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The Unknown Rølvaag:
Secretary in the Norwegian-American Historical Association
By Kenneth Bjørk (Volume XI: Page 114)

When it became known that Harper and Brothers would publish O. E. Rølvaag's Giants in the Earth, a friend prophesied, "You will have done more toward the recognition of our race as a worthy and important element in our American nation than all the Historical Societies put together, because your books will go straight to the hearts of the masses of our people." {1} That Rølvaag's reputation today rests primarily on his literary productions few will seriously question. {2} But another of his many efforts toward the cultural enrichment of American life --- his service in the cause of the Norwegian-American Historical Association --- would alone call for recognition in the annals of American life.

To the public at large it is generally unknown that Rølvaag was one of the founders of the association and was secretary of the organization from its inception in 1925 till his death in the fall of 1931. Yet by his unceasing labor and enthusiasm he helped the association through its testing period. Stealing precious hours from his literary work, he also contributed in no small measure to its record of attainment; and he must be credited with having played an important part in shaping its objectives and policies.


It is impossible to draw a sharp distinction between Rølvaag's literary activities and his historical interests. His classroom discussions after 1906 --- when he entered upon his duties as teacher at St. Olaf College --- show a marked preoccupation with the history of the American Northwest. This interest is further disclosed in the texts and early novels of Norwegian immigrant life that he wrote. In 1914, however, he seems to have made his first important public entrance into discussions centering about historical materials. Stimulated by the activities marking the recognition of a century of Norwegian political independence, Rølvaag engaged in a lively controversy over the disposition and preservation of records left by the Norwegians in America. {3} It is quite possible, too, that in the same year he discussed the desirability of organizing a historical society among the Norwegian Americans. {4}

From 1914 to 1925 Rølvaag's days were crowded with work for the preservation and enrichment of the Norwegian cultural heritage in the Northwest. Though busy with the many duties of a teacher, he nevertheless found time to edit For fædrearven, to work in the interests of Nordlandslaget, and to plan and execute several novels. These years, particularly the period 1917-25, were extremely significant in Rølvaag's development. On the literary side, they marked a change from a somewhat limited denominationalism to a freer, more realistic treatment of subject matter. In another respect they were perhaps equally important.

The young professor had cherished the hope that a united Lutheran church among his transplanted people might serve as the instrument for realizing his cultural aims. When in 1917 several immigrant religious groups merged into the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, his ideal seemed very near to attainment. But 1917 also marked the entry of the United States into the World War and the beginnings of a wave of antiforeignism that reached giant proportions in the closing years of the war. The newly organized church also had to face certain undeniable problems concerning intermarriage and population mixtures in town and country. The work of the church, it was felt, would be hindered by too great stress on Norwegianism. For these and other reasons the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America showed a greater interest in a kind of Pan-Lutheranism aimed at breaking down national barriers than in furthering the cause of Norwegian culture in the Northwest. Rølvaag was keenly aware of this change and during the early twenties turned to organizations other than the church, at the same time clinging to the hope that St. Olaf College might be the dominant center of Norwegian culture in America.

In Rølvaag's papers there are several references to re-hewed efforts in behalf of a historical society in 1924 {5} --- a year of general preparation for the Norse-American Centennial of 1925. Others as well as Rølvaag were roused to a high pitch of optimism; they hoped that the celebrations observing one hundred years of Norwegian life in the United States might lead to the creation of an agency which would record the history of their racial group. {6} Sharing this enthusiasm to the full, Rølvaag turned his hand to writing a number of historical sketches for the newspaper press. {7} In the midsummer of 1925 his interests carried him quite logically into the work of founding a genuine historical society.

A number of prominent Norwegian Americans worked for the cause of the historical agency during the centennial year. While Rølvaag maintained connections with several interested individuals and groups, his contributions to the origins of the society must be studied against the background of a movement in Decorah, Iowa.

Luther College, thanks to the forethought of its first president and faculty, had accumulated at an early date a fine collection of Norwegian-American newspapers and other documents. Before 1925 Professor Knut Gjerset, with the assistance of other Luther College men and residents in and near Decorah, had worked in behalf of a museum housing objects employed in the daily life of the immigrant. Decorah was also the home of Symra, a society which included in its programs a study of Norwegian-American life. In addition, Decorah-posten, one of the leading Norwegian newspapers in America, took an active interest in promoting the literary and historical activities of the Iowa city. On July 24, 1925, a group of fifteen local men organized what was termed the Society for the Preservation of Historical Relics and Records of Norse-American Pioneer and Cultural Life. In the same month a statement of its aims was sent to Rølvaag by Professor Gjerset. This new organization sought primarily to support the work already begun at Decorah but it also professed an interest in the creation of other collections of documents in Northfield, Minnesota, and the Twin Cities.

During August Gjerset made a trip about the Northwest in behalf of the Decorah society, which he hoped "would also serve as a historical association." From Minneapolis he wrote Professor Rølvaag a letter stressing the fact that "three points: Decorah with Luther College and Decorah-posten; St. Olaf College in Northfield; and the Twin Cities with Luther Seminary, Tidende, the Norwegian group at the University of Minnesota, etc., together constitute the great center for our people in America. These three should work together." In conclusion he insisted it "is absolutely necessary that you come without delay" to Minneapolis to discuss plans for combining the various Norwegian groups into one historical society. {8} Kristian Prestgard, the able editor of Decorah-posten, loyally supported Gjerset's work and also wrote to Rølvaag informing him of the warm reception Gjerset had received in Chicago, Madison, and the Twin Cities. He hoped that the first two names on the list of prospective members in the enlarged society would be Pastor D. G. Ristad of Manitowoc and Professor Rølvaag, and proposed a meeting in Minneapolis, Decorah, or some other city. "There is need to hurry!" he added. {9}

Rølvaag was vacationing at his lake cottage near Marcel] during the month of August. Consequently some time elapsed before he received the letters from Gjerset and Prestgard. What he wrote in reply cannot be determined with absolute certainty, for his letter has been lost. But it is dear that he was somewhat skeptical of the wisdom of proceeding with the work. Prestgard's reply to Rølvaag is revealing: "Wellllll. I see there is no other course but for Gjerset and me to drive up to your home next Thursday evening, August 29, to try to convince you that the time has come to get together. . . . Ristad alas can not be with us, but he will be here in Decorah on Tuesday." {10}

No record was kept of the meeting between Rølvaag and the two Decorah men. It is certain, however, that the three agreed upon the major objectives and outlines of the new organization. From Northfield they journeyed to Eau Claire, where they discussed plans with Waldemar Ager, editor of Reform. Gjerset, a trained historian, was clearly the leading proponent of a general historical society. Rølvaag's contribution, if one is to judge by future remarks and developments, was his insistence that the scope of the Decorah society must be broadened and the new organization centralized rather than decentralized in the manner originally suggested by Gjerset. {11} In fairness to the Luther professor, however, it must be admitted that his original proposals had been of a highly tentative nature.

It was decided during the conversations at Rølvaag's home that invitations to an organization meeting in Northfield should be sent out to leading Norwegian Americans without delay. An important conference of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America was scheduled to be held in Minneapolis October 7-9.

Prestgard's shrewd advice that the meeting in Northfield be held on October 6, in order to guarantee a strong representation of interested churchmen, was followed. Invitations were sent out and preparations were immediately made for what Prestgard predicted would be "something of a historical gathering."

Prestgard's prophecy was fulfilled. The list of fifty-two men and women attending the meeting of October 6, which was held at St. Olaf College, included many of the leading spirits in the Norwegian cultural life of the Northwest. More important still, the gathering heartily endorsed the major objectives outlined by Professor Gjerset. These objectives, when finally crystallized in the constitution of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, included the maintenance and development of an archival collection, support of the Norwegian-American Museum at Decorah, the promotion of historical research, and the publication of books and a periodical dealing with the history of Norwegians in the United States. The modest proposals made by Gjerset in August had developed into a program necessitating a centralized organization which would embrace all Americans of Norwegian descent.

It was assumed by most of the delegates present at the organization meeting in Northfield that Rølvaag would serve as the first secretary of the association. Though vitally interested in the new organization, Rølvaag was nevertheless hesitant about accepting the position, because he realized that it would make a heavy drain on the time and energies which should go into his strictly literary activities. In the end he agreed to accept the secretaryship only after being assured that Professor J. Jørgen Thompson of St. Olaf College would serve as assistant secretary and assume much of the work of his office. {12} Writing later to Birger Osland, a prominent Chicago investment banker, who was elected to the board of finance, Rølvaag explained:

I have three more novels that I should do, but I don't know that I ever will get the time to try. I should have refused the secretaryship . . . . and I did refuse until I got tired and said yes. I am not sorry. This work has already brought me in contact with men whose company I shall enjoy. I feel certain that just now our association has greater possibilities for doing great things than anything I have seen spring up amongst us. {13}

It might be well at this point to break the thread of narrative and inquire what "great things" Rølvaag expected of the new organization. His letters during the year 1925 throw little light on the subject, but fortunately in the early spring of 1926 he paused to outline his interpretation of history. This he did by publicly setting out to answer the question, "Why I Am a Member of the Historical Association.'' He sent the finished product to the Norwegian newspapers. Since it is of more than average interest, it is here reproduced in translation:

First and last because the experience of centuries has taught that blessings flow only when father and mother are honored.

And the phrase "father and mother" means much more than merely she who brought me into the world and he who provided me with food and clothing during my growing years. "Father and mother" includes generation after generation of our people.

But how can I honor that which I do not know and of which I have perhaps never heard? Go out on the streets and avenues, wander around among the settlements and ask the people --- especially the younger generation --- what they know of our history in America, and you will find an ignorance that will make you wonder.

But why should you wonder about it? From whom could the third and fourth generations have got their knowledge? . . . . And where could we who migrated have obtained our knowledge? I am speaking now of the common folk. The public school throws no light on the subject; neither does the Sunday school; nor the daily press. The sources we have --- a few books and those of our papers that now and then are concerned with these things --- are rarely used even by those who migrated last. There are only a few of the second generation who can use these sources even if they wish; of the third generation there are fewer still; of the fourth only the rare exception . . . .

It is vital in all cultural life to maintain a link between the present and the past. If there is anything history makes clear it is this, that when a people becomes interested in its past life, seeks to acquire knowledge in order better to understand itself, it always experiences an awakening of new life. It would be fun to know if anyone can point to a single instance where this is not true. Take, for example, the history of romanticism in the various countries. Follow its course in England and Scotland and Germany, in Denmark and Norway, and see what you find. What was it that aroused an interest in fairy tales, folk songs, cultural history, dialects? Norway would never have got a landsmaal if the people had not learned to know and become proud of its past.

So it has always been the world over. What indeed was it that caused the Renascence in Italy? People are so constructed that if they are to be proud of something they must first learn to know it; and that love which is not based on understanding becomes nothing more than "firecracker jubilation" --- it is dead as soon as the explosion is over.

Therefore I want to be along in the historical association. I see in this organization a source of real enlightenment. For the association wishes to dig up everything that only a few people now know and then piece the facts together so they may become understandable to all. Shouldn't we each and every one of us want to be along in this work?

But there is need to hurry if the work is to be done. The old timers who sit around and brood over traditions and reminiscences drop off without having given us their treasures. And so it goes with important documents. They are thrown on the scrap heap and burned because people do not understand their value. And how can the people attach value to that which they do not understand? But if the traditions and stories disappear and the documents become lost --- as they now are in part --- where is the historian of the future to get his information? He will find nothing --- not even a "property settlement." And the artists --- the poet, the painter, the sculptor, the great skald and narrator --- where will they get their raw materials? . . . . But if you are one with us in this project come along and be with us in the work. We need all and can use all. Remember this: great things cannot happen if we do not take hold and work for them! {14}


Armed with an abundance of enthusiasm and a romantic-heroic interpretation of history, Rølvaag lost no time in beginning the work as secretary. But a secretary's desk in any organization is a clearinghouse for hundreds of tasks, menial as well as great, and is easily thrown into a state of confusion. Rølvaag's was no exception. It was one thing to organize a historical association; it was quite another to clarify the tasks of the secretary. Fortunately a meeting of the officers, who were united in an executive board, was scheduled to be held at Chicago on November 4 in order to work out details of organization and to get the new association well launched before a general meeting of all members was called. Rølvaag attached considerable importance to this preliminary gathering.

The meeting proved to be everything Rølvaag wished it to be. It was agreed that the secretary and the financial secretary, Professor Thompson, were to start a drive for new members without delay. The board of editors, headed by Dr. Theodore C. Blegen and including Professor Gjerset and Mr. Prestgard, was authorized to publish a yearbook as soon as possible. A constitutional committee, composed of Dr. Gjerset, Dr. L. W. Be, and Dr. C. M. Weswig, was asked to report its conclusions not later than February 1. The stage was therefore carefully set for a bold new venture, the outcome of which no one dared prophesy. For Rølvaag this meeting also proved important in at least two other respects. First, it brought him closely in touch with the assistant treasurer, Birger Osland, a man of unusual business acumen who was determined that the association pursue a sound financial policy. It also gave him an opportunity to discuss publication aims with the managing editor, Dr. Blegen. Rølvaag's perspective heretofore had been largely conditioned by a purely literary outlook. His knowledge of the methods and aims of historical research remained at all times limited, but conversations with Dr. Blegen en route to Chicago opened before his eyes new vistas of creative effort and quickened his enthusiasm for the work of the association. {15}

The period from the Chicago gathering to the first general meeting in St. Paul on February 3, 1926, was filled with innumerable tasks, most of which resembled the humdrum duties of any secretary. But Rølvaag was able somehow to invest routine matters with a touch of the exciting and dramatic. His newspaper account of the Chicago meeting is a good example of his many letters to the Norwegian press; it begins with an optimistic preface and bears the earmarks of careful preparation. "As time passes," he wrote, "it becomes clearer and clearer that the association came into being as the result of a folk need. The association has received a unanimously friendly welcome from the entire press; from men everywhere one hears only words of encouragement. The officers sincerely hope that this good will will continue, for if it does, great things can be accomplished." He then announced that the association already had about 135 members and followed this announcement with a glowing account of the Chicago meeting. {16}

Rølvaag's letters to the other officers in the association {17} tell the story of his efforts to secure new members, to interest leading Norwegian Americans in the new organization, and to push the editorial work. While preparing for the general meeting in February the secretary worked with might and will. He sought a total of 300 members by January 1, 1926, and 500 before the next meeting. Traveling to Decorah, he sat up till 3:30 in the morning with Professor Gjerset, drafted a list of regional vice-presidents, and brought his total of prospective members to 3,300. Gjerset in turn visited with the secretary in Northfield and together they considered additions to the executive board. The Christmas holidays of 1925 were a time of almost feverish activity. "My wife and I sit up late into the night and address letters," reads one of Rølvaag's reports to the president. "We have now disposed of a little more than 1,500, but there are still so many. I think I can already see that this too will bring results. . . . This is a sad business but it is fun too. One thing is certain: It is now or never! {18}

While he wrestled with the dragons of inertia and indifference evidenced by Norwegian Americans everywhere, Rølvaag also displayed a keen interest in publications. "It would be desirable to get the year book out as soon as possible,'' he wrote to the managing editor, "but what is of far greater consequence is to bring out a piece of work that all may be justly proud of. It must be our slogan in all our publication matters: Nothing but the best will do!" In another letter he called for "a comprehensive book! By that I mean both as to size and as to variety of subject matter." {19}

On February 3, 1926, members of the association met at the Ryan Hotel in St. Paul. In several respects this meeting marked a personal triumph for Rølvaag. In part the elections were the product of his labors. A constitution was adopted, and on the following day, with Gjerset and Osland, Rølvaag acted as one of the association's incorporators. But more important still, he could report to the general meeting a remarkably productive activity during the past few months. His secretarial report sums up the first period of his work for the association and reveals his early enthusiasm; it reads in part:

We are at the present moment 407 members [at the close of the meeting the total had reached 425]. The result of the campaign up to date is neither a matter of great pride, nor need we feel dejected over it. Everything considered, the association has done well, perhaps better than any undertaking of a similar nature that heretofore has been tried among us Norwegian-Americans. We must bear in mind that we have asked for cold cash and hard work, but have had no tangible reward to offer. This, I think, has been established beyond dispute, that if we can only get to do personal work, each in his own locality, we are going to get support.


As secretary, Rølvaag was vitally interested in adding to the association's membership, and only slightly less so in the raising of funds. A start had been made; with 425 members and a bank balance of $1,279.99 at the time of the St. Paul meeting, the officers had reason to believe that a campaign in 1926 would strengthen the association materially.

A mail campaign for members was undertaken along lines recommended by Mr. Osland. In the middle of March Rølvaag reported 500 members. He was handicapped considerably by the slowness with which the first yearbook was prepared, and as late as July 4, 1926, he complained: "I have not yet seen the yearbook. None of the young men from St. Olaf will travel for the association precisely because the book was not ready in time. They felt it was hopeless to come to the people without having anything to show them --- after all that has been said and written about what we plan to do." {20} In August Rølvaag experienced a recurrence of his stubborn illness --- a combination of heart and lung disease. "The fever has raised havoc with me again and I am not worth a cent," one of his letters reads. {21} But at a meeting of the executive board on May 26 it had been agreed that after the publication of a yearbook, the secretaries should write to all members asking them to get at least one new member and to name two prospective members. Sickness or no sickness, the work must continue.

With the publication of Studies and Records, volume 1, and Ole Rynning's True Account of America, later in the year, Rølvaag renewed the mail campaign by making the best use of favorable reviews. At Christmas the membership totaled nearly 800. Early in the following year, 1927, Decorah-posten agreed without charge to set up in pamphlet form three thousand copies of an article describing the association which was written by the editor, Mr. Prestgard. This article was printed in both Norwegian and English and served as excellent material for arousing interest in the work of the association. The year 1927 also marked the publication of Studies and Records, volume 2, and Peter Testman's Account of His Experiences in North America. With the editorial work thus well launched, the problem of securing new members was simplified.

In early June Rølvaag commented on this generally improved situation. While he contemplated another drive in the fall, he could already point to 830 members. "On the whole," he confided to Osland, "it seems to me that the work goes about as well as we have reason to hope. The Minnesota Historical Society, which started many years earlier, has now no more than from 1,100 to 1,200 members. We must remember that the mass of our people as yet do not have a broad outlook and we cannot expect it of them either. But each book we put out will help to spread interest. Our future work is uncertain. It is encouraging to know that. Let us only not be faint-hearted!. . . . I think we have every reason to be pleased." {22}

In September, 1927, Rølvaag launched his last big drive for members. He chose this month when vacations for all would be over and teachers back at their posts. A letter was first sent to the regional vice-presidents asking for lists of names and addresses; a special offer of two books free of charge was planned; and the drive was on. From September Rølvaag's letters are punctuated with the remarks "yesterday I nabbed a new member," "tomorrow I hope to catch a 'lifer,'" and similar expressions. "We have sent out this year," he once explained, "three statements to members. The Gjerset book Norwegian Sailors on the Great Lakes] will be the second volume that we mail out. How many letters we have sent out, I don't know, but the number ran up into the thousands. I am rather proud of the fact that we have done this work with practically no expense, except postage and stationery, to the association." {23}

The goal throughout had been a membership of 1,000. On December 19, 1927, the proud secretary mailed a card to the president announcing: "This is to inform you that today. . . . the first thousand have been won over. We are this evening exactly 1,000 members." This heartening news he also telegraphed to four of the Norwegian newspapers. In the months that followed, Rølvaag gave less and less of his time to recruiting members; he justified this action on the grounds that the association had now come of age and could rest its case very largely on sheer merit and production. {24} But he was always glad to include in his letters that he was "adding a few members now and then. We are growing slowly." {25}


It is the result of no accident that the association's endowment fund at present bears the name Rølvaag. The secretary's letters show a marked preoccupation with financial questions. While the constitution was in a preliminary stage of preparation, Rølvaag insisted that all life membership fees, which were $100, should be set aside as a permanent fund, the interest of which was to be used for research and publications. But he realized that membership payments alone could never finance the heavy editorial program contemplated by the officers. When the treasurer, O. M. Oleson, gave $1,000 in 1925 for a life membership, Rølvaag's eyes were opened to the possibilities inherent in the generosity of men of means who were also men of good faith.

As late as October, 1928, however, Rølvaag entertained the idea of a personal canvass. Writing to Ristad, the president, he said: "Serious problems lie before us, problems that demand all our composure. The association must have an endowment if it is to survive; of that there can be no doubt. And the museum must also have help." He outlined a plan for sending a man out to solicit funds for the association and museum, who should work for three years or more.

And now I come to the heart of the matter. I have lain and brooded about it two whole nights and wondered if you are not the man. More beautiful monuments you could not erect to your memory. Now you must not jump from your chair and pound the table and accuse me of being crazy! You must think it over for four nights. Let one be a Thursday night. There are several reasons why you are the man for the job. You were one of the leaders in founding the association; you enjoy the confidence of the people perhaps more than any other; all know that you are "fair-minded "; and all know that you are vitally concerned with our people's cultural welfare. There can be no thought of a house-to-house canvass. These two funds must be gathered by an appeal to the generosity and vision of men of means. . . . You could not give your last years to anything better. If it were not for this wretched heart of mine, I would
jump right up and volunteer to do the work. Think what it will mean in 200 years! {26}

Rølvaag sent a copy of this letter to Osland, who immediately pointed out that the association must first prove its worth. "We are doing well," he wrote, "and the longer we continue to do well, the greater impetus will be lent to our efforts and aims when the time is ripe." {27} While Rølvaag came in part to accept the views entertained by Osland, his faith in the direct appeal to individuals he never lost.

Writing to Prestgard from Biloxi, Mississippi, where Rølvaag spent a part of the winter of 1929-30, he stated his opinions in some detail. "As you know, I am vitally interested in both the association and the museum. . . . But I think neither can get the necessary means by any 'general collection' à la church drives. The reason is obvious: few people are historical-minded --- and there you are. Historical interest develops slowly and gradually; it grows belatedly into a people's whole culture pattern. . . . If the museum and the association are to raise the funds they need, it will come about only through the interest of a few monied persons." {28}

To those who knew Rølvaag only superficially these views may seem, if not disturbing, at least inconsistent with his otherwise thoroughly democratic manner. The truth is that as an author his experiences had led him to question the enthusiasm of Norwegian Americans as a whole for things of a cultural nature. Though his expressions were at times bitter, he accepted the situation as he found it among the majority and then proceeded to the only alternative --- support from the well-to-do. It must be remembered that Rølvaag believed with his whole soul in the efficacy of the association as an instrument for raising the general culture level of his people. If in his methods he seemed to pin his faith on the few, his final objective was democratic in the fullest sense of the word.

Rølvaag lost little time putting his theory into practice. The records, however, divulge not one instance when he sought financial aid in a mercenary spirit. What he did was to fan the interest or ignite the potential interest of men who by reason of birth and experience were inclined toward the work of the association. As early as the spring of 1926 we find Osland congratulating the secretary on obtaining a gift of $500 from E. A. Cappelen-Smith, a prominent Norwegian-American engineer in New York. {29} It is doubtful that Rølvaag was solely responsible for this gift; soon, however, he entered into a relationship which had a by-product of vital importance to the history of the association.

The publication of I de dage in Norway in the fall of 1924 and of Riket grundlægges in 1925 lent considerable prestige to the name Rølvaag, as their publication in a single volume, Giants in the Earth, was to do in America in 1927. From the immediate point of view of the association their greatest single influence was upon the thought and imagination of Sir Karl Knudsen. Though he was a member of a family prominent in the educational and political history of Norway, Sir Karl had nevertheless sought his fortune in England, where he quickly rose to a position of responsibility in the shipping and financial life of his adopted country. He became a naturalized British citizen, but his interest in things Norwegian never waned, with the result that during the war years he rendered valuable services as a mediator between England and his mother country. For this work he was knighted and given a place of trust in the British capital.

To Sir Karl the Norwegian people in the United States, when he gave them any thought at all, had seemed at best an unimportant and uncultured element on the frontier. Through the reading of Rølvaag's novels he came to view his kinsmen in a new light, and he developed an interest in the Norwegian Northwest which continued to the end of his days.

By chance Sir Karl's sister, Mrs. Schiott of Southport, Connecticut, gave him the Norwegian edition of Rølvaag's novels as reading for an ocean crossing. When she discovered what a deep impression they had made upon him, she insisted that her brother inform the author. His letter of felicitation, written early in 1926, marked the beginning of a friendship that grew in intimacy through the years that followed. The letter reads in part: "Per Hansa -- could he be anything but a Norwegian or anything but a Nordlænning? Your writing is powerful and fires the imagination. I could not put the book aside until I had read it through. . . . I am glad that you let us have in Beret your understanding of that which was not prepared for the struggle but which was nonetheless very important .... I have had an insight into the church's civilizing mission. Your book has . . called to mind what the churches and monasteries did in the early Middle Ages as a center for the human aspirations without which, as Beret says, men become beasts." {30}

In response to Rølvaag's promptings, Sir Karl visited at the author's home late in May, 1926. The two men were immediately attracted to each other. Rølvaag took his distinguished guest for trips into Goodhue County and other Norwegian communities near Northfield and described how in this "garden" of the Northwest a new Normandy was developing. From Northfield they traveled to Decorah, where Sir Karl attended a meeting of the association's executive board on May 26. This meeting and association with men like Prestgard and Gjerset convinced Sir Karl of the validity and magnitude of the association's labors. {31} He became a life member of the organization and carried away impressions that caused him to write from Southport, "You were right in what you said of the 'garden.' Gjerset and Prestgard especially win one's affection. Seldom have I seen so many fine Norwegian types as you have out there. . . . That which lies closest to my heart is whether or not I will be able to find a man who can be responsible for the work of collecting 'America letters' in Norway." On his return to London, he wrote again: "My tour of America I now see in clearer perspective. That which people speak of as American- its great cities, industrial centers, and political life--gives me no pleasure; by contrast my five days spent with you and in Decorah remain brilliantly illuminated in my mind." {32}

In an interesting letter to Prestgard, Rølvaag explains how, in response to Sir Karl's insistence that the latter be of help to the association in Norway, the secretary outlined the following program: the collection in general of all newspaper and other printed materials for the years 1825-75 which throw light on Norwegian-American history, and, specifically, copies of all "America letters" in the archives of the mother country. {33} Considerable material of help to subsequent publications was unearthed in Norway through Sir Karl's efforts. His crowning act of generosity came in the summer of 1927. Prestgard, returning from a visit to the homeland, informed Rølvaag on August 18 that Sir Karl had opened an account of five thousand crowns in an Oslo bank; this was to be used by the association to defray research expenses incurred in Norway. In the fall of 1928 Sir Karl made another trip to America and revisited the Northwest, developing a keen interest in the museum in Decorah and renewing his acquaintance with the association's program. He subsequently made additional contributions to the Oslo expense fund and continued, directly and indirectly, until his death in 1937, to further the historical work called to his attention by Rølvaag in 1926.

Another triumph was scored by the secretary when, with the help of Birger Osland, he was able to secure Magnus Swenson of Madison, Wisconsin, as the association's president in 1930. For Ristad, who served as president from 1925-30, Rølvaag had the deepest respect. In an undated letter of 1926 he once informed the cultural-minded pastor that "if there were 50 ministers like you, great things could have been done in the so-called 'Norwegian America!'" But by 1929 the burden of work for the association was becoming too great for Ristad's failing health and he spoke of resigning. Once convinced that the president was serious, Rølvaag explored the field for a successor. His thoughts quickly fell upon the successful inventor-engineer of Madison. {34}

Swenson had declined to serve as a regional vice-president in 1926, but Rølvaag was determined nevertheless to interest him in the association. From Marcell he wrote to Osland: "I have been thinking about our association a great deal while rowing on these lakes. How can we make our mutual friend, big-hearted Magnus Swenson, see that he ought to perpetuate his name by establishing a legacy . . . similar to Nansen fondet and Videnskapselskapet? It would be a big idea, well worthy of a big man to snap up. Will Magnus Swenson see it?. . . . Supposing you and I go to Madison to discuss the matter with him?" {35} Nearly three months passed before any action was taken. Finally in November Osland wrote that he had talked with Swenson by phone. "He expects us for supper Thursday. . . . I mentioned the presidency to Magnus and I have hopes we may get him." {36}

What transpired during the meeting in Madison has fortunately been recorded in a Rølvaag letter. "Osland and I," Rølvaag wrote, "discussed the matter from every possible angle. The result was that yesterday noon we took a train, traveled to Madison, and literally attacked Swenson with talk." Swenson was aging and none too strong, but, the letter reads, "He allowed himself to be persuaded to make the attempt, but on one condition --- that he should feel free to resign if he found the work too hard, or if he thought he was incapable of the tasks." {37}

At the second triennial meeting of the association, in 1930, Magnus Swenson was elected president; Ristad accepted the position of vice-president; and Birger Osland became treasurer. The secretary, relaxing in Miami, was soon to read in one of Osland's letters that "Magnus is getting more and more interested in the . . . . association." {38}


Vitally interested though he was in the numerical and financial strength of the association, Rølvaag injected more emotional content into his statements when discussing the museum and the archives. These two institutions he considered of great importance for the future, as indeed they were intended to be.

Mention has been made of Knut Gjerset's successful efforts prior to 1925 in building a reputable Norwegian-American museum in Decorah. The constitution of the association ambiguously states that help should be given to "maintain and develop" the museum, which was and mains to this day separate from the association.

Rølvaag recognized that the museum should remain in Decorah: "It is there and belongs there by historical right. Punktum." {39} Thus the matter might have rested had it not been for the fact that early in 1926 word was received from Norway that a committee had been appointed in the mother country to make a gift collection of museum pieces to the Norwegians in America. The association was the logical institution to accept this gift, the only difficulty being that it had no museum strictly its own in which to house the pieces. Rølvaag turned to the president. "We have come to the knottiest problem in our whole existence," he said, "and we shall have to muster all our wits in order to solve it in such a way that the future may not damn us. . . . In my sketch of an answer to Dr. Bragger [of the gift committee] I don't mention the place. I think we are safe when we say that the articles will be deposited in our museum." {40}

It was finally decided at the meeting of the executive board held at Decorah on May 26, 1926, that the association should accept the gift and deposit the pieces in the museum at Decorah, "this institution agreeing to act as custodian in perpetuity of the gift on behalf of the Norwegian-American people." Not a little of the credit for this happy solution of a difficult problem must go to Sir Karl Knudsen, who was present at the meeting.

In 1927 Dr. Gjerset began a movement to secure a more adequate building for the museum collection. The question immediately arose, should the association help to finance the project? Rølvaag counseled in the negative. "Our association,'' he insisted, "is very young yet and not at all able to withstand any hammering. What we must do first of all is to strengthen our organization, get more really worth-while publications out, and start more first-rate scholars on specific work that must be done. But that takes money, and yet more money!. . . . Still I sympathize sincerely with [Gjerset]. If I live I shall certainly do what I can for the museum's cause." {41}

Professor Gjerset in the fall of 1928 came to favor taking the museum out of the hands of the Luther College Corporation and entrusting it to a committee composed of men favorably disposed toward the work of preserving historical relics. Rølvaag and Osland were asked to accept membership in this committee. The secretary made his acceptance conditional on that of Osland. "If you say no, I shall say no, too," he wrote to Osland. "I am so along in years now and have so little capacity for work, that if I cannot obtain co-operation from men I am happy to work with, then I do not want to work at all." But he favored accepting. "These two institutions [the association and the museum] are the first great cultural efforts outside the church and the financial field --- therefore their great importance. I am vitally interested in the welfare of both. I feel therefore that we should take part." {42}

Osland was unable to accept a position on the museum committee and Rølvaag was forced for reasons of health to spend the winter of 1929-30 in Mississippi. Work additional to his already heavy tasks was dearly out of the question, and he had to decline the invitation. "It pained me greatly," he explains, "perhaps much more than he realized, to have to say no to Gjerset when he wanted me along on the museum's committee last fall. I will have an interest in both these enterprises [the association and the museum] as long as I live." {43}

Rølvaag's inability to serve on the museum's committee did not, however, imply that he lacked interest in the attempt to promote the institution's growth. A significant document among Rølvaag's papers is a letter written in the fall of 1930 to Dr. J. A. Aasgaard, president of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America. In this letter Rølvaag explained that he had "just returned from a visit to Decorah. While there I had a chance once more to see the Norwegian-American Museum; that is, I saw the articles which were displayed. I understand that many of the gifts received from Norway cannot be displayed for want of room." The letter continues:

It seems to me, that our church is showing poor economy by keeping Dr. Gjerset in a teaching position .... He has books to write and a museum building to erect. Both of these things will bring greater honor to Luther College than his college teaching possibly can do, and greater blessing to us all. . . .

Through you I submit respectfully the following proposition: "That Dr. Gjerset, beginning with the second semester of the present school year, be released from his duties as teacher, and that he be asked to devote his entire time to the gathering of material for our own history and to soliciting funds for the erection of a suitable museum building, that he be given as much time as he needs, and that Luther College continue to pay him his present salary." {44}

Nothing came of Rølvaag's proposal.


No single item figures more prominently in Rølvaag's correspondence between the years 1925-31 --- with the possible exception of publications --- than the archives of the association. The reason is not far to seek. In the archives two of his deepest loyalties blended into one. By building up a collection of Norse Americana at St. Olaf, Rølvaag would realize a long cherished ideal of making his college a center for the study of Norwegian-American history; at the same time he would promote an indispensable phase of the association's work.

Its constitution states that the association should help to "maintain and develop Norwegian-American historical archives at such places or institutions" as the executive board deemed desirable. Shortly, however, the leaders had come to see an advantage in having its documents housed in one central place. When St. Olaf College offered the free use of fireproof rooms for this purpose --- doubtless as a consequence of eager promptings by the secretary --- the association accepted the invitation. From January 3 and 4, 1927, when the executive board passed favorably upon the college's offer, until Rølvaag's death in 1931, he made great levies on his time and energies in order to build up a collection of books and documents which he hoped might be a treasure-trove for future historians.

The year 1926 marks a sudden determination on the part of the secretary to begin his archival labors, though the idea of such a collection had no doubt gestated for years in his deeper consciousness. The first clear-cut statement of his intentions was made in a letter to Ristad in the spring of 1926:

The great Norwegian-American library must be on a hill --- St. Olaf's hill. Yes, the hill is called "Manitou Heights," and that means "the Great Spirit's Heights." One thing is certain: So long as I live and am able to toil I shall work for this goal: to assemble here the largest possible collection of our people's annals. During the winter I have done well. The other day I obtained all issues of Emigranten for 1865. But I think I have written at least 50 letters in trying to get hold of the "Wisconsin Bible" by Marcus Thrane. Now I have it. {45}

When the question arose of disposing of the books and papers of Haldor Hanson, a prominent newspaperman in Chicago, Rølvaag wrote to Osland:

The only place where the collection should be housed is St. Olaf. . . . And here are my reasons:

1. We have a greater number of Norwegian-reading students than any other College or University in America. That knowledge we are trying to utilize educationally.
2. We are also cultivating the study of Norwegian pioneer history, and as far as I know we are the only institution offering such a course. . . .
{3. The great Norwegian-American Library will some day stand on this hill! Our library has already a great deal of what I would call "Norwegian-American Annals "; and I have some very rare things myself. } {46}

The disposal of the Hanson papers led to St. Olaf's invitation to house the association's archives. Room was found in the basement of Music Hall, but the work of collecting and giving order to the materials was undertaken by Rølvaag, who was assisted by Professor Thompson. These two men drove to St. Paul, interviewed Dr. Blegen about the work, and straightway plunged into the heavy tasks before them. The secretary's letters thereafter give an almost day by day account of their progress. There were innumerable letters to be sent out; newspaper clippings had to be arranged; boxes had to be provided for letters; and books had to have some sort of cataloguing. As the years passed, Rølvaag's interest in the archives developed into a passion, and despite increasing ill health, he gave unstintingly of his energies to this work during the last two years of his life.

On July 30, 1930, Rølvaag wrote to his friend Osland:

Seemingly I do nothing. But that is not true. Now and then I take hold of our archives. Since I came home in June, I have collected 29 volumes. Since I began I have written 60 'letters; the result is 29 books, and that is not bad. Requests do not always bear fruit, and yet it is surprising what a personal letter can do. I have hit upon a bright idea: I ask each author and each donor to write on the book's title page, "Donated by __________" and the date. Thereby the gift, with the passing of time, acquires greater historical value. That, I think, appeals. My work with the archives has not cost the association a red cent (øre). The cataloguer I hire and pay myself. Similarly, I pay the postage. If I live long enough, I shall assemble a valuable collection for the archives. I still do not dare say much about it openly. What I have to give to the association will have to go to the archives, for there --- outside our publications --- lies my greatest interest. . . . My work will succeed provided I can cold-bloodedly retain peace of mind and only hold out. . . . In the meantime I have made it my goal to present to the association a collection of at least two thousand titles before I am through as secretary.

His letters asking for archival materials must have run into the hundreds. Scorning form letters, Rølvaag made a direct and individual appeal to each potential contributor, but all his letters contained variations of several distinct themes. A typical letter reads:

This is a begging letter, but not of the usual kind. As you no doubt know, three years ago the. . . . association established its own archives. The purpose of this institution is to collect, as far as possible, all that has been written by and about the Norwegian-American people, regardless of language. That means all books and pamphlets, old and new; also letters and records; in short, anything that can shed light on the history of our people. Now we appeal to you! Can you see your way clear to give us an autographed copy of any book or pamphlet you may have had published?. . . . As soon as gifts of this kind are received they are catalogued and placed on shelves in a fireproof room. {47}

This letter also reveals a distinct and understandable tendency to emphasize printed materials. Though he frequently asked for letters, protocols, and similar records, Rølvaag was at his best when appealing for books, pamphlets, and reprints of articles by Americans of Norwegian birth or descent.

What a wealth of material he unearthed is perhaps best revealed in a letter from Rølvaag to Prestgard. Shortly before leaving for Miami, where he spent part of the winter of 1930-31, Rølvaag wrote telling of some new volumes he had obtained while in Madison, Wisconsin, on a lecture trip.

This gathering of material is the most pleasant thing I have yet engaged in. The strange thing about it is that I do not easily become tired. And it is also strange that I have been going around telling myself for years that I knew something about what we call "Norwegian-American literature"; now I must confess that I have had no conception of it at all. That Husher book you sent I had never heard of before. . . . The other day I was promised 30,000 clippings; they are pasted on cards and arranged alphabetically. {48} They are only death announcements and obituaries for departed Norwegian Americans --- clippings from our newspapers. Can you beat it!. . . . And the association has been promised the whole thing! {49}

Writing to Dr. Blegen on the day of his departure for the South, Rølvaag announced that he would "go over the 1,100 mark in our archives by tonight. I have put in a number of hard licks. Good results, really magnificent ones, are showing up." {50}


The editorial output of the association was, by his own confession, Rølvaag's chief interest. He looked forward to the day when all Norwegian Americans would have a shelf of books telling the story of their experiences in the New World, and when Americans as a whole would recognize the importance of Norwegian contributions to the growth of the United States. Neither as individuals nor as a group should his people be rootless in their new life, nor should they be regarded as pariahs in the land of adoption.

Rølvaag's greatest single contribution to the association was perhaps his work in the archives. But he sensed, as did also the other members, that the rewards for sacrifices and labors would take the form of publications. His interest found expression in sympathetic advice and warm encouragement to Dr. Blegen, the managing editor, but at times he also served as intermediary when editorial and financial objectives seemed irreconcilable.

Rølvaag consistently counseled in favor of quality rather than quantity in publications. At the same time, he favored a generous interpretation of what constitutes "history." The secretary and editor-in-chief were in this respect of one editorial mind; consequently their correspondence, when it did not deal with details common to all editorial work, was devoted to questions of expediency rather than of policy.

Volume I of Studies and Records, which was issued in 1926, marked the association's entry into the world of historical publication. When it appeared Rølvaag wrote to Dr. Blegen, "I congratulate you on our first born!" {51} With each succeeding volume he made a point of singling out some feature or features of the book for special praise, and at the same time suggested names of possible research students. He volunteered to make copies of documents housed in the archives or the college library, and his broad knowledge of Norwegian-American literature and his familiarity with the Norwegian press proved at other times of real value to the work of editing and writing.

The books published by the association are sent out from Northfield by the secretary. It is also the secretary's duty to advertise the books and to attend to the matter of review copies. A typical Rølvaag letter after 1926 reads:

We have been very busy this last week. I have just sent out 46 review copies of the Rynning book and also written a personal letter to each prospective reviewer, asking not only for the review but also for a copy of it. I also made a list of city libraries and another of college and university libraries, both lists totaling about eighty. I have written a personal letter to the librarians, calling attention to our two publications, quoting prices, and giving contents. . . . This is an experiment. {52}

His method of working is interesting: "Today at three o'clock the [Gjerset] book [Norwegian Sailors on the Great Lakes] came. Fifteen minutes after six we had 600 copies in the mail; the rest we shall send tomorrow." {53}

Rølvaag's love of the song and ballad led him strongly to encourage the publication of an anthology of emigrant songs. His interest was first aroused when Dr. Martin B. Ruud of the University of Minnesota in 1927 contributed an article titled "Norwegian Emigrant Songs" to volume 2 of Studies and Records. {54} "Some of the songs which belong to a later period contain real poetry," he wrote. "Even I must confess to the sin of having perpetrated such songs." {55} Rølvaag felt that in songs, as in no other form of art, the deeper feelings of a people are brought to the surface. He also sensed their value as raw material for the novelist and as grist for the historian's mill.

Dr. Blegen devoted the academic year 1928-29 to a search for materials relating to Norwegian emigration. A Guggenheim fellowship enabled him to spend considerable time in the archives of Norway, where his eye fell upon many songs supplementing those printed in the Norwegian newspapers of America. Even before returning to the United States, he proposed that the association publish a collection of these songs in English translation together with sketches giving their historical setting. Rølvaag enthusiastically endorsed the plan. "A volume of such emigrant songs is something altogether new in all literature," he wrote to his friend Osland. "It would have, along with its scholarly content, a strong' popular appeal.'" {56}

In the late summer of 1929 a friend, who wished his name to remain a secret, made a gift of two thousand dollars to the association to be used in publishing the materials collected by Dr. Blegen in Norway, with the stipulations, however, that the money be spent only for printing and other publishing expenses and that the association receive full credit for the publication. The generous donor was opposed to using the money for a volume of the emigrant songs, which, he argued, lacked rhyme and cadence in translation. He was eager, however, to have the money used to publish Blegen's historical study of Norwegian migration to the United States. {57} Rølvaag was asked by the anonymous friend to serve as intermediary with Dr. Blegen, who had recently returned to St. Paul. {58}

While Rølvaag was disappointed over the failure to publish the emigrant songs, {59} he was happy over the prospect of sponsoring a comprehensive study of Norwegian migration. His tactfulness and fine understanding while communicating with donor and managing editor no doubt contributed to the agreement that the two thousand dollars should be used to publish Dr. Blegen's study of migration; if any funds then remained, they were to be used for a volume of Civil War letters by Colonel Heg. {60}


In one other respect Rølvaag contributed mightily to the association's growth. By writing regularly to the newspaper press --- particularly to the Norwegian-American papers --- he kept the association constantly before the eyes of the public. Whether his letters to the press caused any considerable increase in membership is a matter for conjecture; but it is certain that no regular subscriber to a Norwegian newspaper during these years was left in ignorance of the association's existence.

Reports of meetings and publications normally make for dull reading. Rølvaag's articles, however, were never mere reports. Carefully written, they were also charged with liberal potions of his enthusiasm and they bristled with challenge. They constitute sources for a study of Rølvaag's intellectual outlook during his last years.

In addition to the article quoted above --- which explains why he was a member of the association --- perhaps the most important of Rølvaag's contributions to the Norwegian press was a letter written only a few weeks before his death. This article filled nearly four columns on the front page of Minneapolis tidende. {61} It reported a meeting of the executive board in Madison, Wisconsin, on September 31, 1931, but its significance lies in the fact that it presents a point of view or philosophy that characterized the secretary's entire service to the association. The active contributors to the work of this organization are all men engaged in business, teaching, banking, and other professions. They receive no remuneration for their work except the satisfaction that results from work well done. To Rølvaag there was something heroic in this; like Brand, in Ibsen's great drama by the same name, they performed the impossible and asked nothing in return. The article reads in part:

If a little satisfaction did not come of it, all work of an idealistic nature would quite naturally stop. As a rule it certainly does not pay in dollars and cents to be a researcher or collector. The inventor suffers from a mild form of madness, and so does the student. A man like Dr. Blegen works for years on a study of Norwegian migration to the United States. He knows in advance that he can earn nothing by it; if he is lucky, he can at best win the praise of a few. That is all. All the same he perseveres, night after night, year in and year out. He digs his way through dusty mountains of newspapers, archive collections, libraries, piles of old letters. At last he develops a sixth sense; he gets from his sources what others before him had not found. And now the first volume is finished --- a work stylistically unpretentious, but so packed with truth that the reader unconsciously feels that here he has firm ground under his feet. What good is accomplished by such a work? Measured in terms of silver and gold, no earthly good. But in an American historical periodical the other day I found the following comment on Professor Blegen's work:

"We believe that no national group that has moved from Europe to America in the nineteenth century has found an historian who has dealt more adequately with the causes, facts and results of its transfer than Dr. Blegen, and that his book is epoch-making in its thoroughness and comprehensiveness."
And our anonymous friend who gave the association a sum of two thousand dollars. . . . is also naturally a little queer. But I have never seen "madness" come at a more opportune time. The book could not have been published were it not for that gift. All the members now have a copy. . . .

Down in Decorah Dr. Gjerset fusses around assembling something he calls a museum. Nothing but old junk, the whole lot of it. . . . Now Gjerset is going to Rochester, New York, to tear down an old house built in 1827, cart it to Decorah, and set it up again there. Obviously the man is crazy!. . . . But it is funny with that madness of his; what seems on the one hand sheer insanity can become, on the other hand, the greatest wisdom. Now the museum is becoming something worth looking at. People travel some distance to visit it; last summer the number who had been to see it was over seven thousand.

While Rølvaag's articles were most numerous in the Norwegian-American press, they were not limited to this agency. His contributions found their way into the Lutheran World Almanac, the German Minerva, our English papers, and the newspapers of Norway. While representing his college at the Ibsen festivities held during March, 1928, in Norway, he succeeded in getting a two-column spread on the front page of Aftenposten, a conservative paper in Oslo. This article gives an account of an interview in which Rølvaag tells of the association; its caption reads, "Who possess old America letters?" {62} The energetic secretary, at Osland's request, also contributed an interesting article to the Norwegian-American Technical Journal, {63} which was widely read by engineers and architects. The closing paragraph of the article might well be cited as an epitome of Rølvaag's journalistic efforts: "No, indeed --- there is no end to what must be done. Yet we are simple-minded enough to believe that it can be accomplished. For it must be done lest we perish among men!"


During the last months of his life Rølvaag battled against unrelenting sickness. In the spring of 1931 he retired from his position as chairman of the department of Norwegian at St. Olaf, but in June he agreed to accept a position as college archivist. Writing to Dr. Blegen, he explained, "As soon as I come near a desk to look at work, my knees begin to shake; the head is even worse." {64} It was clear that his days of service and sacrifice were drawing to a close.

But sheer force of will drove him on to work, especially in the archives. Friends who worried about his health and urged him to refrain from long hours among dusty records were told that the work must be done. He was encouraged in his labors by the publication in June of Dr. Blegen's Norwegian Migration to America. To the author he wrote:

The truck arrived here from Minneapolis at 3 P.M. yesterday and today at 4 P. M. we had every copy except the exchanges in the mail. Thompson had all the addresses ready, I had my boy and my girl with me, and the work went on at good speed. I feel so good about this volume that I could not possibly have felt better if I myself had been the author. Certainly it is a feather in our cap to be able to send it out. {65}

Considerable time was given by Rølvaag to publicity connected with this volume. His last weeks of activity in the association, ironically, like the first, were taken up with menial tasks. To Osland he wrote:

The more I am with the association the greater seems the work we have to do; it is difficult work and it is hard to overcome the obstacles, but there is something about it that entices. I was just promised a couple of hundred volumes for the archives that we do not have. . . . But what a world of work! I write letters until I can no longer see. {66}

Rølvaag was eager that the meeting of the executive board at Madison on September 21 should be a success. His letters reveal a presentiment that the end was near. He drew closer to the two men in Decorah who had been with him in 1925 in founding the association. "I think this meeting could be a little extra," he wrote to Prestgard, "and so you should really take part. . . . My health is bad; I only drag myself around; all the same I am happy over each day I am permitted to be with you." {67} A few days later he was discouraged and reported: "I have had a bad attack of my old heart disease; the only thing that kept me alive was morphine. For a week and a half I have not been allowed to come down from my room. It has been a bad session but now I am coming out of it again." {68} He rallied from this attack and on September 10 wrote again to Prestgard insisting that Gjerset come along to Madison. "It is he who deserves the greatest thanks for getting the association started. . . . and we need him there."

Rølvaag and Thompson drove by automobile to the Wisconsin capital. It was their plan to go "either by Decorah and pick up Gjerset or else go by Eau Claire and take Ager with us." {69} In the end they decided on the latter course, stopping overnight with Waldemar Ager, just as Gjerset, Prestgard, and Rølvaag had done in 1925. Rølvaag took an active part in the discussions on September 21, and his official report to the board was slightly more buoyant than usual. It is clear that he, who had always enjoyed the company of friends in a common cause, husbanded his last reserve of strength for the trip to Madison.

The depression which began in the fall of 1929 caused a serious drop in membership and sorely tested the courage of the association's officers. To Rølvaag it was a challenge that had to be met with all the idealism at his command. His secretarial report breathes the same spirit of hope and optimism that characterized his speeches at earlier meetings. His toast at the evening banquet, which was given by the Ygdrasil Society of Madison, was brief and informal:

Our accomplishments this year have surpassed what even the most sanguine of us have dared to hope. No doubt, the past twelve months will stand out as the banner year in the history of our organization. Our archival collection of Norwegia-Americana has been increased 684 titles to 1,314. Our permanent fund has been augmented, in spite of hard times, by one thousand dollars. . . . Professor Gjerset's work Norwegian Sailors in American Waters. . . . is, I understand, ready for the editor. I cannot refrain from saying a few words about Professor Blegen's history. . . . In my judgment it is a stupendous piece of work. . . . We can never fully express our gratitude to our anonymous friend whose generous gift of $2,000 made the publishing of this volume by us possible. . . . I say --- Skaal for genuine idealisme! Never has the world needed it more than just now!

Rølvaag's last significant effort in behalf of the association was the preparation of a report of the Madison meeting --- quoted above --- which he wrote for the Norwegian newspapers. On the afternoon of November 5, 1931, he died --- apparently without a struggle. His working days were over.

Judged by modern seminar standards, Rølvaag was no historian. His theories concerning history and its role in contemporary life properly belong to the early nineteenth century. And in fact he contributed not a word to the association's publications. But instinctively --- one might almost say emotionally --- he sensed the importance of his people's migration to the New World. He understood what many seemingly cannot grasp: that American life has been enriched by the immigration of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His chief concern was, of course, with the Norwegian element of which he was a part, but the ramifications of his interest reach out to include all the races that today comprise the American population.

In Rølvaag's eyes the Norwegian-American Historical Association had a responsibility both to the American public at large and to its own group. The evolving culture of the United States, he felt, would be served best if the Norwegians became articulate and recorded their varied experiences in the New World. By organizing to make their history known, the Norwegians would at the same time root themselves more deeply in American soil and add to the heritage of generations to come. To the end that the association should achieve positive results, Rølvaag dedicated a major part of his last years. The prestige of his name, his boundless enthusiasm, and his intuitive grasp of realities contributed greatly to the present strength of the organization which he served with courage and understanding.


<1> Birger Osland to Rølvaag, May 20, 1926.

<2> For a detailed discussion and analysis of Rølvaag's literary activity see Theodore Jorgenson and Nora O. Solum, Ole Edvart Rølvaag, a Biography (New York, 1939).

<3> See "En sag sore bør overveies, skal bygdelagene bygge ved Universitet i Minnesota?" in Skandinaven, January 21, 1914.

<4> A. A. Veblen of Los Angeles wrote to Rølvaag on October 4, 1930: "I failed to possess your confidence to the extent that we might have cooperated in 1914. Possibly thus the Historical Association might have dated from that year."

<5> Dr. H. T. Haerem of Story City, Iowa, for example, wrote on March 13 congratulating Rølvaag on his "energetic work for the Historical Association."

<6> See D. G. Ristad, "The Norwegian-American Historical Association," in Studies and Records, 1:147-151 (Minneapolis, 1926).

<7> "De der vest og vi her øst," in Tidens tegn (Oslo), March 22, 1924; "Hvorledes St. Olaf blev til," in Skandinaven, May 23, 1925; "St. Olaf College i fortid og nutid," in Reform (Eau Claire), May 28, 1925; "St. Olaf College i Northfield Minnesota," in Urd (Oslo), no. 28, 1925.

<8>August 10, 1925.

<9> August 17, 1925.

<10> August 22, 1925.

<11> This view was recently confirmed by Mr. Prestgard.

<12> This information was volunteered by Professor Thompson.

<13> November 13, 1925.

<14> "Hvorfor jeg er medlem af historielaget," in Decorah-posten, March 16, 1926; also in Familiens magasin, vol. 37, no. 6, p. 6 (April, 1926).

<15> This information was given by Professor Thompson, whose work as financial secretary kept him in almost daily contact with Rølvaag.

<16> Decorah-posten, November 10, 1925; Minneapolis tidende, November 19, 1925.

<17> To the president, Pastor Ristad, and to Mr. Prestgard he wrote in a racy Norwegian. His letters to Osland, usually in Norwegian, and those to Dr. Blegen, in English, are also informal. Unfortunately many of the letters are undated.

<18> To Ristad, undated.

<19> To Blegen, November 11 and November 20, 1925.

<20> To Osland.

<21> To Osland, received August 2, 1926.

<22> June 9, 1927.

<23> To Osland, December 2, 1927.

<24> In his report to the second triennial meeting held at Minneapolis on January 7, 1930, Rølvaag said: "Experience has taught us that we cannot use high-pressure salesmanship in enlisting members. . . . What we need are members who see our cause and our problems and who are willing to work with us and for us."

<25> To Osland, January 20, 1928. The reader should bear in mind that Rølvaag was liberally supported in the membership drives by the other officers and the regional vice-presidents. Two field representatives were also employed.

<26> October 29, 1928.

<27> To Rølvaag, October 30, 1928.

<28> December 30, 1929.

<29> March 3, 1926.

<30> February 24, 1926. The Sir Karl-Rølvaag correspondence was carried on in Norwegian with the exception of several dictated letters by Sir Karl.

<31> The story of Sir Karl's visits to the Northwest and his subsequent relations with men like Rølvaag, Prestgard, Gjerset, Blegen, Magnus Swenson, and others merits the attention of some interested student.

<32> To Rølvaag, June 2 and August 20, 1926.

<33> November 26, 1926.

<34> For a discussion of the life and works of Magnus Swenson, see Olaf Hougen, "Magnus Swenson, Inventor and Chemical Engineer," in Studies and Records, 10:152-175 (Northfield, 1938).

<35> August 26, 1929.

<36> To Rølvaag, November 19, 1929.

<37> To Ristad, November 22, 1929.

<38> To Rølvaag, February 5, 1930.

<39> To Ristad, undated, 1925.

<40> To Ristad, April 10, 1926.

<41> To Osland, January, 1927.

<42> To Osland, September 9, 1929.

<43> To Prestgard, written from Biloxi, December 30, 1929.

<44> September 29, 1930.

<45> Undated, probably April, 1926.

<46> April 15, 1926.

<47> To the Reverend Johannes Høifjeld, October 31, 1930.

<48> A collection made by A. A. Rowberg of Northfield, Minnesota.

<49> December 5, 1930.

<50> December 29, 1930. In his report to the triennial meeting, January 7, 1930, Rølvaag announced that he had "catalogued and filed some over three hundred titles, mostly books, pamphlets, and magazine articles. We have received a few old protocols, a few reprinted manuscripts, some old documents and letters, and a few old photographs and pictures."

<51> August 10, 1926.

<52> To Blegen, January 22, 1927.

<53> To Osland, January 4, 1928.

<54> P. 1-19.

<55> To Blegen, September 8, 1927.

<56> September 2, 1929.

<57> Later published by the association as Norwegian Migration to America, 1825- 1860 (Northfield, 1981).

<58> To Blegen, August 15 and December 7, 1929.

<59> These were later published, under the title Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads, by the University of Minnesota Press, 1936. Mr. Blegen and Mr. Ruud co-operated in the work of editing and translating, and Professor Gunnar J. Malmin harmonized the melodies of eleven of the songs.

<60> Published by the association in 1936 as The Civil War Letters of Colonel Hans Christian Heg. This volume was edited by Dr. Blegen.

<61> October 8, 1931; also printed ill Reform, October 22, 1931; and in Sønner af Norge, November, 1931.

<62> March 2, 1928.

<63> Vol. 1, no. 1, p. 15 (February, 1928).

<64> May 25, 1931.

<65> To Blegen, June 24, 1931.

<66> July 18, 1931.

<67> Undated, probably late August, 1931. Prestgard attended the meeting; Gjerset did not.

<68> To Prestgard, August 29, 1931.

<69> To Blegen, September 4, 1931.

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