My wife, Katy, and I lived in Norway more than a decade ago, and since our return, I’ve searched Minnesota for Norwegian gems. I wanted to uncover signs of a time, a hundred years ago, when Norwegian immigrants arrived on the prairie. Now that most of us are three or four generations removed from that migration, I wanted to understand what it means to be Scandinavian so many years later. What is the legacy of these Norwegian immigrants — beyond lefse, lutefisk and Ole and Lena jokes?
One answer came from my friend Knut Bull, who visited from Oslo in May. “You’re far more Norwegian in Minnesota than we are in Norway because we don’t have to prove that we’re Norwegian,” he said.
I’ve seen groups of Norwegian tourists visiting Scandinavian sites in “Norway’s colony in America,” in other words: Minnesota. Here are some of the places that have drawn those travelers — and are worth a visit for Minnesotans, too.
Sod house, hytta and stabbur
Immigrants who took advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act for “free land” often set up house on the open prairie with seemingly endless land to till. Since trees were scarce, thick sod provided bricks for walls until a more solid cabin could be built. Cool in summer and warm in winter, the sod houses often leaked during storms, with muddy water dripping through the walls. Since soddies and dugouts often needed to be rebuilt, very few survive. But at least one built with virgin prairie stands: The Sod House on the Prairie, in Sanborn, just west of New Ulm, offers self-guided tours during warm-weather months.
Sod played a role in the earliest Viking buildings in Norway, too: it was used on the roof as insulation. Stabbur, or Norwegian storage houses, do the same. A grass-roofed stabbur stands in Milan, Minn. Built in 1987 in Vinstra, Norway, it arrived with reassembly directions printed in Norwegian. The old Norwegian speakers in Milan saved the day and helped construct the stabbur that now has wooden statues of Ole and Kari (with metal supports inside them) holding up the sagging roof like the Elgin Marbles.
Most of the surviving Norwegian buildings in Minnesota, however, are farmhouses. Looking like a hytta, or cabin, these houses were made by Scandinavian carpenters who hand-hewed only the straightest trees with a broadax, squared the logs and used wooden pins to keep the walls from warping. Mud, sticks or moss provided chinking in the cracks, and the Norwegian style required right angles on the corners, rather than logs sticking out, so the house could be covered in clapboard.
One of the oldest in the state dates to 1858 and was lovingly restored by Dennis Nelson and his wife, Terri, who ran it as a bed-and-breakfast just south of Albert Lea for many years. The Pennington County Historical Society in “the most Norwegian city” of Thief River Falls has several spectacular farmhouses to show exactly how these early immigrants survived in the frozen northland.
With all the Viking statues around the state, one could be excused from thinking that Minnesota was indeed founded by these Nordic berserkers.
Big Ole spreads this myth with his shield proclaiming Alexandria as “Birthplace of America.” Easily the most impressive Viking statue in the state, Ole stands 28 feet tall and debuted at the Minnesota pavilion of the 1965 World’s Fair in New York. The four-ton statue came back to Minnesota and was stationed outside the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, just past Viking Plaza, Vikingland Books, the Viking Motel and Viking Savings Bank. For Christmas two years later, a giant Santa suit was stitched for Big Ole, but a jokester shot a flaming arrow to see how tough the big Viking really was. Santa’s suit burst into flames, to the horror of youngsters eager for gifts.
Not to be outdone by Alexandria’s Viking, Spring Grove, Minn., raised its own statue to secure its claim as the first Norwegian settlement in Minnesota. The 15-foot-tall Viking has his sword drawn, and the disconcerting two-colored eyes let visitors know he’s been on the plains too long.
Come home, Hjemkomst
Beyond statues, Viking ships have landed on our shores, too — a nod to the notion that the rugged explorers set foot on our land. The quest to prove Scandinavians could have beat Columbus to America began in a shipyard at Sandefjord, Norway, in 1892. There, a replica of the Gokstad Viking ship was built and then set sail to the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The 78-foot-long ship crossed the Atlantic, traveled up the Erie Canal to the Great Lakes and arrived at Chicago’s Navy Pier to thousands of amazed — if still unconvinced — festivalgoers. The ship is housed just west of Chicago at Geneva, Ill.
In 1926, a similar ship, a 42-foot-long “Viking-inspired” longboat, set sail from Bergen, Norway, to Duluth. For years, the ship was put in dry dock in Duluth’s Leif Erikson Park for landlubbers to admire, but the elements took their toll. Plans are afoot to bring the boat back this summer in a glassed-in enclosure at the park. There is a replica Viking ship at the Runestone Museum in Alexandira, too.
The most impressive Viking ship in Minnesota, though, is the Hjemkomst (homecoming) ship built by Robert Asp, a former guidance counselor at Moorhead Junior High School in Minnesota, with a menacing dragon carved from wood on the bow. In an old potato warehouse in Hawley, Minn., Asp built the boat, another Gokstad replica, and finished in 1980. Soon after the ship’s maiden voyage on Lake Superior, Asp died of leukemia. In his honor, his friends and family set sail from Duluth on a 6,100-mile voyage to Bergen, Norway. A vicious storm caused a crack in the hull that stretched nearly 14 feet, but the crew kept going, completing a 72-day voyage and arriving in Norway to much fanfare. The Hjemkomst is now housed at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. While there, be sure to stroll out to the breathtaking Hopperstad Stave Church, a replica of one in the town of Vik, Norway.
Snakker du norsk?
Despite the tremendous push during World War I to “Americanize” the Norwegians, the language has survived in little pockets across the state. Minnesota Commission of Public Safety posted fliers warning, “Don’t Be Suspected! Use American Language. America Is Our Home.”
The very Norwegian towns of Starbuck, Sunburg and Benson, among others, resisted this xenophobic push and are still home to Norwegian speakers. Academics from Norway have come to study these old Norwegian dialects, which have since died out in the Old Country, residents of these towns told me. Farther north in Bemidji, the Norwegian Concordia Language Village, Skogfjorden, has taught Norwegian to all ages for more than 50 years. The camp erected the largest paper clip in North America since this device was invented in Norway and served as a symbol of resistance against the Nazis and all tyranny.
Beyond speaking the “old” language, Scandinavians kept to the old ways in the form of cooperative creameries. This owner-operated, profit-sharing business model got its start in Minnesota after Baptist minister Lars Jørgensen Hauge witnessed a Scandinavian woman break down in tears when given only 5 cents a pound for her sweet cream butter in the company store. He remembered the co-ops in Scandinavia and preached “butter sermons” from his pulpit in Clarks Grove, Minn. The idea spread and now the state has the most co-ops per capita in the nation. Sunburg has transformed its old Co-op Creamery into a restaurant where locals sometimes speak Norwegian and indulge in klubb (potato dumpling) dinners on Tuesdays.
Minnesota boasted many Norwegian rabble-rousers. One of the most colorful is Thorstein Veblen, whose farmhouse in Nerstrand, Minn., is now a National Historic Landmark and bed-and-breakfast. Veblen attended nearby Carleton College where, in the vein of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” he gave an impassioned speech to the entire campus entitled “A Plea for Cannibalism.” After a stint at Johns Hopkins and Yale, he married the niece of the Carleton College president, whose family scoffed at this lowly man as “an atheist, a shiftless son of a Norwegian immigrant,” according to the Milwaukee Journal in 1957. He proved his worth, however, when he penned “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” and coined the term “conspicuous consumption.”
Meanwhile across town, Andrew Volstead attended the dry campus of the Norwegian St. Olaf College. He took the lessons learned about the sins of alcohol to the U.S. Congress. He reasoned that cigarettes were made illegal in Minnesota from 1909 to 1913, so banning booze should be a cinch.
As the Republican congressman from Granite Falls, Volstead pushed the “Volstead Act,” or Prohibition, through Congress to rid our country of demon drink. While Volstead seemed the pinnacle of purity, he chewed a pound of plug tobacco every day. He wanted to be remembered for his work promoting cooperatives, but his name inevitably evokes the failed experiment of Prohibition. His house in Granite Falls is a National Historic Landmark thanks to the Minnesota Association of Cooperatives.
Eric Dregni, associate professor of English at Concordia University in St. Paul, is the author of several books, including “Vikings in the Attic” and “In Cod We Trust.”