The Norwegian-American Historical Museum
By Knut Gjerset (Volume VI: Page 153)
Decorah, Iowa, was the first great center of Norwegian pioneer settlement west of the Mississippi. It is noted for its scenic beauty and is surrounded by the large and prosperous Norwegian settlements of southern Minnesota, western Wisconsin, and northern Iowa, in one of the most productive agricultural regions in the United States. Two railroads, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, and the Rock Island enter Decorah, and the city is traversed by several fine highways. One of these is federal highway number 55, the shortest route and the one richest in scenery of those between Chicago and the Twin Cities, a road that is becoming a leading bus route and that will soon be paved throughout its entire length.
Luther College, the oldest Norwegian college in America, was built in Decorah in the years of the Civil War. It is a college of high scholastic standing. It has fine buildings, and endowments have been large. It has a library of fifty thousand volumes housed in a new and adequate building. This library possesses the largest collection of Norwegian-American newspapers in the country, a most important source of information regarding this group. It also contains an archive department embracing, among other valuable records, about eleven thousand classified letters and documents that have been collected in the Norwegian settlements.
About forty years ago, several teachers at Luther College who felt that the memory of their pioneer fathers and mothers should not be forgotten began collecting pioneer objects that had been preserved in the homes of early settlers.
Haldor Hanson, professor of music, became interested and spent much energy and a large part of his personal income in this work. Very little planning was at first noticeable in these efforts, and slight support was received from the college administration, but the collections continued to grow and thus a small museum was gradually created that was known as the Luther College Museum.
In 1922 the present director was placed in charge of these collections. He found that the field offered an inviting opportunity for creating collections that would prove a valuable supplement to the historical material about Norwegian settlers in America to be found in the libraries of Luther College and of St. Olaf College, in the archives of state historical societies in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and in other repositories. He felt that archival material should be collected as extensively as possible and that a Norwegian-American historical museum should be created which would help one to visualize the living conditions and activities of the Norwegians who have come to dwell in America.
In the summer of 1925, after the Norse-American Centennial celebration in St. Paul and Minneapolis, where the director had been in charge of a Norwegian-American cultural exhibition, he took definite steps to effect the realization of the museum idea. As an organization would be needed for the promotion of the plan, and as the establishing of a Norwegian-American historical association had for some time been discussed in the press, he advocated the merging of the two projects and the organization of an historical association which would help to maintain and develop a Norwegian-American historical museum. He asked a small group of men who were interested to meet in Decorah, and presented to them a preliminary program for such an association. With their advice and assistance he spent a part of the summer traveling about, acquainting leading men with the proposed program, and securing their opinions of the plan. [154a]
All expressed their interest and their willingness to cooperate, and in the fall of that year a meeting was called at St. Olaf College at Northfield, Minnesota, where the Norwegian-American Historical Association was organized, with a program essentially the same as the one presented at the preliminary meeting in Decorah, Iowa. When the association was incorporated, its "general plan of operation," under the terms of its charter, was "to obtain by gift and from membership contributions the funds required for" certain stated purposes, including that of "helping to maintain and develop the Norwegian-American Museum at Decorah, Iowa, known as the Norwegian-American Historical Museum."
After the Norwegian-American Historical Association had been established, word was received from Norway that upon the initiative of Dr. Anders Sandvig, director of the Maihaugen Museum at Lillehammer, a large committee had been appointed, with Professor A. W. Bragger of the University of Oslo as chairman, for the purpose of creating a museum gift collection for Norwegians in America. The committee inquired where this collection should be deposited. The historical association asked that the collection be placed in the museum maintained at Luther College, and, in order to facilitate the arrangement of the matter, it asked the Luther College board of trustees whether the Luther College Corporation would act as custodian of this gift, and make the Luther College Museum the Norwegian-American Historical Museum that the association had decided to help to develop and maintain. The Luther College board of trustees agreed to comply with the wishes of the association in these matters. On October 15, 1925, in answer to the inquiry, it passed the following resolution: "Moved and carried, that the Board sanctions the name:
The Norwegian-American Historical Museum, for the Luther College Museum.''
On June 5, 1926, the following resolution was passed:
May 26, 1926, the executive board of the Norwegian-American Historical Association passed unanimously the following resolution: "The Norwegian American Historical Association gratefully accepts the gift of the museum articles which is now being collected in Norway; the gift to be deposited in the Norwegian American Historical Museum at Decorah, Iowa, this institution agreeing to act as custodian in perpetuity of this gift on behalf of the Norwegian American people."
In view of the foregoing resolution passed by the Norwegian American Historical Association, and in response to a request by the secretary of the Historical Association for action by the Corporation of Luther College in regard to the gift of the museum articles now being collected in Norway, Be it resolved by the Board of Trustees of the Norwegian Luther College, of Decorah, Iowa, acting on behalf of the College Corporation, that the Board agrees to act as custodian in perpetuity of this gift on behalf of the Norwegian American people.
The Norwegian-American Historical Museum was thus finally organized.
Four shipments of articles, which constitute a valuable addition to the museum collections, have been received from Norway. Even this interesting and valuable gift collection is of somewhat subsidiary importance, however, as the chief aim of the museum is to create collections illustrating the life of Norwegian settlers in America, especially in the pioneer period. In recent years energetic efforts have been made to assemble such material as can still be found among early settlers, and the collections in this field have been growing rapidly. Interiors of typical homes have been constructed and furnished with articles gathered in the Norwegian settlements. Other collections have been created showing some articles brought by immigrants from Norway, and others made by the early settlers to supply their immediate wants. For coming generations these collections [156a]
will illustrate in a unique way the home life and domestic occupations of the Norwegian pioneers.
A special feature of the pioneer collections is a group of log cabins furnished as they were during the days when they were occupied. Five of these have already been moved to the museum grounds on the Luther College campus and more will be added as soon as possible. They form a very attractive feature and constitute the out-of-door part of the museum.
The Egge cabin was built in Winneshiek County, Iowa, by Erik Egge, 1851-52. The Reverend V. Koren, a prominent pioneer pastor, and his wife lived with the Egge family in this cabin when they first came to America in 1853-54, and the cabin is known as the first Norwegian Lutheran parsonage west of the Mississippi.
The Little Iowa cabin was built by Hans Haugen in Winneshiek County, Iowa, in 1853. After it had stood vacant for many years it was restored by the Little Iowa Pioneer Society and completely furnished with pioneer household articles. It was given to the museum by that society.
The Norwegian parochial log schoolhouse was built between Decorah and Ossian, Iowa, in 1880, by early Norwegian settlers.
The little log house used for drying grain and malt before grinding was built in Goodhue County, Minnesota, by Knut Thompson Tasa, who settled there in 1855. It was given to the museum by the Tasa family. This house is undoubtedly the only one of its kind now in existence among the Norwegians in America.
The old mill is of rather unique interest. The millstones were brought from Vang in Valdres, Norway, by Knut Gudmundson Norsving, who came to America in 1849 with his wife and eight children, and settled near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Two years later he removed to Stoughton in the
same state. In 1859 he removed to Madison Township, Winneshiek County, Iowa, where he used the old millstones for grinding grain and malt. Later he removed to Goodhue County, Minnesota. He brought the millstones with him, and they were used there also both by him and by his son Borge Knutson Norsving. His grandson, Knute B. Norsring (son of Borge Knutson Norsving), now a resident of Fullerton, California, bought the old log mill in Vang in Valdres while he was on a visit in Norway, and had it sent to America as a gift to the Norwegian-American Historical Museum. The old millstones have been installed in it and it now stands complete, as it once stood in Norway many generations ago.
Another interesting addition to the material illustrating pioneer life among Norwegian settlers is the Slooper collection. The little sloop "Restaurationen" brought the first small group of Norwegian immigrants to America in 1825. Their descendants, who are now numbered by the thousands, have organized the Slooper Society for the purpose of preserving records and traditions of their forefathers who came to America in the sloop. They have gathered a number of relics brought over in the little ship and have given them to the Norwegian-American Historical Museum.
Promise has also been made that the museum will receive the first house built by Norwegians in America, the one built in Rochester, New York, by Lars Larsen i Gjeilane, the leader of the sloop immigrants.
In 1930 a very important addition to the museum was made through the acquisition of the large private collections of P. D. Peterson of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. These collections contain large groups of interesting Norwegian pioneer articles, one of the largest collections of weapons and firearms in the state, numerous Indian objects, and other valuable material. [158a]
The collections of the museum have also been increased through many valuable gifts from individual friends, societies, and college classes. These gifts include:
Reproductions, in heroic size, of the Greek statues of Apollo Belvedere, the Borghese Warrior, Laocoön, and Athena Giustiniani, and, in natural size, of Thorvaldsen's Christ, donated by various Luther College classes.
A miniature reproduction of the Maihaugen out-of-door museum at Lillehammer, Norway, made by Ragnvald Enebo for the Norwegian exposition in Oslo in 1914, and bought and donated to the museum by the Reverend Mr. M. K. Bleken.
A large collection of mounted moths and butterflies, donated by Dr. C. H. Hoeg of Decorah, Iowa.
A Norwegian Hardanger bridegroom's costume, donated by H. C. Hjerleid of Decorah, Iowa.
A Norwegian Sigdal man's national costume, donated by Carl O. Hagen of Decorah, Iowa.
A collection of thirty-five oil paintings and other articles, willed to the museum by the Norwegian-American painter, H. Gausta.
A Nordland fishing boat sent to the Nordlandslag of America by L. A. Meyer of Mo in Ranen, Norway, for the Norse-American Centennial in 1925.
A miniature reproduction of the Trondhjem cathedral, made by Olaus Wang of Maddock, North Dakota, donated by the Trønderlag of America.
Two farm models made by C. A. Hendricksen, donated by the Luther College class of 1925.
A valuable collection of articles from Sudan, Africa, presented by A. E. Gunderson, a missionary.
The regimental flag of the Fifteenth Wisconsin Regiment of the Civil War, donated by the Nora Lodge of Chicago.
These are only a few of many gifts which have been received from friends of the museum. Contributions are being
received in growing numbers and are constantly enriching the collections.
Though the museum's chief aim, as already outlined, is never forgotten, acquisition of valuable material in many different fields has gradually given the collections a wider scope, enabling the museum to meet the varied interests of people in this section of the country as a general museum.
The field of natural history is represented by collections of mounted birds, reptiles, fish, moths, butterflies, and various animals. In this class also are hundreds of sea shells and many rock and ore specimens. A considerable amount of this material is still unmounted and unclassified. The ethnological group consists of collections of Indian, South Sea Island, Icelandic, Eskimo, Zulu, and Sudan material. The last three groups were created by Norwegian-American Lutheran missionaries who lived among these peoples.
The museum possesses thirty pieces of sculpture, most of which are reproductions of masterpieces of plastic art, and over fifty paintings by Norwegian-American artists. There are also two hundred and fifty framed pictures, besides collections of coins, paper currency, firearms, and military objects.
It will be readily granted that the history of any group of our American citizenry is a part of the history of America, and it follows that any collection of material which throws light upon the life and history of an individual group becomes a source for the larger history of the whole American people.
As far as we know, the Norwegian group is the only one that has seriously undertaken the task of creating a historical museum with collections which will clearly illustrate their life and culture and the general conditions surrounding them from the time when their fathers and mothers first set foot on American soil. If other groups would do similar
work, historical source material would be collected which, in the hands of the writers of history and the students of American cultural and social life, would be most valuable. This fact is now fully recognized by all historians, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington has duly emphasized it by welcoming the efforts of the Norwegian-American Historical Museum and by listing it among the museums of America.
<1> Extract from the certificate of incorporation of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, Studies and Records, 1:152.