aasen never had to look for work. Aasen was also well off financially, having invested most of his money in the stock market. That all changed in 1929 with the collapse of Wall Street. With the advent of talkies, Aasen's style of visual comedy was greatly reduced because of the emphasis on dialogue.
Aasen had a minor role in the Tod Browning cult classic "Freaks" in 1932, but had to wait another four years before his next movie, "Charlie Chan at the Circus." In the meantime, his health began to rapidly deteriorate. During the last years of his life, Aasen was in and out of the hospital for foot infections, an enlarged liver, secondary anemia and cancer. To help pay for his medical bills, Aasen willed his body to Dr. Charles Humberd in Barnard, Mo. Aasen died on Aug. 1, 1938, and his body was sent to Humberd. After he was dissected for research purposes, parts were cremated and buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, Calif. Humberd kept Aasen's skeleton, which he hung from his living room ceiling.
(Correction: Last week I reported that Bismarck State College was the first two-year college in North Dakota because of legislation passed in 1931. Two-year colleges at Wahpeton and Bottineau were authorized by the state Constitution ratified in 1889. What Senate Bill 209 provided in 1931, was a mechanism to allow cities to authorize a two-year college if the vote and financial mill levy were sufficient.)
(Written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen. Reach the Eriksmoens by e-mail at cjeriksmoen@;cableone.net.)