While staring at fantastical creatures carved into the flared, curving corners of an impressively built Norwegian stave church, my memory flashes to Beijing, and the fantastical beasts perched like protectors on corners of its oldest imperial buildings. This one, a replica of the ornate Gol Stave Church built around 1250 in Norway, towers gracefully over Minot’s Scandinavian Heritage Park in North Dakota.
“How is it cultures so geographically far apart were both carving dragons on medieval temples?” I later ask Hanna Ågren, visiting from Gothenburg, Sweden, for Minot’s Norsk Høstfest, which draws close to 50,000 people every September. “Were they both inspired by discoveries of dinosaur fossils?”
We muse on the origins of dragons as she explains Viking symbols and folk-tale elements in the jewelry and pendants spread out on a table in front of her. Crosses — a nod to Christianity — mingle with legends of Thor’s hammer, Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir, and wolf and dragon heads that link silver chains on display in the festival’s Viking Village.
With the tagline “Pure Scandimonium,” Høstfest doubles the population of Minot for what’s billed as the largest Scandinavian festival in North America, filling the halls of the North Dakota State Fair Center. The fest blends food and crafts, with lefse competitions, cooking demonstrations, dancing and music. The arena also brings in big-ticket acts, including Chicago, Clint Black and Gabriel Iglesias this year (Sept. 25-28; hostfest.com).
Organizers say close to half the vendors and artisans come from Minnesota. Rosemalers paint flowers and leaves on Swedish clogs. The scent of sawdust lingers near hand-carved spoons and freshly turned bowls. Bud Larsen of Brainerd, Minn., who builds intricate Hardanger fiddles — Norway’s national instrument — helps a child gently pull a bow across strings.
I feel the spirit of my adopted grandma with me as I happily line up at the popular Pastry Shoppe booth from Starbuck, Minn. The almond cake and flatbread look tempting, but I choose the powder-sugared rosettes and buttery crunch of sandbakkels and krumkake, which my grandma would make for the holidays.
My grandma was among the estimated 2.5 million Scandinavians who emigrated to the United States between 1830 and 1930. While a 23 and Me kit shows my DNA is a scant 1% Scandinavian, her pride in her Norwegian roots loomed larger and was more contagious than any other heritage.
My grandma made her first journey back to Norway at age 86. She had a heart attack on her cruise and died in a nearby hospital. My dad scattered some of her ashes on a fjord, leaving a part of her in the home country.
A love of culture and traditions seems to flow among Høstfest volunteers and participants, some of whom have been here for every one of its 42 years. Each has a niche, from Viking re-enactors telling children stories of giants and trolls or showing them how to felt wool, to church groups serving dense potato klub dumplings and allspice-scented Finnish mojakka stew.
As I dip a spoon into a buttery bowl of rømmegrot pudding, I vow to retrace my grandma’s trip to Norway in the next decade. Her roots are mine, DNA or not.
Things to do
The free Scandinavian Heritage Center sprawls across a park in the heart of Minot. It pays tribute to all five Scandinavian countries with buildings such as a 240-year-old house from Norway, a replicated 1775 stabbur (two-story Norwegian storehouse with a sod roof), a giant Swedish Dala horse, a Finnish sauna and a Danish windmill. The Gol Stave Church replica blends Viking motifs and woodcarving with the emergence of Christianity. The Minot Visitors Center at the park sells Scandinavian and regional books and gifts (1-701-852-9161; scandinavianheritage.org).
More than 11,000 people live at the Minot Air Force Base north of the city (hip-hop artist Wiz Khalifa was born in Minot while his parents served there). A replica of the Wright Flyer along with military and civilian aircraft from 1903 to the 2000s fills hangars and outdoor exhibits at Dakota Territory Air Museum (1-701-852-8500; dakotaterritoryairmuseum.com).
Look for Division II athletic games, the Northwest Art Center, and musical and theater productions at Minot State University (1-701-858-3000; minotstateu.edu).
Kids can find diversions among penguins, lions and zebras at the Roosevelt Park Zoo, which is tucked along the Souris River not far from downtown. The zoo celebrates 100 years in 2020 (1-701-857-4166; rpzoo.com).
Five national wildlife refuges, rolling prairie and a location near the Central Flyway make the area popular with birders looking for species such as ferruginous hawks, Sprague’s pipit, LeConte’s sparrow and chestnut-collared longspur. Self-guided tours can be found at Audubon National Wildlife Refuge less than an hour south of Minot (1-701-442-5474; fws.gov/refuge/audubon). For more information, check the North Dakota birding hotline at 1-701-355-8554 or ndbirdingsociety.com.
Where to eat
Chefs come from Norway for Høstfest’s dining pop-up, En to Tre, with three-course lunches and six-course dinners with shrimp toast, salmon, halibut and duck breast with celery purée, caramelized pear and black currant sauce. Reservations are highly recommended (1-701-852-2368; hostfest.com/en-to-tre).
Ebeneezer’s Eatery and Irish Pub serves full breakfast, Irish stew with Guinness bread, fish and chips and an over-the-top hoagie stuffed with chicken strips, bacon and mozzarella cheese sticks (1-701-838-3146; ebeneezersnd.com).
The Starving Rooster is known for wood-fired pizzas (including breakfast choices), plus a lineup of savory lettuce cups and a walleye-cake twist on eggs Benedict (1-701-838-3030; thestarvingrooster.com).
Actor Josh Duhamel, who is from Minot, was involved in establishing the upscale 10 North Main, known for “pheasant strip” tapas, smoked duck, elk loin and bison (1-710-837-1010; 10northmain.com).
Where to sleep
On a hilltop overlooking the city and the Souris River Valley, the Grand Hotel ranks as the area’s largest with 245 rooms. It also provides shuttles to Høstfest (1-701-852-3161; grandhotelminot.com). More than two dozen chain hotels round out the options.
Fly to Minot International Airport or take Amtrak’s Empire Builder (amtrak.com). It takes close to eight hours to road trip to Minot from the Twin Cities. Follow Interstate 94 west to Jamestown or Bismarck, N.D., and then turn north. The Bismarck route passes near the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan with seasonal tours.
Visit Minot: 1-701-857-8206 or visitminot.org.
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”