‘The Ohman Stone,” a new musical premiering Saturday in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, does the one thing you wouldn’t expect from a story about the Kensington Runestone. It takes it seriously.
The Minnesota icon, housed in an Alexandria museum, is a fake. Probably. Well, who knows? The notion of knights gallivanting about the Minnesota prairie 130 years before Columbus landed in the Bahamas, as the runes carved into the stone suggest, is a Monty Python movie — not plausible history. Right?
It doesn’t matter. The real story of the runestone is not about the stone. It’s about people. The musical’s creators understand this, marketing their play as “Swedes vs. Norwegians, farmers vs. academia.” For legislators and petitioners pushing to turn the farm where the runestone was discovered into a state historic site, the story of the stone goes even deeper, to the heart of what it means to be a Minnesotan.
In the fall of 2011, I wrote about the runestone for Minnesota Monthly magazine. I traveled with Darwin Ohman to the farmstead of his grandfather, Olof Ohman, who discovered the runestone on his land near Alexandria.
Now part of a city park, the land is marginal, mucky where it isn’t steep. The kind of place only a stubborn Swede would have tried to farm. Olof was an ingenious engineer: Near the house is a cistern he built with a homemade charcoal filter. But when he unearthed the runestone, in 1898, he claimed he couldn’t possibly have carved it.
In a letter to an acquaintance, Ohman wrote: “The strangest rumors are circulating about this stone. The most recent is that I have brought forth the runes with black magic. I could not make the stone, nor could any other emigrant have had enough knowledge to do it.”
Perhaps that’s true. Ohman swore to his grave that he had no part in the stone’s manufacture. But after his death, a skeptic found a runic alphabet in his house. The stone’s reputation, much less Ohman’s, never quite recovered.
The timing always seemed suspicious. Five years before the runestone surfaced, in 1893, the World’s Fair held in Chicago celebrated Columbus discovering America, so irking Scandinavian immigrants — rightly certain that Leif Ericson had beaten Columbus to the New World — that they sailed a replica longboat from the motherland to Lake Michigan.
That same year, a Swedish-American wrote a book called “The Norsemen in America, or America’s Discovery,” in which he posited that artifacts may yet be found in the United States proving that Scandinavians were here first. And then the runestone turned up like, well, magic.
A Norwegian-American, Johan Holvik, spent much of his life trying to discredit Ohman — even as he praised him for pulling off such a clever prank. “I am working for you and the Ohman name,” he told the family, years after Olof’s death. But the family didn’t see it that way: Upset by Holvik’s allegations, Olof’s daughter committed suicide in the family farmhouse.
“Shakespearean,” the musical’s creators have dubbed this history. And the drama continues. In my research for Minnesota Monthly, I uncovered a serious feud between the stone’s current researchers, who had once been friends, each accusing the other of fraud. The stone, one of them told me, “makes people do strange things.”
Strange, but telling. The act of discovery has always shaped this country’s pride and prejudices. To understand Ohman’s stone is to understand immigration, with its slights and conflicted loyalties. It’s a defining phenomenon of the state — and a current preoccupation of the nation — that is not directly examined in any of the 26 historic sites in Minnesota.
Ohman thought the stone was about his Scandinavian ancestors. But a century later, it’s clearly about him and everyone like him — uprooted and replanted, fighting for light.
It may be a prank, but it’s no joke.
Tim Gihring is a former editor of Minnesota Monthly and currently the editor for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.