Heritage travelLed by Norwegians, an exodus from Scandinavia
changed the face of the Upper Midwest.
BY BETH GAUPER
HERITAGE TRAVEL SERIES
Posted on Sun, Mar. 13, 2005
In the 19th century, the rocky lands of Norway and Finland were a bad place
to be poor.
Since the Middle Ages, Norway had been Denmark's doormat, a remote province
whose own national identity, language and culture were suppressed during a time
playwright Henrik Ibsen called the "400 years' night."
In 1814, Norway declared independence and adopted a democratic constitution,
though it wasn't really independent until it shook off ties to Sweden in 1905.
Meanwhile, its population was increasing, mostly squeezed onto the slivers of
land that could be cultivated. Farm mechanization pushed out landless laborers,
and a rigid social hierarchy gave them no chance to improve their lot.
It was even worse for the Finns, subjects of the
Russian czar. They were virtual serfs, forced to labor on farms, in the Finnish
army and, after 1901, in the Russian army.
So, they left. Starting in the late 1830s, Norwegians came to southeastern
Wisconsin, forming enclaves that drew new immigrants, who stayed for a while
before skipping to newer Norwegian settlements in the coulee country of
southwest Wisconsin, the bluff country of southeast Minnesota and then the Red
River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota. By 1915, Norway had lost 750,000
people to the United States, contributing, after Ireland, the highest percentage
of its population to the new country.
When the Finns arrived
in the late 1880s, all the good farmland was taken. So, they took jobs in the
mines and logging camps of northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Some
tried to farm the land, littered with boulders left by glaciers and stumps left
by lumber barons. They stayed because they had sisu stubbornness and a
can-do spirit and because they were fiercely independent: "One's own home,
one's own master,'' goes the Finnish proverb.
The Norwegians and Finns had one thing in
common besides their northern homelands: They were proud of their cultures. So
were the Swedes and
Danes, who were not quite as strapped but also came looking for opportunity.
Wherever the new immigrant groups went, they left their mark. On the Iron
Range of Minnesota, the resourceful Finns left timber pioneer
buildings with dovetailed corners and double-notched joints that make architects
They also influenced the Range's populist politics. Many Finns were socialists, often
blackballed from mines for trying to unionize, and some were communists;
longtime U.S. Communist Party secretary Gus Hall was a Finn, born Arvo Halberg
in the countryside between Hibbing and Virginia.
And they gave us one of the sillier patron saints. This week, as the Irish
celebrate St. Patrick's Day, Finns in the Minnesota towns
of Menahga, Aurora and Finland will dress up in green and purple to celebrate
St. Urho Day, for the man who supposedly saved the grapes of ancient Finland
from a plague of grasshoppers.
In Minnesota's Chisago County, Swedish settlers found "a rich and stoneless
Småland,'' the impoverished province so many emigrants left. Their
letters home started a boom that eventually gave Chisago County the largest
concentration of Swedes
outside Sweden, and in 1947 they drew Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg, who came to
the area to research a quartet of historical novels.
The novels became hugely popular in Sweden, and busloads of Swedes still come to Chisago
County to see pioneer-era landmarks mentioned in the book, from Scandia to
Taylors Falls and Lindström, where signs mark public buildings in both Swedish
and English and the water tower is an enameled coffeepot that proclaims
"Valkommen till Lindström.''
There's a working Danish windmill in the Iowa town of Elk Horn, near the
Danish Immigrant Museum; this year, it's celebrating the 200th anniversary of
Hans Christian Andersen's birth. The Minnesota town of Tyler hosts Danish family
camps and celebrates Aebleskiver Days, cooking up batches of the ball-shaped
pancakes. Racine, Wis., calls itself the kringle capital of the world, for its
iced, O-shaped Danish pastries.
But it was the Norwegians, through sheer numbers and cultural exuberance, who
really put their stamp on the Upper Midwest. In the 19th century, they were
flush with national pride after the signing of their new democratic constitution
on May 17, 1814, or Syttende Mai, a pride that remained in full force when they
Today, even Norwegians from Norway marvel at the extent to which Norwegian
Americans have preserved the culture they left.
In Stoughton, Wis., the annual Syttende Mai celebration is biggest in the
nation and almost certainly bigger than any in Norway, though its organizers are
loath to say so.
In Decorah, Iowa, visiting Norwegians study their own folk traditions at
Vesterheim, the "home in the west'' founded in 1877 and now the nation's most
comprehensive museum dedicated to a single ethnic group. In its shop, they buy
traditional kitchen implements no longer available in Norway.
Each Christmas, Norwegian-Americans march into the nearest Norsk deli to buy
lutefisk, the lye-soaked dried cod that hasn't been eaten in Norway since
peasants could afford refrigerators. They grate potatoes for lefse, the bland
peasant bread, and roll thin butter cookies on krumkake irons.
They send their children to Norwegian camp, read them books about mischievous
trolls and nisse and dress them up in woolen Dale sweaters.
Norwegians, it seems, are the most sentimental of immigrants.
Troll and Viking figures adorn public spaces in towns from Mount Horeb, Wis.,
to Spring Grove, Minn., where bottles of the local Spring Grove Soda bear the
slogan "Mange Tusen Takk,'' Norwegian for "Thanks a million.''
Replicas of Norwegian stabburs, top-heavy medieval storehouses, and
stavkirkes, the wooden churches that melded early Christianity with leftover
paganism, are sprinkled all over the countryside, from Moorhead, Minn., to
Wisconsin's Door County, which has two.
Near Mount Horeb, a stavkirke built in Norway for the 1893 Chicago World's
Fair is the centerpiece of Little Norway, a collection of pioneer buildings in
an idyllic but largely untillable valley that provided a hardscrabble existence
for Telemark emigrant Osten Haugen and his family.
In 1926, Chicago businessman Isak Dahle bought the farmstead, restored its
buildings and furnished them from his collection of Norwegian ale bowls, mangle
boards, linens and other antiques. In 1935, his friend Philip Wrigley gave him
the elaborately carved stavkirke, on which dragon heads adorn the peaks of
gables. Today, costumed guides lead groups of tourists through the valley,
alongside a gurgling creek.
Norwegians often chose land that reminded them of home. In southwest
Wisconsin, they favored the steep, flat-floored coulees, through which creeks
usually run. Near the village of Westby, local Norwegians carefully groom a
40-story ski jump, on which jumpers from all over the world compete in a
tournament that is one of four U.S. stops on the Intercontinental Cup
Nearby, the open-air complex at Norskedalen includes two restored Norwegian
farmsteads, made up of pioneer buildings from around the county, and a heritage
center where lecturers present programs about folk arts, Vikings and old Norse
myths and legends.
In America, Norwegians can't hear enough about the old country. They hated to
leave so when they got here, they created lots of little Norways.