by David T. Nelson (Volume 25: Page 27)
* This contribution has been adapted
from a lecture presented at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, on
September 23, 1969, the last in a series sponsored by the Norwegian-American
Museum. In preparing it, the late David T. Nelson made use of
the official records of the college and museum in Decorah, the
papers of Knut Gjerset, Laurence M. Larson, O. E. Rølvaag,
the Reverend D. G. Ristad, Birger Osland, Kristian Prestgard,
Theodore C. Blegen, Waldemar Ager, and others in the archives
of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, as well as
the minutes of the association.
K. O. B.
KNUT GJERSET was born September 15, 1865, in Romsdal, Norway,
the son of Ole S. Gjerset and Karen Marie Eidem. His father
had attended the Molde School at Molde, Norway, and upon completion
of the course was appointed teacher and precentor for the
district of Frena in Romsdal. There he met and married Karen
Marie Eidem, a widow and the only child and sole heir of her
parents’ patrimony, Eidem. After their marriage, he resigned
his position as teacher and devoted himself to husbandry and
farming. He proceeded to enlarge his wife’s holdings, to construct
drainage ditches, to clear the land of stone, and to bring
the farm under cultivation. He erected a two-story house and
other buildings and increased the herds on the property. He
held various positions of trust in the community and was especially
interested in improving public education.
But progress was slow in Romsdal. The soil was poor and 
the climate unfavorable. Ole began to think about what the
future could offer his children and to study opportunities
in America. Finally he decided to emigrate. In May, 1871,
he and his wife and their five children left for America.
With them was Ole Eidem, then nineteen years old, a son of
Karen Marie by her earlier marriage. The party left Eidem
in wagons, sailed from Bergen to Hull, England, and thence
went by train to Liverpool. There they embarked on the "Peruvian"
of the Allan Line for Quebec, Canada, a voyage of eleven days.
Thence they proceeded by rail to Grand Haven, Michigan, by
steamer to Milwaukee, and by train to La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Here Ole Gjerset became seriously ill. After some weeks of
sickness and convalescence, the family went by steamer to
St. Paul and Minneapolis, then by rail to Meeker County, Minnesota,
where they found shelter with a Swedish settler, Torbom, in
the woods some distance from Litchfield. Soon after, their
daughter Amalia was born.
Ole Gjerset proceeded alone by train to Benson and then southward
on foot to the Big Bend on the Chippewa River in Chippewa
County, where he filed on eighty acres. Rejoining his family
in Litchfield, he took his wife and younger children by train
to Benson, which then consisted of a railroad station and
a few wooden buildings. There he had bought two big-horned
steers, which promptly staged a runaway when first hitched
to a wagon. Ole Eidem and Gjerset’s oldest son Oluf, then
about twelve, were left to drive the steers and the wagon
with Gjerset’s possessions to Benson. The whole party, consisting
of Ole, his wife, Ole Eidem, and children — Oluf, Gurianna,
Søren, Knut, Magnus, and infant Amalia — then set out
with their baggage on the twenty-mile journey to Ole’s claim
on the Big Bend. They found shelter in Nils K. Hagen’s log
cabin and were welcomed by Kari, his wife. Before fall, they
had a house of their own, built of lumber hauled from Benson.
A prairie fire swept by them but spared the house.
Ole Gjerset had nine children, of whom one had died in infancy
in Norway. The three youngest were born in this  country:
Amalia, Albert, and Carolina (who married Professor T. C.
Wollan of Concordia College in 1901). Ole Eidem became a successful
merchant in Watson, Minnesota, where he died at the age of
fifty-six, never having revisted Norway.
The Gjerset family flourished on the Big Bend farm. But the
disasters of the 1870’s hit hard. First came the grasshoppers
in 1873; they did not disappear until 1877. Then followed
rust and the end of wheat farming; many settlers were ruined.
Ole had brought a large chest full of books with him from
Norway. With these and with his love of music, he instructed
his children during long winter evenings. The home became
a school that provided teaching in many useful branches of
knowledge. Mrs. Gjerset insisted on instruction in Christian
doctrine and the gospels. On one dreary October day, she suddenly
picked up one of the children, put him in her lap, caressed
him and stroked his hair, saying: "You will be a student
and you will be very successful. But you must always keep
away from that which is evil. Do not let anything that is
wicked and wrong ruin your career." Are we mistaken in
believing that the child was Knut?
In the church controversy on predestination, Ole S. Gjerset
joined the Anti-Missourians and wrote extensively and well
on the subject, Knut was to say later. For years he taught
school during the summer months for little or no remuneration.
He helped organize the Norwegian Lutheran Synod congregation
in the Big Bend settlement in Kandiyohi County. The Reverend
Lars Markhus served it first and was followed by the Reverend
O. E. Solseth in 1873. Ole S. Gjerset died on January 30,
1902. The Reverend Hjalmar S. Froiland said in his funeral
sermon: "A great man has departed from us. . . .
I never called on him to give spiritual advice. I came to
him to learn, to profit by his superior wisdom and insight."
Knut said years later of his father: "What greatness
he possessed was not of wealth, power, or station in life,
as he possessed none of these; it was rather of influence
due to greatness of mind and strength of character."
In addition to the instruction Knut received at home and
the advantages of having a good library to browse in, he attended
the public schools and Willmar Seminary, Willmar, Minnesota,
from 1884 to 1888. On September 1, 1889, he entered the University
of Minnesota, of which at that time Cyrus Northrop was president.
Knut pursued the literary course in the college of science,
literature, and arts and received the degree of bachelor of
literature on June 1, 1893. His older brother Oluf, later
a Minnesota state senator, was then studying law. Knut’s daughter,
Agnes Gjerset Ingebretson, has observed that her father worked
his way through the university. Evidently he was a serious
student, for the Gopher, an undergraduate publication, used
the following quotation in 1893 to characterize him: "His
mind, his kingdom, and his will, his law." It also noted
on another page that the Gopher board had seen "Gjerset
smile." During his years at the university, there was
no indication that he was greatly interested in Norway and
its people. When he took up graduate study, first at Johns
Hopkins University from 1895 to 1896 and then at Heidelberg
University, Germany, from 1896 to 1898, he was still working
in English literature, as indicated by his doctoral thesis,
"Der Einfluss von James Thomsons Jahreszeiten auf die
deutsche Literatur des achtzenten Jahrhunderts." Most
likely the abiding interest in his people came from his father,
whom he greatly respected.
Following his graduation from the University of Minnesota,
Gjerset was principal of St. Ansgar Academy, St. Ansgar, Iowa,
from 1893 to 1895. Then followed the three years of graduate
work at Johns Hopkins and Heidelberg. On his return to this
country, he was principal of Glenwood Academy at Glenwood,
Minnesota, from 1898 to 1902. Then C. K. Preus, newly elected
president of Luther College, induced him to come to Decorah
as professor of Norwegian and history. Preus granted him a
leave of absence to study at the University of Oslo in 1909-1910,
and at the University of Berlin in 1910.  By this time
he had embarked on his pioneering undertaking, the History
of the Norwegian People. After his return to Luther College
he completed the monumental two-volume work; it was published
by Macmillan in 1915 and twice reprinted. For one year, 1916—1917,
he was president of Park Region Luther College, Fergus Falls,
Minnesota, but thereafter he was on the staff of Luther College
until his death in 1936.
Throughout his long tenure at Luther, Gjerset was an outstanding
teacher. He had the respect of students and faculty members
and was regularly consulted on affairs affecting the college.
His wife was Helen Baumgarten. Mrs. Gjerset loved to dispense
hospitality and their home was frequently open to students
Gjerset’s laborious research and the even more strenuous
task of writing his History of the Norwegian People made heavy
demands on his strong physique and ultimately undermined his
health. Much of the work on the history was done in addition
to a heavy teaching load. Only his will carried him through.
When published, the study attracted immediate attention and
marked Gjerset as an outstanding scholar. He also wrote "A
Norwegian-American Landnamsman: Ole S. Gjerset," which
appeared in volume 3 of Norwegian-American Studies and Records
(1928), and "The Norwegian-American Historical Museum"
for volume 6 (1931) of the same series.
In 1921, Ole Edvart Rølvaag, who by that time was
firmly established at St. Olaf College, offered Gjerset an
appointment as head of the department of Norwegian at his
college. He made a strong personal plea to Gjerset to accept
the post, indicating that he had President Lars W. Boe’s support
in extending the invitation. Despite the friendly relations
between these two strong men — relations which appear never
to have been broken — Gjerset refused the offer. Perhaps he
was exhausted after the physical effort expended on his history;
 perhaps he felt a responsibility to President Preus and
Luther College; perhaps he felt himself completely at home
in the cultural milieu that he found in Decorah centered around
several graduates of the University of Oslo and the established
members of the faculty. In any case, he declined the flattering
offer from St. Olaf College.
Gjerset in 1924 published a one-volume History of Iceland,
a pioneer work on that country. He also collaborated with
Dr. Ludvig Hektoen on an article entitled "Health Conditions
and the Practice of Medicine among the Early Norwegian Settlers,
1825-1865," which appeared in volume 1 of Norwegian-American
Studies and Records (1926) . Much earlier, in 1908, he had
completed an English Grammar. In 1911 he published Brændevinssamla
gene og avholdsarbeidet i Norge. He was assistant editor of
Symra from 1911 to 1914. In 1916 he was made a Knight, first
class, of the Order of St. Olav by the Norwegian government,
and in 1927 he was honored by membership in the Icelandic
Order of the Falcon. Earlier he had been awarded an honorary
doctoral degree by St. Olaf College. He was a member of the
congregation in Chippewa County, Minnesota, from 1871 to 1898,
the one his father had helped to found; of the Norwegian Synod
congregation at Glenwood, Minnesota, from 1898 to 1902; and
thereafter, until his death, of First Lutheran congregation,
As noted above, Gjerset apparently showed little interest
in Norway and its people while at the University of Minnesota.
It is known that he received his best grades in English and
English literature. When he took up graduate study at Heidelberg,
he was still busy with English literature, as his doctoral
thesis shows. In his senior year at Minnesota, he took a full-year
course in the Scandinavian department, possibly from Olaus
J. Breda, who was professor of Scandinavian languages and
literature at Minnesota from 1884 to 1899. But there is nothing
in the records to suggest that Breda had a part in shaping
On the other hand, Gjerset’s work at St. Ansgar Seminary
 from 1893 to 1893 involved him in the activities of a
strong Norwegian settlement founded by the liberal Claus Lauritz
Clausen, who had broken with Synod leaders over the slavery
question. Later, at Glenwood Academy, he was again in a pronounced
Norwegian environment. C. K. Preus at Luther was strongly
devoted to Norway and its language. He was also a staunch
Synod man. With his father, Herman Amberg Preus (for more
than thirty years president of the Norwegian Synod) , he had
had a part in the predestination controversy; over this issue
he and his father had been deposed in 1888 as pastors of the
Norway Grove congregation in the southern part of Wisconsin.
As mentioned earlier, Knut’s father was one of the founders
of the Norway Lake Lutheran congregation. Knut therefore knew
firsthand the bitter doctrinal disputes which split this congregation
wide open and disturbed the community for years. Nothing indicates
that Knut himself took part in any of these controversies;
more likely, they repelled him, for he found nothing constructive
in them. More than once he stated that he was not a party
man — in other words, he did not take sides in arguments that
he felt pulled down rather than built up a cause or community.
In Glenwood he had found a community at peace religiously.
The predestination debate in the church had not divided it.
There also he found some champions of Norwegian culture.
It is quite possible that Gjerset and Preus were on common
ground in their aversion to disputes and controversies that
had led to so much recrimination and sorrow in the church.
He may not have been a dyed-in-the-wool Synod man, but he
came to Decorah at Preus’s urging. There he found himself
in a thoroughly congenial atmosphere. He associated with a
strong nucleus of cultured and well-educated men in the community
in addition to the faculty at Luther College. Among them were
the editors of Decorah-Posten, the most widely circulated
Norwegian newspaper in the country. These men and some of
the teachers at Luther had taken the lead in launching 
Symra, "a magazine for Norsemen on both sides of the
ocean." This was a pioneering venture that antedated
the program of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.
It had no adequate financial backing and relied on the good
will and hard work of its editors and contributors. It is
still a treasure-house for those who love the past. Its articles,
though uneven in quality, remain priceless today.
The predestination controversy had rocked the Norwegian Synod
and had convulsed nearly all the communities in the 1880’s.
Many both in and out of the Synod (which had lost a third
of its membership) were aghast at the havoc wrought and began
to seek ways to repair the damage. Especially the laity sought
to escape from the bitterness of the theological conflict.
So a period of consultations and free conferences followed
in which a way was sought to bring the warring elements together.
Eventually formulas were found which brought about the church
union of 1917, in which the Synod, the United Norwegian Lutheran
Church, and the Haugeans formed one church body. The majority
of Norwegian Americans were thus brought together again. Some
recalled that it would soon be a hundred years since the sloop
"Restauration" had brought the first Norwegians
to this country to begin a flood of modern immigration. There
were stirrings here and there throughout the country. Before
long a movement was started to have a great centennial celebration
in Minneapolis in 1925. Two years earlier Gjerset had taken
charge of disorganized museum materials at Luther College.
He quickly made a collection of them in the old "chicken
coop" on the Luther campus. It received excellent publicity
and attracted much attention.
When the decision was made to have a display of Norwegian-American
artifacts at the Norse-American Centennial in Minneapolis,
Gjerset was made chief director of the project. With his usual
energy he soon created a noteworthy exhibit.  His work
in this position brought him into contact with all facets
of Norwegian-American life. He was tireless in enlisting the
support of those who had interesting articles from the pioneer
period and of those whose work deserved to be more widely
He was not only a central figure in promoting the Centennial,
which President Calvin Coolidge attended to pay a glowing
tribute to the Norwegian Americans; he was also a focal point
for many of the ideas that were generated by this united effort
of Norwegians in this country. A number of prominent men from
the homeland had also come to this country for the event.
The Norwegian-American press was filled with material concerning
Norwegian history, the pioneers, accounts of early immigration,
and ideas as to how to preserve the sense of solidarity between
Norway and the New World. All who had a love for the land
of their origin — all who revered the past and the pioneers
— were stimulated by the celebration.
It is therefore not surprising that a movement was started
to found a society for the preservation of records that ought
not be lost. As early as 1923, Gjerset had written Professor
Laurence M. Larson of the University of Illinois regarding
the possibility of such an association. In his reply on May
21, 1923, Larson endorsed the idea, saying, "It ought
to be possible to interest a sufficient number of men to organize
an historical society."
Professor O. E. Rølvaag of St. Olaf College was greatly
interested and asked permission to place Gjerset’s name on
a circular for a proposed Norwegian-American Historical Society.
Apparently the proposal came at the wrong time or grew out
of efforts with which Gjerset was not in sympathy, for he
answered on September 5, 1924, as follows: "You ask what
I know about the Historical Society? Excuse me for using du,
but I find more comfort in this form. Well, I know exactly
as much as you seem to know. I have seen a couple of articles
in the papers by spokesmen for the cause; and then I have
received the circular. What they have thought to set as the
goal,  who shall be members, how one shall attempt to
accomplish anything — of that I have heard nothing. At any
rate I know so little about the matter that I have not yet
become enthusiastic for the idea. But since I am so far from
the center of things, it can hardly be expected that I should
be better informed. There are, however, certain things I must
become clear over before enthusiasm will burst into flame
in me. Will the society try to establish such conditions among
us that work of a literary sort can be carried on? Or will
it be a kind of royal seat from which commands will issue
to workers loaded down with fatigue and poverty to do even
more work during the night hours? This and much more I would
like to have clarified before I sign the circular. Not before.
It will make no difference whether I sign or not. Here I am,
tired and lonesome, not in the least in the mood to become
"Thank you again for what you say about the museum.
It is a sheer joy to hear anything so forthrightly sensible.
I must ask permission to say that I have never been an egoist,
nor am I a party man in matters of faith, doctrine, or life.
What little I have sought to do I have done because of my
interest in our culture and of love for our people — not because
I live in Decorah. For me personally it would hardly matter
where the museum might happen to be, just so it becomes a
museum. But even this cause has certain practical aspects
and it is not a matter of indifference to the Norwegian people.
There can be a lot of [talk?] about this, too, as if all that
had to be done was to resolve where the museum was to be —
and lo, it would stand there. But it is with this as with
other undertakings in the cultural area. It will require work,
money, time, patience! Diligence year after year! And at last
when after great effort the matter has progressed to the point
where it begins to look like something of a success, then
there is a chorus of voices that it cannot be placed here.
We are to begin over again at a new place. This system, which
has pursued us in all our undertakings, has at any rate this
advantage that nothing of consequence can be accomplished
in any place. 
"But there are other practical considerations to take
into account. Suppose that it should occur to people in Norway
to send an old stabur or an old Norwegian stua with furnishings
to America. Then there would naturally be strong voices urging
that that ‘museum’ should be established in Minneapolis, ‘the
great Norwegian center in America.’ . . . I know Minneapolis
pretty well, but so far I have never discovered that any real
Norwegian culture flourished there. That it is a center we
know. That is to say, the city is a railroad center and a
center of trade, but not a Norwegian center, and it never
will be one.
"And there is one thing more. Consider the artifacts
which must be found in a museum if it is to be a Norwegian
museum. There will be old chests, artifacts of iron made in
the father’s own smithy, materials which the mother has woven,
etc. All these are of such great interest when one understands
the differences to be found in them. But take these artifacts
to a great American city. Let the American public stare at
them, turn up their noses and toss their heads at it all.
What kind of cultural interest has one thus promoted? We have
only done our people and our forefathers an injustice.
"But here in Decorah no one will see it, writes Waldemar
Ager. Now since school closed in June, there have been about
2,000 visitors at the museum here and they have come from
eleven states and Canada. One day there were not less than
160. I wonder if there would have been many more if the museum
were someplace in Minneapolis, for example.
"About the archives I will not say anything. I talk
too much. You know there has been discussion in the papers
about these matters. If you have not had an opportunity to
see the articles, I will send you Decorah-Posten so you can
see what is to be found about the matter.
"Now let me wish you welcome home from your Norway tour.
Naturally, you have had joy and pleasure out of it. Hearty
thanks for writing to me."
Later Gjerset must have had second thoughts about the matter,
for he was one of the group that met at "Troldhaugen,"
 the home of Kristian Prestgard, editor of Decorah-Posten,
in Decorah on July 24, 1925. Their purpose was to discuss
"first and foremost the question of forming an organization
around the Luther College museum and archives for the preservation
and furtherance of Norwegian-American culture. Nine men were
present, joined later by others. Knut Gjerset was elected
chairman and Kristian Prestgard, secretary.
Gjerset, in an introductory statement, said that the museum
had grown beyond the boundaries of one school or one local
institution and was assuming the character of a Norwegian-American
national museum. This development could be furthered by the
contemplated organization. All efforts should be concentrated
on creating one large depository rather than dividing forces
to establish one small museum here and another there. Moreover,
what had already been assembled in Decorah could not now be
duplicated elsewhere even if unlimited funds were available.
He felt that the artifacts, books, and documents present in
Decorah constituted the largest and richest collection for
portraying Norwegian-American culture.
He then developed a thought that he later repeated: In the
Northwest there were three important Norwegian cultural centers
— one in Decorah, one in Northfield at St. Olaf College, and
one in the Twin Cities composed of Luther Seminary, Minneapolis
Tidende, and the Norwegian department of the University of
Minnesota. They were all sprung from the same tree. Work should
begin to establish co-operation among the three branches.
The contemplated society could support similar undertakings
in other places. Practically all of our cultural life outside
the church would thus be included. Such an organization could
also function as the historical association about which there
had been so much talk; it could also provide for the publication
of basic studies, etc. At this time Gjerset thought of St.
Olaf College’s role as that of assembling a rich library of
belles lettres and music; in the Twin Cities there might be
a gallery of Norwegian art. It may be noted that  Gjerset’s
thinking at this moment apparently neglected Wisconsin, especially
Madison, and the Chicago area.
Prestgard supported Gjerset’s proposals and called attention
to contemplated gifts of museum articles from Norway. Gjerset
explained that it was hoped all charter members of the new
society would contribute $10. He also said that there should
be a later meeting for its organization, the adoption of a
constitution, and a more precise formulation of objectives.
The meeting elected Gjerset, Prestgard, and Dr. T. Stabo a
committee to work on the project.
The proposals of the group that met at Prestgard’s house
involved the merging of a historical society and a museum.
In this way the two projects would have united support in
the association to be formed. With the advice and assistance
of the group, Gjerset relates, he spent a part of the summer
traveling about, acquainting leading men with the program,
and securing their opinions concerning the project. Once the
proposals were known, there was of course discussion of the
Rølvaag was not at the meeting in Decorah because
he had not yet returned from Norway, where he had been busy
with I de dage, the first part of Giants in the Earth. On
August 10, 1925, Gjerset wrote to Rølvaag (presumably
at Northfield) enclosing a circular containing the ideas of
the committee relative to a historical society. Nothing had
yet been made public, he said, and the Decorah sponsors felt
that the matter should remain private for the time being.
The circular had been printed in only a few copies and had
not yet been sent out. No more could be done until they knew
what St. Olaf College wished to do. He urged Rølvaag
to come to Minneapolis without delay to discuss the matter
thoroughly with others. This gathering, called the constitutional
meeting of the Norwegian-American Historical Association,
was held not in Minneapolis but at the Ryan Hotel in St. Paul
on February 3, 1926.
Gjerset felt that criticism was often unjustly leveled at
him because of his emphasis on the role of Decorah. To Rølvaag
 he made a brief defense: "If anything of permanence
is to be created, it must be anchored firmly to the historical
‘mooring’ points among our own people. Such a point is Decorah.
Now it is undoubtedly true that because I personally am attached
to Luther College, I am often suspected of carrying on propaganda
for Luther College when to the best of my ability I try to
work for the Norwegian Museum there. That is indeed very reasonable,
but there’s no help for that. Sometime it will perhaps be
clear that in this matter I was right just the same. I admire
you because you have so clear a vision and because you are
raised so high over all personal advantage and suspicion."
School Principal Islandsmoen, who had traveled to America
at the request of Dr. Anders Sandvig, director of the Maihaugen
Museum at Lillehammer, Norway, to advise where to place a
gift of museum articles, had reported on October 13, 1925.
It had not yet been decided where the "Norwegian Museum"
should be located, he said. Some wanted it in Minneapolis,
some favored Seattle, and some wanted it to be an ambulatory
museum. No doubt all his findings had been communicated to
Gjerset before he returned to Norway. It is no wonder that
Gjerset was stirred up about the matter. He knew only too
well from his study of Norwegian history the difficulty of
getting Norsemen to unite, no matter how noble the objective.
But Rølvaag’s support and understanding gave him renewed
courage. Later he found other tried and true collaborators
in the Reverend D. G. Ristad and Birger Osland, both of whom
played major roles in promoting the Norwegian-American Historical
Association. It is interesting to note that Rølvaag
and Ristad, like Gjerset, carried on despite serious health
problems. A heart attack carried off Rølvaag in 1931.
Ristad died in 1935. As one reads the correspondence of these
men, one admires and wonders at the resolution with which
they persevered in their work despite all obstacles.
On October 6, 1925, an interested group had met in Northfield
upon invitation of St. Olaf College; there steps were taken
to organize the Norwegian-American Historical Association
 and to provide it with a program, essentially the same
as that presented at the preliminary meeting in Decorah the
preceding July. It was being promoted under the title "Society
for the Preservation of Historical Relics and Records of Norwegian-American
Pioneers and Cultural Life." As these ideas crystallized,
the name "Norwegian-American Historical Association"
was adopted and included in its articles of incorporation.
The general purpose was stated to be "to seek and gather
information about the people in the United States of Norwegian
birth and descent, and preserve the same in appropriate forms
as historical records."
After the Norwegian-American Historical Association had been
established, Gjerset stated, "word was received from
Norway that upon the initiative of Dr. Anders Sandvig . .
. a large committee had been appointed, with Dr. A. W. Brøgger
of the University of Oslo as chairman, for the purpose of
creating a museum gift collection for Norwegians in America."
The group inquired where it should be deposited, and the historical
association asked that the articles be placed in the museum
maintained at Luther College. In order to facilitate the arrangement
of the matter, the committee in Norway asked whether the Luther
College Corporation would act as custodian of the gift and
make the museum there the Norwegian-American Historical Museum
that the association had decided to help to develop and maintain.
The board of trustees "agreed to comply with the wishes
of the association in these matters."
On October 15, 1925, the Luther College board of trustees
passed the following resolution: "Moved and carried that
the Board sanctions the name, The Norwegian-American Historical
Museum, for the Luther College Museum." The executive
board of the Norwegian-American Historical Association on
May 26, 1926, passed the following resolution: "The Norwegian-American
Historical Association gratefully accepts the  gift of
the museum articles which is now being collected in Norway,
the gift to be deposited in the Norwegian-American Historical
Museum at Decorah, Iowa, this institution agreeing to act
as custodian in perpetuity of this gift on behalf of the Norwegian-American
In response to the association’s resolution and to a request
by its secretary, it was resolved by the Luther board of trustees,
acting on behalf of the corporation, that the board agreed
to act as custodian in perpetuity of this gift. Thus, Gjerset
wrote in 1931, "The Norwegian-American Historical Museum
was finally organized."
Approximately five truckloads of artifacts, weighing 8,800
pounds, were received from Norway. The gifts came from the
museums at Bergen, Stavanger, Opland, Hadeland, Christiansund,
Sandvig, Valdres, Aalesund, Hallingdal, and Glomdal. There
were also articles from individual donors. The house known
as Sunnyside on High Street in Decorah was taken over and
remodeled as a museum, but it was still extremely short of
Moreover, as Gjerset maintained, even this magnificent gift
was of somewhat subsidiary importance, as the chief aim of
the Museum was to gather together articles illustrating the
life of pioneer Norwegian settlers in America. Energetic efforts
were made to assemble such materials, and the collections
grew rapidly. Attention may be called to the Erik Egge cabin
built in Winneshiek County, Iowa, in 1851—1852, the tiny dwelling
put up by Hans Haugen in the same county in 1853, a Norwegian
parochial log schoolhouse erected between Decorah and Ossian
in 1880, and a little log building used for drying grain and
malt before grinding, built in Goodhue County, Minnesota,
by Knut Thompson Tasa, who settled there in 1855. The Museum
also received an old mill with millstones brought from Yang
in Valdres, Norway, by Knut Gudmundson Norsving, who settled
near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1849, and the fairly extensive
Slooper collection, which preserved articles used by 
the group who crossed the Atlantic in the "Restauration"
Gjerset, despite spells of illness which seriously weakened
him, worked tirelessly in arranging the collections in the
Museum. He had a wonderful faculty for enlisting help from
the Norwegians of his own or of other communities. Thus he
was able to produce surprising results at relatively small
In 1928 he issued an appeal for funds for a new museum building,
having first induced a group of twenty-eight prominent Norwegians
to join in the appeal. He also persuaded the Luther authorities
to employ the Reverend S. J. N. Ylvisaker to promote the Museum.
But he was soon disillusioned, for pressure came from church
sources to have Ylvisaker work for other causes. In a letter
to Pastor Ristad on August 28, 1929, Gjerset discussed the
situation. Ylvisaker was then supporting Park Region Luther
College, and the museum campaign was at a standstill. Gjerset
continued: "After pondering the matter very seriously,
I came to the conclusion that I could not be responsible for
the promotion of the museum project any longer on that basis.
A meeting of the Museum Committee was called and I told them
that I considered the arrangement useless, that if we continued
on that basis we would fail, and that I would be forced to
sever my connections with the museum, considering the responsibilities
we have both over against our own people and also to the people
in Norway who have given us so large a museum gift which we
cannot now exhibit or take care of."
He then proposed that the Luther College board of trustees
appoint a permanent committee of seven and empower it to raise
money for a museum building and an endowment, and to assume
general management of the work and development of the Museum.
The members of the committee should not be connected directly
with Luther College except that the director ex officio should
be a member of the group. These men would have full power
to manage the affairs of the Museum, which would then stand
as nearly as possible independent of  both the college
and the church. The committee would not act in the name of
Luther College, but broadly for the Norwegian people in America.
Discussions and negotiations continued. The financial needs
of the college were so great that its administration was unwilling
to let President S. J. N. Ylvisaker devote time to the Museum.
In appraising the difficulties of this period, one should
bear in mind the peculiar legal and constitutional questions
that left so little freedom of action to the college authorities.
These problems were not to be resolved for several years,
and for a time they presented roadblocks at every turn.
The next move by Gjerset was to propose a separate and independent
corporation to manage the Museum, and with this purpose in
mind he consulted officials at the college and in Minneapolis.
The upshot was a proposal to place the Museum under the Luther
Corporation, which would then appoint a committee to conduct
an appeal for funds. The corporation had been formed when
the college purchased the Jewell farm of 360 acres adjoining
the Luther campus. The board managing the farm was to appoint
the committee to direct the affairs of the Museum, which previously
was to have been named by the Luther College Corporation.
The Reverend H. G. Magelssen of La Crosse was engaged to solicit
funds. Under date of December 21, 1929, Gjerset wrote to Ristad
that subscriptions totaling $30,000 had been obtained. Gjerset
was hopeful that at last the Museum had obtained an independent
position and could go forward. He and Ristad were agreed that
it should be separate from both the college and the church.
Then came an unexpected blow. Judge Andreas Ueland was asked
to pass upon the arrangements. In a letter to Ristad dated
December 15, 1931, Gjerset explained that Ueland’s opinion
held that neither the Luther Corporation nor the college had
the right to operate a museum, and that to obtain that right
Luther’s charter would have to be changed. So it was decided
that Ylvisaker and Magelssen should undertake the raising
of funds, Ylvisaker for the college and Magelssen for 
the Museum. They traveled together and — for the Museum —
the results were zero.
Deeply distressed by the turn of events, Gjerset wrote to
Ristad: "So far as the Museum is concerned, I am now
apparently all through after ten years of toilsome effort.
Here there is no way out. No museum can be built here. We
have brought together large and interesting collections, but
most of it lies thrown about in a pile, a heap of junk — nothing
more. I have managed to get the museum recognized by the Smithsonian
Institution and listed among American Museums in a large work
published by the American Association of Museums. But what
good is that?" He felt defeated, his health was failing,
his great enterprise was at a standstill. One cannot escape
the sense of despondency and despair that runs through his
letters in this period.
Gjerset tried to get the Lutheran Publishing House building
in Decorah for the Museum, but in this effort, too, he felt
that he had met with no success. "So that possibility
was also closed. I have no other plans. I am tired of the
whole business and am not likely to do anything more for the
And then there is also the problem of the museum gift from
Norway. On three different occasions men from Norway have
come to see what disposition we have made of the gift, and
there has been no other way than to leave a large part of
the material still in the cases in which it was shipped. That
hardly redounds to our credit as Norwegian-Americans, but
no one seems to worry about that. I shouldn’t trouble you
with such matters, but it is a relief to say this to one who
understands and cares." Thus Gjerset wrote to Ristad
just before Christmas, 1931.
After New Year’s, 1932, the boards deliberating on Gjerset’s
request for the Lutheran Publishing House building took favorable
action, first leasing it and later transferring title to the
college. This building, with its 16,000 square feet of floor
space, now became available for the Museum. Although Gjerset
had been seriously ill in bed for several weeks, he went to
 work on the new project and in February, 1933, wrote
to Ristad expressing the hope that the Museum might open to
the public in June. "I have pushed the thing hard,"
he said, "because I am suffering from serious heart trouble
and may not last very long. I think the wise thing is to finish
it now while we are at it." He was disappointed that
Ristad was unable to be present at the opening. After that
event, he had another long siege of illness. On August 10
he wrote to his friend: "I had wished and hoped that
you could be present for the dedication. I wanted you with
your vital interest in the cause and the support you have
given us to see it. It is a chapter in our work for our Norwegian
cultural heritage in this country, and no one understand that
work better than you. Even if things go slowly and are on
a small scale, still I think that the little we can do to
preserve our saga and cultural heritage creates a certain
joy and happiness in our life."
At this point it becomes necessary to go back a few years.
Gjerset had agreed to write the history of Norwegian sailors
on the Great Lakes, and in 1925 and 1926 he was busy with
this project. He found the work difficult and tiring. In Milwaukee
he went to the customs office, where he found "a whole
mountain of big books and I get tired when I look at it, but
here I am, and I shall have to do what I can." An episode
on the lighter side involved his nightshirt. "By the
way," he wrote to Ristad, "I miss my nightshirt.
If it should be that I have left it at your house, you would
do me a great favor by sending it to me at Chicago."
On November 26, 1926, he added that he had now worked for
four weeks in Chicago, and "let me tell you it is hard
work. Thanks for your kindness in sending me the nightshirt.
I have had my mind so full of sailors and sea captains that
I forget all sorts of things. I will feel it as a distinct
relief when I can lay this job aside and be through."
On December 10, 1926, he continued: "Ugh, this is a dirty
job! How many times I have regretted that I have had anything
 to do with it. But since I have got into this jungle,
I shall have to push on as far as possible." On December
28, 1927, he exulted: "I am glad the task is finished..
. . For a year and a half I have spent more than half of my
time at it. . . . I get tired quicker now than before and
I grow more melancholy. I feel that I have rendered enough
of this kind of service."
Meanwhile, Gjerset had carried on his work at the college
and at the Museum; he also corresponded on the many matters
that were referred to him. He encouraged others to stay at
their posts in the Norwegian-American Historical Association,
pointing out what a critical period these early years of its
existence were. Rølvaag, the secretary, was too sick
to do very much. Birger Osland talked of resigning as treasurer,
Ristad of resigning as president. No, Gjerset wrote to Ristad.
"Every man must be at his post, for the present at least,
otherwise the vessel is likely to run aground." They
would have to stand together and "build our association
as strong as possible. We have an excellent crew and the vessel
is under full sail. But we must hold together and personal
considerations must be set to one side. I will serve wherever
I can be of service. . . . Everything is going well. As soon
as we get our organization completed, we shall be in open
water even if we encounter bad weather and storm. And we will
hoist our sails to the top!" Such confidence and optimism
was a tonic to all in the struggle to get the society going.
Gjerset had agreed rather reluctantly to write the story
of Norwegian sailors on the Atlantic seaboard. Osland was
busy raising the money for the project. Apparently at a meeting
in Chicago in 1928, there was a change of plans. Gjerset wrote
to President Ristad: "I am not too pleased with the turn
of things touching our plans with regard to the sailors on
the Atlantic coast. Personally I feel quite relieved to know
that I need not go into this new battle, but it comes as a
distinct set-back in our plans and work now after it has been
so well advertised. We can go on and do work in a small way
— but always in a small way. It is the large lifts that should
convince both the  world and ourselves that we are able
to do things in a bigger way. When we fail in such an attempt,
it simply confirms our secret misgivings and proves what we
instinctively feel that we are magtesløse (powerless)."
But whatever the Chicago decision had been, it was changed
later, and Gjerset went ahead with his research and writing.
In this instance, as earlier with the Great Lakes study, Osland
raised the funds.
From the moment that Rølvaag took over the post of
secretary of the Norwegian-American Historical Association,
Gjerset was in frequent correspondence with him concerning
matters affecting the association — its membership, officers,
plans, publications, and financial affairs. Both men had their
ups and downs in health. On June 12, 1926, Gjerset wrote to
Rølvaag, "It hurts to hear that such a solid fellow
as you are sick and poorly. But the wicked are plagued by
many troubles and in one respect you have been very wicked
— you have worked so ungodly hard that you have taxed both
body and soul, and as a rule the body suffers most. Now you
must furl sail, or everything may go wrong with the vessel.
Please do that. You should realize that after all you are
only human. Take a rest this summer. You need that if you
are not to be consumed like a tallow candle."
On August 15, 1926, he again addressed his friend at St.
Olaf: "I am extremely sorry to hear from Prof. J. J.
Thompson that you are lying sick in Fairview Hospital in Minneapolis.
Down here we had heard that you were at your summer cabin
near the lakes in northern Minnesota, and we believed that
you were there writing and working early and late as usual.
This news was therefore so unexpected and is so extremely
sad, especially when it became apparent that you have been
poorly ever since this spring. We hope that very soon you
may be fully recovered; but, as I said, it is distressing
to learn that you are ill.. . . I myself am tired; now, knowing
that you are ill, I am dejected and feel little inclined to
take up my work."
Subsequent letters expressed similar thoughts and feelings.
On November 23: "How are you? I hope that you are better
 day by day. I know that you are a man of strong will,
and the will will win. I myself have been sick, extremely
so for long periods, and I know what the will can accomplish.
It can move mountains — that is to say, it can accomplish
what seems so unspeakably difficult."
On November 4 the next year: "Prestgard says that you
are afflicted by heart trouble. That is unpleasant enough.
You will not be able to spread full sail as before, but it
is not too dangerous, we hope. I have now lived with a heart
condition for sixteen years, but have done considerable work
in that time and find that I am stronger now than when I was
first stricken. But it is necessary to be careful — and patient."
The illness and finally the death of Rølvaag was perhaps
the hardest blow Gjerset experienced. He felt a very real
kinship of spirit with this friend. When Rølvaag was
made a Knight of St. Olav in 1926, he rejoiced: "You
are what you have always been, a knight without fear or reproach,
and you will conduct yourself as a true knight as long as
Another kindred spirit with whom Gjerset corresponded frequently
and with the utmost candor was the Reverend D. G. Ristad,
pastor of First Lutheran Church, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and
the first president of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.
Ristad was not only a devoted pastor, but also a writer of
considerable talent. Gjerset rated him among the very top
Norwegian-American poets. He, like Gjerset and Rølvaag,
had health problems. In addition, he had the heavy burden
of caring for a wife who was severely afflicted with arthritis.
The other member of the quartet that shaped the association
in its early years was Kristian Prestgard, editor of Decorah-Posten.
These men, with Theodore C. Blegen and Birger Osland, formed
a powerful group that was in close touch with all that affected
the society. Gjerset was nearly always consulted when anything
was afoot. He was perhaps the most fertile of the group in
ideas, and was undoubtedly the hardest driver of them all.
But Rølvaag and Ristad were both intense  men.
I recall Rølvaag very well at the time when he lectured
at the University of Chicago, shortly after Giants in the
Earth had appeared. He was, as Gjerset had said, "a solid
sort of fellow"; in his tuxedo he was impressive. His
color was very high; undoubtedly his heart trouble was responsible.
But he had work to do, and he went into his lecture with no
sails furled. The fisherman from the Lofotens and the farmer
from South Dakota were both apparent as he spoke. He was received
most warmly. No wonder Gjerset, Ristad, and Prestgard were
so strongly attracted to him.
Gjerset’s sense of humor broke through at times in spite
of his great earnestness and seriousness of purpose. When
he was working on Norwegian Sailors in American Waters, he
wrote to Osland: "It is quite a job. If I get through
with it, I will solemnly promise not to write another one.
I know what a task it is. When someone asked one of our great
American writers how it felt to be an author, he answered:
‘It is about the same pleasant feeling as to give birth to
a grand piano.’ Yes, it is a pleasant feeling."
Blegen had been lukewarm about Gjerset’s writing the history
of Norwegian sailors on the Great Lakes. But Osland had endorsed
the project enthusiastically and had immediately raised the
funds for the research. Much the same situation obtained with
respect to the sailors on the Atlantic seaboard. Gjerset sent
a letter to Ristad on March 30, 1931: "I think it is
of importance to the Norwegian-American Historical Association
because it covers a field that has not been reached to any
great extent by our writers before. We could hardly claim
to have written the history of our people in this country
so long as we write only about the farmers of the Middle West.
I think this book will tend to widen our field and will help
to secure more active cooperation from our people in the East
and South. Together with the book on the Lake Sailors, it
gives an account of our people as seamen — one of their leading
occupations everywhere and always. Hitherto the main effort
of our writers has been to tell about immigration, settlements,
 and pioneers. We must turn our attention now to what
our people have done in America and what they have contributed
to American life."
This willingness to enter new fields was characteristic of
Gjerset. When a yearbook was planned by the students at Luther
College, he suggested that it be named The Pioneer. He thought
the immigrant was never afraid to engage in new ventures.
To Osland he declared on July 28, 1927: "It has always
been my opinion concerning Norwegian engineers and architects
that if our association is to be more than a mere name — an
empty pod, we must have the courage and enterprise to explore
new fields, and here is such a field, one of the most inviting,
in which our men have done outstanding work, and about which
practically nothing has been written."
He thought Prestgard’s plan to gather America letters and
other archival material in Norway was excellent and endorsed
it heartily. And he wanted the "Executive Board to formulate
some kind of working program, taking into consideration what
we should do in the near future, and how we should proceed
to get it done."
A project that he did not live to see completed was a Norwegian-American
encyclopedia. He had proposed it as early as 1923 and in a
letter to Ristad suggested: "If things should be done
according to logic, I should not have undertaken it. I have
promised every time that I had a new task on my hands that
this will be the last — and this — and then this — till now.
That this would be the last I knew very well when I started.
I have never expected to live to see it finished. But now
I have nothing to lose in the venture except my life, and
that is worth nothing from now on. I have had a very strong
feeling of the necessity of the work we have undertaken if
we want our descendants and our American neighbors to know
what we have done in this land. And the more I work, the stronger
that conviction grows. We cannot wait a century or even half
a century, to get the information we should have. It is dying,
dying with those who are already old. .. . It was my purpose,
 then, to see what could be done in spite of this situation.
I have thought that possibly I might carry it so far that
when I can’t do any more, what has been done might tempt someone
to complete it."
To cover the large range of subjects required for an encyclopedia,
he had prepared a list of more than 1,200 potential contributors
with assignments for each.
Ten years later he was still at it. He had a strong sense
of the practical aspects of any research project. To Ristad
on May 29, 1934, he indicated that he planned to spend some
time soliciting funds here and there for the encyclopedia:
"That is part of the undertaking, where our people should
lend a helping hand. They should not only sit on the sidelines
and watch others do that. Then all talk of love of old Norway
and our cultural heritage becomes a farce. . . . And we have
a number of young people’s organizations. Their leaders have
been so concerned about getting them interested in the church
that nothing but religious and devotional matters appear on
their programs, which in my opinion is a mistake. The program
is too one-sided and narrow. Why should they not learn something
of their own people and their own church? Our young people
should become partakers in our cultural work. We are doing
our people no real favor by simply doing the work for them.
They should learn to share in that work. . . . But then that
happened which I had not expected to happen. Last year I was
stricken with such a severe illness that I could do nothing
all summer. Toward fall I began to regain my strength. But
in February I had a severe attack of pneumonia. When I got
over the attack I was wrecked in health and my old heart trouble
was so aggravated that I have been of little account since.
. . I am like an old skipper caught in a storm, sailing now
with only a remaining rag of a sail. . . . Like the old skipper,
I do not know what else to do."
On January 27, 1935, he brought Ristad up to date: "I
have been doing a good deal of work, though I am not teaching
now.  Of course I do not expect to get really well again.
I must lie down much of the time, as I can’t be on my feet."
Ristad died in 1935, Gjerset on October 30, 1936. So the old
Viking was gone. His determination remained strong until the
last. His legacy to us is found in his writings, in the Museum
so close to his heart, and in his indomitable spirit.