In my early years in Chicago, Norway's national holiday, the Seventeenth of May, was usually celebrated in Kuhn's Park at Armitage and Milwaukee avenues. Milwaukee Avenue shared with Indiana Street (now Grand Avenue) the distinction of being the "Norwegian" street of Chicago. A parade would start at Scandia Hall, where members of the Knights of the White Cross (Riddere af der Hvide Kors) and of all other Norwegian societies gathered, and would march for two miles along Milwaukee Avenue to the park. At the head of the parade rode two marshals, whose high office was indicated by broad red silk bands across their shirt bosoms. Next came Mathiesen's band, composed of a dozen brasses and a bass drum. The latter was played by Emil Biorn. The very first time I was present, on May 17, 1889, I marched on the sidewalk, since I was not a member of any of the societies whose members wore badges and regalia. The old familiar Norwegian melodies played by the band stirred in me sweet recollections of home and childhood days, which I am convinced were shared by all the others.
In 1896 my good friend Ole A. Thorp, who was a leader both in business and among the Norwegian societies, invited me to deliver the speech of the day at the Seventeenth of May celebration in Kuhn's Park. Thorp was one of the successful and very able Norwegian Americans of his day. He had a large and prosperous importing and exporting business, with offices in the downtown district of Chicago. He was a man of culture who later served as a member of Chicago's board of education.
My Seventeenth of May speech was my first effort of the kind before such a large assembly. For weeks beforehand I rehearsed my speech, and I believe my good wife could have delivered it as accurately as I did. I also invested in a new frock coat. I think the speech was a tolerable success. Twenty-six years later in Salt Lake City, where I was addressing a meeting of Scandinavian Mormons on Norwegian history, an old gentleman walked up to me, stretched out his hand, and shook mine vigorously. "Birger," he said with a friendly smile, "I am so glad to see you again. The last time I heard you speak was in Kuhn's Park in Chicago in 1896." I could not recollect him, but I did my very best to conceal that fact in appreciation of his good memory.
After the Arne Garborg Club ceased to exist in 1895 or 1896, I became one of the twelve active members of the Norwegian Quartet Club. The club's male chorus was composed of its active members. The club was regarded as the elite organization of the Norwegians of Chicago. It had a large number of passive members, including some of the leading business and professional men of Norwegian blood in the community. There were also a few Swedes and Danes, who had joined some years earlier when the club was known as the Scandinavian Quartet Club. When singing in public, the members always were attired in full dress, a custom which most other singing societies have since adopted. At the annual banquet and ball held each January, which always was attended by the Norwegian society folk of Chicago, silk hats and white gloves were obligatory for the men and evening gowns for the ladies. The ball started with a stately polonaise led by the president of the club and his wife. The high point of the evening was reached later when all the members and guests formed a square and danced the francaise, a formal ceremonious dance full of bows and curtsies which we had learned in childhood days in Norway. For the annual banquet an eight-page paper called Putriare, filled with gibes and friendly digs at fellow members, was published.
The late Emil Biorn, an artist and a musician, was the instructor and leader of the chorus for a great many years. One year a member suggested that we were slipping in our trills and harmonies because Biorn had become "too much of a pal." Consequently, a new instructor, Alfred Paulsen, a considerably older man and a fine musician and composer was engaged. He composed the melody of Naar fjordene blaaner, one of the very few Norwegian-American compositions recognized in Norway as of high merit. This song is now often heard at concerts in the Scandinavian countries. Paulsen had received most of his musical education in Germany. I am not certain that our singing was much improved in technique and quality under the new instructor, but we had good times just the same at our monthly meetings, which were held in turn in the homes of the active members and which only active members and their wives were allowed to attend.
In the early days of the Scandinavian Quartet Club, it adopted a beautiful medal, specially designed in close imitation of the medals of royal orders, such as the Norwegian St. Olaf. The club's medal bore a design with the letters "S.Q.C." and it was hung on a lavender silk ribbon. The mere "knights," one of whom I became, wore the medal on the left coat breast, but the "commanders" wore it on a ribbon around the neck. The "grand cross" of the order, the acme and apex of all glory, was worn on the left hip, where it hung on a broad lavender band that was swung across the shirt bosom from the right shoulder.
In 1911 the Norwegian Quartet Club was beginning to feel its age. A few men had been the active leaders since 1890. The annual banquets in January were losing some of their social prestige, as death removed one after another of the prominent old Norwegians who lent them luster. Times were changing, and a new generation, more American, was stepping into the shoes of the old leaders.
In the meantime, another social club called Den Norske Klub, or the Norwegian Club, was founded in 1905. Its membership consisted largely of young men who were graduates of Norwegian technical schools. They had arrived in more recent years to seek their fortunes in the United States. Both this and the Quartet Club had programs aiming at sociability and good fellowship, which were sufficient justification for their existence, especially for young men without families. In 1911 the two clubs decided to merge. The membership of both had dwindled considerably. Many engineers who were members of the newer organization gradually scattered all over the country, settling wherever they were able to obtain jobs in their profession, and not a few had returned to Norway.
The new club was named the Chicago Norske Klub. The Norwegian Quartet Club had never owned or rented club rooms, and the Norwegian Club had held its meetings in a hall rented for each meeting. At the time of merging, the combined membership of the two clubs numbered about a hundred. Suitable quarters were found at the corner of Milwaukee and Kedzie avenues, near Logan Square, where a Norwegian restaurateur and saloonkeeper built a second story on his house with rooms arranged according to plans approved by the club. The Chicago Norske Klub took over these premises on May 1, 1912.
The arrangement worked very well for a few years, but in 1915 and 1916 the membership again was decreasing alarmingly. Marius Kirkeby, an able businessman of ripe experience, was president of the club in 1916. He conferred with me several times about the future of the club. We were anxious to have a modern Norwegian club in Chicago. There were first-class Swedish, Danish, and German clubs, so why not a Norwegian club? Kirkeby agreed with me that our club should build its own house, so arranged that the organization might derive a maximum of income from rentals of a hall and restaurant entirely separate from the clubrooms.
The upshot of our discussions was that an executive committee, consisting of Oscar H. Haugan, P. W. Stuhr, who also was chairman of the finance committee, and myself, was appointed. I was drafted as chairman. We had fair times in 1916, and the committee finished its task sooner than anyone might have expected. Judging by the letters it sent to members, the committee must have taken its task seriously and to have expected others to do likewise. The World War had been raging for two years when it began its work, and that may account for the aggressive sound of a circular letter sent to the members of the club by the executive committee. It read:
Our members took second mortgage bonds amounting to $15,000, and we obtained a first mortgage loan of $12,000 at the State Bank of Chicago. The next hurdle was to agree on a location for the new club building. For a time it seemed impossible to come to an agreement. As a last resort, the committee authorized its chairman to buy a vacant lot on Kedzie Boulevard in his own name and then offer to sell it to the club without profit. The offer was accepted with one opposing vote, and the clubhouse was built and officially dedicated on July 4, 1917.
I was elected president for the year 1917, receiving all votes but one. The membership of the club grew to 276 in a short time. At first the annual dues were set at fifty dollars, but they were reduced to thirty-three dollars some years ago. In 1939 the club had a hundred and forty-two resident and twenty nonresident members. Its finances are still in very satisfactory order, in spite of large outlays for maintenance and improvements recently finished.
During the first few years after the new clubhouse was occupied, the members engaged in many useful activities that they have since ceased for one reason or another. As late as 1922 the organization had a male chorus conducted by O. Rye, an orchestra conducted by Emil Biorn, and an athletic club fostered by Dr. S. Nannestad. There was also a chess club which flourished for some years. For seven years the club sponsored annual exhibits of paintings and sculpture by Norwegian-American artists. These exhibits were well patronized both by artists and by the public and served a practical purpose in affording a market for young artists who were little known. The club received a commission of fifteen per cent on sales. A dramatic society was formed, consisting of amateurs, but enjoying the leadership of members who were experienced and capable instructors. Plays were presented in the main hall of the clubhouse, which provided stage and dressing rooms and had a seating capacity of two hundred. Norwegian plays were given almost exclusively until recent years, when a younger element has tried American plays with success.
In 1917 the club proposed and sponsored a very successful congress of Norwegian-American engineers and architects, which met in its building. It was the first meeting of its kind held in the United States, and the attendance from all parts of the country and Canada was very satisfactory. On this occasion the city engineer of San Antonio, Texas, met an old schoolmate who was chief engineer of a western railroad and whom he had not seen since they attended school together forty years earlier; a bridge engineer from St. Paul, Minnesota, met an old friend occupying the same position in Chicago; the mayor of Phoenix, Arizona, who was an architect by profession, met another architect from Florida. These men were all born in Norway and had received most of their technical education there. In 1927 a similar convention sponsored by the Norwegian-American Technical Society of Chicago was held, likewise at the Chicago Norske Klub.
Famous visitors to the club have been many. Shortly after the World War, General Leonard Wood was the principal speaker at a banquet in honor of returned soldiers who were members. A bronze memorial plate containing the names of forty-six members and sons of members who served in the United States forces during the war was dedicated on this occasion and occupies a place of honor on the wall of the main clubroom. On other occasions, Miss Jane Addams discussed social problems, and Charles H. Wacker gave an illustrated lecture on the "Chicago Beautiful" plan. Visitors from foreign lands include Queen Marie of Rumania, her son Prince Nicholas, and her daughter Princess Ileana; Crown Prince Olay and Crown Princess Märtha of Norway; Fridtjof Nansen; Roald Amundsen; Carl J. Hambro, president of the Storting; and many lesser lights.
A ladies' auxiliary, composed of wives of members, has aided much in beautifying the club and maintaining its activities on a high level. This organization elects its own officers and has its own meetings. The ladies are welcome in the clubrooms at all times except Friday evenings, when inveterate cardplayers insist on having a "men's night." The losses and gains taken on these nights are so very moderate that a desire to hide them from thc women cannot be the motive for leaving them at home; more likely both men and women want a vacation.
The language question -- whether English or Norwegian should be the official language of the club -- has at times been the cause of heated discussion. A former staunch upholder of Norwegian who now prefers English told me recently that it takes ten years to change the ideas of newcomers on the language question. I believe he is right and that it is futile to argue a question based on deep sentiment. Time will take care of it.
During my period of service as president, the language question flared up. Many of the club's new members were born in the United States and insisted at least on full equality for the two languages. We sent to all members a circular letter, favoring English, and calling a meeting for December 20, 1917, at which they would be given an opportunity to vote upon the issue. It read, in part, as follows:
We particularly call the attention of every member to the fact that, at present, the laws of the Club are printed in Norwegian and that its official language is Norwegian and that no man who does not talk and write the Norwegian language can be elected to the presidency or secretaryship of the Club. This, in our opinion, is unjust to the large membership who, born in this country and permanently located here, are very much interested in the welfare of the Club.
We also believe, as American citizens, that we cannot afford thus officially to place the language of our country below a foreign language, even if that language is the language of our beloved mother country in Europe. It possibly is merely an oversight that such a law has been allowed to stand.
However, it will not be possible to change this unless every member interested in the Club and in this matter will meet at the Club House on Thursday, December twentieth, at 8 o'clock P.M . as it will take a two-third majority to change this paragraph.
The letter was signed by sixteen members, five of whom were born in the United States, and the rest of whom had lived there many years. But the letter did not work. The opposition was stirred as never before, and it had enough votes at the meeting to prevent the two-thirds majority required for the change.
About 1910 I was invited to become a member of a Norwegian-American political organization called the Dovre Club. This club differed from other political organizations in that its membership was not restricted to residents of any particular city ward, but to persons of Norwegian birth or descent. The Swedes have a similar organization called the John Ericsson Club. Its membership covers the entire state of Illinois, but the Dovre Club membership was confined to the municipality of Chicago. There are in Chicago, Polish, Irish, and Italian organizations of a more social and churchly character which, incidentally, have great influence in the community, but I know of only these two Scandinavian organizations, outside of ward clubs, with an exclusively political program. When the dub was first organized, it adopted the following introduction or preamble to its constitution:
The name of this organization shall be Dovre Club. The object of this club shall be to uphold American ideals in order to stimulate patriotism and advance the cause of good citizenship; to inculcate the political principles on which the Republican Party is founded; to interest in political matters, all citizens, especially those of Norwegian birth or descent residing in the city of Chicago; to assist in procuring the privileges of citizenship to those not yet naturalized and in general, to work for the betterment of the body politic through the agency of the Republican Party and its principles.
During its lifetime of some twenty years the Dovre Club enjoyed considerable prestige and some influence, particularly in the Norwegian wards of the city. The John Ericsson Club, which is named for the Swedish engineer who invented the "Monitor" of naval fame, had more influence than the Dovre Club in Illinois polities because the Swedish population both of Chicago and of the state is now much larger than the Norwegian. According to the United States census of 1930, there were then in Chicago 140,913 foreign-born Swedes and 52,708 Norwegians.
When I joined the Dovre Club, its leaders were Louis B. Bergersen and Borger O. Borgerson. Bergersen, an attorney, was employed as office manager of the patent medicine firm of Peter Fahrney and Company, and Borgerson was superintendent of a large lithographing company. Both were young men of high ideals who strove seriously to make the Dovre Club an influence for good in city, county, and state politics. Around them was gathered a band of enthusiastic men who were willing to sacrifice both time and money to further the work of the club. They often gathered at a member's home and worked most of the night addressing envelopes and folding letters or circulars. Bergersen was the true inspiration of the club during his lifetime. He had studied law, though he never practiced it, and he possessed tact and good common sense. He was also ready to set a good example in making contributions to the club's fund. There were no dues, and expenses had to be met by voluntary gifts, most of which came from the pockets of the directors.
In 1919 I was elected president of the Dovre Club and served for four terms. In order to give an authentic picture of the club and its activities, I shall quote from two circulars and two personal letters that were sent out during my service as its president. The first, dated April 5, 1920, reads as follows:
I signed the letter as president, and it bore also the signatures of eight other officers and of a dozen or more members.
A letter of congratulation was addressed on November 8, 1920, to William B. McKinley of Champaign, senator-elect from Illinois. It informed him "that in the portion of this city which is most thickly populated by Norwegian Americans,'' he "ran ahead of the presidential candidate" in the number of votes. After presenting figures to show the vote for president and for senator in the wards having large Norwegian populations, the letter concluded: "It is needless for me to say to you that Dovre Club has no other interest in this election, than to help to elect first class men, and it has given us a great deal of pleasure to have had the privilege of working for your election."
As president of the Dovre Club I sent the following letter, dated March 28, 1921, to the Honorable Holm O. Bursum of Socorro, New Mexico, a Norwegian American born in Wisconsin, after his election to the Senate:
I am instructed by Dovre Republican Club, which is the only Norwegian-American political organization in Illinois, to congratulate you upon your new high office as United States Senator.
We are proud of your career as Americans, as well as Norwegians, and we wish you much success and many happy years.
It would please Dovre Club very much if you could arrange to speak to its members (about 5000) when going to Washington, and I may say to you that we can assure you of a splendid audience. You might choose your own subject to speak on and one that has something to do with our nationality in America; telling us what we should work for, would be particularly welcome.
I may state to you that men like Senator A. J. Grønna of North Dakota, and others, have spoken before our Club.
On May 31, 1921, the club sent out a circular endorsing certain candidates in a judicial election to be held on June 6. Its text follows:
The Executive Committee of Dovre Club recommended to the members for endorsement all the 10 present Republican Judges and also three present Democratic judges, whose names all appear on the coalition (or Democratic) ticket, which is the ticket endorsed by all Republicans, outside the so-called City Hall or Thompson faction. In addition, there was recommended seven candidates whose names appear on the Republican ticket, because they were, personally, considered better qualified to serve as judges than the remaining seven Democrats, nominated on the coalition (or Democratic) ticket.
Postal cards for voting were sent to all members of Dovre club and the recommendation
of the Executive Committee was approved by a large majority of the members voting, as
follows (by percentages):
Enclosed please find card showing by crosses in squares in front of each name which candidates have thus been endorsed by Dovre Club. Take this card with you in the voting booth on Monday, June 6th, and mark your ballot accordingly. Get your family and friends to do likewise. Let us pull together for safety and justice. Do not vote a straight ticket. Pick your men. Good men stand for good principles.
The Dovre Club usually held only one general meeting for all members each year for the election of officers and directors, except during political campaigns, when one or more mass meetings might be held. These were held in some hall near Logan Square, in the neighborhood where most of the Norwegian Americans lived in the early decades of the present century. Some of the mass meetings were very well attended and were addressed by United States senators, congressmen, or men prominent in the state and city governments. One year a great mass meeting, held in Wicker Park Hall, was addressed by Senator Asle J. Grønna of North Dakota, who spoke on the plight of the farmer. In city politics the club gradually became identified to some extent with the so-called Brundage faction of the Republican party. This was during the period when "Big Bill" Thompson as mayor was opposed vigorously by the late Attorney General Edward J. Brundage.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the Dovre Club made a deep impression upon Chicago politics. But it repeatedly refused offers from factions of the Republican party of positions and emoluments in return for espousing candidates who were not acceptable to the members. Once the club put up its own candidate, Oscar M. Lumby, for a seat in the state legislature. Though he was not elected, he polled a large number of votes in his district, enough to defeat the candidate the club objected to. In another election Borgerson was accepted as a regular candidate of the Republican party for county commissioner. He won out in the primary election very nicely, but was defeated in the finals by a small margin. In my opinion, his defeat was caused by the fact that he allowed himself to be persuaded during the campaign to speak in favor of candidates supported by the Thompson faction, thus incurring the active opposition of the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Tribune, powerful papers which had supported him in the primaries. A former president of the club, John P. Hovland, was appointed West Park commissioner at the request of the club. Congressman M. A. Michaelson, born in Christiansand, Norway, represented the seventh Congressional district for two terms. He had served on the Chicago city council as floor leader for Mayor Thompson. Owing to Michaelson's connections with Thompson and other political leaders whom the Dovre Club invariably opposed, the club never endorsed him as a candidate in the primaries, in spite of his Norwegian nationality. The congressman, a man of considerable force and ability, had been a teacher of manual training in the Chicago schools before entering politics.
When I was elected president of the Dovre Club, one of its first steps was to request the Chicago board of election commissioners to permit me to have copied from the city's registration lists the names of all men and women who had given Norway as their birthplace. The club thus obtained a list of four thousand names in addition to its regular membership list, which rarely exceeded a thousand. We then wrote letters to these people recommending the Republican candidates supported by the club. The cost of sending such a letter was over a hundred dollars, an expense that was paid by members or friends who were sufficiently interested. A leading Republican politician told me that the Dovre Club recommendations of candidates were found in the voting booths of most of the city wards.
As in most such political groups, interest in the activities of the Dovre Club gradually waned. Its idealistic aims were not generally enough supported as against the spirit of what is called "practical politics," and after some years of waning life and influence, the club folded up during the severe depression of 1929.
For many years I was a passive member of the Sleipner Athletic Club, which was started by a few young Norwegian immigrants in 1893. This club has the distinction of originating annual ice-skating races in Chicago. The first race, which was held on a large pond in Lincoln Park, created considerable interest among sports-loving people, and annual ice-skating races have since been arranged by the club on a pond in Humboldt Park. They always draw large crowds, sometimes as many as fifty thousand spectators. Chicago city officials have assisted as honorary judges, and business firms and others have contributed valuable prizes for the winners. Today many such races are held in various parks.
In the early years the members were all Norwegians, and the Norwegian language was used exclusively at the business meetings of the club. Later this was changed. There is now no nationality line drawn as to membership, which at one time reached the high-water mark of four hundred. Sleipner was one of the first Norwegian clubs in Chicago to own its own meetinghouse and gymnasium. Today the membership has dwindled to about two hundred, half of whom are not required to pay dues because of a curious rule, adopted when the members were young, that "all members having paid dues regularly for fifteen years shall thenceforth pay dues no longer, but still remain as members." Some years ago the club sold its first property, which it owned free of debt, and bought more pretentious quarters on which there was a mortgage. This was later foreclosed and the property passed into other hands. But the Sleipner Athletic Club enjoys the distinction of having inaugurated and popularized the sport of ice-skating races in Chicago.
Before closing the subject of Norwegian clubs and societies, I shall describe a recent experience that interested me a great deal. I was asked to deliver a speech at the tenth anniversary banquet of a social club named Stavangeren, composed exclusively of my fellow citizens from Stavanger, Norway. They were young men and women and they had a flourishing club. Of late years it has become unpopular to express any preference for the English language in some of our Norwegian clubs. This is not because of any disloyalty to the language of our country. It is rather that the members of these organizations prefer to hear and speak their native language, which they know better than English. In my address I suggested that the members should study and cultivate the use of the English language at every opportunity. One should continue to cherish the language of one's native land, but not to the extent of overlooking the fact that we live in an English-speaking country. Not for sentimental, but for strictly practical reasons, important to our own future, we should know and use the language of our adopted land.
Five years later I received a letter from a young woman who had listened to my speech. She wrote to me from a city in Ohio and said that in Chicago she had been a cook in a large Norwegian institution. She had reflected on my speech about the English language, had gone to evening school, later to a school for dieticians, and had now obtained a lucrative position in an American club in Ohio. She wrote to thank me. Quite recently a cultured young Norwegian woman, the wife of an editor of a foreign-language paper, spoke to me about the same speech delivered seven years earlier. She also had found that I was right. She had felt the broadening influence of taking a more active part in native American activities.
<1> This is a section of the author's unpublished reminiscences. Ed.